Remembering Howard Zinn
August 17, 2022 –
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980)
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Howard Zinn, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” The Nation (2004)
Howard Zinn would be a hundred years old this year, and to celebrate this remarkable historian, academic, playwright, political activist, we share a number of texts, interviews and videos below.
Zinn looked at and wrote of history with what the anthropologist James C. Scott called an “anarchist squint”. And Scott’s “two cheers for anarchism” could very well be Zinn’s. Their apology for anarchism is not that of the ideologist or of the sectarian militant. It is born rather of an “anarchist squint”,(xii) a way of looking “at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state” from “below”, from a perspective freed from the State. What is then revealed (and Zinn’s histories and Scott’s anthropological work bear testimony to this) is “that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism and anarchist philosophy.”(xii) (James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012)
The Missing Voices of Our World
When I decided, in the late 1970s, to write A People’s History of the United States, I had been teaching history for twenty years. Half of that time I was involved in the civil rights movement in the South, when I was teaching at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. And then there were ten years of activity against the war in Vietnam. Those experiences were not a recipe for neutrality in the teaching and writing of history.
But my partisanship was undoubtedly shaped even earlier by my upbringing in a family of working-class immigrants in New York, by my three years as a shipyard worker, starting at the age of eighteen, and then by my experience as an Air Force bombardier in World War II, flying out of England and bombing targets in various parts of Europe, including the Atlantic coast of France.
After the war I went to college under the GI Bill of Rights. That was a piece of wartime legislation that enabled millions of veterans to go to college without paying any tuition, and so allowed the sons of working-class families who ordinarily would never be able to afford it to get a college education. I received my doctorate in history at Columbia University, but my own experience made me aware that the history I learned in the university omitted crucial elements in the history of the country.
From the start of my teaching and writing, I had no illusions about “objectivity,” if that meant avoiding a point of view. I knew that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, from an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.
There is an insistence, among certain educators and politicians in the United States, that students must learn facts. I am reminded of the character in Charles Dickens’s book Hard Times, Gradgrind, who admonishes a younger teacher: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”
But there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world — by a teacher, a writer, anyone — is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts are not important and so they are omitted from the presentation.
There were themes of profound importance to me that I found missing in the orthodox histories that dominated American culture. The consequence of these omissions has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past but, more importantly, to mislead us all about the present.
For instance, there is the issue of class. The dominant culture in the United States — in education, among politicians, in the media — pretends that we live in a classless society with one common interest. The Preamble to the United States Constitution, which declares that “we the people” wrote this document, is a great deception. The Constitution was written in 1787 by fifty-five rich white men — slave owners, bondholders, merchants — who established a strong central government that would serve their class interests.
That use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued throughout American history, down to the present day. It is disguised by language that suggests all of us, rich and poor and middle class, have a common interest.
Thus, the state of the nation is described in universal terms. When the president declares happily that “our economy is sound,” he will not acknowledge that it is not sound for forty or fifty million people who are struggling to survive, although it may be moderately sound for many in the middle class, and extremely sound for the richest 1% of the nation who own 40% of the nation’s wealth.
Class interest has always been obscured behind an all-encompassing veil called “the national interest.”
My own war experience, and the history of all those military interventions in which the United States was engaged, made me skeptical when I heard people in high political office invoke “the national interest” or “national security” to justify their policies. It was with such justifications that Harry Truman initiated a “police action” in Korea that killed several million people, that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon carried out a war in Southeast Asia in which perhaps three million people died, that Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada, that the elder Bush attacked Panama and then Iraq, and that Bill Clinton bombed Iraq again and again.
The claim made in spring of 2003 by the new Bush that invading and bombing Iraq was in the national interest was particularly absurd, and could only be accepted by people in the United States because of a blanket of lies spread across the country by the government and the major organs of public information — lies about “weapons of mass destruction,” lies about Iraq’s connections with Al Qaeda.
When I decided to write A People’s History of the United States, I decided I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s wars not through the eyes of the generals and the political leaders but from the viewpoints of the working-class youngsters who became GIs, or the parents or wives who received the black-bordered telegrams.
I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s wars from the viewpoint of the enemy: the viewpoint of the Mexicans who were invaded in the Mexican War, the Cubans whose country was taken over by the United States in 1898, the Filipinos who suffered a devastating aggressive war at the beginning of the twentieth century, with perhaps 600,000 people dead as a result of the determination of the U.S. government to conquer the Philippines.
What struck me as I began to study history, and what I wanted to convey in my own writing of history, was how nationalist fervor — inculcated from childhood by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, waving flags, and militaristic rhetoric — permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own.
I wondered how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or cluster bombs on Afghanistan or Iraq, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children.
The Spoken Word as a Political Act
When I began to write “people’s history,” I was influenced by my own experience, living in a black community in the South with my family, teaching at a black women’s college, and becoming involved in the movement against racial segregation. I became aware of how badly twisted was the teaching and writing of history by its submersion of nonwhite people. Yes, Native Americans were there in the history, but quickly gone. Black people were visible as slaves, then supposedly free, but invisible. It was a white man’s history.
From elementary school to graduate school, I was given no suggestion that the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World initiated a genocide in which the indigenous population of Hispaniola was annihilated. Or that this was the first stage of what was presented as a benign expansion of the new nation, but which involved the violent expulsion of Native Americans, accompanied by unspeakable atrocities, from every square mile of the continent, until there was nothing to do but herd them into reservations.
Every American schoolchild learns about the Boston Massacre, which preceded the Revolutionary War against England. Five colonists were killed by British troops in 1770. But how many schoolchildren learned about the massacre of six hundred men, women, and children of the Pequot tribe in New England in 1637? Or the massacre, in the midst of the Civil War, of hundreds of Native American families at Sand Creek, Colorado, by U.S. soldiers?
Nowhere in my history education did I learn about the massacres of black people that took place again and again, amid the silence of a national government pledged by the Constitution to protect equal rights for all. For instance, in 1917 there occurred in East St. Louis one of the many “race riots” that took place in what our white-oriented history books called the “Progressive Era.” White workers, angered by an influx of black workers, killed perhaps two hundred people, provoking an angry article by the African-American writer W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Massacre of East St. Louis,” and causing the performing artist Josephine Baker to say: “The very idea of America makes me shake and tremble and gives me nightmares.”
I wanted, in writing people’s history, to awaken a great consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance.
But I also wanted to bring into the light the hidden resistance of the people against the power of the establishment: the refusal of Native Americans to simply die and disappear; the rebellion of black people in the anti-slavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people to improve their lives.
When I began work, five years ago, on what would become a companion volume to my People’s History, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent in our history books, to be given the place they deserve. I wanted labor history, which has been the battleground, decade after decade, century after century, of an ongoing fight for human dignity, to come to the fore. And I wanted my readers to experience how at key moments in our history some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself. When John Brown proclaimed at his trial that his insurrection was “not wrong, but right,” when Fannie Lou Hamer testified in 1964 about the dangers to blacks who tried to register to vote, when during the first Gulf War, in 1991, Alex Molnar defied the president on behalf of his son and of all of us, their words influenced and inspired so many people. They were not just words but actions.
