Howard Zinn, 1922-2010: Howard Zinn interviewed by Dave Zirin

On May 2, 2009, the US International Socialist Organization invited Dave Zirin to sitdown and interview renowned historian Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn: A Historian and Political Analyst Unafraid of Taking Sides with the Voiceless and Oppressed

By A H Goldberg*

Howard Zinn, government and history professor and activist in so many struggles for the voiceless and oppressed died January 27 this year of heart attack in Santa Monica CA while doing laps in a swimming pool. We can all, and surely all his relatives, should take pride in this great progressive voice who as Carl Sandburg once said of Abraham Lincoln "now he belongs to the ages." His voice will be sorely missed and so hard to replace, and that's damn putting it mildly. David Horowitz, I'm talking to you, you worthless bag of far right neo constipated hot air. The day when you can stand in Zinn's shadow will never come, thus don't even damn think about it. You definitely aren't in his league, therefore stop taking a damn whiz on his grave. National Petroleum Radio (NPR) for your "outstanding" performance as a ideological hooker for the far right and further right, neo constipated US neo cons, I hereby nominate you for a PUlighzer Prize which FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) a progressive US media watchdog annually awards to such slime as you. Jeff Cohen and all you fine people at FAIR, do give me some help on this. Maybe I'll have to do the Christian thing the way George McGovern did in 1972 by turning both cheeks to these slime balls attacking Zinn after his death and whizzing on his grave. McGovern was, as people know the son of a Methodist minister. We have to "really thank" NPR as I have here for allowing David Horowitz to whiz on Zinn's grave.

Active in opposition to US militarism and most especially the Vietnam War, Zinn was a well decorated war hero in the Second World War as part of the US Army Air Force in combat in action over the European Theater winning the Air Medal and other awards. His opposition to militarism and war was grounded in actual experience in what has so often been called a just war in which Zinn served as a second lieutenant.

As one reviewer of Zinn would say, he makes the case for less emphasis on "the great white men's theory of history," and for a more egaltiarian history putting more stock in the contributions of others including minorities, women, and the working class.

Zinn's book entitled The People History of the United States which came out in 1980 was his response to those who said he and others with his viewpoint hadn't provided a complete synthesis of US history. It went further showing the contributions of blacks, other people of color, women, as well as the working class in substantial detail covering the broad sweep of US history. In this book Zinn showed how hopes for an egalitarian society or more egalitarian one ended up shattered, with the power elites holding onto their power, wealth, and privileges. Furthermore, Zinn showed the role of civil disobedience in US history. To offset the past and likely current lack of the progressive viewpoint in US history textbooks, it would surely be appropriate for this book of Zinn's to be required reading in any public four year high school or senior high school to counter the effects of the US exceptionalist garbage which passes for the gospel in public schools nationally. This writer know that this was the case even in the 1960s, and is likely even worse today with the political elites being all too much further to the right. Then add to that "journalism's being the first draft of history, with the media so overwhelmingly putting out the right wing line as to be pathetic in favoring the US hierarchy's power elites and the situation is more bleak.

