Although Howard Zinn died over two years ago at the age of eighty-seven, his legacy lives on through popular education initiatives and struggles for social justice. Howard Zinn was a pioneer in combining the roles of academic and activist. Not only was he a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, but he was also an accomplished historian, author of the bestselling A People’s History of the United States.
Howard Zinn was born in New York City in 1922, to a working-class immigrant family that suffered hardships during the Great Depression. While young, Zinn began working in the shipyards, where he was introduced to socialist ideas by fellow workers who had themselves been radicalized in the aftermath of the economic crash. He spent his spare time demonstrating against fascism and organizing labor rallies, where he suffered attacks by the police.
During World War II, he enlisted in the US Air Force, eager to fight the forces of fascism. He would later question the justifications for the war, including his own actions in it, like dropping napalm bombs on the town of Royan in southwestern France. “The history of bombing — and no one has bombed more than this nation — is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like ‘accident,’ ‘military target,’ and ‘collateral damage,’” Zinn later told the magazine Progressive. Reflecting on his wartime experience led him to become an anti-war activist for the remainder of his life.
After going to school on the GI Bill and earning a PhD in history, Zinn worked at several universities before becoming a professor at Boston University in 1964. He believed that history should “emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win,” as he wrote in the opening chapter of A People’s History. His theory of history focused not on traditional subjects – like great men and fierce battles – but on ordinary people and mass social movements.
“For too long, many members of the middle classes remained guardians of the system. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls,” Zinn said.
His ideas about history were further enhanced by his active participation in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 1960s. Zinn served as an adviser to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and engaged in sit-ins. One of his earliest books was Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal.
Noam Chomsky said Zinn and his book on Vietnam, “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; it’s an act of aggression; pull out.”
Howard Zinn is best known for his work A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980. The book struck a cord and has gone through multiple editions and sold over one million copies worldwide. In A People’s History, Zinn showed America’s past not through the eyes of the 1%, but through those of the 99%, from 1492 to the present. He unveiled the struggles of workers, slaves, indigenous peoples, and other supposedly unimportant historical actors, instead of portraying the elites who have dominated the telling of American history.
One of the most important chapters in A People’s History is “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” originally the book’s final chapter. In it, Zinn envisioned what a future movement towards equality in the United States might look like. He expressed hope that those groups who had joined previous and ultimately unsuccessful rebellions, whether for the rights of laborers or against wars, would unite with disaffected members of the middle class to challenge inequality.
“For too long, many members of the middle classes remained guardians of the system. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls,” Zinn said. He believed that a revolt of the “guards” would mean that those upon whom the system depends to crush popular movements would come to be among the rebels. This would be the beginning of a new kind of revolution.
Zinn remained an activist in the struggle against intervention in Central American in the 1980s and against intervention in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. “I guess if I want to be remembered for anything, it’s for introducing a different way of thinking about the world… [and] for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it,” he said in one of his final interviews.
Howard Zinn would likely be pleased to see confirmation of his belief in the power of the people with the popular explosions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Greece and with the emergence of the Occupy Movement. Many of the activists at Occupy encampments could also be seen holding well-worn copies of A People’s History and sharing its lessons with those new to the struggle. Zinn would probably also be happy to know that academics have come out to provide popular education for these movements, including such figures as David Harvey, in London, and Slavoj Zizek, in New York.
In Boston, the home of Howard Zinn, a group of academics and activists connected to the Occupy Movement formed the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series in October 2011. The Lecture Series, of which this article’s author is one of the proud organizers, seeks to honor Zinn’s memory by inviting, coordinating, and archiving lectures that explore issues of economic and social injustice.
Howard Zinn knew that it was not enough for academics and activists to understand the world. They had to change it. He recognized himself in those who saw a future that went beyond capitalism and who sought to build “an economic system that produces things not because they’re profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need.”