To omit or to minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations. I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women — once they organize and protest and create movements — have a voice no government can suppress.
America’s Missing Voices
Readers of my book A People’s History of the United States almost always point to the wealth of quoted material in it — the words of fugitive slaves, Native Americans, farmers and factory workers, dissenters and dissidents of all kinds. These readers are struck, I must reluctantly admit, more by the words of the people I quote than by my own running commentary on the history of the nation.
I can’t say I blame them. Any historian would have difficulty matching the eloquence of the Native American leader Powhatan, pleading with the white settler in the year 1607: “Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”
Or the black scientist Benjamin Banneker, writing to Thomas Jefferson: “I apprehend you will readily embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us, and that your Sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal Father hath given being to us all, and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also without partiality afforded us all the Same Sensations and [endowed] us all with the same faculties.”
Or Sarah Grimké, a white Southern woman and abolitionist, writing: “I ask no favors for my sex. . . . All I ask of our brethren, is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
Or Henry David Thoreau, protesting the Mexican War, writing on civil disobedience: “A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.”
Or Jermain Wesley Loguen, escaped slave, speaking in Syracuse on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: “I received my freedom from Heaven and with it came the command to defend my title to it. . . . I don’t respect this law — I don’t fear it — I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it.”
Or the populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.”
Or Emma Goldman, speaking to the jury at her trial for opposing World War I: “Verily poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world? . . . [A] democracy conceived in the military servitude of the masses, in their economic enslavement, and nurtured in their tears and blood, is not democracy at all.”
Or Mississippi sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying in 1964 about the dangers to blacks who tried to register to vote: “[T]he plantation owner came, and said, ‘Fannie Lou. . . . If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave . . . because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.’ And I addressed him and told him and said, ‘I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.’”
Or the young black people in McComb, Mississippi, who, learning of a classmate killed in Vietnam, distributed a leaflet: “No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Vietnam for the White Man’s freedom, until all the Negro People are free in Mississippi.”
Or the poet Adrienne Rich, writing in the 1970s: “I know of no woman — virgin, mother, lesbian, married, celibate — whether she earns her keep as a housewife, a cocktail waitress, or a scanner of brain waves — for whom the body is not a fundamental problem: its clouded meanings, its fertility, its desire, its so-called frigidity, its bloody speech, its silences, its changes and mutilations, its rapes and ripenings.”
Or Alex Molnar, whose twenty-one-year-old son was a Marine in the Persian Gulf, writing an angry letter to the first President Bush: “Where were you, Mr. President, when Iraq was killing its own people with poison gas? . . . I intend to support my son and his fellow soldiers by doing everything I can to oppose any offensive American military action in the Persian Gulf.”
Or Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez, opposing the idea of retaliation after their son was killed in the Twin Towers: “Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we first heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair, fond memories with his wife, the two families, our friends and neighbors, his loving colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald/ESpeed, and all the grieving families that daily meet at the Pierre Hotel. We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We cannot pay attention to the daily flow of news about this disaster. But we read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.”
What is common to all these voices is that they have mostly been shut out of the orthodox histories, the major media, the standard textbooks, the controlled culture. The result of having our history dominated by presidents and generals and other “important” people is to create a passive citizenry, not knowing its own powers, always waiting for some savior on high — God or the next president — to bring peace and justice.
History, looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and offices, tells a different story. Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and Native Americans given their due, it has been because “unimportant” people spoke up, organized, protested, and brought democracy alive.
Howard Zinn is the author with Anthony Arnove of the just published Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories Press/2004) and of the international best-selling A People’s History of the United States. This piece is adapted from the introduction to the new Voices volume.
(From Mother Jones, 16/11/2004)
A documentary film by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller: Howard Zinn – You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train (2010)
‘To Be Neutral, To Be Passive In A Situation Is To Collaborate With Whatever Is Going On’
Democracy Now!, April 27, 2005
We speak with legendary historian Howard Zinn, author of one of the most popular books on American History, “A People’s History of the United States.” In his youth, Zinn was a bombardier in World War II and participated in the Napalm bombing in France. He went on to dedicate his life to opposing wars of all kind. He was an active fighter in Civil Rights Movement and served as an advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In the late 1960s, he traveled to Vietnam with Father Dan Berrigan during intensive US attacks and negotiated the release of US POWs. In fact, Howard Zinn was a part of most struggles for social justice in this country during his lifetime. He joins us in our firehouse studio.
Following his life is like taking a journey through the major struggles of the 20th century. We spend the rest of the hour with the legendary historian Howard Zinn. In his youth, he was a bombardier in WWII and participated in the Napalm bombing in France. He went on to dedicate his life to opposing wars of all kind. He was an active fighter in Civil Rights Movement and served as an advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In the late 1960s, he traveled to Vietnam with Father Dan Berrigan during intensive US attacks and negotiated the release of US POWs. In fact, Howard Zinn was a part of most struggles for social justice in this country during his lifetime. He was a professor for seven years at the historically black college for women, Spelman College. Eventually he was fired for insubordination. He is a historian and the author of one of the most popular books on American History, “A People’s History of the United States.”
But before we go to him, we are going to go to an excerpt of a new film that chronicles his life. It is titled, “You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” which is the title of his autobiography. The film is produced by First Run Features and is narrated by Zinn’s next-door neighbor, actor Matt Damon.
“You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train,” documentary produced by First Run Features.
Howard Zinn, joins us in our firehouse studio.
AMY GOODMAN: He is an historian and author of one of the most popular books on American history, A People’s History of the United States. But before we go to him, we’re turning to an excerpt of a new film that chronicles his life. It’s titled, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, which is also the title of his autobiography. The film is produced by First Run Features. It’s narrated by Howard Zinn’s next door neighbor, actor Matt Damon.
HOWARD ZINN: We grow up in a controlled society. And so we thought, if one person kills another person, that is murder. But if the government kills 100,000 persons, that is patriotism. And they’ll say we’re disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we’re disturbing the war.
MATT DAMON: [from The Zinn Reader] I start from the supposition that the world is topsy turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power, and the wrong people are out of power. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this, because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside-down.
HOWARD ZINN: History is important. If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.
HOWARD ZINN: It’s exactly when you’re in the midst of a war or about to go into a war that you need your freedom of speech. Lives are at stake. If you are put in fear of speaking out, then democracy has been severely crippled.
FRIEND: When you think of people like Howard, you think of the person who really stands up to authority and understands radicalism in its basic meaning, that is, going to go the root of problems and demanding that those problems be confronted.
FRIEND: A life of political engagement is so much more interesting and so much more joyful and comradely than a life of private disengagement and private consumption.
HOWARD ZINN: I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, from the new film about his life called, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the same title as his autobiography. And he joins us in the studio today. Welcome to Democracy Now!
