An Interview with Historian Howard Zinn

It's been said that historian Howard Zinn has created a new version of American history. It would be more accurate to say that he's created a real version. In a New York Times book review of Zinn's A People's History of the United States 1492-Present, Eric Foner described Zinn's view of history as bearing "the same relation to traditional texts as a photographic negative does to a print: the areas of dark and light have been reversed."Zinn views history through the eyes of the oppressed. Those areas so blatantly skipped over by most historians -- blacks, Indians, women, labor movements and immigrants -- are the main focus of Professor Zinn's work. An outspoken critic of the way in which history is traditionally recorded, he notes that by leaving out or downplaying the history of oppressed groups we send the message that those groups are of little importance and that their plight should have little, if any, impact on the way we live our lives. Zinn grew up in New York and received his doctorate degree from Columbia University. He then taught for seven years at Spellman College - a black women's college in Atlanta -- before going on to teach at Boston University for 24 years. He doesn't know how many books he's written, but it's at least 13. I guess we can't expect a historian to remember all the details. In an interview last week, I asked Zinn to compare the events of today to the time period between 1880 and 1914. Every so often history has a way of repeating itself. When it happens, historians often become the best predictors of the future. With this in mind, I specifically asked him to compare the political parties, the struggles of the poor and the violence of the two periods, in particular the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the Haymarket Square bombing of 1885.Zinn is reluctant to look into his crystal ball, saying that there are a lot of variables that can and will dictate how the future unfolds. Nevertheless, the good-natured historian acquiesced. During the course of the interview, Zinn offered his opinion on a wealth of subjects: the viability of third parties, a resurgent labor movement, the threat of a new American fascism, government oppression and the potential for a class war.My transcribed notes read like a missing chapter from one of his 13 books. Knowing a good thing when I see it, I present the interview in a format that is all Zinn. The following text is made up entirely of the professor's quotes.What we're seeing now is recognized as the growing polarization of wealth in the country with just 1 percent owning over 40 percent of the wealth, with the middle class shrinking and becoming part of the working class and the working class shrinking as the people lose their jobs and become part of the homeless poor.All of this in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era of less and less government regulation is an attempted return to the free enterprise system; that is, a system in which the government does not do anything to help people in need. When we go back to the 1880s and 1890s, what we see is a kind of unbridled capitalism. The country goes though a great industrial growth, but the poor and working class people do not share in that growth and do not share in the profits that come from that growth.The middle class at that time was really the farming class. They were the people in the 1880s and 1890s that were being squeezed more and more as the urban middle class is today. They found themselves losing their farms and losing their livestock and being propelled into being tenant farmers or being forced into the cities to look for work. So what you have in both eras is sort of capitalism at its worst. And capitalism at its worst means the impoverishment of both the middle class and the poor until the distinction between the middle class and the poor becomes less and less. Then the control of the country by the financial interests and by the politicians of both parties goes unchallenged. It's interesting that what you saw in the 1880s and '90s was mergers. Carnegie Steel and Bethlehem Steel merged into U.S. Steel. There were monopolies in all of the industries like the railroads. Now, that's what we are seeing in the country today. We see it almost everyday in the headlines: another giant merger taking place. So, there are many interesting parallels in all of these developments which have possible consequences today similar to those which occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.What happened at that time in the face of the attacks on the middle class, in the face of the attacks on labor -- like the government sending troops to break up the railroad strikes of 1877, the Pullman strike of 1894, the government using the courts against strikers again and again -- is in reaction to what the corporations, the railroads and the banks were doing to the farmers and the working class. It ultimately gave rise to the Populist movement, one of the great mass movements of American history. At the beginning of the 20th century you have the growth of the Socialist Party, the rise of more and more labor struggles and the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World radical labor union. You had some of the most bitter and violent labor struggles in American history. MORE POPULISM?And so the question, today, is whether what is happening is going to bring about a populist movement, a progressive movement, a radical movement in reaction.Another parallel between the two eras is the similarities of the two parties. In the 1880s -- in fact, you might say starting in 1877 -- when the Democrats and Republicans came to an agreement about what to do with blacks in the South -- that is to put them back by ending radical reconstruction in the South - you had a succession of presidents, Democratic and Republican, who resembled one another. Grover Cleveland was the kind of Democrat that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been; that is, a Democrat that really played a very cozy game with the big corporations of his time. As I said, the parallels are very great and the question remains: Will the intensity of the attacks on the poor and the middle class today lead to a new social movement