BOOK REVIEW/Kristian Williams

Zinn’s Last Lessons

Howard Zinn, who is best known for his People’s History of the United States, was first and foremost a teacher. He began his career in the history department at Spelman College (and was fired for his civil rights activism), and ended it teaching political science at Boston University. The new book, Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches, 1963-2009 [Haymarket Books, 2012], collects his finest lectures — most of which were delivered outside of the classroom.

Zinn, who died in 2010, spoke eloquently of scholarship, social movements, and the use and mis-use of history. And his words were addressed, as often as not, to the social movements, rather than to the scholars or students. That makes sense, since one theme to which he returns repeatedly is that of the responsibility of intellectuals to do work that challenges power, to bring their political ideas into the classroom, and to take their research out into the world.

The lectures collected here span a period from 1963 to 2009 and focus on issues like racism, war, free speech, the legacy of Christopher Columbus, the death penalty, propaganda, civil disobedience, and the nature of democracy. Along the way, Zinn tells a lot of great stories, and some of them — the Spanish-American war, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dresden, Zinn’s own career as a bombardier, and the shift in public opinion during the Vietnam war — recur like refrains tying the disparate pieces together.

Zinn speaks as well as he writes, and this collection of talks is as accessible and as poignant as his better-known works like A People’s History of the United States and the autobiographical You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. In fact, the transcribed lectures also convey elements of his personality missing from those other works. His humor — dry, ironic, often self-deprecating — comes across in print surprisingly well. So does the immediacy of his speech, the extemporaneous nature of his presentation, urgency of his meaning, and the connection he somehow formed with his audience.

I was lucky enough to see one of these talks delivered the first time — the 1995 Reed College lecture unimaginatively titled here “A People’s History of the United States.” I had not read Zinn’s work at the time, but what he said — about avoiding false objectivity and the seductive quietism of professional standards — struck a chord deep within me. In the years that followed, I bought, read, and sometimes re-read a great deal of his work: A Peoples History, You Can’t Be Neutral, The Zinn Reader, Terrorism and War. But I was astonished, reading Howard Zinn Speaks, how much of that first lecture I remembered; and reading the other lectures in the collection, I could see neatly articulated, and in a concentrated form, many of the most basic ideas that I have used repeatedly in my own work. Zinn’s understanding of democracy, his theory of social change and the role of popular resistance, his skepticism about objectivity and his devotion to telling the truth, and his distrust of governments — all of these views impressed me deeply and have influenced my own writing, likely in ways I cannot even discern. It is a strange thing to encounter one’s own ideas, in their original form, from some half-forgotten and half-assumed earlier source. It is like recognizing yourself in a photograph, only to realize a moment later that it is actually your mother, or her mother, whose face you see.

Reading these lectures, I was reminded of the debt we all owe to Zinn. Over the course of his long career Howard Zinn fused his scholarship and his activism, bringing each to bear on the other, using each to inform and improve the other. By doing so, he managed to be something more than a leftist professor, something more than a public intellectual. He helped take history out of the archives, out of the classroom, and into the present. (“I can never stay in the past,” he confessed.) He became an inspiration to generations of activists, and through his books, he will surely continue, long after his death, to aid those causes he supported during his life.

But as I finished this book, I was sad to realize that there will never be any more of these lectures. What we have here is all we will ever have. Let’s use it. Let’s build on it. Let’s remember the past so that we can fight for the future.

“You never know what you will accomplish ...,” Zinn advised, “except that I know if you don’t do anything, I know great things won’t happen. If you act, great things might happen.”

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013

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