A People’s Historian - Howard Zinn

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Howard Zinn is an American historian best known for his book ‘A Peoples History Of The United States’, however he was written much more on the subject of American working class history. He is also a World War II veteran, a playwright and, to this day, remains a political activist.“It was quite ignored in Academic Circles, and it was not reviewed in the major historical journal ‘The American Historical Review’” he noted, when asked about A Peoples History of The United States. “Now that it has sold over two million copies, it is harder to ignore” he stated, adding that “It managed to infuriate conservative historians”

Studying the American working class is no easy task. Why is it that the Obama election campaign ignored the working class for talk of ‘Middle America’? “I suppose the working class has always been identified with immigrants, with uneducated and unskilled workers, so people in the working class hesitate to identify themselves that way”

Asking Zinn if a particular figure from history inspires him, he identifies some choice characters who he feels are “…neglected or barely mentioned in our history books” and amongst these, he feels, is “Mark Twain, the anti-imperialist”. How infrequently Mark Twain is viewed in that light is an interesting point in itself.

It seems immigrants are central to the story of Americas working poor. I asked Zinn about the likes of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a small group of Irish catholic soldiers who deserted the U.S Army to fight alongside the poor of Mexico. “There was no need to make an effort to eliminate these people from history. It was the easy and safe, comfortable thing to do”

Asking Howard if he finds it frustrating that ‘democratic’ nations can go down the road of repeating the darkest days of their own history, he states “Of course I find it frustrating that people know so little history, most Americans don’t know about the Alien and Sedition acts, not about its successors in our time, the Sedition act of the first World War, the Smith Act of the second World War, or the Patriot Act of today even. Yet I know people are deprived of their real history without them knowing it, so I feel not frustration but a strong impulse to correct that”

Zinn makes no attempt to hide or ‘package up’ his own politics. When asked about  Marx in Soho, his popular play on Karl Marx, and whether or not the play was an attempt to make human the man of a thousand statues, he stated “Yes, it was to show his humanity, but also to show how his critique of capitalism is still true, and how his dream of a communist society still valid”

“When we recall the history of movements we tend to notice the leaders, not the mass movements”   Zinn’s work is about making sure such overlooked characters, and the mass movements of history, find their rightful place in the library.

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