R.I.P. Howard Zinn

From his hometown paper:

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and a leading faculty critic of BU president John Silber, died of a heart attack today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling, his family said. He was 87.
“His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, once wrote of Dr. Zinn. “When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.”

For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. Dr. Zinn’s best-known book, “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and the union organizers of the 1930s.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

I hope Professor Zinn’s ghost haunts President Obama’s final SOTU preparation, because Zinn’s brand of populism is exactly what we need now.

At approximately 3:00: “Obama will not fulfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough that he fill his abstract phrases about ‘change’ — that he fill them with some real, solid content.”

69 replies
  1. 1
    dmsilev says:

    a leading faculty critic of BU president John Silber

    For this, if nothing else, he earned a place in heaven.


  2. 2

    I would love for a populism that restored labor unions to a place as a protector of all working people. Republicans have done an awful good job of branding unions negatively (not that some unions haven’t done their fair share of acting like dicks). Having worked in three “right to work get fired” states, and now belonging to a union in another state, I had no idea how much union protection can benefit the worker.

  3. 3
    williamc says:

    Reading A People’s History as a high school junior is what inspired me to study history and political science as an undergraduate and to gradually begin to shed my evangelical conservative upbringing. I can’t imagine the life I would be leading and the fun I would have missed over the years without his book opening my eyes to what I now feel (and have witnessed) is the true history of the common-people of the United States: ruled by oligarchs, manipulated by mass media, hopeless in the face of the corporate money onslaught, yet still pushing for a fairer piece of the pie for themselves, their children, and their fellow commonman, all the while keeping a moral compass pointed toward a better future.

    RIP Dr. Zinn, you were right, one can’t be neutral on a moving train…

  4. 4
    Jay B. says:

    Who is the Zinn of today? Who actually believes in the ordinary people? Who is willing to change the narrative?

  5. 5
    Seebach says:

    Won’t see how horrible things will get. I hate to say it, too, but I think he was hoping for change as well. Why live to see the disappointment and the crushing of dreams. Big loss.

  6. 6
    rootless_e says:

    So because everyone here exists inside the blogstorm


    Thus, the extraordinary level of polarization in Obama’s first year in office is a combination of declining support from Republicans coupled with high and sustained approval from Democrats. In fact, his 88% average approval rating from his own party’s supporters is exceeded only by George W. Bush’s 92% during Bush’s first year in office. Obama’s 23% approval among supporters of the opposition party matches Bill Clinton’s for the lowest for a first-year president. But Clinton was less popular among Democrats than Obama has been to date, making Obama’s ratings more polarized.

  7. 7

    He lived a full life, that’s for sure. I read “People’s History” in my mid-30s, so I was pretty cynical already. What that cynicism bred in me, however, was a disbelief that any historian was completely objective, including Professor Zinn.

    There’s a link to a good essay about the book over at The Edge of the American West.

  8. 8
    Brian J says:

    Back in college, I took a few classes with a fairly well known history/sociology professor (he won a Pulitzer) who was a strident critic of Bush’s foreign policy. He was friends/collaborators with people like Noam Chomsky and, I believe, Howard Zinn, although I am not sure about the last one. Anyway, I know that a decent number of the stridently anti-war people were actually in the military at one point, Zinn included. Whether this is because of some personal reason I don’t know about or because it was just a matter of the time in which they grew up, I am not sure. But it’s funny that those who actually had military training, even if they didn’t see combat, can be so anti-war while people like Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, among many other chickenhawks, can’t be bothered to serve.

    There’s some sort phrase than I am thinking of but that I can’t quite express. It’s something about having the power and capabilities to cause harm but knowing how to use it wisely or sparingly.

  9. 9
    Aimai says:

    I’m devastated. We knew him. He was an old family friend. And he was to speak to my daughters fifth grade class next month. He was a great man, and a good man, and just a beautiful, joyful, person.


  10. 10
    mr. whipple says:

    In fact, his 88% average approval rating from his own party’s supporters

    A clear sign Obama needs to be impeached for throwing ‘the base’ under the bus.

