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The Future of History, Part I
An interview with Howard Zinn
Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is one of this country's most
distinguished historians. He was an active figure in the civil rights and
anti-Vietnam War movements. His seminal book, A People's History of the
United States, is widely used in college and university classrooms. He is
also the author of Declarations of Independence and You Can't Be
Neutral on a Moving Train. His latest book is The Zinn Reader.
Zinn Reader, you write, “Important to me as I was becoming conscious of
the crucial question of class was to read Karl Marx's The Communist
Manifesto.” Nineteen ninety-eight marked the 150th anniversary of the Manifesto.
The question arises, Is Marx relevant today?
I don't know if you know
this, but I decided to deal with the question of the relevance of Marx even
before the 150th anniversary. I decided to do that by writing a play about
him. It's called Marx in Soho. It's a monologue in which Marx
appears in the present, a kind of fantasy, of course. The reason I wanted to
do something about Marx is because there are some things he said in the 19th
century that turn out to be inadequate for an understanding of what the world
is like today. He had a foreshortened view of how long it would take for a
socialist revolution to come about. There was a point where he and Engels
thought the revolutions in Europe of 1848 would lead to workers'
revolutions. They did not.
He did not really figure on
capitalism's ability to survive, on the ingeniousness of the system in
devising obstacles to revolution, its power in suppressing revolutionary
movements, and its ability to wean the working class and its consciousness
away from the idea of revolutionary change. Although Marx followed events in
the U.S. in the mid-19th century and was a correspondent for a while for the New
York Tribune, he could not anticipate that the American system would be
able to fend off revolutionary movements by a combination of tactics. I say
“tactics” as if they were deliberate, but I think that probably it's not
an accurate description to call them tactics. Let's say there are a number
of developments in American capitalism that made it possible for the system to
survive. One of them was the fact that capitalism in the U.S., drawing on the
enormous wealth of this country, was able to respond to workers' movements
by giving concessions, respond to unionism by agreeing to raise wages and
lower hours. The system responded to economic crises with reforms, as it did
in the 1930s under the New Deal. In doing so, it created a more satisfied
section of the working class, which has remained content with the system or,
when it became discontented, did not become discontented with capitalism as a
system but became discontented with specific manifestations of the system.
Most working people in the U.S. do not see the problems they have as systemic,
but as problems which are correctable by reforms. So the system, by having the
wealth sufficient to distribute more goodies to sections of the working class
and yet maintain huge profits, has been able to sustain itself.
At the time of World War I,
W.E.B. Du Bois, certainly one of the most far-sighted of American
intellectuals, saw that the American system was giving some rewards to its
workers and was able to do this on the basis of its exploitation of people
abroad. He saw the imperialism of World War I, of the Western powers, and he
saw that the Western powers, by drawing out the wealth of the Middle East and
Latin America and Asia, was able to give some small part of its profits to its
own working class and therefore enlist that working class in a kind of
national unity which then enabled them to call this working class to war and
sustain that war.
There's a big difference
between having a working class that is 80 percent of the population and
seething with anger at the system and a working class of which half has been
given enough goodies to be content, leaving a minority in desperate poverty.
The minority may be an important one, in the U.S. it may be 40 million people
who are in desperate circumstances without health care, with a high incidence
of child mortality, but still not enough to make the kind of workers'
revolution that Marx and Engels were hoping for.
I think he also did not see,
and this was pointed out by Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran when they wrote their
post-Marxist analysis of capitalism, that the economic crisis that Marxists
expected to happen after the end of World War II did not take place because of
the militarization of capitalism.
A kind of military
Keynesianism was in operation, whereby spending a huge amount of money on
military contracts, the government was creating employment and was giving
shots of “drugs,” in the long run poisonous but in the short run
sustaining the system.
