Howard Zinn Remembered – by Noam Chomsky

The following remarks below are excerpted from a tribute to the late Howard Zinn by his friend the eminent linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky, published in Al Jazeera, 27 January 2012, the second anniversary of the death of Howard Zinn. Zinn was dismissed in 1963 from his position as a tenured professor at Spelman College in Atlanta after siding with black women students in the struggle against segregation. In 1967, he wrote, one of the first, and most influential, books Vietnam-The Logic of Withdrawal, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. A veteran of the US Army Air Force, he and Noam Chomsky edited The Pentagon Papers, leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and was later designated a “high security risk” by the FBI. Toward the end of his life, Zinn said he wanted to be known as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.”  In an interview he said he wanted to rehabilitate the term “socialism” which had became tainted by its identification with Soviet communism. He said he considered himself politically an “anarchist, socialist … maybe a democratic socialist.”

His best-selling  A People’s History of the United States spawned a new field of historical study: People’s Histories. This approach countered the traditional triumphalist examination of “history as written by the victors”, instead concentrating on the poor and seemingly powerless; those who resisted imperial, cultural and corporate hegemony. Since its publication in 1980, the book has sold 1.7 million copies, became required reading in thousands of classes, been turned into a play, and excerpted on audio CDs read by Zinn and actor Matt  Damon. The People Speak, released in 2010, is a documentary movie inspired by the lives of ordinary people who fought back against oppressive conditions over the course of the history of the United States. Watch a preview:
The film includes performances by Zinn, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Viggo Mortensen, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, and Sandra Oh.  The book was posted in its entirety at zero cost on the internet by an anonymous group calling themselves History is a Weapon with Zinn’s approval, despite the book publisher’s opposition (A People’s History of the United States). In 2008, a graphic adaptation by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Pul Buhle was published as A People’s History of American Empire, concentrating on America’s imperial role in the world. Significantly, this version also followed the Zinn model of history-writing – to place the historian’s point of view clearly into the narrative.

His uniquely personal, engaged and engaging views on history and modern society also were expressed in  short plays: a one-person play called Marx in Soho: A Play on History (1999) and another short play Emma: A Play in Two Acts about Emma Goldman, American Anarchist (2002).

His memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was also the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn’s life and work.

Here is what Noam Chomsky wrote in his memorial tribute:  

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian. He was a very close friend for 45 years. The families were very close too. His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvellous person and close friend. Also somber is the realisation that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars, but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed – which was constant. A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival.

Howard’s remarkable life and work are summarised best in his own words. His primary concern, he explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments.

That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite. While teaching at Spelman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years – Alice Walker, Julian Bond and others – and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well. And as always, he did not just support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts – no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organised popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years. Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organising demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death.

By the early 1960s, a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role – and the government had to respond. As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught. A few years later, he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), the major organisation of those “unknown people” whose “countless small actions” played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence – as I am sure he would have been the first to say – and to bring the country to honour the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves – at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there remains a long way to go. …

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration. In later years, however, after his retirement, he gained the public honour and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general community. While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame.

His book Vietnam – The Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed. Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast crimes in this case. The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day, its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead. Among the general public by the war’s end, 70 per cent regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral” a remarkable figure, considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion.

Even more influential in the long run than Howard’s anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation. Here he developed with care, lucidity and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it. Later, his “Voices” from the People’s History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard’s unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of US history, and turning to the record in other countries as well, a very welcome development. It is not entirely novel – there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before – but nothing to compare with Howard’s broad and incisive evocation of “history from below”, compensating for critical omissions in how US history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss – though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country. Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight; a light touch of humour in the face of adversity, and dedication to non-violence and sheer decency. It is hard even to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

One Response

  1. Thank you for posting. A reminder about remarkable people whose names, for whatever reasons are omitted from history books…I need to review The People’s History of the US. I wonder about the People’s History of the World…too enormous to imagine…

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