Zinn's Critical History
from The Nation -- February 22, 2010
Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to the writing of
history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical, the last
being history "that judges and condemns." Howard Zinn, who died on
January 27 at 87, wrote the third kind. Unlike many historians, he was
not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong.
Zinn was best known, of course, as the author of A People's History
of the United States, which since its publication in 1980 has
introduced millions of readers to his vision of the American past. Few
historians manage to reach a broad nonacademic audience. Those who do
generally write Nietzsche's monumental history, works that celebrate
great men (the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln) or heroic events (the
building of the Transcontinental Railroad, World War II). Zinn's history
was different. Through A People's History and various spinoffs
(including a recent dramatization by prominent actors of a collection of
documents on the History Channel), Zinn's public learned about ordinary
Americans' struggles for justice, equality and power.
I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first
had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn.
Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an
oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and
darkness. But A People's History taught an inspiring and salutary
lesson--that despite all too frequent repression, if America has a
history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this
a better country. As for past heroes, Zinn insisted, one should look not
to presidents or captains of industry but to radicals such as Frederick
Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Eugene V. Debs.
Before writing A People's History, Zinn published SNCC: The
New Abolitionists (1964). This book grew out of his experience
teaching at Spelman College, an institution for young black women in
Atlanta, and his participation in the civil rights movement. It remains
essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the upheavals of the
'60s. Its subtitle is worth noting. At a time when most historians still
depicted nineteenth-century abolitionists as neurotic misfits whose
agitation brought on an unnecessary war, Zinn identified their campaign
against slavery as the beginning of a long, unfinished struggle for
A veteran of World War II, Zinn spoke frequently about the horrors of
war, lending his voice to those opposed to American involvement in
Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a passionate
critic of the national security system and the militarization of American
A few years ago, I lectured at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota
(the hometown of the late, lamented Senator Paul Wellstone). Zinn had
been there a few days before, and across the top of the student newspaper
was emblazoned the headline Zinn Attacks State. I sent Howard a copy.
We laughingly agreed that he could not have a more appropriate epitaph.