On the other hand, there were
analyses that Marx made of the capitalist system which turn out to be very
perceptive. Probably the most obvious one is the increasing concentration and
centralization of capital on a worldwide scale. What we talk about now as the
global economy, globalization, Marx foresaw. He saw the world becoming more
and more interconnected economically. He saw the corporations turning into
mega corporations and the mergers and the possession of the material resources
of the world becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Very often it's
said Marx talked about the immiseration of the proletariat and the concomitant
increasing wealth of the upper classes, the polarization of wealth and
poverty. Very often they say, Marx was wrong about this. In the U.S. it
doesn't look that clear because of this large middle class that is not at
one pole or the other. If you look at it on a worldwide scale, world
capitalism has moved in that direction. If you take the wealth of the rich
countries as against the wealth of the poor countries, and especially if you
take the wealth of the upper income brackets in the rich countries against the
90 percent of the people in the poor countries, you have a polarization of
wealth which is more stark than it was in the 19th century.
One of the things Marx
pointed out was that once money was introduced into the world economy, the
pursuit of wealth became infinite. It was no longer a matter of material
possessions, of land, as it was in feudal times, now there was no longer a
limit to the accumulation of wealth once money was introduced.
Those who trumpet the
virtues of capitalism point out that the USSR appropriated Marx and his name
and the good name of socialism. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in disarray
both Marx's analyses and a socialist political philosophy are therefore
I know that that's what's
being said. Marxism would only be discredited if the Soviet Union had created
the kind of society that Marx and Engels foresaw as a socialist society. But
when Marx and Engels talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat, they
had a very special conception of what that meant. It meant that the majority
of the people, the working class, would be in charge of the society. They did
not mean by dictatorship of the proletariat that a political party would
represent itself as total spokesperson for the working class. In fact, not
only would a political party not be the spokesperson, but certainly not a
central committee, certainly not a Politburo, certainly not one person. Marx
and Engels did not envision that kind of dictatorship.
At one point, Marx was
talking about the Paris Commune of 1871 and the remarkably democratic
character of the Paris Commune, the communards, the people who gathered and
legislated, made decisions in the context of endless daily, hourly, 24-hours-
a-day discussions in the streets of Paris by the people of Paris. He said you
want to know what I mean by the dictatorship of the proletariat? Look at the
Paris Commune. When Marx talked about what a socialist society would look
like, he certainly did not expect that a socialist society would set up
gulags, would imprison dissidents and shoot not just capitalists, but fellow
revolutionaries, as was done in both the Soviet Union and in China. Marx and
Engels saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as a temporary phenomenon
during which the socialist character of society would become more and more
communal, more and more democratic, and that the state, as they said, would
become less and less necessary. Marx and Engels talked in The Communist
Manifesto about their aim being the free development of the individual.
The Soviet Union and other
countries that have called themselves Marxist and have established police
states acted contrary to the spirit of Marx's ideas. So I was very glad that
with the disintegration of the Soviet Union you could no longer associate the
Soviet Union and socialism, you could no longer say, this is a place where
socialism exists. To me it seemed that now the air could be cleared and that
we could begin to think of socialism as it was thought of in the early part of
the century in the U.S., before the Soviet Union existed, when the Socialist
Party in the U.S. was a powerful force, when its candidate for president got
close to a million votes. You had socialist newspapers all over the country
read probably by several million people. At that time the IWW, the Industrial
Workers of the World, was a very powerful force in organizing strikes and
struggles around the country.
It is very interesting that
socialism in this country was at its most influential before a Soviet Union
existed. Because then the people could, without the imposition of some
foreign, distorted example, take a look at the ideas of socialism. It made a
lot of sense to them. They could see Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman,
Jack London, and Lincoln Steffens and see admirable people in the U.S. who had
turned to socialism because they saw what capitalism was doing to people.
Socialism at that time represented a common-sense idea, that you take the
wealth of the country and try to use it in a rational and humane way.
