“No one people, nation or culture has a monopoly on the shadows of human nature. Historians influenced by Zinn and the story he tells should try to remember this.”
For some people, Howard Zinn is the great warrior for the voices of the historically dispossessed, what we now call the “marginalized.” He speaks up for those who can’t speak for themselves, which seems rather paternalistic in today’s parlance. To be fair, Zinn did at least write history from a different point of view to the much-maligned “great man of history” school. There are really two main issues with Zinn’s work: the quality of his history and the motivation behind it. Neither are wholly good, much as his devotees may insist.
A People’s History of the United States is the book that tossed Zinn into fame. His aim was to write history from a different perspective than the “fundamental nationalist glorification of country.” Broadly speaking, it’s a polemic that relies on secondary sources to fulfill the age-old need of the ideologue to claim to stand for the oppressed against the oppressor. In Zinn’s telling, American history is that of the powerful crushing the powerless for their own gain, exploiting and manipulating the masses to keep them quiet as they subject them to their depredations. In this narrative, those who have human agency are the powerful, who have access to the full range of human emotion, thoughts and ideals, but choose to use them to pursue evil. The rest are an amorphous mass, a blank slate of cowering humanity, who simply wait to be abused by their social superiors.
All this is true, but it does not show the whole picture. America has been a story of a nation continually striving to meet the high ideals laid down at its inception.
The themes explored are a long litany of crimes supposedly unique to the Europeans, who became the tyrannical ruling class of what became America. Zinn does make some valid points. It goes without saying that minorities were certainly oppressed at points in America’s history. The institution of slavery was a disgrace that stained America’s Founding and its first 90 or so years. The expansion of the country came at the expense of the Native Americans, who were already there, and large numbers died. The high ideals articulated by the Founders were honored often only in the breach. The record of economic betterment for the many often left much to be desired. All this is true, but it does not show the whole picture. America has been a story of a nation continually striving to meet the high ideals laid down at its inception. Given human nature, and its slow move to make or accept any change, the evolution of the nation towards the embodiment of the motto e pluribus unum has been remarkable. To take one example: the Civil War, while initially fought to maintain the Union, became also a war to end the institution of slavery. As a result, 650,000 people died because the South wouldn’t give up on its pursuit of that “peculiar institution.” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia didn’t ban slavery until the 1960’s.
America saw the fastest economic growth after the Civil War, which Zinn points out led to the Robber Barons and the decadent excesses of the Gilded Age. While this is true, it is also true that Americans as a whole were doing much better than those left behind on the Old Continent, both in terms of economics and simple physical health. The wilder excesses of early 20th century unfettered capitalism were reigned in by Theodore Roosevelt, who saw that for capitalism to work for more than just the elites that Zinn loves to castigate, it had to have limits in place, or there wouldn’t be any capitalism because of its negative effects. This is an example of a member of the elite acting against the interests of his own class, something which Zinn forgets to mention. This displays the limits of Zinn’s Marxist lens: people can’t always be neatly split into classes and groups, of oppressed and oppressor, master and slave. Sometimes they act as individuals, against the narrative laid out for them by the ideological worldview that Zinn saw humanity through. This also points to Zinn’s teleological bias. Not only does he sees history and humanity through a Marxist lens that is overly focused on class and economics, he fails to do that most basic thing a historian should do: discriminate between historical contexts, so that one judges historical figures by their circumstances. Judging the past by the standards of the present is always a recipe for bad history.
There is no monopoly on cruelty in our human story. America does not own the history of human brutality.
Alongside this, there is the fact that Zinn’s sense of history is remarkably parochial. He suffers from an insular lack of awareness of what was the case beyond America that doesn’t conform to his Marxist biases. His focus on America’s crimes, whether fair or not, reveals a strange kind of arrogance. Only America seems guilty of the horrors of history, no-one else. Again, this strips others of their human agency. America the nation is the only active entity on the world stage of human affairs, while everyone else is a passive recipient of her vices and viciousness. No one else is ever responsible for anything bad happening, or seemingly even capable of it. Yes, America has been responsible for appalling crimes, and they shouldn’t be excused. But so has every society throughout history. There is no monopoly on cruelty in our human story. America does not own the history of human brutality.
The wars and genocides in America’s history are not unique. They are easily matched by the millions killed by the Mongols under Ghengis Khan, which amounted to around 10% of the medieval world’s population. The wars throughout China’s history also more than match America’s for their brutality and sheer numbers killed. The Taiping rebellion killed 20-30 million people with muskets the most advanced weaponry on offer. The 8th century An Lushan rebellion against the Tang Dynasty saw between 13-36 million people killed, or 8-16% of the 8th century world’s population. The Native American and First Nations populations were also not the peace-loving, in-harmony-with-nature meek of the earth often portrayed. Tribal warfare was endemic before the arrival of Columbus and then the colonists. This was the state of humanity more widely before the advent of agriculture and the sedentary lifestyle, which eventually led to civilization’s development. Meanwhile, the Zulu were responsible for what became known as the Mfecane, or Great Crushing from 1815-1840. This campaign killed around 2 million people. Everyone is capable of the depths of human depravity and cruelty to other people no matter their skin color. People of the same or different race, ethnicity, creed, tribe or group can be perfectly awful to each other without white people getting involved at all. Again, this is because they are human, and equally subject to the divide down the human heart between good and evil that Solzhenitsyn described.
Human history is awash with the legacy of warfare, genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacre, starvation and misery. America is not unique in this regard and is actually superior in many ways. Not to recognize this is to indulge in a moral relativism that is itself born of the comfort we enjoy that allows for this level of self-flagellation. Zinn is the exemplar of a particularly virulent strand of moral masochism, which posits Western people as the worst to have ever existed, stripping other cultures and civilizations of their volition, their own agency, and ultimately their own humanity. Again, all human beings are created with the capacity for kindness and cruelty. Some cultures and civilizations have indulged the dark sides of their hearts to a greater extent than others.
While it is important to acknowledge the crimes of our past and that self-criticism is a good thing that can help us grow, we shouldn’t hurry past that to take the sins of the world onto our shoulders out of a sense of moralistic masochistic guilt, as a hope for redemption. This is a white man’s burden that is just as dehumanizing in its view of history as that which says that Europeans and Americans are history’s unblemished exemplars and everyone else is deficient. We need to move past this either/or view of history and humanity, to one which actually sees history for what it is; a stage on which flawed and imperfect people act, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the worse. No one people, nation or culture has a monopoly on the shadows of human nature. Historians influenced by Zinn and the story he tells should try to remember this.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.