BOOK REVIEW/Donald Gutierrez

Zinn Reader: Disobedience and Democracy

Howard Zinn, who died Jan. 27, was one of America’s great activist historians. His famous A People’s History of the United States highlighted “people” because it told the story of the millions of individuals whose experience and worth seldom gets mentioned in traditional history books — the enslaved black people, the unheralded Chinese and Irish people who built the railroads, the people who worked the mines until Black-Lung disease or mine collapses killed them, the ethnically-cleansed Native American peoples, the women and children and people of color brutalized by a nation ruled by white men of property.

Now we have The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, a 700-plus-page supplement to Zinn’s numerous books that accentuates his status as a superb iconoclastic historian. Reader offers a broad and varied collection of his work — essays, articles, lectures, speeches — from the 1960s nearly up to the present. The book, which was updated in a second edition in 2009, is organized under such topics as Race, Class, War, Law, History and Means and Ends that orient the collection around many of Zinn’s chief concerns. Each piece has a useful short introduction explaining the circumstances under which it was published.

One of these introductions vividly illustrates the character of Zinn’s mind: “I wrote this piece, which would not have found publication in the press, to argue against the principle of retaliation. I am always furious at the killing of innocent people for some political cause, but I wanted to broaden the definition of terrorism to include governments, which are guilty of terrorism far more often, and on an infinitely larger scale, than a band of revolutionaries or nationalists” (“Terrorism Over Tripoli”).

That quotation offers an insight virtually never mentioned in the media and especially by governments — that governments create far more terrorism (including state torture) than “insurgents,” Mid-East terrorists, etc.

Zinn’s thrust as a “subjective” historian is to present — he would say, select — the other history that traditionally gets left out of the books . We all went through school hearing about the industrial, technological and transportation achievements that made America great. Zinn claims “we were not told of the human cost of this great industrial progress,” and he goes on to give voice to the voiceless, the people who did the savagely hard infrastructural labor.

Choosing the top pieces in Reader is hard because there are many fine ones. Among the outstanding in “Race” is “Abolitionists, Freedom Riders and the Tactics of Agitation”; in “Class”, the heartbreaking description of “The Ludlow Massacre,” in which coal miners and their families faced the overwhelming and murderous might of unified company and government power; “Just and Unjust Wars” in “War” in which Zinn comes to feel there are no “just” wars (partly after his reaction to being a World War II bombardier); and the lengthy, seminal essay “Law and Justice” in the “Law” section in which Zinn broaches the antithetical relation in America of law and justice. The large History section starts off appropriately with Zinn’s “dark” Columbus as his example of gravely misrepresented history. The final section, “Means and Ends” climaxes in a strikingly affirmative review/essay on philosophical Anarchism based on Herbert Read’s pro-Anarchist book Anarchy and Order.

It is crucial to Zinn’s thinking that the subtitle of Reader is “democracy and disobedience.” Without disobedience, Zinn contends, America would not have had the powerful anti-slavery movements, the courageous Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, the defiantly individualized action of people like Daniel Ellsberg, Rosa Parks, the Berrigan brothers, Big Bill Haywood, Freedom-Bus-Rider Jim Peck and so many others. The problem “is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country” (438). Without civil disobedience, Zinn argues, it is hard to possess or sustain democracy.

“I’m not against all law,” (44) but when the law violates justice, and, for example, allows Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange to be manufactured and used abroad in America’s wars in Viet Nam, Iraq and elsewhere, then the principle of justice far outweighs that of law and compels civil disobedience.

Another pivotal theme is American imperialism. Zinn reminds us that the United States has carried out ethnic cleansing (Native Americans), annexation or control of another nation’s country (Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Iraq) and has exerted enormous financial control through intervention by the Marines (Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua), and, later in the 20th century, after World War II, in military bases established globally. American soldiers killed in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan didn’t die “for their country”; they died for their government. “They will die for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld” (716-17). They will die, Zinn continues, for “the greed of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions of the President” (717).

Two inexcusable defects in this outstanding collection must be underlined — Reader contains at least 20 typos and lacks an index. Considering the wide range of allusions in this book, an index would have been invaluable.

Certainly The Zinn Reader, with its stunning compassion for the millions of innocent people murdered by American wars of “intervention”, the millions brutalized and killed by work achievement glorifying America for which they got very little pay and no credit whatsoever, and the millions whose story has seldom if ever been told, embodies a marvelous gathering of one of our noblest historians. Zinn has made so-called left-radical ideas seem so humane and natural and right as arguably to move social-political discourse out of the tiresome Left-Right gamut and into another, purer sphere of moral contemplation and action; this is no minor feat.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010

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