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Peoples historian

Print edition : Feb 26, 2010 T+T-
Howard Zinn died in Santa Monica, California, on January 27, 2010.-MICHAEL DWYER/AP

Howard Zinn died in Santa Monica, California, on January 27, 2010.-MICHAEL DWYER/AP

IF I want to be remembered for anything, its for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality, for getting more and more people to think that way, and also for getting more people to realise that power, which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, ultimately rests on people themselves, and they can use it, and at certain points in history they have used it. What I want to be remembered as is somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didnt have before.

I began my political life in the United States in the 1980s. The United States wars in Central America were the focus of things, as was Reagans calculated assault on the organised working class. The confidence of the Right was palpable, and so too was the despair in the Left. It was in this context that a friend gave me a book that changed the way I saw America: Howard Zinns A Peoples History of the United States (1980).

The books ambition was clear: to uncover the countless small actions of unknown people, the people who had submitted their lives (and bodies) to uphold the highest ideals of their time against entrenched power holders. Rebellions against tyranny and protests for justice formed the pageantry of Zinns American history, from the uprisings of enslaved Africans to the powerful vision of social justice of the Civil Rights movement. No longer an America given over only to its version of imperial power south of the Rio Grande, nor an America smothered by the greed of Wall Street to the detriment of Main Street. This was an America of ordinary people, whose extraordinary actions constrained the powerful even just a little bit. Now to the barricades, was the message, for without action there can be no hope of any social change.

For Zinn, his most famous book was already the third chapter in his long political career. When he returned from military service as a bombardier in the Second World War, Zinn went to graduate school, trained as a historian and took his first job at Atlantas Spelman College, historically a black womens school. When Zinn and his wife Rosyln came to Atlanta in 1956, the Civil Rights movement was taking flight. Zinns honest wisdom and energetic courage was evident to his students. They brought him on as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he was joined by the other great stalwart among the elders, Ella Baker. Zinn went on the picket line against racism and helped desegregate the gallery of the Georgia State Legislature.

Spelmans authorities faltered; they fired him over the summer. Zinn decamped to Boston University, where he wrote his first important book, an oral history of SNCC. What I am attempting to do here, he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964), is to catch a glimpse of SNCC people in action and to suggest the quality of their contribution to American civilisation. Zinns penchant for the small acts and small voices that are instrumental in making history begins at his beginning.

In Boston, Zinn opened the second chapter of his life, throwing himself into the burgeoning movement against the U.S. war on Vietnam. When SNCC leader Bob Moses criticised the U.S. government for sending troops to Vietnam but not defending civil rights workers in Mississippi, Zinn recalled, he got the first sense of the anti-war momentum. Boston University became a centre of the anti-war agitation, and Zinn moved effortlessly between the classroom and the street. Martin Luther King Jr threw in his lot with the anti-war movement, saying, in 1965, the long night of war must be stopped.

Zinn put together the arguments to justify Kings statement in Vietnam: the Logic of Withdrawal (1967; the text first appeared in the left-liberal journal The Nation in 1966-67). As Zinns friend Noam Chomsky put it about this book, He was the first person to say loudly, publicly, very persuasively that this simply has to stop; we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; its an act of aggression; pull out. Zinns book was a touchstone, but so too was his 1968 trip to Hanoi to bring back three U.S. Air Force pilots, and his work with Daniel Ellsberg and Chomsky in the publication of The Pentagon Papers.

The Civil Rights years and the anti-war years taught Zinn the value of civil disobedience. He later wrote a number of books on protest, such as Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (1968), Justice in Everyday Life (1977) and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (2006). The principle I am suggesting for civil disobedience, he wrote, is not that we must tolerate all disobedience to law, but that we refuse an absolute obedience to law. The ultimate test is not law, but justice. This clarity of vision remained an inspiration through the Reagan years, into the years of globalisation, the war on terror, the Iraq war and the Obama administration.

Zinn never lost his humour, his ability to find the phrase to challenge his friends and detractors alike to see the world for what it can become. Zinn liked to quote from Thomas Jeffersons letter to Abigail Adams, written during Shays Rebellion in western Massachusetts (1786) The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

Zinns Peoples History was suffused with rebellion. It was always about taking sides. As he wrote in its opening chapter, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Spanish American War as seen by the Cubans, the First World War as seen by the Socialists, the Second World War as seen by the pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, and so on. The book, Chomsky pointed out, changed the conscience of a whole generation. At least it did that to me (and joining Zinn for us was Chomsky, of course, and Angela Davis, and Eqbal Ahmed).

Zinns book brought the insights of the new social historians of the 1960s into conversation with the radical historians of the 1930s (such as A.L. Morton, whose A Peoples History of England, 1938, was a forerunner). Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Eugene V. Debs, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mohammed Ali and Big Bill Haywood spoke to us through Zinns text, brushing off what E.P. Thompson called the enormous condescension of prosperity. The book sold over two million copies. It continues to inspire.

Zinn died on the eve of Obamas first State of the Union Address. It was my wish that the President would open his remarks with a tribute to the peoples historian. But he did not.

Zinn spoke of Obama a year ago, saying, Obama has to be pulled by the people who elected him, by the people who are enthusiastic about him. Were the ones who have to tell him, No, youre on the wrong course with this militaristic idea of using force to accomplish things in the world. We wont accomplish anything that way, and well remain a hated country in the world.

A few days before he died, Zinn returned to the theme of Obama, and echoed the lessons of his own life and his Peoples History, I think people are dazzled by Obamas rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre President which means, in our time, a dangerous President unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.

No clearer view could have come at this difficult time, as the full weight of Americas progressive voices are smothered. Zinns gift was those voices, and the fervent belief that the little rebellions are not only necessary but they are what we live for.