In Defense of Howard Zinn

By Peter N. Kirstein

Peter N. Kirstein is a professor of history at St. Xavier University, and the vice-president of the Illinois AAUP.

Mitch Daniels is president of Purdue University, and considered a moderate Republican. I am not sure what that says about immoderate Republicans, but his recently publicized efforts as governor to ban Howard Zinn’s works from the public school system suggest a lack of moderation. His angst against A People’s History of the United States resulted from its emphasis on the class struggle in America, the failure of American capitalism to achieve redistributive justice, and its unrelenting opposition to the American Empire with its detritus of destruction and burning cities.

Professor Zinn was a historian who taught in the political science department at Boston University. I was a political science major and matriculated in three courses with him. He was also my advisor. I have used many of his books in my classes, and he inspires students with his advocacy for the underrepresented and dispossessed. Yet his books are quite factual, historically sound, and represent an apotheosis in critical thinking. They are insightful, reflective of the documents under review, and solid scholarship.

I even teach a Senior Seminar on Howard Zinn. The course was first introduced in 2011 and will appear again in spring. The entire course centers on his works: his path-breaking editing of New Deal documents, his memoir as a senior SNCC official in the south, and his memoir ranging from the searing experience as a bombardier in World War II to his efficacious opposition to the Vietnam genocide. Students will read works addressing his loss of academic freedom and position at Spelman College and the AAUPs efforts to assist him. Howard Zinn was a whistleblower on the American past, and those who choose to silence the past know it is to preserve the status of those who continue to exploit in the present: “The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty in such calculated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”

I can understand why President Daniels attempted to purge Professor Zinn’s works from K-12. Zinn challenged the very empire that Daniels and the elite-ruling class have a stake in defending.  Zinn challenged the endemic racism and oppression of the worker that Daniels has never marched or fought for. The great historian’s works advocated through democratic socialism a pathway to liberation using historical documents honestly and in a manner that brought honour and glory to the profession.

I saw Dr. Zinn in 2006 at a Historians Against the War conference at the University of Texas at Austin. I don’t know if he remembered me or not, but we spoke for about twenty minutes as others were gathered around him just prior to his keynote address. David Horowitz’s The Professors had just been released, and I told him I was included along with him. He was elated and said, “Oh, a former student is in there, too?” After this great humanitarian’s death, it was revealed that the FBI had initiated a decades-long surveillance program that followed and monitored his movements. While Zinn had long speculated about such police-state tactics, I published an article in HNN that documented this intrusion into a person’s academic freedom and freedom of conscience.

It is unfortunate that the motivations that propelled J. Edgar Hoover to track this person are the same as President Daniels’ efforts to purge and eliminate Zinn’s books from secondary education.

Having used Zinn’s books in my history courses for over twenty-five years, I can attest that his American history liberates and does not indoctrinate; it elevates and does not debase; it frees us from the mindlessness of patriotism with a more serious reflection about ourselves and our past.

8 responses

  1. I wonder if Prof. Kirstein would deny that Zinn’s works have bias? I wonder if he could possibly deny Zinn having an agenda? Have you read any works of his that contain footnotes and primary sources? Is he not a polemicist and not a scholarly historian as one sees in the AHR or WHQ or JAH? How do you justify using these works unless you share the same bias and agenda? I remember your Air Force Academy affair and it seems you continue unabated with your ideological animus. I am not condemning your right, but your judgment and no one is trying to censure you.

    • Historians should have agendas. If they are true to historical documentation and do not falsify the record, then I do not see bias. Dr Zinn’s La Guardia in Congress is footnoted (Cornell U press). I have reviewed for the first journal you cite and will in the second one in spring. I have rarely seen so-called historical monographs that can match the depth of knowledge much less reach as wide an audience as Dr Zinn did. Zinn does frequently use primary sources by the way. When I told Dr Zinn about the Air Force email suspension and its centrality in Horowitz’s charging me as dangerous, he was very supportive of my right not to be censured. I use other historical materials in addition to Dr Zinn in my survey course and do not approach his works as error free or beyond critique.

  2. It seems that while we defeated communism in the cold war, it continues to permeate the academy. The use of such historical works is no more than an effort, in the name of “critical thinking,” to advance an agenda of war, resistance and eventual overthrow of American democracy. While Daniels’s language left something to be desired, the use of the word “crap” and seeming to gloat over Zinn’s passing, he should be lauded for raising the question whether there should be limits to the penetration of the academy by communists or if you prefer the more politically-correct label of “progressives.” Leaving aside Kirstein directly, he has published some serious work, I do think he represents a rather significant body of academicians who construe their mission to destablilize the United States that they see as evil and beyond redemption.

