Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States

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The US Constitution, ratified in 1788, begins ‘We the People’, but Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ attempts to prove that America as a nation never has been about the people and never will be unless the middle classes are awoken from their slumber to rebel.

Zinn is a self-proclaimed Socialist and these sympathies, as well as his enthusiastic Marxist approach to history, shine bright in this broad but simultaneously targeted history. By taking a distinctly bottom-up approach, Zinn arguably demonstrates how numerous groups, whether that be Amerindians, African Americans, women or anyone not white and upper class, have been failed by the American system. According to Zinn, America’s history is not so much one of freedom and prosperity as systemic and conscious oppression; after all, as Zinn himself writes: ‘the American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history’.

Fundamentally, there is much evidence to corroborate his claims. Amerindians have regularly been hounded off their ancient and sacred lands despite legally binding contracts; African Americans have of course endured the terrible scourge of slavery and have subsequently faced institutionalised racism; women have been confined to a domestic role described by Zinn as a ‘family prison’; the working classes have frequently not been duly compensated for their oftentimes dangerous work, especially during, although not limited to, the Gilded Age.

Even if there is little doubting the overarching injustices described by Zinn in his book, his constant reduction of issues to class conflict and an inherently rotten governmental system can sometimes feel tenuous. A reader can be confident that most chapters will conclude with some sort of reference to class conflict. For instance, in Zinn’s chapter ‘War is the Health of the State’, discussing World War One’s impact in America, he concludes ‘the class war was still on in that supposedly classless society’. Sure, economic disparity and America’s oligarchical structure, repeatedly enunciated through poignant economic statistics, did cause unrest but so did non-economic forces, such as the Spanish Flu, but these are underemphasised.

Yet Zinn does not pretend to be offering a balanced history; he repeatedly and quite refreshingly rejects the notion of objectivity, accepting his history, as all histories will be to an extent, as partisan. Therefore, given Zinn’s radical political views, it is not surprising that he vilifies the ‘Establishment’ as consciously subjugating the masses, going as for to argue that ‘Madison feared a ‘majority faction’ and hoped the new Constitution… would ensure ‘domestic tranquillity”. Zinn suggests that the Establishment has two primary means of control: elections and patriotism. Whilst elections can be used to channel discontent into a democratic system – Zinn expresses this far more sinisterly – patriotism unites Americans round a common goal or enemy, which Zinn often identifies to be unnecessary wars, such as Vietnam or Iraq, stating ‘the supreme act of patriotism is war’.

Undeniably, these two phenomena do help to create a sense of cohesion in American society; however, I am doubtful as to whether they are exploited by conniving and power-hungry societal elites quite to the extent that Zinn implies. Following discussing the absorption of the Populist Party in the Democrat party, Zinn argues how ‘it was a time, as election times have often been in the United States, to consolidate the system after years of protest and rebellion’. Certainly, big business have tried to maintain their privileged societal position through lobbying government, but, even so, it is difficult to believe that there is some illuminati-esque circle at the top of society consciously coercing the 99% to partake in a rigged system. There must have been some Presidents, take Washington, Lincoln or the elder Roosevelt for example, who wanted to improve the lives of the majority rather than consolidate their own positions – or am I being too naive?

Zinn would certainly think so. Repeatedly, at numerous points throughout the history, Zinn dissects figures, including, although not limited to, Presidents, celebrated in American history. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are disregarded as slave-owners, Wendell Philips’ description of Lincoln as ‘that slave hound from Illinois’ is often cited whilst Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as a closet conservative in the vein of Tony Blair. Even if they did take some progressive action, this was merely to appease a marginally wider proportion of society whilst leaving the majority impoverished to maintain ‘domestic tranquillity’. Some of Zinn’s criticisms are reasonable but others are simply laughable, particularly his endorsement of James Weinstein’s argument that Progressivism was a ‘conscious and successful effort to guide and control the economic and social policies of federal, state, and municipal governments by various business groupings in their own long-range interests’. Whilst Progressivism did stabilise the economy by injecting some semblance of regulation into the Wild West of the American market, to argue that it did this solely for big business is tenuous, especially when big business was often the biggest critic of progressive governments; after all, JP Morgan was the first to storm into the White House to confront Roosevelt following him dissolving Northern Securities.

Largely due to Zinn’s controversial arguments and deconstruction of traditional American history, it is unsurprising that many have found him an offensive figure with former Indiana Governor, Mitch Daniels, celebrating Zinn’s death by writing ‘this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away’. However, despite many of his arguments being deeply unconvincing and there also being some notable omissions in his history (including how the US political system developed following the Revolution and early American foreign policy), Zinn writes what should be considered an important revisionist companion to a more traditionalist history. As significant as the plentiful successes and achievements in America’s history are, it is also necessary to acknowledge that the ‘American Dream’ is nothing more than a dream to many and also that the US has been far from exceptional in its handling of numerous people groups and situations.

Rating: 4/5