HOWARD ZINN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It is great to have you with us.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it’s nice of you to invite me. I was worried.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you just came from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, actually, yesterday afternoon I spoke at the Bedford Hills, euphemistically called, Correctional Facility. They hardly correct anything, but… I spoke to prisoners there, women prisoners, mostly prisoners of color. I spoke to them yesterday afternoon before I gave this talk last night at Manhattanville College.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you talk about with the women?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, they had been using my book, they have classes, and they are using my book of A People’s History of the United States. I talked to them about history, about doing history and why I did history the way I did. Why I did unneutral history and how I came to do it. And I told them something about my life, and of course, I always like to talk about that, you know. And then they asked a lot of questions, a very lively, enthusiastic, excited group. I mean, if every teacher in the country had a class like that, you know, they would be inspired. And it’s wonderful, and I have always found this to be true, wonderful and always amazing when you talk to prisoners who should be the last ones to be up and optimistic and in good spirits, but it’s always there. It’s actually encouraging, you know, and of course, troubling to know that these people, these remarkable people are being kept in prison, you know, very often most of the time for non-violent crimes, and kept there for long periods of time. Sort of sad commentary on American society the way people in Washington who are free, and these people are in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, we have to break and then we’re going to come back to the legendary historian to continue on this hour.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman here with historian Howard Zinn. He has written many books, among them People’s History of the United States, and one of his most recent is now a companion volume called Voices of a People’s History of the United States. You talked about being a teacher but, Howard Zinn, the places you were — where you did teach — well, Spelman, you were fired, and Boston University, you were almost fired?
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, are you trying to make me out as a troublemaker?
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you at Spelman?
HOWARD ZINN: At Spelman, I got involved with my students in the actions that were going on in the South, the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the picket lines. I was supporting my students, and this was the first black president of Spelman College, a very conservative institution. He wasn’t happy about me joining the students in all of these things, wasn’t happy about a lot of things that they did. But he couldn’t do anything about it, but when I — the students came back from, you might say, from jail, and then rebelled against the campus regulations and the restrictions on them, and I supported them, that was too much.
AMY GOODMAN: During the Civil Rights years?
HOWARD ZINN: This was, yeah, these were during the Civil Rights years, and so, you know, he was very unhappy with the fact that I was supporting the students who were rebelling against the paternalism and the authoritarianism on that campus.
AMY GOODMAN: They were women students?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. These were the black women students, and you know, the movement brought them out of this little sort of convent-like atmosphere of Spelman College and out into the world.
AMY GOODMAN: The author Alice Walker was one of those students.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, Alice Walker was one of my students. Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund, now in Washington, she was one of my students. I’m very proud of those students I had at Spelman. And yeah, Marian Wright Edelman was in jail, and Alice Walker was in jail. It was a great moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Boston University was many years later. Why did you almost get thrown out of there?
HOWARD ZINN: Why did I almost get thrown out of Boston University? We had a strike. Faculty went on strike. Secretaries went on strike. They settled with the faculty after what was a successful strike, but not with the secretaries. And so, I and some other faculty refused to cross the secretaries’ picket line. And five of us who refused to do that were threatened with firing, even though all of us had tenure, and so it was a long struggle, but we won.
AMY GOODMAN: Going back before both of your tenures as professor, you were bombardier in World War II?
HOWARD ZINN: That’s true, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about your final bombing run, not over Japan, not over Germany, but over France?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. Well, we thought bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945, and remember the war ended in early May 1945. This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over, and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them. 1,200 heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm — first use of napalm in the European theater. And we didn’t know how many people were killed, how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s okay. And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.
In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. And I think reflecting back on that bombing raid, and thinking of that in Hiroshima and all of the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of a hundred thousand people in Tokyo in one night of fire-bombing, all of that made me realize war, even so-called good wars against fascism like World War II, wars don’t solve any fundamental problems, and they always poison everybody on both sides. They poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We are seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned you dropped napalm on this French village?
HOWARD ZINN: You say?
AMY GOODMAN: Napalm?
HOWARD ZINN: Napalm. Well, we actually didn’t know what it was. They said, oh, you’re not going to have the usually 500 pound demolition bombs. You’re going to carry one — you’re going to carry 30 100-pound canisters of jellied gasoline. We had no idea what that was, but it was napalm.
AMY GOODMAN: You went to that village later?
HOWARD ZINN: Later, yeah. Later I visited that village, about ten years after the war. And I went to the library which had been destroyed, and which was now rebuilt, and I dug out records of the survivors and what they had written about the bombing, and I wrote. I wrote a kind of essay about the bombing of Royan which appears — where does it appear? — it appears in my book The Zinn Reader, and also in my book The Politics of History. But it was, for me, it was a very important experience, a very great sobering lesson about so-called good wars.
AMY GOODMAN: You learned when you were there on the ground many years later who had died?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I — you know, I spoke to people who had survived that and whose family members had died. And they were very bitter about the bombing, and you know, they attributed it to all sorts of things, the desire to try out a new weapon. It’s amazing how many things are done in a war just to try out new weapons. You know, maybe the — one of the reasons for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to see what this does to human beings. Human beings become sacrifices in the desire to develop new military technology. And I think that was one of those instances.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to historian Howard Zinn, here in our firehouse studio in Chinatown, just blocks from where the towers of the World Trade Center once stood. You went to Vietnam, to North Vietnam, with Dan Berrigan?
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
HOWARD ZINN: Why? Well this was early 1968. This was the time of the Tet Offensive, also the time of the Tet Holiday, the Vietnamese holiday. And the North Vietnamese decided they wanted to release the first three airmen prisoners who had been shot down over North Vietnam. And they wanted to release them in the custody of not the American government, but the peace movement. So Daniel Berrigan, poet, priest, whom I’d never met before, he and I traveled together to Hanoi, to North Vietnam, to pick up these three American airmen who were being released by the North Vietnamese. And then we spent some time in Hanoi and the surrounding area, visited bombed-out areas, visited little villages that had been jet bombed in the middle of the night, a million miles from any possible military target. And that — we were being bombed —- Vietnam was being bombed every night. Every day we were going into air raid shelters. Every night, Daniel Berrigan would write a poem about what had happened that day. And you know -—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those then and now before the invasion who would go to Iraq, those who went to North Vietnam, when they would be called traitors, giving comfort to the enemy?
HOWARD ZINN: You mean Americans who went to North Vietnam? You mean like Jane Fonda and so many others who went to North Vietnam?
AMY GOODMAN: And Iraq before. I mean even people like Congress member McDermott of Seattle, reporters saying that they should resign?
