Howard Zinn’s History Lessons

Michael Kazin in Dissent, on A People’s History of the United States: “Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such 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?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, ’99 percent’ of Americans share a ‘commonality’ that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is ‘exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent.’

History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat ‘potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.’ His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by ‘an aura of moral crusade’ against slavery that ‘worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.”

… From the 1960s onward, scholars, most of whom lean leftward, have patiently and empathetically illuminated such topics-and explained how progressive movements succeeded as well as why they fell short of their goals. But Zinn cares only about winners and losers in a class conflict most Americans didn’t even know they were fighting.”