Howard Zinn: A People’s Historian


“Before there was Michael Moore, there was Howard Zinn.” – Boston Herald

From a haze of second-hand nostalgia, most current junior faculty view Howard Zinn as a relic from a bygone era when institutional support was assumed and faculty governance determined educational missions; when academic jobs were considered givens and the need for expertise was considered an asset in imagining brighter futures. The strength of Zinn’s convictions and actions seem to speak as much to an older gestalt that viewed education as a meaningful endeavor, rather than a vocational plan, as it does to his own personal integrity.

All of this changed during the ’70s, when US colleges and universities spun into economic free-fall. Leading the charge in creating a 21st century disposable workforce, the academy has increased its reliance upon part-time labor by 177 percent from 1976-2003. Currently, only 30 percent of faculty is either tenured or on the tenure-track. The futures of the rest hang in the balance of scant state resources, the whims of private donors, and administrative hubris — all of which metastasizes into a culture of resentful yet subservient gratitude for the budgetary tripe that has fallen from the power brokers’ table to create yet another poverty-level, adjunct line.

Any whiff of self-respect and collective organization summons harsh reprisals as the striking, Yale graduate students of 1995-96 quickly learned when a majority of “liberal” faculty crossed picket-lines and argued for their wholesale firing, exposing the university as far from the leftwing sanctuary that pop-conservatives would have us believe.

Jeff Lustig has best summarized the deleterious effects of contingent labor in the recent edition of the NEA Higher Education Journal, Thought and Action: “The primary reason for swelling the ranks of contingent faculty . . . has not been to save money but to undermine faculty power by nullifying the internal face of academic freedom. Once 50 percent of the faculty are off the tenure-track and another quarter are awaiting tenure, the protections of tenure, due process, and shared governance have been effectively eliminated for three-quarters of the campus.” (Vol. 22, Fall 2006)

It is during moments such as these that documentaries like Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train are needed to prod intellectuals into exercising their individual and collective power if they ever hope to improve the current state of higher education and re-establish their relevancy in interpreting and shaping wider cultural and historical events, which is not to say that these have ever been easy or welcomed tasks, as is exemplified by the trajectory of Zinn’s professional life.

Even before finishing his dissertation, Zinn’s academic career seemed to hit an abrupt halt. Hired by Spelman College as the chair of history, Zinn assisted the undergraduate social science club in protesting against segregation. As students became radicalized, they awakened to their college’s oppressive, patronizing structures. They demanded that the administration acknowledge them as participants of history, not as its fodder. Zinn offered his full support, further motivating students like Alice Walker who felt that “he really captured the essence of the revolutionary spirit embodied in a professor of history.” Tired of Zinn’s insubordination, Spelman quickly and quietly fired him during summer recess. Miraculously, Zinn ended up on his feet as an assistant professor at Boston University. Yet he placed his career in jeopardy once again by speaking against the Vietnam War before the trustees who were to rule on his tenure the very same day. Against all odds, he received it.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train serves as an important reminder to anyone within academia (or plans to have a career within it) that professional advancement and the goals of education do not always converge, and that the Faustian bargain for academic longevity is all-too-often the sacrifice of the very ideals that attracted one to the profession in the first place. Yet, at the same time, the documentary reveals how, during the trembling moments when playing dice with one’s career for the sake of a greater cause, one might not end up going broke, but actually prevail against the cold logic of comfort and opportunism.

One wishes, however, that the documentary better situated Zinn’s formation as a progressive historian within the international cauldron of radical pedagogy and liberation movements that boiled throughout the ’60s. In Britain Raymond Williams’ and Richard Hoggart’s involvement in the Workers’ Education Association set the stage for the institutionalization of cultural studies within the University of Birmingham in 1964.

Half a world away in Brazil, Paulo Freire declared in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in their struggle for their redemption.” Although Zinn never directly identified with these movements, his intellectual development was forged by their momentum.

Long before the appearance of A People’s History of the United States in ’80 came The Wretched of the Earth. Without acknowledging these international influences upon Zinn in particular and radical history in general, the film teeters towards hagiography, championing Zinn as the great white pathfinder of populist history and progressive campus politics, despite his self-effacing manner that unsuccessfully attempts to derail this rugged individualist interpretation.

Furthermore, an international perspective would have better allowed for one to observe how Zinn’s distinctly American background forced him to adopt a populist rhetoric rather than a more explicitly Marxist one, since radical politics has long since been denounced and purged from official US history.

Zinn explains throughout the documentary how popular culture, not history books, provided him with an entryway to working-class histories and labor movements. As a child, Zinn was introduced to Dickens who made him aware that the poverty he experienced first-hand was a worldwide, trans-historical phenomenon. Additionally, Dickens legitimated Zinn’s desire to write his own working-class histories. Much later while in graduate school, Zinn was introduced to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 not by any of his professors, but through a Woody Guthrie song.

Scoured from the annals of official history, popular culture served as the political unconscious of a discarded time. And it seems only fitting that Zinn’s work, which has been ignored by most academic historians, received its greatest visibility within the film Goodwill Hunting when Matt Damon’s character exclaims, “You wanna read a real history book? Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; that book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass.”

The ghosts of McCarthy and the Red Scare still lurk large, causing most US labor historians to transmogrify their Marxist beliefs into a more palatable populist rhetoric. Yet underlying the genteel title of A People’s History of the United States rumbles a more radical endeavor, which is most directly addressed in Zinn’s lesser known work The Politics of History (1970). Within it, Zinn assaults the assumptions of academic historiography with his own politically-inflected version. He rejects the entire notion of “disinterested” scholarship that supports a status-quo bias towards history as distant and immutable, as if history was nothing more than a fully recoverable artifact rather than incomplete fragments always molded together by present interests.

Instead, Zinn asserts that “our values should determine the questions we ask in scholarly inquiry, but not the answers.” He primarily sees history as a catalyst to a more progressive future. As he writes, “We can recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far . . . One must always show that something else is possible, that changes take place. Otherwise, people retreat into privacy, cynicism, despair, or even collaboration with the mighty.” All these dictums sprout from the intellectual seed found in Marx’s most famous thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the word, in various ways; the point, however, it to change it.”

Perhaps most relevant about You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is the way it ends with establishing the importance of Zinn’s notion of radical history in critiquing a post-9/11 world where history and socio-political interpretation have withered to frenzied, Manichean husks of good and evil, right and wrong — a village idiot’s self-assured interpretation of the world. Zinn reminds us, “You need the most sharp and honest discussion of what is going on because lives are at stake. War is a matter of life and death. That’s when you need to make sure you’re doing the right thing in national policy. If at that moment because of war your free speech is hampered, if you’re put in fear of speaking out, then democracy has been severely crippled. That’s what’s happening today.”

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is a good primer for those unfamiliar with Zinn and radical history. But it can only give an inkling of the power and rhetorical force found in Zinn’s writing — even with its quotes, sound-bites, and the three speeches found in the DVD extras. Its main purpose is as a starting point for the uninitiated, for the dispossessed of history, for those orphaned by the American Dream; namely, most of us. It reveals to us that one must glean through the detritus of official history in order to locate the paths to better tomorrows, or as Zinn more elegantly states, “Our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

RATING 6 / 10