in the country and perhaps new radical political parties?All sorts of things can happen in the future depending upon what people do. We could sink further and further into this sort of quagmire of crime, drugs, alienation and the increasing pauperization of people at the bottom and the increasing insecurity of the middle class without a corresponding movement of protest. Or we could be seeing the beginnings of a revitalized labor movement and the beginnings of a third party movement. I think we are now closer to large numbers of people thinking about a third party than we have been at any time in this century because the closeness of the Republican and Democratic parties has never been more evident than in these first few years of the Clinton administration. I think the possibility of a third party is here today. It would have to be a rainbow coalition in which black people and Hispanic people and Asian Americans and immigrants, who are among the most attacked members of the population, come together.TWO BOMBINGSOn May 4, 1885, a labor protest took place in Chicago's Haymarket Square. Over 3,000 people turned out. Late in the evening, 180 policemen showed up and ordered the workers to disperse. Someone threw a bomb into the crowd of police, killing seven and wounding 59 others. As a result, eight labor organizers were arrested even though only one of them had been present at Haymarket Square. Four of the leaders were later hanged even though there was some question as to which side had thrown the deadly bomb.It has never been clarified who threw the bomb in Haymarket Square, and I don't know if it will ever be clarified, not just who actually set off the bomb in Oklahoma City, but who is behind the setting off of the bomb in Oklahoma City. But it certainly is clear in both cases that the government used the event -- regardless of whether they were involved in the initiation of the event -- as a way to denounce opposition to the existing order as terrorist and anarchist.But of course it's a great irony that the government which engages in violence on a mass scale when it goes to war should point a finger with horror at violence done by dissident groups within the United States, and that they should use those as an excuse for further oppression themselves. It is an interesting parallel, even though with Haymarket Square the oppression was against the left. But the Oklahoma City bombing is the occasion for a very broad government action, not simply against the left or right, but for instance, against all immigrants. The so called anti-terrorism act enables the government to deport people who have legally come into this country who have been apprehended for one crime or another. It has nothing to do with terrorism.BIG GOVERNMENTThis sort of passion to denounce government seems to range all across the spectrum. It takes various forms, mild forms and violent forms. It even takes the form of the political leaders of our country -- the Republican leaders and the Democratic leaders -- both vying with one another to say that, as Clinton said in his recent speech, "The era of big government is over."Big government has become a kind of symbol that everyone can use in any way they want to advance their own agenda. But I think it is very important for a progressive movement to really make distinctions, clear distinctions, about the role of government; what it has been, what it could be. For instance, what I consider most dangerous today is the notion that both major parties are following, and that is that the government should stand by and play a smaller and smaller part in the economy and thereby really let the corporations do what they want.It seems to me it's important for a progressive movement to point out that this big government, which they identify as giving food stamps and welfare payments and Social Security payments, is really something that only came into existence in the 20th century. And, for most of our history, big government has aided the corporations.In fact, the big government started with the founding of the nation itself. The whole idea of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to set up a big government, that is a strong central government. The whole purpose of establishing a strong central government was to help the bond holders, the slave holders, the merchants and manufacturers. Throughout our history, the business interests have needed a strong government to do what they needed done: to create high tariff barriers to help manufacturers, in the case of the slave owners, to help them catch runaway slaves, in the case of bond holders to make sure their bonds were secure. A common thread running through from the founding fathers to today has been the security of bond holders and subsidies for corporations which started way back.So I think it's very important to tackle this issue of big government and to point out that government can play all sorts of roles. It can play very class-conscious roles on behalf of the rich -- which it has throughout most of history -- or it can, as it has done sometimes in this century, play a role on behalf of people who need help. If those distinctions are not made, then we're in a great danger of creating a kind of anti-government movement that can sweep away whatever help has come to poor people as a result of the social legislation of the past 30 years. FEAR OR COMPASSIONWhile it's true that it's helpful to getting social legislation past when you have an administration that's a little more sensitive to the needs of the poor people, and a little more sensitive to protest movements, it's not necessarily enough. For instance, it was probably better to have Roosevelt in office than Hoover in 1933. But, on the other hand, Roosevelt would not have done what he did with an array of sweeping legislation -- Social Security, subsidized housing - if there hadn't have been a great movement of protest in the country.If the country had not been swept by tenants' movements, unemployed movements, a new resurgent labor movement, sit-down strikes and general strikes, reform would not have happened. There is very specific evidence which historians, some historians, have pointed to that the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) really came