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, people have gone to Iraq. What about — there’s people in Voices in the Wilderness, Americans who went to Iraq and violating the US sanctions, bringing food and medicine, you know, and the whole business of being traitors. You know, I think there’s a whole — there’s somehow some wrong-headed notion of what treason is, and what patriotism is, and there’s some notion that if you disobey the orders of your government or the laws of your government, you are being treasonous. But I believe the government is being treasonous, and the government is being unpatriotic when the government violates the fundamental rights of human beings. When the government invades another country, a country that has not attacked it, the country that’s not threatened it, when our government invades another country and drops bombs and kills huge numbers of people, and then Americans have the guts to go to that country and bring people food and medicine or go to see what is going on as many Americans did when they went to Vietnam, I think these are the most patriotic Americans. And you know, if you define patriotism as obedience to the government, then you are, I think, following a kind of totalitarian principle, because that’s the principle of a totalitarian state, that you do what the government tells you to do. And democracy means that the government is an instrument of the people. This is the Declaration of Independence. Governments are artificial entities set up in order to preserve the rights, equal right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness of people. When the government violates those rights, it is the duty of people to defy that government. That is patriotism.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, you called your autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Why?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it came from — I stole it from myself. That is, I used to say that to my classes at the beginning of every class. I wanted to be honest with them about the fact that they were not entering a class where the teacher would be neutral. It was not going to be a class where the teacher spent a half year or a year with the students, and they would have no idea where the teacher stood on the important issues. This is not going to be a neutral class, I said. I don’t believe in neutrality. I believe neutrality is impossible, because the world is already moving in certain directions. Wars are going on. Children are starving. And to be neutral, to pretend to neutrality, to not take a stand in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on, to allow it to happen. I did not want to be a collaborator with what was happening. I wanted to enter into history. I wanted to play a role. I wanted my students to play a role. I wanted us to intercede. I wanted my history to intercede and to take a stand on behalf of peace, on behalf of a racial equality or sexual equality, and so I wanted my students to know that right from the beginning, know you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
AMY GOODMAN: Were your surprised by the election of President Bush, November 2004?
HOWARD ZINN: A little. A little. That is, I thought that maybe by then, perhaps there would be enough understanding about the deception, the hypocrisy of the US government, just enough to dethrone Bush, but I say only a little surprised, because on the other hand, I knew that John Kerry was not the candidate to represent the feelings of the American people. By then, by the time of the election, at least half of the American people were already against the war. Now they faced an election where 100% of the candidates were for the war. So, they had nobody to vote for. And so I — with nobody to vote for, with no real alternative, of course, 40% of the voting population did not vote. And people ought to remember this. You know, Bush did not win overwhelmingly. You know, he won by one or two percentage points. And if you consider how many people voted for him against the voting population, you know, he got, you know, maybe 30% of the voting population. But it was a commentary on the pitiful showing of the Democratic Party, its failure to be a true opposition party in this country, and I think maybe a wake-up call to Americans to try to create a new political alternative to a political system that is really a one-party system, and it is quite corrupt.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see that movement developing now? Outside of the two parties?
HOWARD ZINN: I hope so.
AMY GOODMAN: Or within one of the parties?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, there is some movement within the Democratic Party. And I think it will take work within and work without. That is, it will take people in the Democratic Party to demand a change in the Democratic Party. I notice that the Democratic Party in California has just had a convention in which they voted for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. And this is a good sign, and if Democratic Party groups around the country would demand that the National Democratic Party call for an end to this war and an end to the occupation, that would be a sign that the Democratic Party is changing and moving in the right direction. But it will not do that, I think, unless there are groups outside of the Democratic Party that create a movement that puts pressure on the Democratic Party.
AMY GOODMAN: Last question, Howard Zinn, you’re going back to Spelman College to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree from the school you were fired from.
HOWARD ZINN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: On May 15.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. It’s — 40 years after I was fired, I am invited back. Well, there’s a new president, a very progressive African American woman, Beverly Tatum, a scholar of race relations in this country, and she sent me an invitation to give me an honorary degree and to deliver the commencement address, and she wrote at the bottom of her letter, “It’s about time.” That was nice.
AMY GOODMAN: You feel vindicated?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I felt vindicated one minute after I was fired. But this is good. It’s a good feeling, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You have your first sentence prepared, what you are going to say as you return to this college?
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, you have made me realize I should prepare my first sentence. I’m working on it. I’ll spend a few days working on my first sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Howard Zinn, among many other accomplishments, is 82 years old.
HOWARD ZINN: You consider that an accomplishment?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, sure. I just saw a friend who said she celebrated her 106th birthday with her grandmother, and her grandmother said to her, “Oh, to be 100 again.” Looking forward to the next decades with you, Howard Zinn.
HOWARD ZINN: Thanks, Amy.
War is the Health of the State
Interviewed by Paul Glavin and Chuck Morse • Perspectives on Anarchist Theory • Spring 2003
Howard Zinn has been a pivotal figure in the American Left for decades. As an activist and writer, he has influenced generations of leftists and helped encourage a strong commitment to direct democracy, anti-racism, and grassroots action.
We asked Zinn about the current changes in the political environment, his theoretical commitments, and some of the challenges faced by radical intellectuals. This interview was conducted by e-mail in the spring of 2003.
How would you define the “War on Terrorism”? What kind of war is this and whom is it directed against?
The notion of a “War on Terrorism” makes no sense. You cannot make war on terrorism: it is an ideology that springs from many sources and one that can be located in many countries. The terrorism of September 11th was real, but the United States is using it as an excuse to first bomb Afghanistan, now Iraq, and to expand American power in the Middle East.
So, the “War on Terrorism” is just a cover to perpetuate US global hegemony?
Exactly. It is also a way to cover up the failure to solve domestic problems and build support for a President who got into office through a political coup and needs to show he has a mandate he doesn’t deserve.
Today there is all sorts of talk of war: the “War on Terrorism” and the war on Iraq and a possible war with North Korea. At the same time the economy is in trouble, unemployment is up, and local governments are cutting back education, health care, and other social services. Have we seen this dynamic before in history and how can radicals draw out the connections between the two?
War against an enemy abroad is always simultaneously a war against people at home, because war always draws the resources of the nation into military activity. One reason why there were Black uprisings during the Vietnam War was that the needs of the ghettos were neglected in order to carry on the war in Vietnam. How to draw the connections? Simply point out how much money is going to the military and what human services are being diminished. For example, just the other day, along with stories of the increased military budget there was a story about the Bush administration taking money away from the school lunch program.
But in the 1960s the Johnson Administration, while pursuing the War in Indochina, tried to placate the population with a simultaneous War on Poverty and Great Society programs. How is today different than that period?
Clearly, Bush is not trying to placate the population, but he is trying to placate his corporate supporters who will benefit hugely from military contracts and from his tax program. Also, Johnson was respond-ing to powerful social movements which were demanding reform: the Civil Rights Movement; the Black Uprisings in the cities (such as Watts 1965). Bush faces no such popular upsurge.
What would you say to those who believe the US government, if not directly involved in the attacks of September 11th, at the very least let them happen in order to justify everything that has happened since? What is it about conspiracy theories that captivates the imagination of people on the left and right so much?
It’s always intriguing to talk about conspiracies. But it’s a diversion from real issues. They are attractive because they simplify problems and enable people to focus on a handful of people instead of on complex causes.
What is your assessment of the anti-war movement, particularly its more radical wing? Drawing from your study of history, what advice would you have for today’s radical activists and thinkers?
