Remembering Howard Zinn, 1922–2010

HOWARD ZINN, an activist and author for half a century and probably the best-known voice of the U.S. left, died January 27 at the age of 87. Here we publish two reminiscences by ANTHONY ARNOVE and DAVE ZIRIN. Following those, we reprint an article written by Howard about the American revolutionary, ­Eugene Debs, that first appeared in the Progressive and is the afterword to Alan Maass’s The Case for Socialism.

Sharing in a common struggle


FILMING OUR documentary The People Speak in Boston, one afternoon, Howard said that the camaraderie between our cast members, the sense of collective purpose and joy, was a feeling he hadn’t experienced with such intensity since his active participation in the civil rights movement.

Since Howard’s passing, I have thought often of that moment, which crystallizes for me what made him so compelling an example of someone committed to, and enjoying to its fullest, a life of struggle.

Howard jumped into the civil rights struggle as an active participant, not just as a commentator or observer. He decided that the point of studying history was not to write papers and attend seminars, but to make history, to help inform struggles to change the world.

He was fired from Spelman College as a result, and only narrowly escaped losing his next job at Boston University for his role in opposing the ­Vietnam War and in supporting workers on the campus.

When there was a moment of respite after the end of the Vietnam War, Howard did not turn back to academic studies, or turn inward, as so many other 1960s activists had done, but began writing plays, understanding the importance of cultural expression to political understanding and change. He also began writing A People’s History of the United States, which came out in 1980, right as the tide was turning against the radical social movements he had helped to organize.

A People’s History would provide a countercurrent that developed and grew, as teachers, activists, and the next generation developed new movements, new political efforts. And Howard was there to fight with them.

Throughout, he reminded us of the history of social change in this country, and kept coming back to the essential lessons that it seems we so often forget or need to learn anew. That change comes from below. That progress comes only with struggle. That we cannot rely on elected officials or leaders. That we have to rely on our collective self-activity, social movements, protest. That change never happens in a straight line, but always has ups and downs, twists and turns. That there are no guarantees in history.

But Howard added a distinctive element to these arguments by embodying the understanding that the process of struggle, the shared experience of being part of work alongside and for others, is the most rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful life one can live. The sense of solidarity he had with people in struggle, the sense of joy he had in life, was infectious.

The stereotypical image our culture presents of the left, especially the radical left, is that it is humorless, it lacks culture, it’s based on self-denial and conformity. Howard shattered this convenient caricature.

Howard’s talks were like a Lenny Bruce monologue, with punch lines that delivered keen social observations. His play Marx in Soho manages to simultaneously reclaim Marxism from its bourgeois critics and its Stalinist distorters, while bringing down the house with physical comedy that evokes Sid Caesar and Zero Mostel.

He returned repeatedly to discussions of the importance of music, theater, film, literature, and the arts to political change. When he spoke of his turning points politically, Howard would often evoke Woody Guthrie, Charles Dickens, Dalton Trumbo, Alice Walker (his former student), and Marge Piercy.

He enjoyed mussels, Italian food, wine, the company of friends, vacations. And especially he loved time with his family, Roz, his life partner, his two children, and five grandchildren.

We should avoid hagiography, though. Howard was not a saint. None of us are. It’s important to remember that whatever revolution we make, it has to be made with people as they are, with all the contradictions that come with living under capitalism. There is no other way for it to happen. But in the course of trying to change the world, with others, we change ourselves, and new possibilities emerge.

It is a problem that the left in the United States and in much of the world today relies so heavily on a few charismatic leaders, who often are elevated above or set apart from the movements of which they are a part. The reasons are many. Some people cultivate or contribute to this dynamic, of course, but Howard was not one of them.

There are from time to time, people who can crystallize the aims or goals of a movement in an especially compelling way. Who can rally greater numbers of people to take a particular action or, in the case of Howard, make a lifelong commitment to activism. But such people cannot substitute for a movement. Eugene Debs, who understood this problem well, put it this way once: “I am no Moses to lead you out of the wilderness…because if I could lead you out, someone else could lead you in again.”

