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Lessons from Howard Zinn

The late historian and activist was a compelling example of someone committed to, and enjoying to its fullest, a life of struggle.
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Howard Zinn, portrait by Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly painted Howard Zinn as part of his series, Americans Who Tell the Truth.

Filming our documentary, The People Speak, in Boston one afternoon, Howard Zinn said that the camaraderie between our cast members, the sense of collective purpose and joy, was a feeling he hadn’t experienced with such intensity since his active participation in the civil rights movement.

Since Howard’s passing, I have thought often of that moment, which crystallizes for me what made him so compelling an example of someone committed to, and enjoying to its fullest, a life of struggle.

Howard jumped into the civil rights struggle as an active participant, not just as a commentator or observer. He decided that the point of studying history was not to write papers and attend seminars, but to make history, to help inform struggles to change the world.

He was fired from Spelman College as a result, and only narrowly escaped losing his next job at Boston University for his role in opposing the Vietnam War and in supporting workers on the campus.

When there was a moment of respite after the end of the Vietnam War, Howard did not turn back to academic studies, or turn inward, as so many other 1960s activists had done, but began writing plays, understanding the importance of cultural expression to political understanding and change. He also began writing A People’s History of the United States, which came out in 1980, right as the tide was turning against the radical social movements he had helped to organize.

A People’s History would provide a countercurrent that developed and grew, as teachers, activists, and the next generation of social movements developed new political efforts, new movements. And Howard was there to fight with them.

Howard embodied the understanding that the process of struggle, the shared experience of being part of work alongside and for others, is the most rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful life one can live.

Throughout, he reminded us of the history of social change in this country, and kept coming back to the essential lessons that it seems we so often forget or need to learn anew. That change comes from below. That progress comes only with struggle. That we cannot rely on elected officials or leaders. That we have to rely on our collective self-activity, social movements, protest. That change never happens in a straight line, but always has ups and downs, twists and turns. That there are no guarantees in history.

But Howard added a distinctive element to these arguments by embodying the understanding that the process of struggle, the shared experience of being part of work alongside and for others, is the most rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful life one can live. The sense of solidarity he had with people in struggle, the sense of joy he had in life, was infectious.

The stereotypical image our corporate media presents of the Left, especially the radical Left, is that it is humorless, it lacks culture, it’s based on self-denial and conformity. Howard shattered this convenient caricature.

Howard’s talks were like a Lenny Bruce monologue, with punch-lines that delivered keen social observations. His play Marx in Soho manages to simultaneously reclaim Marxism from its bourgeois critics and its Stalinist distorters, while bringing down the house with physical comedy that evokes Sid Caesar and Zero Mostel.

He returned repeatedly to discussions of the importance of music, theater, film, literature, and the arts to political change. When he spoke of his turning points politically, Howard would often evoke Woody Guthrie, Charles Dickens, Dalton Trumbo, Alice Walker (his former student), and Marge Piercy.

He enjoyed oysters, Italian food, wine, the company of friends, vacations. And especially he loved time with his family, Roz, his life partner, his two children, and five grandchildren.

We should avoid hagiography, though. Howard was not a saint. None of us are. It’s important to remember that whatever revolution we make, it has to be made with people as they are, with all the contradictions that come with living under capitalism. There is no other way for it to happen. But in the course of trying to change the world, with others, we change ourselves, and new possibilities emerge.

It is a problem that the Left in the United States and in much of the world today relies so heavily on a few charismatic leaders, who often are elevated above or set apart from the movements of which they are a part. The reasons are many. Some people cultivate or contribute to this dynamic, of course, but Howard was not one of them.

There are, from time to time, people who can crystallize the aims or goals of a movement in an especially compelling way. Who can rally greater numbers of people to take a particular action or, in the case of Howard, make a lifelong commitment to activism. But such people cannot substitute for a movement. Eugene Debs, who understood this problem well, put it this way, once: “I am no Moses to lead you out of the wilderness … because if I could lead you out, someone else could lead you in again.”

That was the spirit of Howard: think for yourself, act for yourself, challenge and question authority. But do it with others. As he writes in Marx in Soho, “If you are going to break the law, do it with two thousand people … and Mozart.”


Anthony ArnoveAnthony Arnove is co-director of the documentary The People Speak, just released on DVD, and co-editor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People's History of the United States, a collection of first-hand accounts from those involved in the historical movements Zinn discusses in A People's History of the United States.

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