According to Howard Zinn, most of what we are taught about history is “told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders” (Zinn, p. 9). He contends that selection, simplification and emphasis, are inevitable distortions; choices that must be made in order to tell a cogent story. But, “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” and “any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual” (Zinn, p. 8). Given this view, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an attempt to add the viewpoints of those most often left out of historical narratives. He tells the landing of Columbus from the perspective of the Arawaks, the Civil War from the perspective of the slaves, the rise of industrialism from the perspective of the workers, the opeerations of government from the perspective of the women ignored by it, and the wars from the perspective of those who favored peace.
The writing in this book is plain, without being simple-minded. Because of the overwhelming task the historian has set for himself, he relies upon the linked stories of individuals and events to present broad movements and subcultures. “It was January, midwinter, when the pay envelopes distributed to weavers at one of the mills…showed that their wages, already too low to feed their families, had been reduced. They stopped their looms and walked out of the mill…soon 10,000 workers were on strike…the IWW organized mass meetings and parades…the governor ordered out the state police. A parade of strikers was attacked by police…this lead to rioting all that day…a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed. Witnesses said a policeman did it, but the authorities arrested Joseph Ettor and another IWW organizer…Neither was at the scene of the shooting.” (Zinn, pp. 327-8). His images are clear and evocative, pitting the common people against a wealthy owner class and the government that supports their interests.
Zinn admits that “a ‘people’s history’ promises more than any one person can fulfill” and that “it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He explains this “makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission” (Zinn, p. 570).
There is an underlying political science theory that drives Zinn’s narrative: the historian straightforwardly expresses that he sees our government as created by wealthy elites to support their interests, and that it has been safeguarding those interests ever since. He puts forth the idea that most governments are interested in maintaining stability and will relinquish power and rights just enough to prevent rebellion from below. Concurring with Karl Marx, Professor Zinn describes our capitalist state as “pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich” (Zinn, p. 252). At times, the historian’s self-proclaimed “bias” and “distortion” leads to distorted conclusions. Chapter Sixteen, “A People’s War?” is an artless and comically unconvincing attempt to challenge the notion that World War II was not popular among the US masses and undemocratically foisted upon them. Conversely, in the same chapter, he presents China’s communist government as “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government” (Zinn, p. 418). Perhaps compared to China’s dynasties, Mao’s regime was closer to “a people’s government;” but it was still a dictatorship with re-education camps and prisons for those who disagreed. It appears doctrinaire to attack the capitalist state for being in the hands of an elite minority while extolling the virtues of a dictatorship in the following paragraph. But such juxtapositions are rare for Zinn, and his version of our history presents consistent evidence of State collusion with wealthy elites to maintain stability in a system which benefits their association.
Whether or not the reader agrees with Professor Zinn’s political paradigm, there is a great deal to learn from his topics. A People’s History of the United States provides significant puzzle pieces to our picture of the past. It is uniquely compiled and sensitively reveals the paths of the disenfranchised through our nation’s evolution. He focuses upon groups that are under-represented in our government and under-represented in the discussion of our past. Their stories are the stories of the rest of us: immigrants, activists, minorities, women and workers. People who influenced the evolution of our country and without whom neither our nation nor our history is complete.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1980.