That was the spirit of Howard: think for yourself, act for yourself, challenge and question authority. But do it with others. As he writes in Marx in Soho, “If you are going to break the law, do it with two thousand people…and Mozart.”

A historian who made history


HOWARD ZINN, my hero, teacher, and friend, died of a heart attack on January 27, at the age of 87. With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, Black, white, and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic.

“What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!” he would say with a mischievous grin. After this casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into laughter and applause.

Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic. When he spoke against poverty, it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during the Second World War, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism, it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement, and was arrested sitting in with his students.

And of course, when he spoke about history, it was from the perspective of having written A People’s History of the United States, a book that has sold more than 2 million copies and changed the lives of countless people.

Count me among them. When I was seventeen and picked up a dog-eared copy of Zinn’s book, I thought history was about learning that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn’t tell you what the Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard took this history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous head.

In Howard’s book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the labor radicals, the masses, and the misfits. It was history writ by Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share: to actually make history instead of being history’s victim. His book came alive in December with the debut of The People Speak on the History Channel, as actors, musicians and poets brought Zinn’s book to life.

Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully:

Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist—the rich, the poor—whether there is dissent or not. But when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

Words like this made Howard my hero. I never thought we would also become friends. But through our mutual cohort, Anthony Arnove, Howard read my sports writing, and then gave his blessing to a book project we called A People’s History of Sports in the United States.

We also did a series of meetings together, where I would interview Howard on stage. Even at 87, he still had his sharp wit, strong voice, and matinee-idol white hair. But his body had become frail. Despite this physical weakness, Howard would stay and sign hundreds of books until his hand would shake with the effort.

At our event in Madison, Wisconsin, Howard issued a challenge to the audience. He said, “Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush, everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama’s doing, and act as engaged and vigorous citizens.”

He also had no fear to express his political convictions loudly and proudly. I asked him about the prospects today for radical politics, and he said:

Let’s talk about socialism…I think it’s very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country…

Socialism basically said, hey, let’s have a kinder, gentler society. Let’s share things. Let’s have an economic system that produces things not because they’re profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism, because you have to go beyond capitalism.

Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It’s a beautiful legacy, and however much it hurts to lose him, we should strive to build on Howard’s work and go out and make some history.

Eugene V. Debs and the idea of socialism


WE ARE always in need of radicals who are also lovable, and so we would do well to remember Eugene Victor Debs. Ninety years ago, at the time the Progressive was born, Debs was nationally famous as leader of the Socialist Party, and the poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote of him:

As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Judgment Seat.

Debs was what every socialist or anarchist or radical should be: fierce in his convictions, kind and compassionate in his personal relations. Sam Moore, a fellow inmate of the Atlanta penitentiary, where Debs was imprisoned for opposing the First World War, remembered how he felt as Debs was about to be released on Christmas Day, 1921:

As miserable as I was, I would defy fate with all its cruelty as long as Debs held my hand, and I was the most miserably happiest man on Earth when I knew he was going home Christmas.

Debs had won the hearts of his fellow prisoners in Atlanta. He had fought for them in a hundred ways and refused any special privileges for himself. On the day of his release, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cellblock to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say goodbye to Eugene Debs. As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.

This was not his first prison experience. In 1894, not yet a socialist but an organizer for the American Railway Union, he had led a nationwide boycott of the railroads in support of the striking workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company. They tied up the railroad system, burned hundreds of railway cars, and were met with the full force of the capitalist state: Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer, got a court injunction to prohibit blocking trains. President Grover Cleveland called out the army, which used bayonets and rifle fire on a crowd of 5,000 strike sympathizers in Chicago. Seven hundred were arrested. Thirteen were shot to death.

Debs was jailed for violating an injunction prohibiting him from doing or saying anything to carry on the strike. In court, he denied he was a socialist, but during his six months in prison he read socialist literature, and the events of the strike took on a deeper meaning. He wrote later:

I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict. In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.