Don’t get involved in internal squabbling, concentrate on what unifies you, allow different groups to pursue the common anti-war agenda in their own way. But concentrate on fundamental principles: war is terrorism, war is always a war against children. War always has unpredictable consequences.
Certainly ANSWER is one of the most important groups in the anti-war movement. This group has been criticized for its link to the authoritarian Communist group, the Workers’ World Party. Do you think such criticisms are important and do you believe that ANSWER’s link to this group is a problem?
I don’t believe in setting political tests for a broad-based movement that is centered on one issue, like ending the war. The labor movement at its best, in the 1930s did not worry that Communists led some of the organizing drives. The Lawrence textile strikers of 1912 weren’t bothered by the IWW organizers who came in and led them to a successful strike. The Civil Rights movement did not respond to red-bating. My own attitude is: if there is a demonstration against the war, and I believe in the goal of ending a war, I won’t ask who organized the demonstration. You march with people who have signs representing many different groups and ideologies but you are all there for the same purpose, stopping the war. I distrust the sincerity of people who peck away at broad-based movements by pointing to organizers or participants who have special political positions.
So do you believe that it has been a mistake for groups on the left—from Z Magazine writers, to Nation writers, to anarchists—to criticize ANSWER?
Yes. We should not give political tests to people who do good organizing work. A broad movement must include all sorts of groups, including anarchists.
Regardless of our opposition to the US government, al Qaida does not distinguish between our ruling class and ordinary citizens. Certainly US policy in the Middle East contributed to the birth of al Qaida: the US provided direct support for bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviet Union, not to mention other policy initiatives, such as uncritical support and funding for the repressive policies of Israel and the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Yet now we are all potential targets in al Qaida’s campaign against the United States. What is the best way to address this problem?
Yes, the terrorists don’t discriminate between leaders and ordinary people. One thing we must make clear: we will not be guilty of the same thing. Therefore we will only direct our anger at the terrorists themselves, and at no one else. As for addressing terrorism, it means looking at its roots, the grievances behind that, and if those grievances are legitimate, act to relieve them.
The emergence of the anti-globalization movement was one of the most exciting developments in recent years (which you celebrated in your essay, “Seattle: A Flash of the Possible”). However, this movement has largely disappeared from the political stage in the US since the terror attacks of September 11th. Do you think there is something about the movement that makes it particularly vulnerable to the post-September 11th changes in the political environment? Also, do you believe that the anti-globalization movement will be renewed or has its moment passed?
I do believe the anti-globalization movement, while given a temporary setback after September 11th, is coming to life again. The Port Alegre meeting recently is one sign.
Do you think that there is a possibility that the anti-war movement could contribute to the revival of the anti-globalization movement?
Yes, by energizing people. There is a long history of one movement stimulating other movements. For example, the anti-slavery movement stimulated the feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement, which lead into the anti-Vietnam War movement and also the Feminist and Gay Rights movements.
You describe a constant struggle between the powerful and the powerless in the People’s History of the United States. This struggle takes place in different historical contexts and is carried out by different actors, but the struggle itself is continuous. A precept of the classical revolutionary perspective is that one day this struggle will come to an end, that there will be a qualitative change in social relationships and the division between the powerful and powerless will disappear. Do you believe this change can occur and, if so, how is this idea reflected into your historical work?
I do believe this change can occur but it will not happen “one day” or in one cataclysmic moment. It will happen over time as people, little by little, take over the institutions of society—the economy, the universities, the neighborhoods—and run them democratically.
But traditionally the Left has embraced the idea of revolution (in which sweeping historical changes take place in a relatively short period of time). Do you reject the idea of revolution? Or, if not, how do you conceive of it?
I don’t reject the idea of revolution, but I reject the idea of armed struggle, or a military action to achieve it. The revolution must be democratic in means as well as in ends, and this requires building mass support for change by long, persistent struggle.
Your work seems to be motivated by the idea that people will change society if they are simply presented with the facts of social injustice. However, countless authors before you have presented “the facts” and yet deep social conflicts endure. What is it about your presentation of the facts that is unique and how would you respond to those who argue that our problem lay not in the absence of facts but in the absence of theoretical frameworks with which to comprehend the facts?
No, presentation of facts is not enough. People must then act on those facts. I don’t think theoretical frameworks are necessary, that is, not necessarily spelled out. People, given enough information, themselves supply a theoretical framework, which may not be put into language, but which informs their thinking and their action.
Your historical work has focused on the capacity of ordinary people to band together, fight for justice, and change society. However, you have written very little about the frameworks that leftists have used to understand and theorize opposition, such as Marxist-Leninism, social democracy, anarchism, etc. Why is this? Is not reclaiming such a political vocabulary an essential part of rebuilding a democratic culture?
I don’t see much point in abstract theorizing, or getting into arguments about Marxism, Leninism, etc. When the issue comes up I try to deal with it. For instance, I don’t make a big fuss over anarchism, but when it is brought up in a distorted way I try to show what the distortions are. It is possible to get across anarchist ideas, socialist ideas, without using abstract words that have different meanings for different people.
OK, but the idea of a free or just society is abstract. And certainly the Left has been shaped by abstract theoretical works, such as Marx’s Capital, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, or countless other works. Do you believe that such theoretical inquiry has been a waste of time or do you believe that the moment for such works has passed?
Theoretical analyses are useful but not crucial. There is a lot of wasted time in such endeavors, but not all is wasted. Marx’s Communist Manifesto was a theoretical analysis, immensely useful and inspiring. His first volume of Das Kapital was useful too. His second and third volumes, and his Grundrisse, were probably a waste of time!
You have consistently urged people to place moral considerations at the center of their engagement with society, to “not be neutral on a moving train” (to cite the title of your autobiography). The idea that people’s political practice should be shaped primarily by moral concerns is radical break from classical revolutionary theories, such as Marxism or anarcho-syndicalism, which understand politics as something determined by or subsumed under socio-economic contra-dictions. Do you believe that it is necessary to break with the older traditions of revolutionary thought and, if so, how?
Yes, socio-economic contradictions are basic, but behind any analysis of them must be a set of moral values—otherwise you can analyze the society endlessly and not come to conclusions about what to do.
Do you regard this position as a break with the classical socialist or anarchist tradition? And, if so, why is it important to make such a break?
No, I don’t consider it a break from the classical traditions, because there was always a moral principle behind the most academic of radical analyses.
OK, while a moral principle may have been implicit in the classical traditions, isn’t it true that communists and anarcho-syndicalists argued that “being determined conscious-ness” and disagreed that it was possible to advance a moral position that was somehow independent of or above “the development of class contradictions.” If this is true, isn’t your position a significant break with the tradition?
Yes, although I think there has been some distortion of the Marxist position and anarcho-syndicalist position on this or, to put it another way, that there are several Marxist positions and several anarchist positions.
What recent developments in the study of social history do you find particularly exciting and amenable to a radical approach to social affairs and what tendencies do you find especially troublesome?
