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Cutting Some Slack for Howard Zinn

In an interview with historian Wilfred McClay in the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley praises McClay’s recently published American history textbook “for reclaiming American history from Howard Zinn.” Zinn is the Brooklyn-born Jewish social radical (and lifelong communist fellow-traveler) who died at the age of 87 in 2010, while swimming in a pool in Santa Monica, California. He published his radically leftist People’s History of the United States in 1980, which has sold over two million copies. The book has been adopted as an educational tool for American public schools and serialized on public TV here and in Europe. 

Zinn’s strength as a moral activist against capitalism, racism, and war may have led to his demonstrable weakness. His People’s History offers scant proof for its bold assertions, and partsof his long polemic have clearly been plagiarized from the works of other social radicals, a conspicuous problem that his critic Mary Grabar has painstakingly documented in her very pointed work, Debunking Howard Zinn. Moreover, though Zinn has had his admirers on the Left, few professional historians from that side have been willing to vouch for his scholarship. Eric Foner, Michael Kammen, and Michael Kazin, all of whom are respected historians with exemplary leftist credentials, have questioned Zinn’s “facts.” Eugene Genovese, while he was still a professing Marxist, wouldn’t even review People’s History because he found Zinn’s “bottom-up” history to be so deficient. 

Although Mary Grabar’s monograph with Regnery has not convinced me that Zinn is a leading force in American education (so much as a symptom of something or other), her book makes one fact indisputably clear. Zinn, in his book and throughout his life, was loyal to the Communist Party. He twisted himself into a pretzel to defend the Communists as the true heroes of the American civil rights movement, even though the evidence for that is extremely dubious. Even when it comes to discussing pre-Columbian society, Zinn took the conventional Marxist view—which feminists later adopted—that a primitive matriarchy existed before the introduction of male rule. (This notion came from Marx’s collaborator Engels, who took it from the American anthropologist and writer on the Iroquois, Lewis Morgan.)

Mary also demonstrates to what extent Zinn’s enthusiasm for the civil rights cause was colored by his hope that the rebellion against segregation could be turned into a larger revolt against capitalism. Despite the fact that Zinn seemed genuinely dedicated to improving the lot of Southern blacks and spent much of his career teaching at Spelman, an all-black college in Atlanta, he never lost sight of his socialist revolutionary goals. He despised the establishment civil rights activists in the NAACP, many of whom may still have been Republicans in the 1950s, and took sides with the more radical black Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Zinn was also on good terms with SNCC’s socialist leader Stokely Carmichael, and didn’t abandon that organization even when it took a violent turn in 1966. Since blacks up until then, except for a thin intellectual class, had been historically anti-communist, Zinn believed that he had to radicalize them before they would be fit for Marxist activities. According to Mary Grabar, however, Zinn ended up not defending “the working class residents of Harlem,” but “valorizing black militants.” Hardly a man with a single political passion, Zinn was also a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

In some respects, however, Zinn was not particularly radical. Intersectional politics and feminism were not high on his list of moral priorities, and a younger generation of radical historians may have begun to find him passé. Although Martin Dubermann praises Zinn profusely in his gargantuan biographyHoward Zinn: A Life on the Left, he also notes the transparent limits of Zinn’s activism for the rising generation. Although Zinn made a transition from the American Communist Left to the New Left of the 1960s, whether he is relevant to the present cultural Left, except on race issues, is very much an open question. Zinn’s old-fashioned Marxist worldview never really made much room for contemporary women’s issues and LGBT rights. This remains the case even if the current intersectional Left views his activism (not his scholarship) as a precedent for its anti-bourgeois social radicalism. 

In many of his antiwar statements, Zinn, far more than his contemporary critics in the conservative movement, sounds like a Taft Republican. He deplored America’s entry into World War I, the use of Irish immigrants as cannon fodder in the Civil War, and the failure to seek a negotiated peace to end our war with Japan. He was led to his antiwar convictions by having dropped napalm on fleeing civilians as a bombardier in World War II. The memory of that act never left him.  Thus we find inklings of what once passed for American conservatism in this unlikely source. Perhaps we on the traditional Right should cut this deceased radical from Brooklyn a bit of slack. 

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.