“A People’s History of the United States”


What you learned in your high school history is class is wrong. Dangerously wrong. Obscenely wrong.

This book proves this. It is the anti-high school history class. This book is a rigorous catalogue of wrongs, rebellions, strikes, protest, war and repression. You feel like you have been added to a list kept by the FBI and NSA after you have read it. And that, ultimately, is why it is so important to read this book.

I will not be voting for the Republican or Democratic Party again. It’s that simple. I will vote for the Green Party, or for Mickey Mouse.

Here are the major points that I gleaned from this amassing of detail and instance: rebellion and protest is part of our shared American history (i.e. the Sixties are not an exception to a rule, they are a part of the pattern), that our government has recklessly been in the service of corporate profit from the very beginning, and that the Democratic and Republican parties are two sides of the same coin (Pepsi or Coke?), and lastly that war is purely a blind to shore up politicians popularity and promote profit.

Howard Zinn’s politics are, as you would expect from a title that uses the word “people’s”, far to the left. Based on some of his phraseology and philosophical assumptions, I can comfortably say he is a communist, with a small ‘c’. He is a refugee from the Modernist era, where there seemed to be some hope for a government project that would lead to a utopian future. It has the merit of righteous and justified anger, the expectation that things can be better (and that this can come from people and government).

You do not have to be a strict orthodox Marxist to agree or at least understand the importance and power of this book. Conservatives who whine about social spending and complain about the government, bureaucracy, and taxes will gain ammunition for their arguments, just not in the way they expect. Military spending – more than the rest of the world combined – is justified by an endless stream of boogeymen and hobgoblins. Welfare spending at least goes to human beings. For example: the Trident nuclear submarine, developed and deployed for billions of dollars serves no purpose; exactly how many nuclear weapon delivery systems to you need?

Even if you strongly disagree with Zinn and his book, you cannot ignore the mountain of evidence and examples. Here are some of my favourites. Herbert Hoover on the verge of the Great Depression: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land”. Or on page 387: “Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis [i.e. the Great Depression] was here because ‘the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work to do if people would do it.’ A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers.” It is examples like this which make a mockery out of this Horatio Alger mindset. We need more of this.

Then there is the chapter entitled “Carter-Reagan-Bush: the bipartisan consensus”. You cannot understand contemporary American politics, or the reality of our political system without reading this chapter. These very different presidents are shown through sheer factual evidence to have pursued fundamentally identical policies.

To my amusement, Zinn’s traditional Marxist approach to class and history fuel both his cold fury towards the forces of social injustice, and simultaneously provide an oversimplification of history and American society which forms the weakest part of the book. He retains this notion that we the people/the workers/producers can rise up and overthrow “the Establishment”, if only there was the awareness and organisation.

While I do not think it is a total waste of time to speak in terms of “the Establishment”, or even better: the 99%, such ideas can only be an oversimplification. Fans of Foucault out there will immediately recognise the huge flaws that Zinn has to take on board given his presuppositions. Society is much more of a web of “activating” and “suppressing” motivations, then a layer cake of economic classes. He has trouble explaining the efficacy of the rhetoric of nationalism and capitalism; he cannot suspect the myriad of subtle psychological motivations and bonuses.

This book is important because it tells the stories that you do not hear about. The protesters who are not violent. The dissent generated by wars. The shallowness of pro-war sentiment. The obsequiousness of the media towards the government and big business. The long list of crimes committed by our government; the hypocrisy of prisons in the face of a government that is essentially lawless.

A must read, no question.


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