Howard Zinn has died. Along with Noam Chomsky and Edward Said (1935-2003), he was one of the most interesting US radical thinkers of the 20th-century.
Marked by the experiences of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal and the associated legitimation crisis, this troika of intellectuals would construct an alternative outlook confronting the presumptions of power and their agencies, a force that united these three individuals despite their differing issues, emphasis and styles.
Resolutely anti-establishment —heretics even— they could never be described as armchair intellectuals or simple university professors. Their reflections were continuously accompanied —and fed— by the activism in which they were engaged in their respective fields of action, always in direct contact with the grassroots and social actors. For this reason they were subjected to arrest and firing during the most contentious moments of the 1960s anti-war protests within and outside the university.
Without a doubt Zinn’s greatest contribution resides in his writings and interpretation of history. “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), considered his best book, summarizes the key themes from his preceding essayistic-historiographic work and indicate much about his fundamental concerns: Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967), Disobedience and Democracy (1968), The Politics of History (1970) and Postwar America (1973).
He always conceived the writing of history as an act of taking a position. Indeed, he did so deliberately, without any of the aseptic pretenses of objectivity that run through the consciousnesses of those in mainstream academia.
He told us that neutrality, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist. There is always a point of view —about war, gender equality, civil rights and other matters— that impacts on the selection of events by every historian, as well as on the way they discuss and address these issues.
This had invaded written historical practice from Hernan Cortes to Father Las Casas, Henry Kissinger and Iqbal Ahmad. Unequivocal in this respect is Zinn’s book of memoirs: “You Can´t Be Neutral in a Moving Train” (1994).
He also bequeathed to us a philosophy of history nurtured in great measure by classical Marxism, where the individual exists in the midst of social-historical processes that embody the person, but whom at the same time is not determined by those processes.
Contrary to the values pervasive in the dominant culture, Zinn subscribed to a focus on the independence of the 13 colonies that cut against the grain of conventional history; he didn’t revel in tales of the “founding fathers” or in presidential legacies. Instead, he highlighted the roles of popular sectors in US independence, and in fact in the entire history of the United States.
Perhaps what constitutes the main characteristic of his “approach,” which gave him greater fame, was the recognition and validation of the historic leadership role of those who were excluded: Native Americans, Blacks, women, the poor, the marginalized, soldiers…
Differing from “official history” (if this exists in the United States), for him the Native Americans, Blacks and women all spoke. Zinn didn’t write about Native Americans, Blacks and women; instead, he spoke from their positions, as he wanted to give “people without history” their own voices.
Explicitly or implicitly, he always stopped to deconstruct the underpinning myths contained in the school books being used. In them, he pointed out a systematic purging that suppresses or minimizes the negative chapters of US history. Likewise, he underscored the persistence of racist stereotypes of Native American and African-American peoples.
This was how he responded to the representation and appropriation of a past built on a white, capitalist, and male perspective that serves as a vehicle for the preservation of the status quo, one in which education contributes to the perpetuation of conservative ideology.
“He who controls the past, controls the future,” Zinn once wrote citing George Orwell, one of his favorite authors. He taught us to not allow ourselves to be controlled by the existing powers.
He was good among the good. He not only deserves to be remembered and honored because he stood on the side of the weak, but also because he did it with the exemplary lucidity of someone who came to stay.