Howard Zinn’s Zen Politics

Howard Zinn.  The Historic Unfulfilled Promise.  Foreword by Matthew Rothschild.  San Francisco: City Lights, 2012.  256 pages.

Howard Zinn was called a lot of different names: anarchist, socialist, and communist.  He called himself a lot of different names, too: anarchist, socialist, and communist.  No one ever seems to have called him Zen, but maybe it’s time to start.  He certainly knew the meaning of Zen from his days as a postdoctoral fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard.  He also met Zen Buddhists when he traveled to Hanoi near the height of the War in Vietnam and secured the release of Americans held hostage.  You could call Zinn a diplomat, too, a Zen diplomat in the tradition of the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist priest, Thich Nhat Hanh.  Perhaps Zinn’s most direct, vital encounter with Buddhism took place when he visited Japan in 1966, met with Japanese writers, philosophers, and priests, and slept in a 700-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto.  There he met a black-robed Zen Buddhist priest who told him: “There is a major law in Buddhism: not to kill.  Mass killings should not go on; that is the simple slogan that binds Japanese Buddhists to Buddhists in North and South Vietnam.  And this message should be brought to America.”  For the next 44 years, Zinn repeated that message over and over again all across America.  Mass killings should not go on.

The author of A People’s History of the United States, Zinn was the people’s historian par excellence.  Millions have read his version of American history and have viewed the past though his lens.  No American historian in the past 40 years prompted so many Americans to be curious about and to look deeply into their own history.  Academics often treated Zinn’s work condescendingly, but outside of academia it was welcomed, honored, and widely appreciated in large part because Zinn showed that the American people have written their own history.

In an obituary about Zinn for The Nation, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Eric Foner tells a story about visiting St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota.  Zinn had lectured there a few days earlier and the student newspaper ran a story with the headline “Zinn Attacks State.”  Foner mailed Zinn a copy; they agreed that there could not have been a more fitting epitaph for Zinn than those three words, “Zinn Attacks State.”  At St. Olaf’s, and on campuses all around the country, countless students, teachers, and members of local communities were inspired by Zinn’s speeches.  They were also inspired by his essays, including 33 that were published in The Progressive from 1980 until 2010, the year he died at the age of 88, and that are now collected in The Historic Unfulfilled Promise.  The 33 essays reflect Zinn’s abiding belief that the people make history, not by adopting an ideology or joining a party, but by relentless organizing everywhere, all the time, without stopping and without selling out basic moral principles.

Too young to participate in the labor movements and the left-wing causes of the 1930s, and too old to join the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Zinn began his teaching career in the 1950s at Spelman College in Georgia, where the civil rights movement was unfolding before his eyes.  To Zinn, the young men and women who aimed to overturn segregation were the abolitionists of the twentieth century.  They were the spiritual descendants, he argued, of the anti-slavery activists who refused to compromise with the slave-owning class or to make political deals with their elected representatives in Congress.  No deals, no compromises: that was one of Zinn’s mantras.

Unlike many of the radicals of the 1960s, he didn’t look for role models in Paris in 1789 or 1871, Moscow in 1905 or 1917, China in 1949, or Cuba in 1959.  He looked to the people’s history of the United States, and he hoped that the American anti-war movement during the Bush and Obama years would turn for guidance to the abolitionists before the Civil War as well as to the “new abolitionists” of the civil rights movement.  Reading the essays collected in The Historic Unfulfilled Promise shows how rooted Zinn was in American experience and how patriotic he was as well.  He turned again and again to the Declaration of Independence for inspiration — to its cry of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and for its evocation of the right to rebel.  He also embraced an American tradition of dissent that included the patriots of the 1770s, the Socialists of the early twentieth century such as Eugene Victor Debs, the anti-war priests Phil and Dan Berrigan, and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Zinn kept a close eye on the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of the White House, the Pentagon, and the Supreme Court to see which way the political winds were blowing.  In the first essay in this book, “To Disagree Is To Be Put On the Enemies List,” from 1980, he pointed out that, beginning in about 1975, the powers-that-be began to reassert the authority they had lost during the anti-war, civil rights, feminist, and anti-colonial struggles that climaxed during the War in Vietnam.  The counter-revolution — or restoration — went into overdrive, he points out, after 9/11, which led to the war on terrorism, the main focus of this collection of Zinn’s essays.  Over and over again, he argues that the U.S. war on terror was used to terrorize people all over the world.  “War is terrorism,” he wrote in the essay “Why War Fails” from 2006.

Zinn knew about terrorism from his own experience.  In the last days of World War II, he and others in his squadron dropped bombs on a French village, killing 1,000 French civilians and a few German soldiers who were in hiding.  A friend in the Air Force told Zinn in 1945: “[T]his is an imperialist war.  The fascists are evil.  But our side is not much better.”  Zinn didn’t see it that way at the time, though he eventually did during the War in Vietnam.  During the last decades of his life, he came to believe that there was no such thing as a just war or a good war.  In the poignant essay entitled “Our Job Is a Simple One: Stop Them,” published in 2002, he wrote: “We have reached a point in human history when the means of war have become so horrible that they exceed any possible good that can come out of using them.”

In one of the essays in The Historic Unfulfilled Promise, Zinn explains that what he wanted was a “total turnaround.”  He didn’t use the word “revolution” or “armed insurrection,” though he wasn’t opposed to “riots” in the streets, and his spirits surely would have been uplifted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Zinn voted regularly in elections, and urged others to do so, too, but he didn’t emphasize the act of voting.  Indeed, if there’s a lasting Zinn legacy, it’s that, before and after citizens vote, they should be “educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools.”

The Historic Unfulfilled Promise is a testament to Zinn’s Zen politics: his refusal to be silent, to acquiesce, or to sever his ties with the downtrodden.  If he was a Marxist he was an American Gramscian who took Gramsci’s mantra, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” and emphasized the will power of the people, and the hope inspired by meeting face-to-face with neighbors, fellow students, and co-workers committed to democracy and to struggle.  Of all the American radicals, Debs was probably the one who inspired Zinn more than any other.  Indeed, he writes about Debs in several essays and offers a quotation from one of Debs’s most famous speeches in which he said, “I recognized my kinship with all living things and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. . . .  And I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”  That, in a nutshell, is the soulful Zen politics of Howard Zinn, American pacifist.

Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism (Monthly Review Press).

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