Thursday, 28 January 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010): historian on the front line

There are four things I particularly associate with Howard Zinn, the great left-wing historian who died yesterday, aged 87.

Firstly, sheer eloquence. Whether as writer or speaker he was lucid and articulate, with (cliched as it may sound) a knack for bringing history to life. He was the direct opposite of an ivory towers academic - he knew how to communicate clearly, beyond the academy to a wider audience.

This leads on to the second defining thing about Howard Zinn: he was a populariser. Without dumbing down, or compromising his radical politics, he had the gift of making history accessible. Zinn's most well-known book 'A People's History of the United States' was a conscious attempt to gain wide appeal for a radical historical project, while retaining intellectual rigour. His dedication to reaching out to broader audiences is exemplified with one of the last things he did: his History Channel documentary 'The People Speak' which aired recently, and so enraged right-wingers who tried to get it cancelled. No doubt many people who wouldn't read a history book will see it.

Thirdly, Zinn was famously committed to people's history, to putting the largely neglected lives of ordinary people into the history of America. His version of history was humane and collective, a history from below that acknowledged, celebrated and commemorated the people who are conventionally ignored by mainstream writing and academia but who, in fact, have driven history forward. I think of him as similar, in this regard, to the great interviewer and oral historian Studs Terkel (who was also, like Zinn, a passionate populariser).

Finally, there's Zinn's political commitment. His people's history wasn't some mere quirky angle to take on historical events - it sprang, rather, from a powerful conviction that the direction of history can be changed by working class and oppressed people. It has been before, repeatedly, and there are lessons we can learn that guide current and future struggles. He was involved in some of those struggles himself, voicing support for numerous progressive campaigns over several decades. As Chomsky wrote of him, 'When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.'

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