History from below

Print edition : August 11, 2006

In this new book, Howard Zinn seeks to give voices of struggle the place they deserve in history.

THE postmodern historian denies the purity and the reality of the past and thus of any objective truth about the past. The frailty and fallibility of the historical enterprise is always kept in mind. In its opposition to the `canon of evidence' and the authenticity of documents, the historian endeavours to expose the pretence of `facts' which in other words is the working of an ideology behind the historical texts of the modernists, an ideology of the hegemonic and privileged patriarchal interests.

If it were possible to know about the past once and for all, there would be no need to write history. It should be clear to historians in the wake of Hayden White's writings that recovering the totality of the past is virtually impossible.

Traditional practices of the writing of history fail to question the conditions of their own making and, therefore, retard any development of a democratising critical intelligence. They raise before us the spectre of the real past, an objective past about which their accounts are held to be accurate and even true. History's epistemological fragility and the tentativeness of all readings are ignored completely here.

Is history, then, an art or a science and is it really possible to say without a bias what happened in the past ? What is the nature of historiography in a postmodernist world? Should history abandon the search for objective truth about the past? Is it not important that it is time that history came to terms with its own processes of production? Voices of a People's History of the United States edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, a companion book to Zinn's previous bestseller A People's History of the United States, is a significant answer to these questions. Reformulation and recreation for Zinn, is an ongoing process in history writing where the past appears as a protean entity that has a direct bearing on our present and on versions of us. To stop writing about the past is to stop being human. And in the words of Frederick Douglas with which the book opens, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

To resolve these questions, one can first look at the lack of concern for the voices from below. The myopia of much mainstream history comes mainly from the methodology of `naive realism' on which it bases itself. The occasional text written by one who belongs to the margins is often ignored by orthodox history or not considered seriously.

"When I began work, five years ago, on what would become the present volume, Voices of a People's History of the United States, I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent from our history books, to be given the place they deserve. I wanted labour 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."

These words of Howard Zinn, one of the most important dissident voices in the United States for the last half-century, draw our attention to the major movements from the periphery that are imbued not just with words but raise vital issues concerning war, racism and class conflict.

He underscores the need to air the voices of resistance, which refuse to be subdued by the power of the state apparatus aided by the complicit media. Here is a strong case for people "who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of colour, or women - once they organise and protest and create movements - have a voice no government can suppress".

Whereas in his former study of American history Zinn had written his personal views, in this new book he gives a free hand to the common people to speak for themselves. We, therefore, have a firsthand account of various issues with multiple perspectives of voices virtually forgotten by now. For instance, not many have read the great speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. in the Riverside Church in which he attacked the war in Vietnam. It is vital to know how the blacks felt about the war in the Philippines and about their role in killing people there while being lynched back home. "History," according to the editor, "is made by ordinary people, many of them unknown, despised, ignored, downtrodden, abused, but who had the courage to speak out."

Knowledge about labour history has to take into consideration the much ignored Ludlow Massacre, which is the theme of one of Woody Guthrie's famous songs. "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan, which was an unmistakable part of the radicalisation of the 1960s, has become central to anti-war opposition, and more so recently with others like Public Enemy and Steve Earle using music as a potent and fervent tool for raising consciousness about the futility of war.

I am reminded of the passion behind this song: Like Judas of old/ You lie and deceive/ A world war can be won/ You want me to believe/But I see through your eyes/ And I see through your brain/ Like I see through the water/ That runs down my drain. Equally important is Dylan's memorial to George Jackson and Frederick Douglas' oratory on the invasion of Mexico.

HOWARD ZINN, BEST known for his People's History of the United States.-

Looking back at the history of slavery and defiance, it is clear that the declaration made on July 4, 1776, upholding the notions of equality, life, liberty and happiness has been more or less a rhetoric that throws to the wind the right of the people to alter or abolish certain anti-racist draconian practices.

If "all men are created equal", as mentioned in the declaration, then, argues David Walker in his appeal (Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, 1829), Americans should have taken serious cognisance of the crudities inflicted on their fellow citizens "without any provocation". Interestingly, this document brought the wrath of the slaveholders on Walker; they issued "a reward of $10,000 to anyone who would deliver Walker alive, and $1,000 to anyone who would kill him". In spite of the constant dread of the lash, the slaves could not be prevented from composing their own religious songs of resistance implying their disagreement with the sermon: "If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master".

Harriet Jacobs has written on the relationship between the Church and slavery and how religion was used as a tool to prevent slave rebellion. An advertisement appeared in a Runaway Slave Newspaper in 1835, which Zinn uses to show how a reward of $100 for Jacobs' apprehension was one of many such announcements intended for the perpetuation of slavery and blatantly opposed to the idea of freedom that the American leadership was so proud of.

Using various documents in the form of poems, memoirs, speeches, letters, stories and songs, Zinn makes a strong case of how the organisation of abolition was a result of such reactions by slaves who went to the extent of writing to their masters showing deep resentment at their attempts to bring back runaway slaves into the fold of enslavement.

Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the speech of Theodore Parker at the Fanueil Hall Meeting on May 26, 1854, Henry Bibbs' letter to his former master, the disparaging comments made by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas in his address "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" on July 5, 1852, are a few of the significantly provocative writings that lent impetus to the civil rights movement. Zinn mentions how the death of a black classmate a century later in the Vietnam War leads to the blacks issuing a leaflet: "No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Vietnam for the White Man's freedom, until all the Negro peoples are free in Mississippi."

In a similar manner, Zinn takes up various other writings to indicate the people's view of history especially in terms of the two wars, McCarthyism, the Vietnam debacle, the 1991 Gulf war and the Reagan, Carter and Bush consensus, and the war on terror.

Tim Predmore, who served as a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, issued an important statement that emphasised the hypocrisy of the U.S. and Britain in their joint invasion of Iraq.

He speaks with deep hurt about the denial of medical attention to two children injured while playing with American explosives found in a street. He indicates clearly that American aggression in Iraq is not a crusade about saving people from tyranny but a desire to control the natural resources of a nation.

The soldier in him feels at a loss to explain what he is fighting for in Iraq. Other voices include Bob Dylan, Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller, Patti Smith, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and many lesser known people who spoke out of sincere conviction.

Such history from below lends a somewhat authentic character to the representation of `truth'. As it is, Zinn himself belongs to a working class family and laboured in a shipyard for a few years until he joined the Air Force as a bombardier.

A doctorate in history from Columbia at the outset made him suspicious of objectivity in the writing of history. Howard Zinn is aware that controversies concerning objectivity or subjectivity, singularity or plurality, relativity or universality of truth abound in historiography that treats areas of knowledge, culture and traditions as sites for conflict, with the main purpose of getting rid of the essentialisms reached by colonial Western historians. In recent years, it has become imperative to question the external nature of objectivity, realism and truth, which traditional historians take as their essentials.

Emphasis on discourse and the construction of meaning is arguably the best way that history ought to proceed if it is to be modernised.

It would be preferable to replace history with `histories' owing to its nature of multiplicity. The world has to be read as a text and these readings are infinite. It is obvious that the world/past comes to us as various stories, which we interpret and out of which we can never break out.

These narratives `always already' constitute reality and never permit us to have a wholly different or original view. It could, therefore, be argued that history is nothing but historiography, an array of reading practices that engage dialectically with existing texts that represent an assortment of culturally constructed forms of knowledge, beliefs, codes and customs.

For the sake of historical objectivity, the historian tries to reconstruct and reinterpret the past from the evidence available to him but "evidence imposes definite limits to the factual assertions that can be made" and this limits the range of interpretations. Thus the question that can be posed is: To what degree are historical studies objective? Often, interpretation takes hold over the thinking process which cannot transcend its own discursive practices to get to the truth. As is postulated by postmodernism, there is no autonomous procedure of bringing reality to bear on interpretation since all judgments are based on interpretation that cannot be infallible. It can, therefore, be concluded that there cannot be rigid foundations for knowledge. Though it is a difficult task to satisfy the sceptic, and this is what many writers also feel, they finally do succumb to Foucault's claim that though all that he produces is fiction, he does not "go so far as to say that fictions are beyond truth". He is of the view that "it is possible to make fiction work inside of truth".

Class interests as well as ideology underscore any account of history, especially orthodox histories that have a clear subtext as agendas that strive to exclude certain `truths' that subvert the state's programme.

The past can be `infinitely re-described' from any perspective that suits the particular ideological group, may it be Tory, Whig or Marxist. These accounts would legitimate any explanation useful for them "as they try to be in control, so that they can make the past their past, and so say, along with Nietzsche, So I willed it".

As Zinn clearly explains: "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, protested and brought democracy alive."

The subaltern, thus, can speak, and speak to powers to make a difference. Hence to the question, "Does history have meaning?" Paul Ricoeur would give an ambiguous answer: "Yes, insofar as we are able to approach universality and system; no, insofar as this universality does violence to the life of individuals whose singularity always remains invincible."

We now stand at a juncture when the discipline of history is surrounded by confusion as the traditional analytical and conceptual structures of historical knowledge stand eroded. It is not possible to reconstruct ever the past in all its actuality as all reconstructions are provisional and interpretative.

The recent death of Thomas Kuhn takes us literally into a post-Kuhnian age where traditional notions of transcendental historical value have become suspect.

Facts do not speak for themselves. The epistemological notions of the positivists are now being challenged on the grounds that history is a literary artefact and that all historical sources are intertextual. The intrusion of politics and theory into the discipline, therefore, has led to the historian becoming more and more defensive.

His approach to language and to the narrative conventions that he has always followed has a vividly untheorised position, which has turned the postmodern critic into an antagonist who strongly disagrees with the empirical bases of historical inquiry. The notion that the destabilising of univocal and monologic historical accounts is an enabling factor, introducing political activism as well as an opportunity for other histories to be written and the existing to be brought under stiff scrutiny, brings a significant development to the discipline of history.

Indeed the Voices is a dedication to the "rebel voices of the coming generations" who would feel connected to the history of resistance and contribute in transforming the future into a world that respects equality and justice.

A letter from the Editor


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