May 13, 1991
The erudite essayist Walter Benjamin once playfully proposed writing a book that would consist entirely of quotations. Fifty years later, the earnest activist Howard Zinn actually wrote something approximating such a book. But while Benjamin envisioned an exquisite collage, cunningly composed and intricately ironic, Zinn produced an immense, ingenuous epic, a monumental saga of human brutality and bondage: A People’s History of the United States.
I don’t know how Benjamin’s book would have turned out, but Zinn’s is beyond praise, a masterpiece of social criticism. In form, it is a national history narrated from the viewpoint of the victims: Indians, slaves, workers, women-- not an entirely original idea, even in 1980. Its materials are standard, or at any rate easily accessible, secondary sources. But its scope and momentum are overwhelming. The appalling statistics, the heartbreaking voices of the dispossessed and exploited, the violence and bias of the state, the moral blindness of ruling elites and their apologists, the indignation of contemporary rebels and reformers, the fiercely sardonic or fatuously complacent judgments of historians: all these are presented fully, vividly, unforgettably. The result is a gradual, unforced awakening of critical consciousness. If American history consists so largely, so centrally, of suffering and injustice, and if this experience has nevertheless played so small a role in contemporary Americans’ image, or myth, of their society and its history, then-- it is bound to dawn on even the least morally imaginative reader--something may be amiss even now, something requiring honest inquiry and commitment. The more morally imaginative reader may well find in this book a vocation, it should, in short --especially now that it’s newly returned to print-- be placed in the hands of one’s every acquaintance, from investment banker to idealistic youth.
Zinn’s new book, alas, can be recommended only for precocious pre-schoolers. One reason for the success of A People’s History is that Zinn let his sources speak for themselves, with a minimum of authorial commentary. Declarations of Independence is, unfortunately, mostly authorial commentary. The ten years between these two books (much of them wasted skirmishing with the Silber administration at Boston University) seem to have taken their toll. Zinn has never been a scintillating writer; now he’s almost embarrassing.
Declarations of Independence aims to articulate and challenge American ideology, to expose the hidden assumptions and invisible frame of our political culture. This is an urgently necessary task, and those works that have undertaken it successfully have been among the most valuable in recent years: for example, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’ Democracy and Capitalism, Robert Reich’ s Tales of a New America, Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers’s Right Turn, Josh Cohen and Joel Rogers’s On Democracy, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling, Thomas Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality, Mark Hertsgaard’s On Bended Knee, and perhaps most impressively, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. But by the standard these books set, Zinn’s effort is a failure.
An essential requirement of ideological criticism is to give opposing arguments their due: i.e., to present them in their most plausible form and so account for their persistence and wide appeal. Refuting straw arguments is a waste of time. But Zinn seems incapable of comprehending, or at any rate reproducing, the complexity, the intractability, the sheer difficulty of contemporary political debate.
Take, for example, his discussion of economic justice, and in particular of the “free market.” Every such discussion should begin as Zinn’s does: with a recital of the prima facie absurdity and indecency of many of the inequalities generated by our present economic system. But the next step ought to be a question or two. Why do most Americans (nowadays, actually, most human beings) nevertheless consider the competitive market system fundamentally fair, or at least fairer than any feasible alternative? And what about its reputation for efficiency among the large majority of professional economists-- is this just a mistake, or a vast fraud on the rest of us, or what? Do arguments for the market amount to nothing more than rationalizations for inequality, or is there something to them?
Zinn does not address these questions. It’s hard to believe, bet the word “price” does not once appear in his discussion. He does not mention that a market is, in essence, a mechanism for determining prices; or that only one other mechanism-- state control--has ever been proposed, and is now universally discredited. Until the Golden Age, when everything will be free, prices are indispensable; they are the economic equivalent of our five senses. How does Zinn think they should be determined? Socialist theorists like Alec Nove and Ivan Szelenyi have wrestled for years with these and related questions. Zinn’s jabs at Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, however gratifying, are no substitute for such efforts.
War is another example. Zinn is against it, claiming that war is both horrible and unnecessary. Unfortunately, he spends too much time illustrating the former claim, which hardly anyone disputes, and too little proving the latter, which hardy anyone accepts. For once, though, he does provide a reasonably clear and effective statement of the opposing argument, in the form of a quote from Michael Howard:
He [i.e., Thomas More] accepted, as thinkers for the next two hundred years were to accept, that European society was organized in a system of states in which war was an inescapable process for the settlement of differences in the absence of any higher common jurisdiction. That being the case, it was a requirement of humanity, of religion and of common sense alike that those wars should be fought in such a manner as to cause as little damage as possible. ... For better or worse war was an institution which could not be eliminated from the international system. All that could be done about it was, so far as possible, to codify its rationale and to civilize its means.
This cogent statement of moral “realism” calls for an equally cogent reply, one that would ask under what conditions a higher common jurisdiction” might replace the “system of states,” and also ask what sort of “differences” have typically led to war, whose interests were at stake, etc. What it does not call for is a merely rhetorical rejoinder, such as Zinn piously quotes from Albert Einstein: “One does not make wars less likely by formulating rules of warfare. …War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.” An assertion is not an argument. Einstein, at least, knew the difference.
Then there’s civil disobedience, which Zinn strongly recommends, though only for the right-minded. Why is civil disobedience protesting racial discrimination or military intervention legitimate, and civil disobedience protesting busing or abortion illegitimate? Why should juries refuse to convict people for picketing nuclear power plants but not for picketing Planned Parenthood clinics? Simple. Civil disobedience in a just cause is right; in an unjust cause, wrong. That is the sum of Zinn’ s reasoning on the subject.
Representative institutions, mass culture, the First Amendment, nuclear deterrence-- subtle questions on all these topics beckon to Zinn as he maces his way through the book. But he rambles along, oblivious, boldly demanding justice, eloquently deploring injustice, enjoying the sound of his own voice, wasting the reader’s time and goodwill.
Very occasionally, lightning flashes: a striking quote, statistic, or anecdote that one has not already encountered in A People’s History. Garrison Keillor: “Any decent law to protect the flag ought to prohibit politicians from wrapping it around themselves.” In 1985 a Physicians Task Force investigates hunger nationwide; they offer a “conservative estimate” that 15 million families are chronically unable to get adequate food. Before a recent trip to Czechoslovakia, Zinn consults the official account (in Strategic Bombing Survey) of a World War II air raid he took part in as a pilot; he then compares the official version-- only five civilians died -- with the memories of Czech survivors—hundreds of civilians died. If only Zinn had compiled this book instead of writing it.
Still, a great book covers a multitude of mediocre ones. A People History of the United States is one of the permanent achievements of the New Left. It is a relief to have it back in print, and painful to think that it was ever out of print -- though perhaps not surprising, considering the moral torpor of the late ‘80s. Zinn’s new book may not be much use to those who are struggling to come to polemical grips with the stubborn, complicated, seductive, exasperating phenomenon that is America’s ideologia perennis. But it is thanks, in some measure, to his earlier masterpiece that many of us have been moved to try.