By Martin Smith
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Five Hundred Years of Fighting the Beast

This article is over 17 years, 7 months old
Review of 'Voices of a People's History of the United States', Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Seven Stories £10.99
Issue 291

The campaigner and ex-slave Fredrick Douglass once said, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress. The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ And in a way that statement sums up Howard Zinn’s and Anthony Arnove’s wonderful new book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Using speeches, poetry, lyrics, essays and testimonies this book charts often ignored struggles for equality and justice. It begins with the murderous arrival of Columbus at the shores of the US and ends with another murderous tyrant, George Bush, and covers just about everything else in between.

Any one of the chapters illuminates the era it represents brilliantly. Take, for example, the chapter on ‘Vietnam and Beyond: The Historical Resistance’. Zinn and Arnove use the key texts of that period to bring the era alive. The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song ‘Masters of War’ paint a poignant picture of the hypocrisy of our so called ‘leaders’:

‘Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death trains
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your mask’

Again the authors republish Muhammad Ali’s famous speech, the one where he refuses to fight in the Vietnam War and announces, ‘I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for 400 years.’ Ali wasn’t just making a powerful stand against US imperialism; it was a call to arms. Likewise testimonies from black GIs in Vietnam remind us that once again America’s poor, white, black and Latino working classes are being asked to do their masters’ dirty work in Iraq. And just like in Vietnam they will also do the dying.

This book doesn’t just speak out against the horrors of the system. It also gives a voice to those who organised the resistance against the rich and powerful – the Wobblies, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and the activists in the CIO trade unions.

At a time when the right wing are gloating at the victory of George Bush and many believe that the working class in the US is nothing but a footnote, this book is a useful reminder that there is a rich tradition of struggle and resistance. To quote from one of the speeches published in this book:

‘Where do we go from here? We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, why are there 40 million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalist economy… When you deal with this you begin to ask the question, who owns the oil? Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two thirds water? These are words that must be said.’

Those words were spoken by Martin Luther King 38 years ago. And those questions he asked need answering today. Howard and Anthony’s book shows a different side to the US, one that the media rarely shows – an inspirational one, one of hope and resistance. And you can’t ask more from a book than that.

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