The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Howard Zinn:
A Historian of Working People

Feb 1, 2010

Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, died Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

At the time of its publication in 1980, A People’s History was unique in the collection of American history books. Most history books have narrowly focused on the people at the top, the wealthy industrialists and bankers, and the politicians and generals who served them, while ignoring the exploitation and oppression they carried out.

Zinn presented a totally different history: he focused on ordinary people who didn’t like how things were organized and worked to change them. He shed a light on the struggles of workers and farmers for better living and working conditions, of women and of black people for freedom, of abolitionists against slavery, and of many different people against many different wars.

It’s not surprising that A People’s History is the biggest selling history book in the U.S. Laboring people and those who fight to impose democratic rights recognize themselves and their struggles in his book.

But it is not only his book that is unusual; Zinn himself was an unusual academic. As a seventeen year old in the Great Depression, he learned lessons about the state when he was beaten over the head by cops in a workers’ demonstration. As a bombardier in World War II, he witnessed the slaughter of a group of German soldiers and other horrors, and drew the lesson of what war means in this society. After the war, he sealed his medals in an envelope and wrote on it, “Never Again.”

And from his beginning as an academic, he put his talents in the service of ordinary people. In his first teaching job at Spellman College, a college for black women, he took part in civil rights demonstrations in the early 60s and encouraged his students to do so. He lost his job. As he stated later, “I was fired for insubordination. Which happened to be true.”

His problems with employers followed him to his next job at Boston University, where he continued to speak out and demonstrate for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He was engaged in a constant battle with the administration there, which penalized him financially and in other ways for his views, but it did not slow him down.

Up to the day of his death, he was active. Though he retired from Boston University in 1988, he never retired from what he saw as his true profession: participating with, and giving voice to, the struggles of ordinary working people for a better life and against a slew of injustices and indignities – or, as Zinn himself called them, “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”