The recent developments in the study of social history which are important to me are the burgeoning of literature about social movements—the women’s movement, the labor movement, the African American and Chicano movements, the gay and lesbian movement. I only find troublesome those studies which are overly specialized, academic, designed to reach a small number of scholars without any connection to action.
In several works you note that your encounter with anarchism (Emma Goldman in particular) only occurred after your period of intense activism in the anti-war movement. You discovered that although the term anarchism wasn’t used, there were many connections between anarchism and the New Left (such as the emphasis on decentralization, direct action, sexual liberation, etc.). Your experience seems to be common among leftists who came of age politically during the 1960s. What was it about the political culture of the New Left that discouraged people from discovering and investigating such an important tradition and one that was so close to their views? Why do you believe that so many activists turned to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism rather than anarchism? What was it about authoritarian ideologies that made them attractive and anti-authoritarian ideas less attractive, in those days?
Some activists turned to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Most did not. Most continued to act out the principles of anarchism without adopting it in a conscious way as a coherent philosophy. Anti-authoritarian ideas dominated the movement of the sixties, and the authoritarians were a small, loud minority.
While many practices may have been anti-authoritarian, certainly a significant number of activists defined themselves through an authoritarian socialist ideological framework. This is true of the late SDS, the Black Panthers, and countless other groups. What was it about authoritarian ideologies that made them attractive, and anti-authoritarian ideas less attractive, in those days?
I doubt that it was the authoritarianism that was attractive—it was the other attributes, such as the boldness, the militancy—but people accepted the authoritarianism along with that, just as Communists accepted Stalinism for a long time, not because they believed in authoritarianism as such but because it came along with certain social changes.
Why do you think activists during this period did not gravitate toward an anarchist or anti-authoritarian tradition if, in fact, it was more consistent with their activities?
Because most activists are concentrated on the moment and don’t see what they’re doing as part of long-term theories or traditions.
How would you describe yourself politically? Do you consider yourself an anarchist or a libertarian socialist?
Something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.
This seems contradictory. Could you explain?
I see no contradiction. Look at Alexander Berkman’s pamphlet, Communist Anarchism.
Anarchists and radicals are very good at criticizing society and the state, as well as advocating a vision of a different, better world. Yet the question of how to get from our current society to a free society is often unanswered. What is your perspective on questions of strategy for the Left? How do we create the changes that we want in order to fully realize our vision of a free society?
Organization, direct action to liberate different aspects of the society. We can’t have a blueprint, but we can know what we are aiming for, and move in that direction.
Since the 1960s many leftist intellectuals have become ensconced in the university and independent theorists (such as Paul Goodman and Dwight McDonald, for example) are now extremely rare. Do you believe this is lamentable and do you think the academic environment has encouraged a more conservative, timid posture among left intellectuals?
Certainly, the academic environment is stifling, and often leads leftists into obscure research rather than into activism. But not always. I believe there is no one place for left intellectuals. They can function, and should, both inside and outside the academy.
The university tends to draw radical intellectuals into the academic life. But it needn’t do that. Radicals who are in any profession or line of work face the same problem, of maintaining their ideas and activity despite the pull of their profession and their need for economic security.
What projects are you working on now and what future projects do you have planned?
I’m so involved in the anti-war movement now that I have hardly time to think about “projects.” But, I’m interested in dramatizing political issues, for the stage, through screen-plays, and at the same time continuing to write columns for The Progressive, op-ed pieces for traditional newspapers, and speaking wherever I can to audiences of all kinds.
Rebels Against Tyranny: An Interview with Howard Zinn on Anarchism
Interview by Ziga Vodovnik • Published at CounterPunch • May 12, 2008
Howard Zinn, 85, is a Professor Emeritus of political science at Boston University. He was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1922 to a poor immigrant family. He realized early in his youth that the promise of the “American Dream“, that will come true to all hard-working and diligent people, is just that – a promise and a dream. During World War II he joined US Air Force and served as a bombardier in the “European Theatre”. This proved to be a formative experience that only strengthened his convictions that there is no such thing as a just war. It also revealed, once again, the real face of the socio-economic order, where the suffering and sacrifice of the ordinary people is always used only to higher the profits of the privileged few.
Although Zinn spent his youthful years helping his parents support the family by working in the shipyards, he started with studies at Columbia University after WWII, where he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in 1958. Later he was appointed as a chairman of the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, GA, where he actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
From the onset of the Vietnam War he was active within the emerging anti-war movement, and in the following years only stepped up his involvement in movements aspiring towards another, better world. Zinn is the author of more than 20 books, including A People’s History of the United Statesthat is “a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically and whose plight has been largely omitted from most histories…” (Library Journal)
Zinn’s most recent book is entitled A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, and is a fascinating collection of essays that Zinn wrote in the last couple of years. Beloved radical historian is still lecturing across the US and around the world, and is, with active participation and support of various progressive social movements continuing his struggle for free and just society.
Ziga Vodovnik: From the 1980s onwards we are witnessing the process of economic globalization getting stronger day after day. Many on the Left are now caught between a “dilemma” – either to work to reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital; or to strive towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization and that is equally global. What’s your opinion about this?
I am an anarchist, and according to anarchist principles nation states become obstacles to a true humanistic globalization. In a certain sense the movement towards globalization where capitalists are trying to leap over nation state barriers, creates a kind of opportunity for movement to ignore national barriers, and to bring people together globally, across national lines in opposition to globalization of capital, to create globalization of people, opposed to traditional notion of globalization. In other words to use globalization – it is nothing wrong with idea of globalization – in a way that bypasses national boundaries and of course that there is not involved corporate control of the economic decisions that are made about people all over the world.
ZV: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote that: “Freedom is the mother, not the daughter of order.” Where do you see life after or beyond (nation) states?
Beyond the nation states? (laughter) I think what lies beyond the nation states is a world without national boundaries, but also with people organized. But not organized as nations, but people organized as groups, as collectives, without national and any kind of boundaries. Without any kind of borders, passports, visas. None of that! Of collectives of different sizes, depending on the function of the collective, having contacts with one another. You cannot have self-sufficient little collectives, because these collectives have different resources available to them. This is something anarchist theory has not worked out and maybe cannot possibly work out in advance, because it would have to work itself out in practice.
ZV: Do you think that a change can be achieved through institutionalized party politics, or only through alternative means – with disobedience, building parallel frameworks, establishing alternative media, etc.
If you work through the existing structures you are going to be corrupted. By working through political system that poisons the atmosphere, even the progressive organizations, you can see it even now in the US, where people on the “Left” are all caught in the electoral campaign and get into fierce arguments about should we support this third party candidate or that third party candidate. This is a sort of little piece of evidence that suggests that when you get into working through electoral politics you begin to corrupt your ideals. So I think a way to behave is to think not in terms of representative government, not in terms of voting, not in terms of electoral politics, but thinking in terms of organizing social movements, organizing in the work place, organizing in the neighborhood, organizing collectives that can become strong enough to eventually take over – first to become strong enough to resist what has been done to them by authority, and second, later, to become strong enough to actually take over the institutions.