into being only because the country was going through a wave of very militant strikes, and something had to be done to calm the situation down and give labor a more peaceful avenue to get recognition.So what you might say was done, was to try to do on the economic front what had already been done on the political front; that is to assuage protest by giving people a vote, in this case a union vote. I think in the '60s Lyndon Johnson's programs of Medicare, food stamps and Medicaid came into being, no question, because of the movements of the '60s. And certainly if you look at the civil rights legislation that passed in the mid-1960s, the evidence is clear that the civil rights act and the voting rights act did not come into being simply because of kindly and liberal presidents who wanted that kind of legislation. John Kennedy was not planning more civil rights legislation. He was not planning to do anything drastic about racial segregation in the South. Nor was Lyndon Johnson and the Congress prepared for a voting rights act. But the enormous demonstrations by black people in the South all through the early 1960s, culminating with the great Birmingham demonstration of 1963, finally produced the legislation that gave blacks the right to vote in the South.I think that is the pattern throughout American history; that where we have had reforms, reforms have come - and as I say, I don't want to completely obliterate the role of a president who is more sensitive than another president -- as a result of protest. I think it's fair to say that if we had depended simply on the normal processes of government, we would not have had the advances in social legislation that we have had. It is a formula for rebellion. I think historically it's well-authenticated that it takes rebellion to move what is otherwise a very sluggish system; a system that normally operates on behalf of the rich and powerful. And it takes rebellion to force that system to moderate its ways, to make concessions and ease the pain of the working classes. In the 1930s there was a real threat that the nation would be convulsed in civil war if something wasn't done.FEAR OF FASCISMThe problem is, in a situation like today where there is enormous alienation and potential for rebellion, it can go in a number of different directions. That alienation and that anger can be seized by demagogues of the right, and this is what happened in the fascist countries like Italy and Germany.It could lead to a kind of American fascism or it can lead to a new social movement which would try to institute economic democracy as well as political democracy.Pat Buchanan was an example of exactly how right wing demagogy works. After all, Hitler's party was the National Socialists Party. A lot of people forget that the word Nazi is an abbreviation of that. And Mussolini had himself been a socialist at one time.There is a great attempt on the part of these fascist movements to organize the working class on the basis of its grievances. They've often succeeded by organizing the working class around more militarism, anti-Semitism; all that decent social movements would reject. To use racism, nativism, anti-immigrant feeling, anti-black feeling is a quick way of arousing people. But I wouldn't make too much out of the ability of the right to make a national movement out of its ideology. I think the great advantage of the right is its economic power. The great advantage of Pat Buchanan and the Christian right has been its wealth and its reach into media. And in this country, the orthodox media is always ready to give more time and space attention to the right than it is to the left.When we have what is considered orthodox radio and television presenting panels that are supposed to represent a spectrum, you find that the spectrum only runs from right to center. When I look at the McNeill/Lehrer Report, that's what I see.POWER OF THE VOTEThe role of government is to benefit the well-off. Small farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, the whole underclass are the people who don't vote, and political parties are very conscious of that. That's why it's so easy to pass the immigrant legislation. Immigrants don't vote. And that's why it's not hard to get Congress and the president to approve legislation that really hits the very poor, because they're not worried about those people entering the political process and voting against them. I think the main reason the poor don't vote is that they rarely see the possibility of victory. They have been so beaten down by the political system for such a long time that there is a very great cynicism about how the political system operates. Even if you talk about the possibility of new candidates, different kinds of candidates, a new party, a different kind of party, the cynicism that has developed because of the major parties' inability to do anything for them leads them to believe that politics in general is pointless. And they believe that anybody who could end up in office is going to be corrupt however he starts off with promises made.It's very hard, when you have a long history of government that has not come through for the people, to get them to believe that they can now turn the government around. So it's hard to get people to believe again, yet it will have to be done if there is going to be political reform. I have no doubt that it is easier to motivate people to violence than it is to motivate them to vote. If people become desperate enough and angry enough, they will take it out in various ways. The violence may be totally chaotic and disorganized and unfocused. Historically, riots are not organized. They are simply expressions of people's anger. You might say it's an easier way to vent your wrath than to go to the polls. The challenge of a movement is to take the alienation and the anger that exists and to organize it and educate it and persuade people that their anger can be focused in such a way as to change things. We've had enough historic experience with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war movement, the disabled people's movement to make a case that, yes, it is possible to change things. But it will be a very difficult thing.


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