  11. 11
    The Populist says:


    Not only that but I wish people would stop mistaking conservative/tea bag screeds as some form of populism. What these people envision for America is more elitism thus they are all fake populists.

  12. 12
    Ash says:

    @dmsilev: Did you go to BU dms? I always felt guilty making fun of Silber, with the whole one-arm thing, but damn if he didn’t deserve it.

    @rootless_e: thanks for that. We really do live in one giant fucking bubble, full of gas.

  13. 13
    chopper says:


  14. 14
    Comrade Luke says:

    This fucking sucks. Bad.

  15. 15

    So some professor on CSPAN just said Obama is going to “renew a call for bipartisanship.”

    F**k me. Kill. Me. Now.

  16. 16
    inkadu says:

    @Jay B.: Who actually believes in ordinary people? There’s a lot to unpack there in your question, including the many meanings of “believe” and the distancing use of “ordinary” people… it’s reminiscent of the patronizing attitude of Marxism.

    Anyway, there’s lots of Zinn’s out there. It’s just not the sixties, so they don’t push their way onto the bestseller list.

  17. 17
    inkadu says:

    [duplicate post]

  18. 18
    mcc says:

    Oh this makes me very unhappy :(

  19. 19
    williamc says:

    @Jay B.:

    I think Krugman is a good candidate, but he seems to think he is a more “high-class numbers-guy” Zinn, and Eric Alterman imagines himself to be a hipster Zinn, but I don’t think that anyone out there, historian or otherwise, FEELS the people like Zinn did.


    I don’t like to put thoughts in dead people’s brains, but if I was dying tonight, and as informed and into everything as the Dr. was, my final thoughts would be along the line of “thank god I’m going now, I really don’t want to see how this is going to play out now that The People are all just customers at a freak show…”

  20. 20
  21. 21

    I lied to Comrade Mary in a previous thread saying that CSPAN wouldn’t have as much pundit bloviating. Peter Morici is on and just called Harry Reid “too liberal” to appeal to the center of the nation.

    My apologies to CM for my oversight.

    ETA: Direct quote: “If he’d just reframe the issues a bit, he could bring the Republicans along.” And he has tenure.

  22. 22
    rootless_e says:

    @Ash: It’s interesting that even though I have been mocking the bed-wetting Poutosphere, those results surprised me. The sheer volume of shrieking must fool the mind into believing that a massacre is going on, even if we can see that it’s just some fools running from their own shadows.

    May the spirit of Howard Zinn torment them!

  23. 23
    JK says:


    The Edge of the American West is an outstanding blog.

    I’d love to hear Obama give a shout out to Howard Zinn tonight. The sound of the collective gasp from Republicans would be fucking priceless.

  24. 24
    rootless_e says:

    Politically and economically, Krugman is WAY to the right of Zinn. He’s even to the right of me, and I’m about as middle of the road as they get.

  25. 25


    and I’m about as middle of the road as they get

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  26. 26
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Aimai: I’m sorry for your loss, Aimai. Professor Zinn packed a lot into his life, but when we say “the good die young” we mean it’s always too soon to lose someone who’s given us so much.

  27. 27
    El Tiburon says:

    Well Fudge, that sucks.

  28. 28
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    Aw shoot (

  29. 29
    Cat Lady says:

    Howard Zinn made a difference in my life. I didn’t know a lot of ugly things about this country’s history until I went to a liberal arts college. Zinn’s books blew the cover off, and once that happens there’s no turning back. Without college, I’m not sure I would have ever been exposed to what every citizen of this country should, but probably won’t ever know. Fox will make sure of that.


  30. 30
    williamc says:


    I totally agree on Krugman, but he’s as far left as we are allowed to go anymore without being firebaggers apparently…

  31. 31
    Warren Terra says:

    I can’t be sorry for Dr. Zinn – he had a long and a well-lived life, a world full of friends, and all the right enemies. But I can be sorry for all those who knew him, and for the much greater number, in which I count myself, that valued him without ever having met him. He will be sorely missed.

