Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the USA

After far too long, I finally finished Howard Zinn’s epic A People’s History of the USA. It’s a unique historical effort, a story of poverty, unrest and injustice. Compared to something like ‘The Penguin History of the USA‘, this is a story not focused on powerful men, but on unions, indigenous peoples, blacks and women.

A People's History of the United States (Flickr: madame.furie)

Two themes stuck in my head: the deliberate and repeated betrayal of indigenous peoples in America’s founding, followed by the actions taken by the rich to cement their power through biasing the legal and political processes in their favour.

The occupy movement also must owe much to Zinn’s work:

“[in Boston, 1687,] one percent of the population consisted of fifty rich individuals who had 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top one percent of property owners owned 44 percent of the wealth.”

Zinn also scrutinises the media, which made for interesting reading alongside the Leveson reporting in the UK. When the press claim that they ‘hold the politicians accountable’ – I’d foolishly thought that the people did that – we might reflect upon a terrible quote from a US broadcaster, in relation to the first American invasion of Iraq:

“The television anchorman Dan Rather declared: “George Bush is the President. . . . Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.””

And we’re supposed to be worried about press independence? Good to see the US broadcasters making good use of that first amendment.

There’s also a lovely line in the chapter in which Zinn, having written quite a relentlessly negative book, imagines what a brighter future might look like:

“Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods — a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.””

He’s also quite prescient on the effects of ‘new technologies’, especially given that the book was first published in 1980. He recognises the potential of freer communication as a way of breaking open monopolies of knowledge.

Zinn died in early 2010. Wikipedia says:

“he said he’d like to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality,” and “for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women’s movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it.””

Delightfully, his biography article is included in Wikipedia’s Anarchism, Socialism and Liberalism Portals. An Anarcho-Liberal-Socialist. He might have liked that.


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