Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left

A Man of Hope
by Vijay Prashad

Howard Zinn on Freedom Day in Selma, AL, October 7, 1963
Freedom Day in Selma, AL, October 7, 1963
Photo courtesy of the Estate of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left
By Martin Duberman

2012, New Press,
400 pages, $26.95

Howard Zinn (1922–2010) lived through and participated in two of the most important social movements of the 20th century: the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Born into poverty, Zinn was thrown into radicalism by his reading and his surroundings. The Communist Party emerged in the 1930s as a major force in New York City, and it was through its cultural world that Zinn came to appreciate the political addresses to the left of liberalism. In 1939, he went to a demonstration against fascist Spain, saw the mounted police beat the protesters (including himself), and decided, “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, something rotten at the root.” Teaching at Spelman College (1956–1963) came as Atlanta, Georgia, emerged as one of the focal points of the Civil Rights movement. Zinn threw himself into the movement, notably as one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Moving to Boston University (1964–1988), Zinn became a fixture in the anti-Vietnam War scene and on the national stage as a result of those Boston connections (it was to Zinn that Daniel Ellsberg would surrender his Pentagon Papers, and it was with Noam Chomsky that Zinn would form his closest intellectual link).

Martin Duberman’s biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left divides Zinn’s life into two: the early years of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and then, after 1980, the years of A People’s History of the United States. The first phase has Zinn directly involved in organizational matters, helping build up SNCC and the antiwar movement, at the frontlines of the sit-ins in Georgia and at the frontlines of the mass demonstrations in Boston. Zinn’s days were taken up with meetings and with protests, with conversations to build confidence and public speeches to lay out a vision, and of course with writing. It was in these years that the most vibrant work came out of his pen, including the two summary texts, one for each of these movements: SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964) and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967). The SNCC book was based on interviews Zinn had done in the trenches of the struggles, meeting young organizers and radicals who had emerged to break down U.S. apartheid with their own bodies. They were not deterred by Jim Crow’s defenders in the provincial police stations or by the FBI agents’ studied reticence to act. Zinn captured their bravery and their intelligence, writing one of the most electric accounts of the southern wing of the Civil Rights movement. The Vietnam book was more forensic, spurred on, as Duberman points out, by President Johnson’s fabulous statements about the aggression from North Vietnam. No such thing, wrote Zinn, who showed that it was indeed the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam that egged on the North to act rather than the other way around. None of the material in the book should have come as a surprise to the Pentagon. Indeed, Zinn based his analysis on public information. It was the Pentagon’s mendacity and its conclusions that he countered.


Both SNCC and Vietnam put Zinn ahead of the curve of white radicals. Little that was in SNCC would have surprised the young black activists who drove that organization, and little in Vietnam would have surprised either the War Resisters League (WRL) or SNCC. In July 1964, WRL called for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam, a few months after SNCC’s Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer had declared their solidarity with the Vietnamese, pointing out that the United States treated people of color in Vietnam or in the Deep South in much the same way. It is noteworthy that SNCC denounced the draft a full year before Students for a Democratic Society. As Duberman notes, “SNCC was far ahead of the general population in criticizing American policy in Southeast Asia, pointing to the hypocrisy of sending troops to ‘fight for democracy’ abroad while refusing to send marshals to secure black voting rights in the Deep South.” Zinn’s views of civil rights and the Vietnam war were honed in his close interactions with SNCC, and of course his own experience of war as a bombardier in World War II.