Other academicians as a rule take sides even though claiming to be objective, they actually takes sides with what C Wright Mills has called the power elites in the hierarchal societies including the United States, whereas Zinn sided with those at the bottom of these same top down organized societies to move affairs in the direction of an egalitarian society and away from hierarchy with the power elites so completely with the collaboration of the bulk of academicians and the media seeking to keep the hierarchal society's power elites' power and privileges in place while defending same by insisting the system "works," but not saying whom it works for. Zinn, on the other hand isn't shy about saying whom the system here works for nor how it should be changed-- which he maintains convincingly must be from the bottom up with bottom up organized mass social movements such as the US civil rights movement, the anti war movement with regard to the Vietnam War and right on across a whole range of issues this society and others have faced historically, with his stress being on what can be done in the United States based on what has happened in US history. His book a Peoples History of the United States provides a welcome challenge to those so used to simply acting as stenographers for the power elites in the United States with their contending that the system "works" constantly being their refrain and meanwhile making a pretense of objectivity, but actually siding with the power elites calling the shots in US system. Zinn has never shrank from repudiating this silly claim of objectivity by those dominating academia who constantly insists the system "works," but refuse to say whom it works for nor concede they themselves are clearly taking sides with the power elites by their take on history acting as they do not much more than an echo chamber for the power elite establishment and more and more today an echo chamber for the military, industrial complex which Dwight D Eisenhower warned against and and one which has really become a national security, industrial, academic, media complex. Zinn has throughout his life ending at age 87 stood with those at the bottom of the US hierarchal society to move that same society toward an egalitarian society that pushes the power elites aside to give the real power to all the people by giving greater voice to those below in the US hierarchal state and for sometime empire-- an empire to many academicians along with too much of the media refuse to recognize and acknowledge but instead constantly throw in their mantra of the system "works." For whom it works doesn't seem to bother them, it does distort history by simply echoing the propaganda coming from the power elites' consensus and taking it as gospel and all that time insisting completely falsely of their objectivity as does much of the US media. Zinn like too few other academicians has had the guts to stand early with those opposing the Vietnam War and to recognize the truth of what Martin Luther King Jr said when he spoke out about the US Government "being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. . ." Almost surely today Dr King would say the same thing, and speak of how this same government had largely been on the "wrong side of history since" the Second World War with Zinn standing beside him to cite chapter and verse of the details of this sordid history of US power elites and their decisions to make sure they keep their power and privileges no matter what.

Zinn and others like he are a voice for those too often lacking a voice in the United States whether it be blacks, other people of color, women, the working class or others left out and at times virtually locked out of the system which claims to be a democracy, but today more and more has a for sale sign on it bringing to mind a legal Nevada whore house, and with the most recent US Supreme Court ruling on the "rights" of big business to have its "voice heard" to the degree it can outspend its opposition makes matter even worse.

Of progressive values which informed him as an academic and activist, he would say they are "fundamentally egalitarian. he would say "it's the idea that everyone has a right to the good things in life, to the necessary things in life, that there should be no disproportions in the world." He talked the talk, and he walked the walk, as people would say in the US black community. The book he wrote entitled "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" really sums up his stand as an academic and activist that while all hell is breaking loose people can't just stand idly by, but need to do what they can to keep things from going to hell in a hand basket or they become collaborators, and Zinn wasn't about to become a collaborator in the militarism, imperialism, racism, and all the rest for the power elites used to divide and rule to keep the power, wealth, and privileges for same power elites.

Though a seeming early admirer of liberalism and its advocates such as Fiorello LaGuardia, a congressman whom Zinn pictured as backing pro working class legislation and opposing the policies his own GOP for being too much in favor of the interests of the upscale as detailed in Zinn's doctoral dissertation on LaGuardia. Zinn would become disenchanted with with what he clearly viewed as the minimalism of liberalism. The fact was that Zinn would become even skeptical of the good of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, and would later conclude that FDR and his inner circle by their policies had prevented a really major reform of the system which Zinn would have preferred as a true progressive. Thus Zinn would then break with the minimalism of liberalism's reforms to favor a more aggressive and maybe even militant reform agenda to get more solid and complete reform of the system to move affairs in the direction of a more truly egalitarian rather than hierarchal society. Real reform Zinn was beginning to see must come from the bottom up, not top down, as the top down organization of society with its hierarchy and power elites couldn't achieve needed substantial reform to bring about such an egalitarian society. Like Dr King, Zinn favored this more aggressive approach to reform to get at the roots of the problems such an hierarchal system created. Zinn's take on the New Deal's minimalism would come out in his anthology on the New Deal published in 1965. Zinn became increasingly disillusioned with liberalism minimalism by events of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1956 Zinn had taken a post as chairman of the history and social science department at Spellman College, a then black women's college after moving to Atlanta. Zinn observed and was active in the events of the civil rights movement during his seven years teaching at Spellman. The violent repression of blacks shook Zinn and he was outraged by what he saw as the US Government's less than strong protection of blacks' rights. With this Zinn became disenchanted with John F Kennedy and his inner circle. Zinn's study of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) published in 1964 was a passionate portrayal of the civil rights movement and an analysis linking it to the pre civil war anti slavery movement. Zinn saw JFK as still like FDR, a minimalist. Some would simply see Kennedy as liberal, but liberal wasn't good enough for Zinn. Zinn wanted a progressive who would aggressively and maybe even militantly push for civil rights. Others would say that such wouldn't be possible with JFK's razor thin margin from the 1960 election and with the GOP/Dixiecrat coalition's stranglehold on congress. Nevertheless Zinn was right about movements at the bottom being needed for reform.