ZV: One personal question. Do you go to the polls? Do you vote?
HZ: I do. Sometimes, not always. It depends. But I believe that it is preferable sometimes to have one candidate rather another candidate, while you understand that that is not the solution. Sometimes the lesser evil is not so lesser, so you want to ignore that, and you either do not vote or vote for third party as a protest against the party system. Sometimes the difference between two candidates is an important one in the immediate sense, and then I believe trying to get somebody into office, who is a little better, who is less dangerous, is understandable. But never forgetting that no matter who gets into office, the crucial question is not who is in office, but what kind of social movement do you have. Because we have seen historically that if you have a powerful social movement, it doesn’t matter who is in office. Whoever is in office, they could be Republican or Democrat, if you have a powerful social movement, the person in office will have to yield, will have to in some ways respect the power of social movements.
We saw this in the 1960s. Richard Nixon was not the lesser evil, he was the greater evil, but in his administration the war was finally brought to an end, because he had to deal with the power of the anti-war movement as well as the power of the Vietnamese movement. I will vote, but always with a caution that voting is not crucial, and organizing is the important thing.
When some people ask me about voting, they would say will you support this candidate or that candidate? I say: ‘I will support this candidate for one minute that I am in the voting booth. At that moment I will support A versus B, but before I am going to the voting booth, and after I leave the voting booth, I am going to concentrate on organizing people and not organizing electoral campaign.’
ZV: Anarchism is in this respect rightly opposing representative democracy since it is still form of tyranny – tyranny of majority. They object to the notion of majority vote, noting that the views of the majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. Thoreau once wrote that we have an obligation to act according to the dictates of our conscience, even if the latter goes against the majority opinion or the laws of the society. Do you agree with this?
Absolutely. Rousseau once said, if I am part of a group of 100 people, do 99 people have the right to sentence me to death, just because they are majority? No, majorities can be wrong, majorities can overrule rights of minorities. If majorities ruled, we could still have slavery. 80% of the population once enslaved 20% of the population. While run by majority rule that is ok. That is very flawed notion of what democracy is. Democracy has to take into account several things – proportionate requirements of people, not just needs of the majority, but also needs of the minority. And also has to take into account that majority, especially in societies where the media manipulates public opinion, can be totally wrong and evil. So yes, people have to act according to conscience and not by majority vote.
ZV: Where do you see the historical origins of anarchism in the United States?
One of the problems with dealing with anarchism is that there are many people whose ideas are anarchist, but who do not necessarily call themselves anarchists. The word was first used by Proudhon in the middle of the 19th century, but actually there were anarchist ideas that proceeded Proudhon, those in Europe and also in the United States. For instance, there are some ideas of Thomas Paine, who was not an anarchist, who would not call himself an anarchist, but he was suspicious of government. Also Henry David Thoreau. He does not know the word anarchism, and does not use the word anarchism, but Thoreau’s ideas are very close to anarchism. He is very hostile to all forms of government. If we trace origins of anarchism in the United States, then probably Thoreau is the closest you can come to an early American anarchist. You do not really encounter anarchism until after the Civil War, when you have European anarchists, especially German anarchists, coming to the United States. They actually begin to organize. The first time that anarchism has an organized force and becomes publicly known in the United States is in Chicago at the time of Haymarket Affair.
ZV: Where do you see the main inspiration of contemporary anarchism in the United States? What is your opinion about the Transcendentalism – i.e., Henry D. Thoreau, Ralph W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, et al. – as an inspiration in this perspective?
Well, the Transcendentalism is, we might say, an early form of anarchism. The Transcendentalists also did not call themselves anarchists, but there are anarchist ideas in their thinking and in their literature. In many ways Herman Melville shows some of those anarchist ideas. They were all suspicious of authority. We might say that the Transcendentalism played a role in creating an atmosphere of skepticism towards authority, towards government.
Unfortunately, today there is no real organized anarchist movement in the United States. There are many important groups or collectives that call themselves anarchist, but they are small. I remember that in 1960s there was an anarchist collective here in Boston that consisted of fifteen (sic!) people, but then they split. But in 1960s the idea of anarchism became more important in connection with the movements of 1960s.
Most of the creative energy for radical politics is nowadays coming from anarchism, but only few of the people involved in the movement actually call themselves “anarchists”. Where do you see the main reason for this? Are activists ashamed to identify themselves with this intellectual tradition, or rather they are true to the commitment that real emancipation needs emancipation from any label?
The term anarchism has become associated with two phenomena with which real anarchist don’t want to associate themselves with. One is violence, and the other is disorder or chaos. The popular conception of anarchism is on the one hand bomb-throwing and terrorism, and on the other hand no rules, no regulations, no discipline, everybody does what they want, confusion, etc. That is why there is a reluctance to use the term anarchism. But actually the ideas of anarchism are incorporated in the way the movements of the 1960s began to think.
I think that probably the best manifestation of that was in the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – SNCC. SNCC without knowing about anarchism as philosophy embodied the characteristics of anarchism. They were decentralized. Other civil rights organizations, for example Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were centralized organizations with a leader – Martin Luther King. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were based in New York, and also had some kind of centralized organization. SNCC, on the other hand, was totally decentralized. It had what they called field secretaries, who worked in little towns all over the South, with great deal of autonomy. They had an office in Atlanta, Georgia, but the office was not a strong centralized authority. The people who were working out in the field – in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi – they were very much on their own. They were working together with local people, with grassroots people. And so there is no one leader for SNCC, and also great suspicion of government.
They could not depend on government to help them, to support them, even though the government of the time, in the early 1960s, was considered to be progressive, liberal. John F. Kennedy especially. But they looked at John F. Kennedy, they saw how he behaved. John F. Kennedy was not supporting the Southern movement for equal rights for Black people. He was appointing the segregationists judges in the South, he was allowing southern segregationists to do whatever they wanted to do. So SNCC was decentralized, anti-government, without leadership, but they did not have a vision of a future society like the anarchists. They were not thinking long term, they were not asking what kind of society shall we have in the future. They were really concentrated on immediate problem of racial segregation. But their attitude, the way they worked, the way they were organized, was along, you might say, anarchist lines.
ZV: Do you thing that pejorative (mis)usage of the word anarchism is direct consequence of the fact that the ideas that people can be free, was and is very frightening to those in power?
No doubt! No doubt that anarchist ideas are frightening to those in power. People in power can tolerate liberal ideas. They can tolerate ideas that call for reforms, but they cannot tolerate the idea that there will be no state, no central authority. So it is very important for them to ridicule the idea of anarchism to create this impression of anarchism as violent and chaotic. It is useful for them, yes.
ZV: In theoretical political science we can analytically identify two main conceptions of anarchism – a so-called collectivist anarchism limited to Europe, and on another hand individualist anarchism limited to US. Do you agree with this analytical separation?