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Zinn, then only 53, found himself adrift. His “unchanging focus” in his writings, Duberman notes, meant that Zinn had “little left to add by way of commentary that was fresh.” Zinn’s framework had been set by the categories of class and race, and the new social movements did not immediately make sense to him. Feminism and gay rights — identity politics — did not earn his disfavor, but he could not grasp their significance. There is considerable material in Duberman’s account to show that Zinn’s personal life (his relationship with his wife, in particular) had been shaped by his era and that the critique of social relations in the family (one of the parts of second-wave feminism) had little impact on the Zinn household. If Zinn had taken in hand the vibrancy of these new movements, he might have been less disposed to despondency as Reaganism unfolded. Conservatism seemed to be on the ascendency, but the critiques of family and social relations laid on the dining table of American homes would earn dividends in the decades to come. It was unfathomable that feminism and gay rights would not shift the intolerable suffocation of American life and challenge the bedrock assumptions not only of conservatism but also of liberalism. This is not to say that either feminism or gay rights are inherently progressive, but that the critique of the bourgeois family would certainly enable a richer understanding of social life—one that would perhaps nudge aside the overwhelmingly private character of leisure and home and revive ideas of community and belonging.

Searching for a project, Zinn chanced upon something that had first bothered him when he got to graduate school. Why was the story of workers’ struggle erased from U.S. history books? His master’s thesis was on the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. He would now recall that seam, and on his Royal manual typewriter, he banged out 600 pages in six months, tearing through U.S. history from the arrival of Columbus to Reagan. It was a remarkable feat, and despite all its limitations remains a tour de force. “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages....,” begins the book. The language is crisp and racy. It leads you through a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress of Radicalism, with the Colonialists and Capitalists on one side, and the Workers and Slaves on the other. This is a morality play, a great revival of the lost world of radicalism. Denied to its youth, these stories are drawn out by Zinn — whose purpose is less to answer any great questions than to simply put on notice the fact that it was working people who built this country, it was native people who lost their land, and it was working people and social minorities who fought for its democracy. The limitations of the United States are the result of those in power, and yet, because of the ceaselessness of struggle, the human nature of struggle, the fights will continue until, he writes in the last sentence of the book, “our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world.”

People’s History revived Zinn. It was the perfect tonic for the world of Reaganism. A mass audience emerged, and Zinn became a reliable speaker to point out deceit and to encourage struggle. Nothing daunted him. He was optimistic to a fault. After 9/11, Zinn came out strongly against the War on Terror, and against the mechanisms of endless war that it implied. From his perch at The Progressive, Zinn punctured the hypocrisy of the war-makers and suggested always that there were alternatives that had been deliberately sidelined. When he was 87, Zinn was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He answered, as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.”

Castles for the Laborers and Ballgames on the Radio
For Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

We stood together at the top of his icy steps, without a word for once,
squinting at the hill below and the tumble we were about to take,
heads bumping on every step till our bodies rolled into the street.
He was older than the bread lines of the Great Depression. Before the War
he labored at the Brooklyn navy Yard, even organized apprentices, but now
there was ice. i outweighed him by a hundred pounds; when my feet began
to skid, i would land on him and hear the crunch of his surgically repaired spine.
The books i held for him would fly away like doves disobeying an amateur magician.

Let’s go back in the house, i said.
Show me the baseball Sandy Koufax signed to you: “from one lefty to another.”
Instead, he picked up a blue plastic bucket of sand,
the kind of pail good for building castles at Coney island, tossed a fist of sand
down onto the sun-frozen concrete and took the first step, delicately. Again
and again, he would throw a handful of sand in the air like bread for pigeons,
then probe with the tip of his shoe for the sandy place on the next step:
sand, then step; sand, then step. every time he took a step i took a step,
an apprentice shadow studying the movements of his teacher the body.
This is how i came to dance a soft-shoe in size fourteen boots, grinding
my toes into the gritty spots he left behind on the ice. i was there:

I saw him turn the tundra into the beach with a wave of his hand,
Coney island of castles for the laborers and ballgames on the radio,
showing the way across the ice and down the hill into the street,
where he spoke to me the last words of the last lesson: You drive.

— Martín Espada

Originally published in and commissioned by the Progressive.

Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World bore the imprimatur of Zinn’s series and contained a foreword by him. His most recent books are Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012) and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New Press, 2012).