  32. 32
    geg6 says:

    Dr Zinn and Studs Terkel were my heroes and inspired me to major in political science and minor in history. As the daughter and sister of former steelworkers and the granddaughter of men who first organized the local USW, they spoke to me about the America I knew. Damn. A great man has passed.

  33. 33
    mr. whipple says:

    My Pundit Predictions:

    Mathews: Obama needs to show emotion and stop eating arugula.

    Brooks: Obama needs to not just say ‘bipartisan’, but do what Snowe wants.

    Broder: Obama needs to appoint Mitch McConnell to run the Senate.

    Dowd: Obama needs to be more Arnold, and less Obambi.

    Krugman: I’m filled with despair.

    Internet ‘base’ pundocracy: Obama is worse than Hitler and McCain combined.

  34. 34
    Brian J says:


    I think Krugman is fine the way he is, primarily because, based on what I’ve read about him, he’s hardly a flaming leftist as an economist. He’s a moderately left of center liberal, at least as economics is concerned, that was driven to madness because of the lies put forth by the Bush administration and the fact that nobody would call them on it. The fact that some people consider Krugman to be on the fringe of Democratic policies just shows you how far right the Republicans have gone. (And I don’t mean any of this as a criticism, by the way.)

  35. 35
    JK says:


    C-SPAN has its occasional lapses, but on balance I think its positives far outweight its negatives and BookTV is one of the best programming ideas ever dreamed up for television.

  36. 36
    Cat Lady says:

    Also, what the fuck kind of world are we living in where John Silber, Rush Limpballs, Pat Robertson and Dick Cheney outlive Howard Zinn? Clearly deals with the devil have been made. True story.

  37. 37

    @Cat Lady:
    Zinn was 87, so they didn’t “outlive” him in terms of life-span. Limbaugh, in particular, probably won’t make it to 87 given his girth.

  38. 38
    TuiMel says:


    I agree, and the SOTU speech itself will be presented without comment. Of course, the after / reaction comments shine sometimes frightening looks at the mindsets of my fellow citizens – both to my left and to my right.

  39. 39
    Sly says:

    @Jay B.:

    Who is the Zinn of today? Who actually believes in the ordinary people? Who is willing to change the narrative?

    Social historiography is the dominant methodology in academia (has been for decades), so people who look at history like Zinn are everywhere. Howard’s accomplishment, aside from being a great historian, is that he was the principle agent in popularizing this approach to the general audience with A People’s History.

    So if you want encouragement, a lot of states are demanding more social and cultural history requirements, as well as genuine global history (i.e. not a purely Eurocentric model), as part of their curriculum standards. As a result, districts want more teachers who are fluent in this approach, which shapes teacher training programs. It took them decades, but thats usually the pace at which graduate-level scholarship on any subject filters into the secondary-level classroom.

  40. 40
    rootless_e says:


    Hey on both Kos and Atrios, I’ve been excoriated as a “centrist”. Those people know politics.

  41. 41
    Comrade Luke says:

    @mr. whipple:

    You’re forgetting:

    Balloon Juice commentariat: Ignore all the signs of Obama being teh suck and clap louder you idiots! Otherwise it’s President Palin in 2012.

  42. 42
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    @Brian J:

    How about “What is strength without a double share of wisdom?” — John Milton

  43. 43

    @JK: It’s on my list of daily reads. You’d think with four or five co-bloggers there’d be more frequent posts. Have they all got real jobs or something?

  44. 44
    Brian J says:

    @Cat Lady:

    If there is a heaven, Howard Zinn is probably in it, while Limbaugh will be deep in the pits of Hell.

    There’s tonight’s cheery thought before the State of the Union.

  45. 45
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    Hey on both Kos and Atrios, I’ve been excoriated as a “centrist”.

    Hehe, that’s a new way to excoriate someone ) Not that I think you deserve it.