To me this is an artificial separation. As so often happens analysts can make things easier for themselves, like to create categories and fit movements into categories, but I don’t think you can do that. Here in the United States, sure there have been people who believed in individualist anarchism, but in the United States have also been organized anarchists of Chicago in 1880s or SNCC. I guess in both instances, in Europe and in the United States, you find both manifestations, except that maybe in Europe the idea of anarcho-syndicalism become stronger in Europe than in the US. While in the US you have the IWW, which is an anarcho-sindicalist organization and certainly not in keeping with individualist anarchism.
ZV: What is your opinion about the “dilemma” of means – revolution versus social and cultural evolution?
I think here are several different questions. One of them is the issue of violence, and I think here anarchists have disagreed. Here in the US you find a disagreement, and you can find this disagreement within one person. Emma Goldman, you might say she brought anarchism, after she was dead, to the forefront in the US in the 1960s, when she suddenly became an important figure. But Emma Goldman was in favor of the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, but then she decided that this is not the way. Her friend and comrade, Alexander Berkman, he did not give up totally the idea of violence. On the other hand, you have people who were anarchistic in way like Tolstoy and also Gandhi, who believed in nonviolence.
There is one central characteristic of anarchism on the matter of means, and that central principle is a principle of direct action – of not going through the forms that the society offers you, of representative government, of voting, of legislation, but directly taking power. In case of trade unions, in case of anarcho-syndicalism, it means workers going on strike, and not just that, but actually also taking hold of industries in which they work and managing them. What is direct action? In the South when black people were organizing against racial segregation, they did not wait for the government to give them a signal, or to go through the courts, to file lawsuits, wait for Congress to pass the legislation. They took direct action; they went into restaurants, were sitting down there and wouldn’t move. They got on those busses and acted out the situation that they wanted to exist.
Of course, strike is always a form of direct action. With the strike, too, you are not asking government to make things easier for you by passing legislation, you are taking a direct action against the employer. I would say, as far as means go, the idea of direct action against the evil that you want to overcome is a kind of common denominator for anarchist ideas, anarchist movements. I still think one of the most important principles of anarchism is that you cannot separate means and ends. And that is, if your end is egalitarian society you have to use egalitarian means, if your end is non-violent society without war, you cannot use war to achieve your end. I think anarchism requires means and ends to be in line with one another. I think this is in fact one of the distinguishing characteristics of anarchism.
ZV: On one occasion Noam Chomsky has been asked about his specific vision of anarchist society and about his very detailed plan to get there. He answered that “we can not figure out what problems are going to arise unless you experiment with them.” Do you also have a feeling that many left intellectuals are loosing too much energy with their theoretical disputes about the proper means and ends, to even start “experimenting” in practice?
I think it is worth presenting ideas, like Michael Albert did with Parecon for instance, even though if you maintain flexibility. We cannot create blueprint for future society now, but I think it is good to think about that. I think it is good to have in mind a goal. It is constructive, it is helpful, it is healthy, to think about what future society might be like, because then it guides you somewhat what you are doing today, but only so long as this discussions about future society don’t become obstacles to working towards this future society. Otherwise you can spend discussing this utopian possibility versus that utopian possibility, and in the mean time you are not acting in a way that would bring you closer to that.
ZV: In your A People’s History of the United States you show us that our freedom, rights, environmental standards, etc., have never been given to us from the wealthy and influential few, but have always been fought out by ordinary people – with civil disobedience. What should be in this respect our first steps toward another, better world?
I think our first step is to organize ourselves and protest against existing order – against war, against economic and sexual exploitation, against racism, etc. But to organize ourselves in such a way that means correspond to the ends, and to organize ourselves in such a way as to create kind of human relationship that should exist in future society. That would mean to organize ourselves without centralize authority, without charismatic leader, in a way that represents in miniature the ideal of the future egalitarian society. So that even if you don’t win some victory tomorrow or next year in the meantime you have created a model. You have acted out how future society should be and you created immediate satisfaction, even if you have not achieved your ultimate goal.
ZV: What is your opinion about different attempts to scientifically prove Bakunin’s ontological assumption that human beings have “instinct for freedom”, not just will but also biological need?
Actually I believe in this idea, but I think that you cannot have biological evidence for this. You would have to find a gene for freedom? No. I think the other possible way is to go by history of human behavior. History of human behavior shows this desire for freedom, shows that whenever people have been living under tyranny, people would rebel against that.
Ziga Vodovnik is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, where his teaching and research is focused on anarchist theory/praxis and social movements in the Americas.
The Optimism of Uncertainty
Howard Zinn • ZCommunications • September 30, 2004; The Nation • September 20, 2004
In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy?
I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played.
The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.
What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability. A revolution to overthrow the czar of Russia, in that most sluggish of semi-feudal empires, not only startled the most advanced imperial powers but took Lenin himself by surprise and sent him rushing by train to Petrograd.
Who would have predicted the bizarre shifts of World War II–the Nazi-Soviet pact (those embarrassing photos of von Ribbentrop and Molotov shaking hands), and the German Army rolling through Russia, apparently invincible, causing colossal casualties, being turned back at the gates of Leningrad, on the western edge of Moscow, in the streets of Stalingrad, followed by the defeat of the German army, with Hitler huddled in his Berlin bunker, waiting to die?
And then the postwar world, taking a shape no one could have drawn in advance: The Chinese Communist revolution, the tumultuous and violent Cultural Revolution, and then another turnabout, with post-Mao China renouncing its most fervently held ideas and institutions, making overtures to the West, cuddling up to capitalist enterprise, perplexing everyone.
No one foresaw the disintegration of the old Western empires happening so quickly after the war, or the odd array of societies that would be created in the newly independent nations, from the benign village socialism of Nyerere’s Tanzania to the madness of Idi Amin’s adjacent Uganda. Spain became an astonishment. I recall a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade telling me that he could not imagine Spanish Fascism being overthrown without another bloody war.
But after Franco was gone, a parliamentary democracy came into being, open to Socialists, Communists, anarchists, everyone.
The end of World War II left two superpowers with their respective spheres of influence and control, vying for military and political power. Yet they were unable to control events, even in those parts of the world considered to be their respective spheres of influence.
The failure of the Soviet Union to have its way in Afghanistan, its decision to withdraw after almost a decade of ugly intervention, was the most striking evidence that even the possession of thermonuclear weapons does not guarantee domination over a determined population.
The United States has faced the same reality. It waged a full-scale war in lndochina, conducting the most brutal bombardment of a tiny peninsula in world history, and yet was forced to withdraw. In the headlines every day we see other instances of the failure of the presumably powerful over the presumably powerless, as in Brazil, where a grassroots movement of workers and the poor elected a new president pledged to fight destructive corporate power.
Looking at this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it.
That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience–whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.
I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just my friends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests.
Wherever I go, I find such people. And beyond the handful of activists there seem to be hundreds, thousands, more who are open to unorthodox ideas. But they tend not to know of one another’s existence, and so, while they persist, they do so with the desperate patience of Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the mountain.
I try to tell each group that it is not alone, and that the very people who are disheartened by the absence of a national movement are themselves proof of the potential for such a movement.
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.
If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
For more about and by Howard Zinn, see the website dedicated to him, howardzinn.org.