From then on, Debs devoted his life to the cause of working people and the dream of a socialist society. He stood on the platform with Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood in 1905 at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He was a magnificent speaker, his long body leaning forward from the podium, his arm raised dramatically. Thousands came to hear him talk all over the country.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 and the buildup of war fever against Germany, some socialists succumbed to the talk of “preparedness,” but Debs was adamantly opposed. When President Wilson and Congress brought the nation into the war in 1917, speech was no longer free. The Espionage Act made it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in the armed forces.

Soon, close to 1,000 people were in prison for protesting the war. The producer of a movie called The Spirit of ’76, about the American Revolution, was sentenced to ten years in prison for promoting anti-British feeling at a time when England and the United States were allies. The case was officially labeled The U.S. v. The Spirit of ’76.

Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, in support of the men and women in jail for opposing the war. He told his listeners:

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.

He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison by a judge who denounced those “who would strike the sword from the hand of the nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power.”

In court, Debs refused to call any witnesses, declaring: “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone.” Before sentencing, Debs spoke to judge and jury, uttering perhaps his most famous words. I was in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, recently, among 200 people gathered to honor his memory, and we began the evening by reciting those words—words that moved me deeply when I first read them and move me deeply still:

While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

The “liberal” Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict on the ground that Debs’ speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. When the war as over, the “liberal” Woodrow Wilson turned down his attorney general’s recommendation that Debs be released, even though he was sixty-five and in poor health. Debs was in prison for thirty-two months. Finally, in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day.

Today, when capitalism, “the free market,” and “private enterprise” are being hailed as triumphant in the world, it is a good time to remember Debs and to rekindle the idea of socialism.

To see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a sign of the failure of socialism is to mistake the monstrous tyranny created by Stalin for the vision of an egalitarian and democratic society that has inspired enormous numbers of people all over the world. Indeed, the removal of the Soviet Union as the false surrogate for the idea of socialism creates a great opportunity. We can now reintroduce genuine socialism to a world feeling the sickness of capitalism—its nationalist hatreds, its perpetual warfare, riches for a small number of people in a small number of countries, and hunger, homelessness, insecurity for everyone else.

Here in the United States, we should recall that enthusiasm for socialism—production for use instead of profit, economic and social equality, solidarity with our brothers and sisters all over the world—was at its height before the Soviet Union came into being.

In the era of Debs, the first seventeen years of the twentieth century—until war created an opportunity to crush the movement—millions of Americans declared their adherence to the principles of socialism. Those were years of bitter labor struggles, the great walkouts of women garment workers in New York, the victorious multi-ethnic strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the unbelievable courage of coal miners in Colorado, defying the power and wealth of the Rockefellers. The IWW was born—revolutionary, militant, demanding “one big union” for everyone, skilled and unskilled, Black and white, men and women, native-born and foreign-born.

More than a million people read Appeal to Reason and other socialist newspapers. In proportion to population, it would be as if today more than 3 million Americans read a socialist press. The party had 100,000 members, and 1,200 office-holders in 340 municipalities. Socialism was especially strong in the Southwest, among tenant farmers, railroad workers, coal miners, lumberjacks. Oklahoma had 12,000 dues-paying members in 1914 and more than a hundred socialists in local offices. It was the home of the fiery Kate Richards O’Hare. Jailed for opposing the war, she once hurled a book through the skylight to bring fresh air into the foul-smelling jail block, bringing cheers from her fellow inmates.

The point of recalling all this is to remind us of the powerful appeal of the socialist idea to people alienated from the political system and aware of the growing stark disparities in income and wealth—as so many Americans are today. The word itself—“socialism”—may still carry the distortions of recent experience in bad places usurping the name. But anyone who goes around the country, or reads carefully the public opinion surveys over the past decade, can see that huge numbers of Americans agree on what should be the fundamental elements of a decent society: guaranteed food, housing, medical care for everyone; bread and butter as better guarantees of “national security” than guns and bombs; democratic control of corporate power; equal rights for all races, genders, and sexual orientations; a recognition of the rights of immigrants as the unrecognized counterparts of our parents and grandparents; the rejection of war and violence as solutions for tyranny and injustice.

There are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas that are both bold and inviting—the more bold, the more inviting. That’s what remembering Debs and the socialist idea can do for us.

Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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