In pursuit of truth, justice

Posted on June 5, 2011


Reviewed by Shelley Walia

The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy
By Howard Zinn. The Seven Stories Press, New York. Pages 746. $18.95.

HOWARDZINN, the historian and dissident writer, has had a deep impact on people around the world. His credibility is known to all contemporary historians and political scientists, to students and teachers from political theory and cultural history interested in areas from war to human rights. Indeed, his writings are “a reminder that to embrace one’s subjectivity can mean embracing one’s humanity, that heart and mind can speak with one voice”.

The Zinn Reader represents all that has been of serious concern for Howard Zinn: the hard fact of racism in the South and in the North at the start of the civil rights movement; the Ludlow Massacre, and “Growing Up Class-Conscious”. Other essays take up questioning the very idea of a “just war”; LBJ, the CIA, Nixon, and the bombing of Hiroshima; civil disobedience and the role of punishment in our society; Upton Sinclair, Sacco and Vanzetti, and “Where to Look for a Communist”; why historians don’t have to be “objective” and how the power of the academy is wasted; anarchism, violence, and human nature; and “The Spirit of Rebellion”.

The previously published essays on these important and riveting issues bring out his zealous loyalty to social justice and political and economic democracy. The essays are arranged in various categories: race, class, war, law, history, clearly reflecting his views on the social revolution of the Civil Rights Movement, Allied atrocities during World War II, the murderous suppression of the Attica, prison rebellion, and the hagiographic persistence of the Christopher Columbus narrative. No historian, for instance, until now has asked the pertinent question of reevaluating Christopher Columbus by asking: “Why are we having a Columbus Day parade, much less a Columbus Day? Did Columbus not stand for rape, murder and enslavement of the Native Americans because they resisted Spanish rule and Christianity?” This approach apparently counters elitist histories which ignore the voices from below.

In 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States changed the whole trend of writing history, moving away from the representation of an account of battles and dates and uprisings or the rise and fall of civilisations to viewing history as an experience, as a way we think about the past. Such an approach gave birth to “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 had been largely omitted from most histories”.

The Zinn Reader provokes us to ask: Is history then an art or a science and is it really possible to say what happened in the past without a bias? What is the nature of historiography in a post-modernist 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, 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 recreating 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. Zinn writes in the introduction of The Zinn Reader, “I was relieved when I decided that keeping one’s judgments out of historical narrative was impossible, because I had already determined that I would never do that. I had grown up amidst poverty, had been in a war, had witnessed the ugliness of race hatred, and I was not going to pretend to neutrality.”

To resolve important issues on history writing, 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.

Thus, Howard Zinn draws attention to the major movements from the periphery that are imbued not just with words but also raise vital issues concerning war, racism and class conflict. The writings collected in The Reader underscore the need to regard history as resistance which refuses to be subdued by the power of the state apparatus aided by the complicit media.

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. Thus, the existing can be brought under a stiff scrutiny which is a significant development in the discipline of political writing. Indeed The Zinn Reader is a dedication to all political activists who would feel connected to the history of resistance and contribute in transforming the future into a world that respects equality and justice.

Posted in: Democarcy