  46. 46
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    By the way, based upon the tidbits provided on Olbermann’s show, the SOTU is going to be even worse than I anticipated.

  47. 47
    rootless_e says:

    @Notorious P.A.T.:

    Well, the best was a series of posts on Kos attacking Al Giordano for his “centrist” politics from people who probably can’t spell Zinn if you spot them the first 4 letters.

  48. 48



    I just have to bow to the linguistic chops to deliver that word. centrist.

  49. 49
  50. 50
    mr. whipple says:

    Well, the best was a series of posts

    I don’t know. I think being accused of being a paid GOP shill is up there.

    Please reconsider.

  51. 51
    Cat Lady says:

    @Brian J:

    Your lips to the FSM’s orecchiette.

  52. 52
    Max says:

    No fresh SOTU thread? Shame shame.

    Michelle looks beautiful tonight. As always.

  53. 53
    JK says:


    The one thing about C-SPAN that troubles me is the jaw-dropping stupidity of many of the callers who get on the air during the open phone segments.

  54. 54
    New Yorker says:

    @Brian J:

    Yup. I like Krugman a lot because he and I think a lot alike. He’s no soshulist and neither am I, and if he sounds crazy on the topic of Bush, it’s because so few in the media were willing to call a spade a spade. I don’t think it’s “radical” to call the man a war criminal and/or the worst president this country has ever seen. I think it’s common fucking sense.

  55. 55
    Jay B. says:

    Anyway, there’s lots of Zinn’s out there. It’s just not the sixties, so they don’t push their way onto the bestseller list.

    First, The People’s History was first published in 1980, not the 60s. Second, plenty of liberal/left people make the best seller lists — Michael Moore, Al Franken, etc.

    What I meant, and most people caught the idea, was who is there standing up for “the little guy”, countering the endless bullshit? Moore and Franken are good calls.

    James Lowenen is a great pop-historical heir to Zinn. Highly recommended if you haven’t read him.


    [“believing in ordinary people”]… it’s reminiscent of the patronizing attitude of Marxism.

    Is a joke, right? Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck — these guys are patronizing, but their endless fake celebration of the “regular guy” has resonance to an audience. Where on the Left is there the same commitment to the Little Guy anymore? Zinn wrote his book to address how the people — the average people — had to fight and claw to oppose the vested interests of wealth and privilege. Who is singing that song now? Marxist? Who cares? Sticking up for and believing in those without power — ordinary people — used to be something of a liberal value.

  56. 56
    JK says:


    I believe that all of the bloggers who contribute Edge of the American West are professors. C-SPAN once aired a program in which Eric Rauchway discussed his book about William McKinley’s assassination.

  57. 57
    Brett says:

    While I have respect for Zinn’s work, I must say that A People’s History was one of the most boring historical books I’ve ever read. After a while, it just seemed like a list of strikes and the like, and I just lost interest and put it down. I found James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me much more accessible.

  58. 58
    Brian J says:

    @New Yorker:


    I have to think that the massive Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, along with the Bush administration being as popular as an STD, had to be cathartic for him. It was as if he got confirmation that he wasn’t, in fact, crazy.

  59. 59
    jenniebee says:

    @Comrade Luke: Why should Obama get tagged as a centrist for policies that someone else… noticed?

    Seriously (and I’m looking to you, Winfield Stuck) mentioning that Obama has been far from energetic on the issue of Health Care Reform or saying that he could have laid out a clear agenda to Congress on what he wanted to see in HCR instead of taking a Medicare expansion off the table from the start and then playing coy about the public option and not leaning on Baucus to stop bleeding out slowly in front of the cameras is not the same as “abandoning” him or throwing him under the bus.

    I don’t regret electing the guy and I think he was about the best we could have gotten for this term. But he’s not a progressive, and calling him one will not make magical progressive fairy dust shoot out his butt. The only thing that is shooting out his butt is a lackluster Senate bill that may do nothing more than add the portion of the population that’s dying and going bankrupt because it’s uninsured into the portion that’s dying and going bankrupt because it’s underinsured.

