American History Is Being Falsified to Sow Political Division: Mary Grabar
Law and Liberty
Essay January 16, 2020
Howard Zinn: Fake Historian
According to Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, to call Howard Zinn a historian is a misnomer if not a travesty. Yet this is how Zinn, the late author of the best-selling A People’s History of the United States is publicly identified. For over a quarter of a century, his book has been highly influential in shaping Americans’ understanding of the past and made him somewhat of a celebrity. By recent counts, it sold over two million copies and is used in high schools and survey American history courses in colleges throughout the country. Undoubtedly, any historian—no matter how excellent and popular his or her work is—would be jealous of that record. However, as Mary Grabar points out, Zinn had a different project in mind than most historians. As he once wrote, history is “not about understanding the past,” but about “changing the future.” Not one serious historian I know would make such a claim. Given the prominence and influence of Zinn’s book, Mary Grabar’s thoughtful and well-researched critique is most necessary and timely.
After it was published in 1980, Zinn’s book slowly gained popularity among young New Left history professors. By that time, the field of social history with its focus on “history from below” was in ascendance. Unlike traditional political history with its concentration on political and business elites, this approach studied the lives of the hitherto neglected common people including slaves, farmers, industrial workers, immigrants, and women, chronicling their individual and collective struggles to achieve a better life.
Many heralded Zinn as an innovator of “history from below,” but that was not quite true. Zinn had a different take on American history. Grabar traces it back to his Old Left background, which informed his beliefs after he transitioned to the New Left. Although he always denied it, after serving in World War II he became a member of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and was active in its various front groups. But like many CPUSA members and fellow travelers, he had become disillusioned after the revelation of Stalin’s crimes and had left its ranks by the time the New Left and the civil rights movement came on the scene. He also felt the party had become too moderate and insufficiently militant for his own taste.
Zinn, still on the far Left but now politically homeless, saw hope in the 1960s college radicals whom, he wrote, “had no illusion about Reds.” They “have seen Stalinism unmasked…They have watched aggression, subversion and double-dealing engaged in by all sides, West as well as East, ‘free world’ as well as ‘Communist world.’” His position was that of moral equivalence, allowing him to be slightly critical of the Eastern bloc while saving most of his fire for the “imperialist” policies of the United States. In effect, his new interpretation of history amounted to an assault on the United States as the major enemy of the civilized world.
By Zinn’s account, from the very beginning of America’s creation, “the people” never had a chance against its ruling elites and the capitalist system. The only way they could achieve justice would be by carrying out a revolution. It is in that light that we can understand why Zinn’s true heroes are people like the radical and violent abolitionist John Brown and H. Rap Brown, the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who helped orchestrate a short alliance with The Black Panther Party, of which he became Minister of Justice.
Over the years, there have been substantive critiques of Zinn’s work—the best coming from leftist and liberal historians who have been outraged at how Zinn has turned history into propaganda. These include articles written by such prominent scholars as Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, Rick Shenkman, and David Greenberg. Their articles, despite their excellence, never got the wide distribution they deserve and worse, never resonated with their intended audience.
It turns out that a fellow leftist historian, anticipating Zinn’s kind of history, warned against its pitfalls decades before he wrote. Aileen S. Kraditor was then, like Zinn himself, a noted left-wing historian. In 1972, she addressed the faulty methods of many leftist historians, writing in the British Marxist journal Past and Present that a historian ought first and foremost to respect “the pastness of the past.”
She warned New Left historians that they ignore that admonition at their peril. They did not listen to her. Instead, she wrote, they “endeavored to find in American history justifications for and forerunners of their own party or movement” and in fact seem “interested in little else.” To them, history becomes a “cheering section as they root for the same victims or reformers struggling against the same oppressors or interests.” The people always are fighting the elites, and they ignore completely the “consensus about all the values and beliefs that really matter to the maintenance of the established order.” So they focus instead on “our side’s heroism, dedication [and] love for the People—non-historical qualities that they of course see in themselves.” Not even Kraditor, I think, would have predicted that a decade later, a fellow leftist historian would do precisely what she warned about and then some.
Read the rest: