When I first met Howard Zinn 40 years ago, I had known him as a leading antiwar critic, civil rights activist and radical historian. I expected a brooding and perhaps angry intellectual deeply at odds with a nation that shortly afterward reelected Richard Nixon by a landslide. But my first impression of him, sitting in his office at Boston University, was of a casual, jovial and self-deprecating professor who, I learned, was provoked to a kind of controlled fury only by war and injustice. It was an impression shared by his legions of friends.
Zinn was a force in the civil rights movement and one of the originators of oral history and history “from below.” His work in the South in the 1950s and early ’60s, while he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, was galvanizing for a new generation of black students, Alice Walker, Julian Bond and Marian Wright Edelman among them. He helped guide the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major component of the black uprising, and wrote a number of seminal articles and books about the movement, including “The Southern Mystique” and “SNCC: The New Abolitionists.”
The civil rights movement demonstrated the power of mass mobilization, and this carried over into the protests against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. By 1965, the year the U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew quickly, Zinn was in Boston (having been fired from Spelman for rousing the students) and began to play a similar role in antiwar activism — writing, speaking and encouraging students and others to organize against the war.
If these two fabled movements absorbed Zinn and forged his role as an activist and intellectual, it was his writing of “A People’s History of the United States” (1980) that gave his work a long shelf life. It is one of the top-selling American history books ever and one that launched a small industry of spinoffs, including books, school curricula, television specials, celebrity salutes and the like. It reflected his lifelong passion for addressing issues of war, race, class and labor, and was innovatively told from the perspectives of ordinary people rather than princes and presidents.
When he died in January 2010, the obituaries commonly focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights periods of his life. But as Martin Duberman smartly lays out in his new biography, there was a lot more to Zinn’s remarkable role in the glory days of the movement and the phenomenon that is “A People’s History.”
While Zinn was widely known as a great orator and a modest, congenial man, his activism tended to overshadow his considerable intellectual achievements. His extensive use of oral history and history from below changed historiography. He challenged the notion of objectivity and indeed the neutrality of the scholar, most famously in the finely argued “Politics of History” (1970) and in several other prominent forums. He was often accused of distortion when he expounded his leftist views, but he insisted that the issue was one of choice — historians choose their focus, and so did he, while honoring standard methods of inquiry. That hasn’t been good enough for his many academic critics, but he could argue, as Duberman does, that his work “has played a crucial role in providing a corrective to the traditional accounts that omit discussion of the lives of ordinary people or of those who protest against the status quo.”
History textbooks largely glorified the United States and its political leaders until revisionists such as Zinn and a few others came along to challenge that one-dimensional view. It seems an entirely healthy challenge, and Zinn never hid his biases — which included being engaged in the great struggles of his time. He constantly referred to the need for intellectuals to act as citizens, and he set an example of what citizenship means: taking founding principles seriously, raising his voice and grappling with political issues, many of them about the forgotten in our society and the victims of American interventions abroad. He set a high bar for citizenship, very likely higher than most people are willing to leap.
Duberman, himself a distinguished historian, has taken on a sizable task in parsing Zinn’s popularity and long, active life. Like Zinn, he is a strong writer who brings an easy familiarity to his subject, giving ample context for Zinn’s activism and ideas, such as nimbly framing debates about historical objectivity and engagement. Nor does he shy away from thorny topics. Those thorns, like Zinn’s sometimes troubled 60-plus-year marriage and the overly polemical plays he wrote in his later years, are sharp. Duberman also questions Zinn’s stubborn optimism about people’s willingness to take on the status quo. He gives suitable weight and fair assessment to these doubts about the Zinn legacy without dwelling on them.
There are some aspects of Zinn’s life he could have dwelt on more, however. Zinn was part of a circle of activist scholars that was extraordinary — Noam Chomsky, Frances Fox Piven, Daniel Berrigan, Daniel Ellsberg and Staughton Lynd among them — and while all are mentioned, a tour of how they braced and influenced one another would be a major contribution to understanding leftist political thought in the post-1945 period. Similarly, the fratricidal left and its decline from a powerful political force in the 1960s and ’70s are left untouched, as is the power once wielded by organized labor. Duberman is right to say that Zinn was not organizationally inclined, but the disputes and the decline affected him directly. One wonders, too, whether if people like Zinn had sought political power (as Tom Hayden did with some success in California) rather than just a voice in political criticism, the outcome for democratic socialism would have been different. It’s an especially intriguing notion given Zinn’s immense popularity.
But this intelligent book reminds us of titantic moral struggles in American history and those who engaged in them. It’s striking that the Zinn-Chomsky generation lacks a successor in public discourse, that our national political debate has narrowed so much. The book also reminds us of when people would collectively act as citizens, sometimes militantly, to be heard and get results. It spurs us to think, as Zinn did, of utopian ideas — a Constitution that guarantees economic rights, for instance, or a society that could sustain itself without a central state, the core belief of anarchists and one intermittently asserted by Zinn — and how mentally liberating those ideas can be.
Mostly, Duberman’s biography captures what was so attractive about this radical historian. “What will most certainly come down to future generations,” Duberman concludes, “is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance. Howard always stayed in character — and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.”
A Life on the Left
By Martin Duberman
New Press. 365 pp. $26.95