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The radical legacy of Howard Zinn

An interview with Anthony Arnove

In late September, the White House held a “conference” on American history at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. As part of the event, President Trump gave a speech in which he explicitly criticized the radical historian Howard Zinn, blaming him (and others) for “left-wing rioting and mayhem,” including the toppling of statues of slave owners and racists in numerous cities. Phil Gasper spoke to Anthony Arnove to put this latest attack on Zinn into context. Arnove is the editor of several books, including Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which he co-edited with Howard Zinn. He also wrote the introduction for the new 35th anniversary edition of Zinn’s classic book A People’s History of the United States.

Phil Gasper: Howard Zinn died over ten years ago, but in a major speech in September, Trump launched a broadside against him, essentially accusing him (along with the New York Times’ 1619 Project and proponents of critical race theory) of corrupting the youth. What’s behind this attack?

Anthony Arnove: In a way, I am surprised we haven’t seen Trump attack Zinn before.

The right’s campaign against A People’s History of the United States has a long legacy. In 2010, as just one example, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who is now the president of Purdue University, tried to eliminate the teaching of A People’s History of the United States in Indiana’s schools.

In an email exchange with top Indiana education officials, Daniels wrote with glee, shortly after Howard’s death in 2010, “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.” After he described A People’s History of the United States as a “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page,” he asked, “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?’’

Interestingly, that attack backfired, just as Trump’s has. In both cases, the reaction of many librarians, teachers, and readers has been to buy more copies of the book, and bring it into wider public consciousness. We have also seen an outpouring of statements of people—including Reverend William J. Barber II, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Dave Zirin, among many others—talking about the importance of engaging with Howard’s work.

[In addition to Trump’s attack] you’ve seen various authors attempt to write “patriotic histories” that aim to “debunk” Howard. And this is not just from the right fringes that Trump has brought into the mainstream. Liberals such as Jill Lepore—the author of This America: The Case for the Nation and These Truths: A History of the United States—have consciously worked to sideline Howard. You can find attacks on Zinn in the New Republic, Dissent, and even, quite recently, In These Times.

I am sure Howard would have taken it as a badge of honor, though, to be attacked by Trump. This is a good example of the old Billy Bragg line: “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.” I think he’d also be pleased to be connected in this latest attack to the important anti-racist work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, critical race theory, and the 1619 Project. Anti-racism was fundamental to Howard’s life and politics.

He would have understood that what Trump and his utterly venal allies really fear is not just education that encourages critical thinking about history, but the massive multiracial movement openly challenging the systematic, institutional racism that is foundational to US capitalism and the mythology of American exceptionalism that props up their corrupt rule.

Phil Gasper: I think you’re right that Trump’s attack will increase the sales of A People’s History. But Trump is all about political polarization—do you think this will also energize his base? Or are these attacks on books and academic currents that offer alternatives to the way in which history has long been taught in the U.S. too esoteric to have much effect? Will teachers, academics, librarians who use or promote this material get more heat from right-wing politicians and pressure groups? Can the attacks largely be laughed off, or do they need a more serious response?

Anthony Arnove: We should not laugh off the right’s attacks. We need to take them very seriously.

We have seen Trump’s base activated into violent acts by some of the most marginal and outlandish of his conspiracy theories, scapegoating, and not even thinly veiled calls for violence. High school teachers, university professors, and journalists have been targeted by racists making violent threats against them and their families.

The attacks are energizing Trump’s base, and go hand in hand with the paranoid rhetoric about cities run by anarchists, whites as the true victims of racism, police under siege from protestors, and children being brainwashed by teachers seeking to destroy “the American way of life.”

It’s not just [from] Trump. It’s William Barr, Mike Pompeo, Stephen Miller, Tom Cotton, Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, all Trump’s proxies. They are very actively encouraging a toxic mix of polarization, vigilantism, and white nationalism to win this election and lay the basis for their agenda well beyond it.

Phil Gasper:The 1619 Project on the history of American slavery and its continuing legacy raises some interesting questions. It’s hosted by the New York Times, one of the mainstays of liberal capitalist propaganda in this country. What do you think Howard would have made of this apparent contradiction? Does it tell us anything interesting about divisions within our ruling class?

Anthony Arnove: I think Howard would have welcomed the 1619 Project and seen its publication by the New York Times as a sign of people of color fighting for internal change at the paper (as has been happening at newsrooms around the country) and, more broadly, the Times feeling the impact of changes in society that mean the whitewashed liberal narrative of U.S. history is no longer tenable.

It is a reflection of the hard work of historians, teachers, and social movements, especially those challenging racism, and is connected to the remarkable toppling of racist monuments, Confederate flags coming down, and a number of institutions being forced into a reckoning with their racist pasts — and how their institutional racism continues today.

That said, I think Howard would have pointed out that the United States was founded on both slavery and genocide and that we need to tell the story of 1492 and 1619 together. I think he would have had concerns about the marginalization of indigenous perspectives and settler colonialism in how the main 1619 articles framed US history.

