Hear 21 Hours of Lectures & Talks by Howard Zinn, Author of the Bestselling A People’s History of the United States

Reg­u­lar­ly in these pres­sure cook­er days we hear plau­si­ble argu­ments from lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives about how demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions have recent­ly failed us, and how unique­ly polar­ized we have become as a peo­ple. We also hear often high­ly implau­si­ble claims about how cur­rent con­tenders intend to restore some kind of jus­tice or fair­ness. Read­ers of Howard Zinn’s A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States will have a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, one in which sup­pos­ed­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions were nev­er designed to work for the major­i­ty of the country’s inhab­i­tants. And in which, by design, cer­tain minori­ties have always remained at the bot­tom of the hier­ar­chy.

“There is not a coun­try in world his­to­ry,” writes Zinn in his famous rad­i­cal his­to­ry, “in which racism has been more impor­tant, for so long a time, as the Unit­ed States.” Far from a flawed yet excep­tion­al form of gov­ern­ment, the U.S.  sys­tem, Zinn argued, began as a means by which the founders seized the pre­rog­a­tives of the British for them­selves, with no inten­tion of expand­ing these lib­er­ties wide­ly. On the con­trary. As Zinn puts it in a chap­ter called “Tyran­ny is Tyran­ny”:

Around 1776, cer­tain impor­tant peo­ple in the Eng­lish colonies made a dis­cov­ery that would prove enor­mous­ly use­ful for the next two hun­dred years. They found that by cre­at­ing a nation, a sym­bol, a legal uni­ty called the Unit­ed States, they could take over land, prof­its, and polit­i­cal pow­er from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a num­ber of poten­tial rebel­lions and cre­ate a con­sen­sus of pop­u­lar sup­port for the rule of a new, priv­i­leged lead­er­ship.

The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion swapped out one rule by elites for anoth­er, in oth­er words, and one empire for anoth­er. Or as Zinn wrote in his mem­oir, there is “some­thing rot­ten at the root.” Those who object to Zinn’s work may find flaws in his schol­ar­ly method­ol­o­gy. Accu­sa­tions of bias, however—even couched in polite pejo­ra­tives like “polem­i­cal” and “revisionist”—are pret­ty much moot. Zinn, who died in 2010, would agree. The neces­si­ty of tak­ing a posi­tion, after all, was inte­gral to the his­to­ri­an and activist’s entire ethos, such that he titled his auto­bi­og­ra­phy You Can’t Be Neu­tral on a Mov­ing Train. “The state and its police were not neu­tral ref­er­ees in a soci­ety of con­tend­ing inter­ests,” wrote Zinn, “They were on the side of the rich and pow­er­ful.” He always made it plain whose side he took, an approach by nature con­tro­ver­sial.

Was he a lib­er­al par­ti­san? Hard­ly. After tak­ing a beat­ing by police at a protest, Zinn writes, “I was no longer a lib­er­al, a believ­er in the self-cor­rect­ing char­ac­ter of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy. I was a rad­i­cal, believ­ing that some­thing fun­da­men­tal was wrong in this coun­try.” A Com­mu­nist? “Marx,” wrote Zinn, “was often wrong, often dog­mat­ic… too insis­tent that the indus­tri­al work­ing class must be the agent of rev­o­lu­tion.” Zinn admired Marx. He wrote a play about him, Marx in Soho, and describes in the for­ward how his ear­ly read­ing of Marx, while grow­ing up in work­ing-class Brook­lyn, great­ly influ­enced his view of the world.

But after “grow­ing evi­dence of the hor­rors of Stal­in­ism” and his expe­ri­ence with the grass­roots “par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy” of the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC), Zinn became drawn to anar­chism. Decid­ed­ly left­ist and fun­da­men­tal­ly egal­i­tar­i­an, Zinn’s analy­sis has proven broad enough to war­rant admi­ra­tion from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal per­sua­sions: from mod­ern lib­er­als to Marx­ists to lib­er­tar­i­an com­mu­nists to free mar­ket lib­er­tar­i­ans like Rea­son’s Thad­deus Rus­sell, who pro­nounced him “no bet­ter exem­plar of that thor­ough­go­ing, anti-sta­tist left.”

Like anoth­er famous anar­chist intel­lec­tu­al of the rad­i­cal cam­pus left, Noam Chom­sky, Zinn first came to nation­al promi­nence in the 60s while orga­niz­ing protests against the Viet­nam War—and like Chom­sky, he debat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive stan­dard-bear­er William F. Buck­ley. Zinn pre­vi­ous­ly protest­ed seg­re­ga­tion with SNCC while he taught at Spel­man Col­lege, writ­ing an influ­en­tial his­to­ry of the orga­ni­za­tion. His tire­less activism con­tin­ued until the very end of his life, and he deliv­ered notable speech­es and lec­tures through­out his involve­ment in the civ­il rights, anti-war, envi­ron­men­tal, and eco­nom­ic jus­tice move­ments.

In the Spo­ti­fy playlist above, you can hear 22 of those talks for a total of 21 hours of Zinn, includ­ing that his­toric Buck­ley debate, which you can also hear in full at the top of the post. (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.) After their Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty meet­ing, notes Ed Welchel, Zinn reflect­ed, “I found it curi­ous that Buck­ley did not seem to under­stand that unspar­ing crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ment is an essen­tial ele­ment of a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety.”

The playlist of Zinn lec­tures and talks will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Illus­trat­ed Video: Howard Zinn’s “What the Class­room Didn’t Teach Me About the Amer­i­can Empire”

Adorn Your Gar­den with Howard the Zinn Monk

Noam Chom­sky vs. William F. Buck­ley, 1969

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • ahem says:

    Why would you sug­gest “Amer­i­can His­to­ry” lessons as taught by a Stal­in­ist? Zinn is a Com­mu­nist who nev­er repu­di­at­ed Stal­in after Stal­in slaugh­tered mil­lions of his coun­try­men in the Great Ter­ror. His is a per­vert­ed view of Amer­i­ca and is poi­son­ing our young peo­ples’ minds.

  • Bob says:

    I call bull­shit to a lot of your his­tor­i­cal premis­es! 🤢 🤕 🤮

  • Bob says:

    I call bull­shit to a lot of your his­tor­i­cal premis­es! 🤢 🤕 🤮

    Com­mu­nism is the dev­ils rule on earth!

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