After joining Boston University's government department where Zinn would continue as a professor for the rest of his career, he would become active in the movement to oppose US military involvement in Vietnam. Along with his activism on this issue Zinn published a book in 1967 called The Logic of Withdrawal, which made a strong case against Lyndon B Johnson's policy of military intervention there. Also Zinn was also active in the American Mobilization Committee's push to bring US involvement to an end. In 1968 he would travel to North Vietnam with Father Daniel Berrigan to gain the release of three US bomber pilots shot down during their attacks on North Vietnam. After gaining their release, Zinn wrote articles of first hand account of his journey to North Vietnam.

"Objective" academicians attacked Zinn for his advocacy as an academic, obviously not considering that by their establishment positions, they were being advocates at least indirectly for the status quo. In a collection of essays he got published in 1970. Zinn repudiated the notion that historical study was objective, on the contrary he insisted all written history represented opinion. He maintained that for those who failed to speak out against that which was immoral was to make them irresponsible and irrelevant, and that those writing history needed to speak up for values reflecting the values of humanity. In his articles on the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement Zinn made the case for advocacy style history providing examples of how this kind of history worked in real life. His advocacy was simply more straight forward and thus more honest, whereas the establishment types were simply pretending to be objective, but their own research surely was colored by their views.

Active in progressive politics, Zinn was widely published both in scholarly journals as well as elsewhere.

Born in New York City in August 22, 1922, Zinn attended New York University as an undergraduate after leaving the military, getting his bachelor's degree in 1951. Following this Zinn would go on to Columbia, getting his master's degree in 1952 and his Ph D in 1958. From 1953 to 1956 he would be an instructor at Upsala College in East Orange NJ.

*A H Goldberg is the name on the author's blog which can be accessed at


This is a good, informative essay on Howard. But like most comment in the American left media, obscures a basic fact about Howard's politics from the 1960s on. He was a social anarchist That is clear from this recent interview with Howard done by Ziga Vodovnik, a Slovenian anarchist and activist: It's clear from Howard's first and maybe best play, EMMA (1976). Clear from his involvement with direct action in the civil rights movement in Atlanta, when teaching at Spelman, learning from SNCC and other groups. His last longer video (Sept. 2009), a message to the People's Summit in Pittsburgh Sept. 2009, also stresses direct action politics, esp. the strong segment 13:30-15:35.

Howard's broad appeal is that he talked strong class analysis without constantly referring to Marx, or the Leninist-Bolshevik tradition of Trotsky. His was a 'socialist plain talk' analysis without all the iconography, rhetoric and 'authority' of European left theory, a bit like Upton Sinclair.

He wrote a recent introduction to an anthology of Alex Berkman's writings, and essays on many others in the anarchist tradition, such as Louise Michel, Sacco & Vanzetti. Most of his writings can be found here at AK Press:

Howard's style of radical discourse was talking class-struggle anarchism and left-libertarian Marxism, maybe at their interface -- but translating it naturally into a lean American idiom that seemed without all this ideological ballast and jargon. It's reflected in the interview with Dave Zirin above, despite the organization (ISO) that arranged it.

Interesting how in Dave's interview at the end, Howard (when asked what book he'd really recommend to young people for political starters) says: Dalton Trumbo's JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1939). Which I guess helped radicalize Howard way back when. The novel also featured in Zinn's THE PEOPLE SPEAK, his last work .

Yet most of the eulogies and hespedim on Howard seem to obscure all this. Including virtually everything published on ZNet. One can wonder why.


The following is reprinted from The Zinn Reader (1997, Seven Stories Press, pp 574-578) and with the permission of the author.

