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.
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.