Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2004

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
posted to www.marxmail.org on July 21, 2004
In this season of leftwing documentaries, I can’t imagine anything that will surpass “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” which opens at the Cinema Village in NYC on July 28. With a title drawn from his 1994 memoir, this film is much more about broader social and political issues than it is about the particulars of a man’s life since it is virtually impossible to separate Howard Zinn from his place in American society. Like documentaries on Fidel Castro and Noam Chomsky, you are dealing with a very public narrative.
With facial features and a long, lean frame resembling Hollywood actor (and outstanding progressive) Gregory Peck, Zinn has onscreen charisma to burn. Even into his eighties, Zinn has a boundless energy and enthusiasm for speaking at antiwar rallies and discussing politics with young people. Retired from Boston University in 1988, Zinn has been anything but disengaged from his long life passion: fighting injustice. Unlike many academics, Zinn’s politics were not something that came to him exclusively through the intellect. Born into a working-class Brooklyn Jewish family that lived in tenement housing, Zinn was forced by circumstances to take up a blue-collar life himself.
While working in the Brooklyn navy yards in the late 1930s, he became a union organizer and gravitated toward the organized left without ever becoming a member. When a CP member invites him to a party-led midtown Manhattan rally, he is knocked unconscious by a cop for just being on the scene. Without having to read Lenin, this event convinced him that the police are not neutral in capitalist society. Footage of cops beating up peaceful protestors and trade union rallies are interspersed throughout this portion of the film. It is one of the great achievements of directors Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis to choose exactly the right film footage to dramatize key moments of Howard Zinn’s life.
After WWII begins, Zinn decides to enlist into the Air Force as a bombardier even though his navy yard job would have provided an exemption. In the final weeks of the war, he and his fellow airmen are given orders to bomb a small French town where German soldiers have been spotted. Not only is the fighting virtually over, they are ordered to drop an early version of napalm on the town, which kills many citizens as well as “enemy” soldiers. From 30,000 feet, it is very difficult to avoid “collateral damage.” This traumatizing event turns Zinn into a pacifist. Unlike the Communist Party that always viewed the war as a crusade against evil, Zinn would begin to question WWII and eventually all wars. He should be seen as part of an important pacifist tradition that also included Pacifica network founder Lew Hill and David Dellinger, who went to prison for refusing to serve in the military. In many ways, such figures were all-important in helping to shape the New Left.
After the war ends, Zinn returns to New York where he attends college on the GI bill and raises a family. To pay the rent and support his family, he works as a warehouseman on the night shift. In 1956, he receives a PhD in history from Columbia University and takes a job with Spelman College, an all-black institution in Atlanta. From nearly the moment he arrives on campus, he joins students in the fledgling civil rights movement and becomes an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This earns him the attention of the FBI and the wrath of the administration, which eventually discharges him.
Eventually Zinn ends up at Boston University, where he picks up where he left off, but this time in the burgeoning Vietnam antiwar movement. Along with MIT colleague Noam Chomsky, Zinn is a constant fixture at teach-ins and rallies. Throwing caution to the wind, he allows himself to be arrested repeatedly in civil disobedience. On the very day that his name is being presented for tenure by the Board of Trustees at Boston University, he accepts a student group’s invitation to speak at a protest where the trustees are meeting to deliberate on his future!
After the radical movement of the 1960s has subsided, Zinn embarks on the most important project of his life: writing “A People’s History of the United States.” He begins this work in 1980, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. Like almost everything else that has happened in his life, Zinn gladly swims against the stream. Although there has been much attention paid to the success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I would argue that this book is the must successful intervention into broader American society by a radical in our entire history. It has not only sold more than a million copies; it has changed the way that people see themselves and the world.
One such person is Bruce Springsteen, who after reading Zinn’s book, sat down to record “Nebraska,” his most socially and politically aware album. This would seem to complete the circle since Zinn himself decided to write about history “from below” after hearing Woody Guthrie sing about the Ludlow strike. Guthrie, through Bob Dylan, was an influence on Springsteen.
Ludlow Massacre
It was early springtime that the strike was on
They moved us miners out of doors
Out from the houses that the company owned
We moved into tents at old Ludlow
I was worried bad about my children
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge
Every once in a while a bullet would fly
Kick up gravel under my feet
We were so afraid they would kill our children
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep
Carried our young ones and a pregnant woman
Down inside the cave to sleep
full: http://www.ukans.edu/carrie/docs/texts/ludlow.htm
Actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck incorporated “A People’s History” into their Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting.” Damon’s character, a janitor at Harvard, shows up a pretentious Harvard student with his intimate understanding of American history, something that he learned from a “real book,” namely Zinn’s magnum opus. (Matt Damon is the narrator of the film.)
While “A People’s History” has been embraced by the people who matter most to Zinn, the academic establishment has been less favorably disposed. (So has pro-Iraq war Dissent Magazine, a bland social democratic venue that finds his work one-sided. This, if anything, should serve as a stamp of approval). Oscar Handlin, a Harvard historian and Commentary Magazine contributor, hated the book. In a review for The American Scholar, he wrote that Zinn was “a stranger to evidence.” Not only was the book “anti-American,” but it was an “indiscriminate condemnation on all the works of man — that is upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.” Zinn, it should be added, was in good company since Handlin also characterized William Appleman Williams’ “Contours of American History” as “farcical” and “an elaborate hoax.”
While watching this wonderful movie, I reflected on what was lost in American leftwing politics when native radical traditions were abandoned in favor of a schematic imitation of Russian Bolshevism. Clearly, Zinn hearkens back to earlier traditions from Thomas Paine to Henry David Thoreau. I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that unless the left recovers those traditions and synthesizes them with the best of Marxist thought, we have no future.

Gregory Pack and Howard Zinn comparison: http://www.marxmail.org/Peck_Zinn.htm

1 Comment »

  1. Comment by Curt Kastens — February 2, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

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