Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010) was a Communist who is most famous for his book A People's History of the United States. Initially only being known by people who read the Socialist magazine The Nation, the book, due largely to a hat tip from Matt Damon's character Will Hunting in the film Good Will Hunting, has sold over a million copies and gives a far-left interpretation of political history (see historical revisionism). Zinn's work manifests an inability or unwillingness to engage in objective analysis, and lacks contextual considerations, and instead his presentation of history is a polemic for liberal change. Zinn was very popular with liberal elites, and his book was made into a propagandistic film, The People Speak, which the History Channel carried on cable television.
Historian and author John Fea of Messiah College states that,
|“||Zinn writes well and is quite inspiring, but his book is bad history. In fact, I would not even call it history. A People's History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda...Zinn's book violates virtually every rule of good historical thinking.||”|
Michael Kazin, Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University states that
A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable", whose failure to adequately explain why most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic "is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship."
Janie B. Cheaney of World Magazine notes,
From the beginning, critics have pointed out the lack of context, sourcing and footnoting, and objectivity in Zinn's work. The author countered that his aim was not objective history, but prescriptive history—not studying the past as a means of understanding the past, but of changing the future.
When changing the future, one can't start too young. The Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Teaching A People's History" maintains a website of educational resources for getting Zinn's ideas into elementary and even preschool classrooms. A Young People's History of the United States is already available; next up is the comic-book version. The story always begins with friendly Indians paddling blithely into the clutches of European imperialists.
According to Zinn,
Objectivity is impossible and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”
A People's History of the United States does not incorporate the newer theories of history, but provides an energetic heavy-handed attack on conservatives, business, and white men. His book is stuck in 1950, methodologically, and does not appreciate the scholarship of the last 4 decades in the "new" intellectual, political, economic, diplomatic, military, cultural or social history. His "newest" ideas are that the white male "working class"—as well as blacks, Indians, and women—are victims of capitalism, a stock notion of 1930s socialist philosophy regarding workers.
Standford professor Sam Wineburg is critical of Zinn's research, citing many examples in Zinn's "A People's History..." that (as reviewer David Plotnikoff states) show he "perpetrates the same errors of historical practice as the tomes it aimed to correct," that "Zinn's desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions."
Daniel J. Flynn is likewise critical of the work of Zinn, charging him with biased history, citing, among other things, that,
Through Zinn’s looking-glass, Maoist China, site of history’s bloodiest state-sponsored killings, becomes “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” The authoritarian Nicaraguan Sandinistas were “welcomed” by their own people, while the opposition Contras, who backed the candidate that triumphed when free elections were finally held, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.” Castro’s Cuba, readers learn, “had no bloody record of suppression.”
Meanwhile, Zinn portrays the American Revolution as creating "the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.”
However, consistent with the decontextualized analysis Zinn often uses to indict America to be a villainous murderer of women and children, he himself could be considered such as he served in the United States Air Corps during World War II on a bomber crew.
Michael Kazin, professor at Georgetown University and co-editor of the (mainly liberal) magazine "Dissent," is also critical of Zinn, stating (among other things) that "A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable.."
Zinn is included in David Horowitz's book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics In America.
Zinn's motivation for his radical point-of-view presentation of history appears to have formally begun with an event at an early age. When he the age of 17 he attended a Times Square political rally where was knocked senseless by police. As a result, Zinn stated that, "I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of democracy. I was a radical, believing something was fundamentally wrong with this country."
Communist Party activity
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Cliff Kincaid, Editor of Accuracy in Media, on July 30, 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a 423-page file on Howard Zinn.The FBI file reveals that while Zinn denied being a member of the CPUSA, several reliable informants in the party identified Zinn as a member who attended party meetings as many as five times a week.
The FBI first opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn in 1949, which revealed Zinn's activities in what were called Communist Front Groups, and received reports from informants that Zinn was an active member of the CPUSA, with one stating that he was "believed to be a CP member as of October, 1956." In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI's civil rights investigations. A 1964 FBI memorandum refers to Zinn as "a professor and writer who has a background of known membership in the Communist Party (CP) and has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies." It also reveals that while Zinn had denied membership in the CPUSA, his denial "was not supported by facts" - a reference to the substantial evidence and eyewitness testimony provided by informants in the CPUSA. Further investigation was made when Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan as an anti-war activist. The investigation ended in 1974, and no further investigation into Zinn or his activities was made by the FBI.
Ron Radosh, himself a former CPUSA member, also confirmed that Howard Zinn was a member of the CPUSA, and also left the party like himself, although what differed was their motives: Radosh realized that the Communist Party was antithetical to the American way, while Zinn left because "it [the CPUSA] wasn't revolutionary enough."
- Howard Zinn: Communist liar
- Howard Zinn vs. David Barton
- Michael Kazin, "Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States", History News Network, 3-30-04
- The wilderness of Zinn World Magazine, February 27, 2010
- Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 646
- Samuel Wineburg, "Undue Certainty"
- Zinn's influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert
- Howard Zinn's Biased History
- Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States
- Howard Zinn, "The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy," p. 158
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Howard Zinn
- Cliff Kincaid, Leftist "Historian" Howard Zinn Lied About Red Ties Friday, 30 July 2010