    LOL, Republicans are sitting down on their hands on the line that if banks can afford to pay out bonuses, they can afford to pay back the loans the taxpayers gave them. And now they’re refusing to applaud a list of tax cuts. Explain to me their optics strategy on that one.

  60. 60

    […] news … famed historian and author Howard Zinn has passed away … if you’ve not read THE PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES […]

  61. 61
    jeer9 says:

    Brian J,
    I think the phrase you might be thinking of for Zinn is Sonnet XCIV of Shakespeare’s:

    They that have the power to hurt and will do none,
    That do not do the thing they most do show,
    Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
    Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
    They rightly do inherit Heaven’s graces,
    And husband natures’s riches from expense;
    They are the lords and owners of their faces,
    Others but stewards of their excellence …

    And I second the notion that Michael Moore is about the only other lefty activist who deflates the rightwing narrative in a convincing fashion, yet he remains like Zinn peripheral to the mainstream media and the preferred storyline. “Ohh, that’s just Michael Moore (or Howard Zinn)” – as if ideologically placing someone diminishes the need to grapple with their criticism.

  62. 62
    Paula says:

    This is a real loss. A People’s History was basically my 11th grade American History textbook (yay for commie teachers) and I’ve yet to read anyone today who matches the combination of the breadth of research, coherent insight, and deep and accessible humanism of that text.

  63. 63
    rikyrah says:

    Zinn was a true American hero.

    may he RIP.

  64. 64

    @JK: I need a sarcasm tag. I was trying to be funny.

    They’re all pretty darned good.

  65. 65

    @Brian J:

    @New Yorker:
    I have to think that the massive Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, along with the Bush administration being as popular as an STD, had to be cathartic for him. It was as if he got confirmation that he wasn’t, in fact, crazy.

    Hey, stop badmouthing STDs by comparing them to the Bush administration, I mean say what you will about STDs, at least they’re fun to catch.

  66. 66
    dadanarchist says:

    @williamc: I think Krugman is a good candidate, but he seems to think he is a more “high-class numbers-guy” Zinn, and Eric Alterman imagines himself to be a hipster Zinn, but I don’t think that anyone out there, historian or otherwise, FEELS the people like Zinn did

    I’m in graduate school for History right now and I can tell you why that’s the case: I grew up in a middle class family but, in comparison to my colleagues, I come from the poorest background. They are all good lefty-liberal types, but none of them (myself included) came from the working class or from poverty. So we can empathize with the Average Joe’s, whether through our reading or our research, but we can never sympathize because we never lived that life.

    I’d guess most liberal arts departments are similar.

    Zinn, however, was from that background.

    This, alone in my mind, is why we need a new GI Bill-type education program. To get some diversity back into higher education.

  67. 67
    Curmudgeon says:

    Roast in hell, Stalinist toadies. I can’t believe any of you really appreciate such a traitor. His apologies for Communist mass murderers were reprehensible. Of course Noam Chumpsky, Khmer Rouge champion, liked him. He deserved a Nuremburg Trial and hanging.

  68. 68
    TimmyB says:

    I enjoyed Howard Zinn every time I heard him on the radio or saw him on tv. I read “A Peoples’ History” and enjoyed it.

    He was decent and reasonable. When you listened to him, he was actually a very funny guy and full of life. I am sorry he is gone.

    Because I am not as decent a man as Howard Zinn: Hey Curmudgeon, “go fuck yourself.” If anyone deserves a Nuremburg Trial and hanging, its the warmongering Chimp, along with his puppet masters and stooges. This includes the one I quoted to you. When comparing Zinn and Bush, ask yourself “which one actually served in a war?” And then “which one started a war based upon lies and torture?”

  69. 69
    LanceThruster says:

    Conservatard blogs dismiss the man as nothing more than a Marxist-pinko-commie-bastard. I guess it beats actually addressing some of his views.

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