LESS THAN a week has passed since the death of one of the most beloved figures on the US left, the 87 year-old “people’s historian” Howard Zinn. But already his legacy of inspiring generations of fellow activists is plain.
Zinn had all the qualities that might have made him a regular on the editorial pages of the national press or the weekly talk-show circuit.
Rare, unaffected eloquence, deep knowledge animated by a sparkling intellect and a lifetime of experience at the centre of the great social upheavals that reshaped the US over the past ninety years.
Add to this his profound humanity and you begin to have the measure of the man.
The last of these were liabilities. No society so profoundly dominated by corporate power as the US could make much room for Zinn’s identification with the marginalised and the oppressed.
Few pundits are more acquainted with the record of US class inequality, with the country’s legacy of racial oppression or its propensity for war.
Yet the movers and shakers of American public opinion-making ignored him and others who could have brought sanity to public discourse. Millions came to admire him despite his being almost completely “blanked” by the corporate media.
Born in 1922 to Jewish, working-class parents, Zinn came of age in depression era Brooklyn, a period of growing radicalisation.
The Communist Party dominated left-wing politics during his formative years and, although like many of his peers Zinn moved in Popular Front circles, he seems to have been instinctually anti-Stalinist from a young age, explicitly so in all his later writings. He worked in a warehouse and later in the Brooklyn shipyards, before joining the Air Force in the Second World War.
From his early experience in the upheavals of the 1930s and his exposure to the barbarism he witnessed over the next decade, Zinn developed a commitment to class politics that would distinguish him in the new left, and a deep revulsion against war that drove his prominent opposition to the US war in Vietnam.
He avoided the trappings of academic respectability and refused to divorce scholarship from “the needs of a troubled world”. This made him a target of university administrators and academic rivals on the right.
He was fired for “insubordination” at Atlanta’s elite Spelman College in 1963 for encouraging his black, female students to become involved in the sit-ins then spreading across the South.
He barely escaped a similar outcome at Boston University, where his union and anti-war activism led him into a series of confrontations with Reagan sidekick and university president John Silber.
Fittingly, on his last day at BU, Zinn ended classes early to join a clerical workers’ picket line.
As his friend and longtime collaborator Staughton Lynd put it, Zinn “was always concerned to speak, not to other academic[s], but to the general public.” This explains the deranged reaction of the right-wing blogosphere to the outpouring of admiration for Zinn’s legacy.
Most people know him through A People’s History of the United States, which at two million copies has found its way into more hands than any other work of US history. Zinn himself saw the book as an explicit attempt to call into question the various myths that sustained a “general historical amnesia” in the US.
The accepted version of the American past, pounded into every attentive school kid during the cold war era, was heavily sanitized and bleached of any traces of conflict. It was a version of the past made to fit the “classless” society that the US had supposedly become.
But the social upheaval that accompanied the black freedom struggle, and later the anti-war movement, presented direct, forceful challenges to this consensus, and between the early 1970s and the appearance of People’s History in 1980 the new mood spilled over the ivory towers, encouraging a remarkable ferment among US historians.
“Zinn’s role,” Ellen Dubois observes, “was to make this great body of work by labor historians, African American historians, and women’s historians accessible and engaging for a generation of readers.”
To this Howard Zinn would no doubt add that he did so in order to equip a new generation of American radicals with the means to carry on the rich tradition of struggle that he, more than anyone else, did so much to recover.