Phil Gasper:Trump’s attack misrepresented the work of critical historians like Zinn as “propaganda.” But it seems to me that Howard wanted to encourage people, especially students, to think for themselves—to question the historical narratives that are presented as beyond question in schools and history textbooks. Trump and the right want to ban alternative perspectives and turn students into true believers of national myths. By contrast, Zinn wanted students to challenge his version of history as well—to hold it up against the historical evidence and to evaluate it for themselves. He was confident that his views would hold up very well against the evidence, but he also wanted to develop students as critical thinkers. Does that capture Howard’s approach to education?

Anthony Arnove: Definitely. Marx once responded to a popular questionnaire of his day. When asked “Your motto,” he wrote, “De omnibus dubitandum,” doubt everything. I think that’s absolutely in keeping with how Howard viewed his teaching and writing.

The right, which only understands history as propaganda, and believes so thoroughly what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the propaganda of history,” cannot acknowledge this.

This is far from a new conversation. In the afterword to A People’s History of the United States, Howard wrote:

There is a certain drumbeat of scolding one hears these days, about the need for students to learn facts. “Our young people are not being taught facts,” said presidential candidate Robert Dole (and candidates are always so scrupulous about facts) to a gathering of American Legionnaires. I was reminded of the character in Dickens’ Hard Times, the pedant Gradgrind, who admonished a younger teacher: “Teach nothing but facts, facts, facts.”

But there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world—by a teacher, a writer, any-one—is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts, omitted, are not important.

There were themes of profound importance to me which I found missing in the orthodox histories that dominated American culture. The consequence of those omissions has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past but, more important, to mislead us all about the present.

He added, “What we learn about the past does not give us absolute truth about the present, but it may cause us to look deeper than the glib statements made by political leaders.”

That’s the last thing the right wants.

Phil Gasper:Let’s turn this around for a moment. What do you think Howard Zinn would have made of Donald Trump? Howard was always a master of using history to shed light on contemporary developments. Are there historical events or figures that he might have referred us to in order to make sense of the Trump phenomenon?

Anthony Arnove: That’s an interesting question. There’s a tendency among liberals to see Trump’s actions as unprecedented, a departure from democratic norms, and so on. This is a common refrain in the New York Times and especially on MSNBC.

Given the president is a mendacious and corrupt clown, a malignant narcissist, and a genuine sociopath, it’s easy to understand that line of thinking.

But the problem is, it’s based on a distorted view of how democratic and wonderful things were before, and it fails to understand the conditions that made Trump possible in the first place. Naomi Klein has written very perceptively about this in her book No Is Not Enough.

We do see discontinuity with Trump. I think Sam Farber was onto something important when he called Trump a “lumpen capitalist.” There’s a distinctive inflection to Trumpism that comes from the fact Trump is a grifter, a troll, a conspiracy theorist, a racist of the crudest sort, and is surrounded by other grifters.

That’s become especially clear in the criminal way he has mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of lives, perhaps  more than a hundred thousand.

But I think Howard would have also had very important things to say about the continuity, as well, with all the other political leaders in US history who displayed, in his words, “a reckless disregard for human lives in pursuit of something called ‘national interest.’”

Suddenly, all earlier presidents seem like brilliant humanitarians and statesmen when placed beside Trump, no matter their records. George W. Bush is now made out to be some sort of hero.

All the criticisms we made of Obama’s drone program and targeted assassinations, his deportations, his ties to Silicon Valley billionaires, were hard enough to communicate when he was president, but now, with four years of Trump, it’s much harder.

I think Howard would also be asking deeper questions—not about personalities, presidents, and corrupt individuals, but about the undemocratic institutions that brought Trump to power, such as the Electoral College, and enable him to cause so much harm to so many, about the unchecked power of the executive (expanded under Obama), about the profound inequality of our society, clearly so linked to the rise of Trumpism, about the violence and racism that were foundational to the country’s history, and which still profoundly shape its politics.

I think he’d also be saying that we have to look to history to understand how people have come together in social movements, here and internationally, to fight against injustice, oppression, and greed; to bring down tyrants, and to bring about sweeping changes that seemed impossible to even some of those most dedicated to achieving them.

As Angela Davis reminds us, freedom is a constant struggle. And we are lucky that we have Howard’s writings, speeches, and his example to help us as we do the critical work ahead.

Phil Gasper:Apart from A People’s History of the United States, what else by Howard Zinn do you recommend people read? And what resources are available for teachers who may want to use his books and be ready not just for questions from students, but to respond to potential right-wing attacks as well?

Anthony Arnove: To start, Howard Zinn Speaks and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. The new edition of his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is terrific, and features an excellent foreword by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Howard’s book SNCC: The New Abolitionists is a great read, and for folks who want to dig deeper into Howard’s civil rights organizing, Robert Cohen’s book Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary is also first-rate.

I recommend teachers check out the excellent free resources on the websites of the Zinn Education Project and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Teachers might also want to check out the documentary I worked on with Howard, The People Speak. In terms of responding to potential attacks from the right, I’d suggest checking out the forthcoming Haymarket Books title Black Lives Matter at School, edited by Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian. And then to understand the right today, The New Authoritarians by David Renton.

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Phil Gasper View All

Phil Gasper is a member of the Tempest Collective, a long-time activist, the editor and annotator of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Second Edition, Haymarket, 2024), and the editor of Imperialism and War: Classic Writings by V.I. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin (Haymarket, 2017). He is on the editorial board of New Politics.