- Category: History
- Created on Sunday, 03 January 2010 13:51
- Written by Michael Kazin
"Zinn's big book is quite unworthy of... fame and influence. A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?"
A discussion has emerged here on Kasama over Howard Zinn's book A Peoples History of the United States-- a very popular, even beloved debunking of standard myths about the U.S.(first published in 1980).
No one questions Zinn's lifetime of commitment and courage -- from his early days in SNCC to his tireless opposition to U.S. wars. But there is a separate question of summing up his history-as-history (and his politics-as-politics) -- as part of deepening our own theoretical understanding of how to understand the world.
Sometimes the criticisms focus on the radicalism of the work. Left historian Eric Foner wrote in an early review "A People's History reflects a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience," in a way that Foner found fragmented and tendentious.
The following is one of the critiques made of Zinn's methodology. Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, himself a veteran of SDS and 60s activism, characterizes A Peoples History as simplistic -- populated by elite villains and oppressed people, without understanding the more complex motives of the times.
"The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob 'the people' of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them."
This article appeared in Dissent magazine in 2004 and generated quite a bit of controversy -- with Kazin sometimes accused of anti-communism and liberalism. Posting the piece here is not an endorsement of its conclusions by Kasama, but an attempt make this controversy available to our readers.
Howard Zinn's History Lessons
By Michael Kazin
Every work of history, according to Howard Zinn, is a political document. He titled his thick survey "A People's History" (A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present [NY: Perennial Classics, 2003]) so that no potential reader would wonder about his own point of view:
"With all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance."
That judgment, Zinn proudly announces, sets his book apart from nearly every other account of their past that most Americans are likely to read.
"The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."