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.