For a long time I thought that there were important and useful ideas in Marxist philosophy and political economy that should be protected from the self-righteous cries on the right that "Marxism is dead,” as well as from the arrogant assumptions of the commissars of various dictatorships that their monstrous regimes represented “Marxism.” This piece was written for Z Magazine, and reprinted in my book Failure To Quit (Common Courage Press, 1993).

Not long ago, someone referred to me publicly as a "Marxist professor.” In fact, two people did. One was a spokesman for “Accuracy in Academia,” worried that there were “five thousand Marxist faculty members” in the United States (which diminished my importance, but also my loneliness). The other was a former student I encountered on a shuttle to New York, a fellow traveller. I felt a bit honoured. A “Marxist” means a tough guy (making up for the pillowy connotation of the “professor”), a person of formidable politics, someone not to be trifled with, someone who knows the difference between absolute and relative surplus value, and what is commodity fetishism, and refuses to buy it.

I was also a bit taken aback (a position which yoga practitioners understand well, and which is good for you about once a day). Did “Marxist” suggest that I kept a tiny stature of Lenin in my drawer and rubbed his head to discover what policy to follow to intensify the contradictions o the imperialist camp, or what songs to sing if we were sent away to such a camp?

Also, I remembered that famous statement of Marx: “Je ne suis pas Marxiste.” I always wondered why Marx, an English-speaking German who had studied Greek for his doctoral dissertation, would make such an important statement in French. But I am confident that he did make it, and I think I know what brought it on. After Marx and his wife Jenny had moved to London, where they lost three of their six children to illness and lived in squalor for many years, they were often visited by a young German refugee named Pieper. This guy was a total “noodnik” (there are “noodniks” all along the political spectrum stationed ten feet apart, but there is a special Left Noodnik, hired by the police, to drive revolutionaries batty). Pieper (I swear, I did not make him up) hovered around Marx gasping with admiration, once offered to translate Das Kapital into English, which he could barely speak, and kept organising Karl Marx Clubs, exasperating Marx more and more by insisting that every word Marx uttered was holy. And one day Marx caused Pieper to have a severe abdominal cramp when he said to him: “Thanks for inviting me to speak at your Karl Marx Club. But I can’t. I’m not a Marxist.”

That was a high point in Marx’s life, and also a good starting point for considering Marx’s ideas seriously without becoming a Pieper (or a Stalin, or Kim Il Sung, or any born-again Marxist who argues that every word in Volume One, Two and Three, and especially in the Grundrisse, is unquestionably true). Because it seems to me (risking that this may lead to my inclusion in the second edition of Norman Podhoretz’s Register of Marxists, Living or Dead), Marx had some very useful thoughts.

For instance, we find in Marx’s short but powerful Theses on Feuerbach the idea that philosophers, who always considered their job was to interpret the world, should now set about changing it, in their writings, and in their lives.

Marx set a good example himself. While history has treated him as a secondary scholar, spending all his time in the library of the British Museum, Marx was a tireless activist all his life. He was expelled from Germany, from Belgium, from France, was arrested and put on trial in Cologne.

Exiled to London, he kept his ties with revolutionary movements all over the world. The poverty-ridden flats that he and Jenny Marx and their children occupied became busy centres of political activity, gathering places for political refugees from the continent.

True, many of his writings were impossibly abstract (especially those on political economy; my poor head at the age of nineteen swam, or rather drowned, with ground rent and differential rent, the falling rate of profit and the organic composition of capital). But he departed from that constantly to confront the events of 1848, the Paris Commune, rebellion in India, the Civil War in the United States.

The manuscripts he wrote at the age of twenty-five while an exile in Paris (where he hung out in cafes with Engels, Proudhon, Bakunin, Heine, Stirner), often dismissed by hard-line fundamentalists as “immature”, contain some of the most profound ideas. His critique of capitalism in those Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts did not need any mathematical proofs of “surplus value.” It simply stated (but did not state it simply) that the capitalist system violates whatever it means to be a human. The industrial system Marx saw developing in Europe not only robbed them of the products of their work, it estranged working people from their own creative responsibilities, from one another as human beings, from the beauties of nature, from their own true selves. They lived out their lives not according to their own inner needs, but according to the necessities of survival.

