Howard Zinn was the Worst the Left has to offer

Howard Zinn passed at the beginning of this year, and I will admit part of me was saddened at his passing. My mother owned his People’s History of the United States, and my fellow students at college seemed to adore his work. My best friend is a Zinn fanatic, bringing him up nearly every time politics comes up.

Now that months have passed since he died, the second-hand positive notions are gone and the real nature of Zinn’s career can be assessed. Reason wrote an appropriate article following his passing, concluding that Zinn was “a master of agitprop, not history.”

The absolute worst of Zinn came on his deplorable misinformation regarding the totalitarian state in Cuba and the rise of political Islam, both of which placed Zinn on the wrong side of history. That Zinn’s nonsense is regularly repeated by fairly intelligent people is sad phenomenon, indeed. From Reason:

Just how poor is Zinn’s history? After hearing of his death, I opened one of his books to a random page (Failure to Quit, p. 118) and was informed that there was “no evidence” that Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya was behind the 1986 bombing of La Belle Discotheque in Berlin. Whatever one thinks of the Reagan administration’s response, it is flat wrong, bordering on dishonest, to argue that the plot wasn’t masterminded in Tripoli. Nor is it correct to write that the American government, which funded the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s, “train[ed] Osama bin Laden,” a myth conclusively debunked by Washington Post correspondent Steve Coll in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Ghost Wars.

Of Cuba, the reader of A People’s History is told that upon taking power, “Castro moved to set up a nationwide system of education, of housing, of land distribution to landless peasants.” Castro’s vast network of gulags and the spasm of “revolutionary justice” that sent thousands to prison or the executioners wall is left unmentioned. This is unsurprising, I suppose, when one considers that Zinn recently told an interviewer “you have to admire Cuba for being undaunted by this colossus of the North and holding fast to its ideals and to Socialism….Cuba is one of those places in the world where we can see hope for the future. With its very meager resources Cuba gives free health care and free education to everybody. Cuba supports culture, supports dance and music and theatre.”

Zinn’s movement leftism never gained nuance, even on his deathbed. His very last interview was with Playboy, in which he talked about America’s economy:

PLAYBOY: So what can the average American do?

ZINN: Not much alone, individually. The only time citizens can do anything is if they organize, if they create a movement, if they act collectively, if they join their strengths. The trade union movement, of course, is an example of that. The trade union movement is weak, and the trade union movement needs to become stronger. Citizens need to organize in such a way that they can present the members of Congress with demands and say, “We are going to vote for you if you listen to us,” or “We’re not going to vote for you if you don’t listen to us.” In other words, people have to organize to create a citizens movement. We have to think about the 1930s as a model; people organized in the face of economic crisis—organized into tenants’ movements and unemployment councils and of course they organized a new trade union movement, the CIO. So we need people to organize. Of course, this is not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. Because it’s not easy the tendency is to throw up your hands and not do anything, but we have to start at some point, and the starting point is people getting together with other people and creating organizations. For instance, people can get together to stop evictions. Neighbors can get together. This is something that can be done at a local level. This was done in the 1930s when neighbors got together to stop the evictions of people who weren’t able to pay their rent and the 1930s were full of such incidents. Tenants’ councils had been formed and when people were evicted from their tenements, their neighbors gathered and put their furniture back in the house.

That sort of nonsense about collective action being the only means of change is just that: nonsense. George Orwell alienated many of his friends on the left, who he made in his criticism of colonialism and fascism, by taking on Stalinism in Animal Farm and 1984. Malcolm X was murdered by his former friends at the Nation of Islam when he revealed the hypocrisy of its leader, Elijah Mohammed, and renounced extremism in favor of racial reconciliation. Oskar Schindler saved 1200 Jews by employing within his own factories. The list goes on, as does the list of those who were manipulated due to their unwavering allegiance to a collective of any kind. Fresh-behind-the-ears college students who take Zinn’s words to be the truth run the risk of becoming exactly what Zinn was: a tool of propaganda.

  • Controlphreak

    Actually I would not be so dead-certain either about either an open-and-shut case on Khadafi’s role in the nightclub bombing, or that the CIA did not train Bin Laden and that Bin Laden was not a CIA asset in the 1980s.

    On Cuba, of course it was an insane dictatorship in many respects, but if you were to place yourself in Cuba in the Cold War era, you would have to consider two important factors: the CIA and the KGB. Both agencies were in a frenzy to impose their will on that small country and not only that, we tried countless times to assassinate Castro and also invade the country. Few poor nations can withstand that without going batshit.

    On Cuba’s culture, it is real, and in many ways realer than most of the United States.

  • Michael O. Powell

    The worst aspects of Cuba are not its outward actions, but it’s actions on its own people. There is no freedom to do things we find basic in the west, such as access this very website.

    As for Bin Laden, this is patently ridiculous. If Bin Laden ever benefitted from funding by the US, it was most likely indirect, as he did not even become significant in Islamist circles until the late 80s. It’s a simplification made to make all enemies of the US look like victims and all American actions look like those of the devil incarnate.

  • Controlphreak

    Well I had forgotten to agree with you about Zinn in general, especially regarding his statements on trade unions. Also, however, a more general agreement too, as I had read some of what he had to say regarding the Constitution in college textbooks I read. At the core he was definitely a naive Marxist at best, much lower than even Chomsky.

    On Laden/CIA I’ve read much about his CIA asset involvement in the 1980s and I know you will probably always think that is horsecrap. That’s fine.

    One last thing, I do not categorize all actions of our foreign policy as “American actions.” These actions are taken by American foreign policymakers and are excluded from both the population of the U.S. as well as from even the knowledge of the vast majority of its lawmakers. However in the end, our paying taxes to fund the military complex that trains our future enemies and murders women and children does in a sense make us complicit.