Selected essays of Howard Zinn
By Dr R. Balashankar
On History – Collection of essays, Howard Zinn, Seven Stories Press, Pp 287 (PB), $16.95
Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was a man of multiple interests. A civil rights activist, a natural historian without the trapping of academic fine-treading, antiwar campaigner, he spoke and wrote prolific. Zinn influenced opinions of Americans, at least two generations.
Zinn was a bombardier in World War II who later relentlessly campaigned against war and urged people not to enroll in the army. He won doctorate in history from Columbia University and postdoctoral Fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University. He taught history in Spelman College.
A compilation of his writings On History has been brought out by the Seven Stories Press. The collection of essays start with the Freedom Schools written in 1964. This was a movement started by the coloured people to protest segregation and bad treatment meted out to them in the schools. In the freedom school experiment, both the teachers and students were free to walk in and teach and learn. There was no elaborately drawn syllabus nor well-maintained rooms.
The essays are arranged chronologically right up to 2008. In his essay on Nonviolent Direct Action (1966) he says, “It is remarkable how many persons, both in the United States and abroad, accept the legend that our country is the quintessential example of peaceful, progressive development as opposed to the violent change characteristic of other parts of the world. Yet the United States was born in violent revolution, and then solved its chief domestic problem not by reform but by one of the bloodiest wars in modern times. Its history has been punctuated with bursts of violence.”
Yet again, in a direct scathing comment, he says in The New Radicalism (1969) “The most useful Marxian statement about capitalist society is the largest one — that in an era when production is a complex, world-wide social process, and requires rationality, our system is incredibly irrational. This is because corporate profit, not human need, governs what is produced and what is not produced.” He goes on to add that America invests in present and future “production of corpses” and builds too many cars, too many highways, too many office buildings, produces too many cigarettes, liquor and gadgets and not enough schools, homes and hospitals. He urges the New Left to find ways to make Americans to understand the futility of it all.
Once, when Zinn was called ‘Marxist’ by some, he was taken aback. In a half-humourous essay he asks what could anyone mean by calling him Marxist. If they meant that he had a statue of Lenin in his drawer and rubbed its head to get answers or to find out what songs to sing if sent away to a camp. He narrates an anecdote that When Karl Marx was living in London, he had an ardent German admirer called Pieper who organised Karl Marx clubs. Once, Marx told him, “Thanks for inviting me to speak to your Karl Marx Club, But I can’t. I’m not a Marxist. (Je Ne Suis Pas Marxiste)”
There is this beautiful essay on How Free is Higher Education (1991) where he discusses how the freedom is curtailed. “They fear exactly what some of us hope for, that if students are given wider political choices in the classroom than they get in the polling booth or the workplace, they may become social rebels.”
In The Limits of Denial (2002) and America’s Blinders (2006) he tears down the claims and arguments of successive US presidents who “lied” to their people about waging wars.
Staughton Lynd a noted historian, specialising in the period of the American Revolution and Twentieth-Century labour history, has written the introduction to the book. He was a long-time friend of Zinn and also taught in Spelman College. Says he, “Howard was never comfortable with joining organizations or with labels for his forthwith affirmations… By the time of his death, Howard was passionately urging civil disobedience he had first defended in the context of racial segregation should be practiced by members of the United States militarily.”
(Seven Stories Press140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013)