This estrangement from self and others, this alienation from all that was human, could not be overcome by an intellectual effort, by something in the mind. What was needed was a fundamental, revolutionary change in society, to create the conditions – a short workday, a rational use of the earth’s natural wealth and people’s natural talents, a just distribution of the fruits of human labour, a new social consciousness – for the flowering of human potential, for a leap into freedom as it had never been experienced in history.

Marx understood how difficult it was to achieve this, because, no matter how “revolutionary” we are, the weight of tradition, habit, the accumulated mis-education of generations, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Marx understood politics. He saw that behind political conflicts were questions of class: who gets what. Behind benign bubbles of togetherness (We the people…our country…national security), the powerful and the wealthy would legislate on their own behalf. He noted (in The Eighteenth Brumaire, a biting, brilliant, analysis of the Napoleonic seizure of power after the 1848 Revolution in France) how a modern constitution could proclaim absolute rights, which were then limited by marginal notes (he might have been predicting the tortured constructions of the First Amendment in our own Constitution), reflecting the reality of domination by one class over another regardless of the written word.

He saw religion, not just negatively as “the opium of the people,” but positively as the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” This helps us understand the mass appeal of the religious charlatans of the television screen, as well as the work of Liberation Theology in joining the soulfulness of religion to the energy of revolutionary movements in miserably poor countries.

Marx was often wrong, often dogmatic, often a “Marxist.” He was sometimes too accepting of imperial domination as “progressive,” a way of bringing capitalism faster to the third world, and therefore hastening, he thought, the road to socialism. (But he staunchly supported the rebellions of the Irish, the Poles, the Indians, the Chinese, against colonial control.)

He was too insistent that the industrial working class must be the agent of revolution, and that this must happen first in the advanced capitalist countries. He was unnecessarily dense in his economic analysis (too much education in German universities, maybe) when his clear, simple insight into exploitation was enough: that no matter how valuable were the things workers produced, those who controlled the economy could pay them as little as they liked, and enrich themselves with the difference.

Personally, Marx was sometimes charming, generous, self-sacrificing; at other times arrogant, obnoxious, abusive. He loved his wife and children, and they clearly adored him, but he also may have fathered the son of their German housekeeper, Lenchen.

The anarchist, Bakunin, his rival in the International Workingmen’s Association, said of Marx: “I very much admired him for his knowledge and for his passionate and earnest devotion to the cause of the proletariat. But…our temperaments did not harmonize. He called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right. I called him vain, treacherous, and morose, and I was right.” Marx’s daughter Eleanor, on the other hand, called her father “…the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed, a man brimming over with humour".

He epitomised his own warning, that people, however advanced in their thinking, were weighted down by the limitations of their time. Still, Marx gave us acute insights, inspiring visions. I can’t imagine Marx being pleased with the “socialism” of the Soviet Union. He would have been a dissident in Moscow, I like to think. His idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was the Paris Commune of 1871, where endless arguments in the streets and halls of the city gave it the vitality of a grass roots democracy, where overbearing officials could be immediately booted out of office by popular vote, where the wages of government leaders could not exceed that of ordinary workers, where the guillotine was destroyed as a symbol of capital punishment. Marx once wrote in the New York Times that he did not see how capital punishment could be justified “in a society glorifying in its civilisation.”

Perhaps the most precious heritage of Marx’s thought is his internationalism, his hostility to the nation state, his insistence that ordinary people have no nation they must obey and give their lives for in war, that we are all linked to one another across the globe as human beings. This is not only a direct challenge to modern capitalist nationalism, with its ugly evocations of hatred for “the enemy” abroad, and its false creation of a common interest for all within certain artificial borders. It is also a rejection of the narrow nationalism of contemporary “Marxist” states, whether the Soviet Union, or China, or any of the others.

Marx had something important to say not only as a critic of capitalism, but as a warning to revolutionaries, who, he wrote in The German Ideology, had better revolutionise themselves if they intend to do that to society. He offered an antidote to the dogmatists, the hard-liners, the Piepers, the Stalins, the commissars, the “Marxists.” He said: “Nothing human is alien to me.”

That seems a good beginning for changing the world.