Monday, January 18, 2010


Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

"99 percent" of Americans share a "commonality" that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is "exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent."

Nothing of consequence, in his view, changed during the industrial era, one wonders why anyone but the wealthy came to the United States at all and, after working for a spell, why anyone wished to stay.

a few moments of democratic glory-occasions when "the people," temporarily broke through ...
  • Agrarian rebels formed cooperatives, allied with radical unionists, and charted their own financial system, the subtreasury, which they hoped would break the grip of heartless bankers. But, alas, the Populists were seduced in 1896 by William Jennings Bryan, who sold out their movement to the retrograde Democratic Party.
  • During the Great Depression, wage earners across the industrial Midwest staged heroic sit-down strikes that demonstrated their ability to shut down the economy. But, for unexplained reasons, these working-class heroes allowed CIO unions and the New Deal state to smother their discontent within long-term contracts and bureaucratic procedures.
  • Similarly, the civil rights movement toppled the Southern citadel of Jim Crow without taking on the capitalist system that kept the black masses mired in poverty.
most Populists cheered Bryan ...he shared their enemies and their vision of a producers' republic. ..they grasped the dilemma of third parties in the American electoral system, Short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of "the Establishment" is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy.

Zinn's conception of American elites is akin to the medieval church's image of the Devil. For him, a governing class is motivated solely by its appetite for riches and power-and by its fear of losing them.

Ronald Reagan in 1980. It simply "meant that another part of the Establishment," albeit "more crass" than its immediate antecedents, was now in charge.

For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.
  • takes no notice of immigrants who built businesses
  • women who backed both suffrage and temperance
  • black Americans who merged the community-building gospel of Booker T. Washington and the militancy of W.E.B. Du Bois
  • wage-earners who took pleasure in the new cars and new houses

Like most propagandists, he measures individuals according to his own rigid standard of how they should have thought and acted.

Zinn falls back on the old saw, beloved by economic determinists, that the Civil War was "not a clash of peoples…but of elites," Southern planters vs. Northern industrialists. Pity the slaves and their abolitionist allies; in their ignorance, they viewed it as a war of liberation and wept when Lincoln was murdered.

THE FACT THAT his text barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity is telling.

Of course, President William McKinley decided to go to war with Spain at "the urging of the business community." Zinn ignores the scholarly verdict that most Americans from all classes and races backed the cause of "Cuba Libre"

the meaning of the biggest war
  • profits for military industries,
  • racism toward the Japanese, and the
  • senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima.
  • the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.
September 11, assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power," Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan

Zinn's flat, dualistic view of how U.S. power has been used throughout history omits what is obvious to the most casual observer: al-Qaeda's religious fanaticism and the potential danger it poses to anyone that Osama bin Laden and his disciples deem an enemy of Islam. Surely one can hate imperialism without ignoring the odiousness of killers who mouth the same sentiment.

Zinn punctuates his narrative with hundreds of quotes from slaves and Populists, anonymous wage-earners and such articulate radicals as Eugene V. Debs, DuBois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stokely Carmichael, and Helen Keller.

Zinn also fills several pages with excerpts from poems by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and from the autobiography of Richard Wright. But the richness of these lines doesn't mitigate the poverty of his interpretations. Rage at injustice does not explain why that injustice occurs

Zinn brings dynamite to the job. "To understand," wrote Frederick Douglass, "one must stand under."

The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left, the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains

"The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history," "the people" can never really win, unless and until they make a revolution. But they can comprehend

an apology for political failure, He never mentions the Communist Party's lockstep praise of Stalin or the New Left's fantasy of guerilla warfare.

The gloom of defeat tends to obscure the landscape of real politics, he makes no serious attempt to examine why these rulers kept getting elected, or how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change.

intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change

His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life

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