    • S. Pryor: What is a “communist” to you… and how, exactly, did we defeat communism? It seems that the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, not from anything “we” did.

      What evidence do you have that “communists” have ‘penetrated the academy’? And what evidence do you have that there is “a rather significant body of academicians who construe their mission to destabilize the United States”? And how do you know what “they” believe?

      This is the sort of thing that strangers to academia sometimes claim, people disaffected for one reason or another, people like David Horowitz. It is not something anyone with real knowledge of American academia will claim.

      It is also quite insulting to progressive professors, of whom I am one. My vision of the United States has nothing to do either with “evil” or with “redemption.” This is my country, and I was raised to love it (and I do): At least three of my ancestors fought in the Revolution. My great-grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War. My grandfather lost his leg in WWI. And my father served in the Pacific in WWII. Again, this is my country, and I am quite insulted when someone tries to replace the vision of it I was raised to venerate with one of their own, one that excludes the ideals my family has lived by for hundreds of years.

      Zinn’s vision of American history, from my perspective, is as accurate as any other, perhaps more so.

      Love for the United States does not require ignoring the country’s flaws. It has many; it always has. What we progressives want is to see those flaws generally recognized and then corrected.

      Closing one’s ears to considered opinions that you might happen to disagree with and calling those opinions “unAmerican” is itself against the true grain of American thought and belief. Anyone who wants to toss out Zinn is doing just that, going against the grain of our greatest traditions–and is, therefore, the real unAmerican individual.

      • A communist is one who admires the works of Stalin, Che, Marx, Lenin. A communist is one who seeks to overthrow the capitalist system as Zinn did.A communist seeks a leveling of social class through a violent struggle. I am quite sure that the author of the original entry, as well as many others, would if honest concede they qualify! They would openly admit to being communist: not spies but supporters of communism and opponents of America!

        I am pleased your ancestors fought for the US as did Zinn with his B-17 missions. However, the glory of our ancestors cannot obscure the present: is not that the purpose of Zinn’s history? Therefore, those who subscribe to Zinn’s works and promote his ideology of resistance and revolution NOW not back in 1775 are not heroic, are not creative, are not to be admired for their “progressive” values but as President Daniels so avidly realized, should be challenged and monitored for the impact of their teaching on easily impacted students.

        Daniels whose rhetoric is rather distasteful for a university president, was admirably advocating an educational system that is reasonable, balanced and in the interests of preserving those ideals that advance the truth. I am unaware that anyone was sanctioned, fired, or otherwise punished for using Zinn’s works. AAUP as is its wont is magnifying this situation but that is your right.

      • Uh, no. Few real communists would admire Stalin or even Lenin. Members of the Communist Party might, but certainly not all. And, if you read Marx, you will see that he did not advocate the overthrow of the capitalist system, by the way (it would die on its own, he believed [actually, communism would]). Neither did Zinn. Not by violence, at least. And don’t be too sure you know what other people think. The sort of charges you are making sounds like something that would come out of the mouth of Joe McCarthy, a thoroughly discredited and despicable man. That is, you are deciding, for your own purposes, what other people think.

        Oh, so the ideals of 1775 are no longer relevant? How unAmerican is that! I don’t care if you are pleased about what my ancestors did. What bothers me is that you are trying to undo it, to remake the United States into an illiberal nation. Just your point that people should be “monitored” shows how unAmerican your beliefs are. That is absolutely out of keeping with the ideals of this country.

        Daniels in no way advocates the reasonable and balanced. And you, by the biases you show here, do not, either. It is not that anyone was fired, but that Daniels would have banned Zinn’s book that is germane here.

  3. Professor Barlow: PLEASE. Don’t embarrass yourself by stating that Karl Marx did not seek the overthrow of capitalism through a violent proletarian revolution. You can’t be this shall we say, misinformed. You are the only professor in the US who would come online and state that Marx was NOT a revolutionary but an evolutionary socialist. What you meant to say, sir, was that: Marx subsequent to the revolution that OVERTHROWS capitalism is followed by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat that at some point withers away into communism. His very thesis is that violent class struggle is the road to salvation and to communism by FORCE, a period of dictatorship, that withers away. I will say this: Professor Barlow is NOT a communist by dint of his ignorance of Marx. So you are spared the sword of protest. I wonder if Professor Kirstein would break the tie. As a Marxist, ok, as a progressive who teaches courses on Karl Marx from what I have read, who is right: Barlow or me?

    • Read Marx carefully. Don’t just read about him. You are right, though, it is communism that would wither away… and I did err there. And remember, advocating is different from predicting.

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