The Reaganites take credit
for the collapse of the Soviet Union. They say Reagan's aggressive weapons
policy and expansion of the military helped to bankrupt the USSR. What's
your take on that? Do you have an alternative view on why the Soviet Union
I always have an alternative
view. I have no doubt that the militarization of the Soviet economy was a
factor in impoverishing the Soviet Union But that was a very long-term
development. It didn't happen only under Reagan. The Soviet Union and the
U.S. engaging in an arms race and both countries spending an exorbitant amount
of their national wealth on the military. It also has been a factor in causing
the U.S. to have a social service structure which is less generous to its
people than, let's say, the social service sector of much poorer countries,
like the countries of Scandinavia, New Zealand, France, and Germany with their
universal health care systems.
Without pretending to know
exactly what caused the Soviet Union to collapse, it seems to me that one of
the truly important factors was the growing discontent with the system, with
the police state, with the lack of freedom. I'm thinking of the growing ties
of the Soviet Union with the rest of the world, you might say the phenomenon
that Marx described, that the world would become more interconnected, that
people and goods would travel more and more across borders, culture would be
disseminated all over the world, people would get to know about what's
happening in other countries. For people in the Soviet Union, as more travel
took place, as radio and television brought information to them, I think their
society became more distasteful to them. Restrictions on their travel, on
their freedom of speech became more onerous. I think they developed an
underground of dissent. We know that there was an underground press,
underground literature, self- publication, literally, of things that
circulated unofficially and spread subversive ideas. All of these had a
corrosive effect on a society that was very tyrannical. I guess I believe that
tyrannies ultimately, sometimes it takes years, must collapse. Whoever happens
to be the leader of a rival country at the time the collapse takes place will
take credit for it, as Reagan did in this case.
Were you struck by the
nonviolent transformation of the Soviet Union and its neighboring satellite
states, with the exception of Rumania? Here were virtual military
dictatorships undergoing a peaceful transfer of government.
I think that's a very
fascinating development and a very important piece of history for us to look
at. What it does is reinforce the notion that it is possible to bring about
important social change without violence, without a bloodbath. To me, it is a
vindication of the notion that we should give up the idea of using military
force to bring about social change. In fact, social change can come about by
the actions of a great social movement. The resort to military force to bring
about social change, the resort to armed insurrection or what the
revolutionary movement might call armed struggle is evidence that the
revolutionary movement has not built up enough support among the population. I
think as soon as you have mass outpourings of people into the streets, and
this happened in East Germany, too, and they could see that the resistance was
overwhelming, they could not function any more. So to me this is very powerful
evidence. Or take the Soviet Union as an example. We came very close in the
U.S. to the decision to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union in order
to destroy it. The tyranny fell by itself, mostly from internal causes.
I think one of the most
striking examples of the idea that important social change can take place and
should take place without massive violence is what happened in South Africa.
It was interesting that the African National Congress, which certainly was
ready to engage in sabotage and even individual acts of violence, was not
willing to have an all-out civil war in South Africa. They knew that it would
result in millions of people being killed; most of them black South Africans.
They were willing to spend more time, more energy, utilize a variety of
tactics and ultimately apartheid collapsed in South Africa. Who would have
predicted that Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, would become the leader of
the new South Africa? While the new South Africa has not solved fundamental
problems, no question about that, still, Black political power at least
creates the possibility of a change that was not possible under the old
You got involved in the
theater in the 1960s, didn't you? You wrote a play about Emma Goldman,
It's been performed in the U.S., Japan, and England. What drew you to her?
I had heard of Emma Goldman
from reading a book when I was a teenager called Critics and Crusaders,
which is long out of print but had a very important influence on me. It was a
book of essays on different radicals in American history. There was a chapter
on each one, including Emma Goldman, the anarchist and feminist. I had read
that chapter on her, but had pretty much forgotten about it, as she was
forgotten by American culture for a long time. She had been a very powerful
figure at the turn of the century. She was shoved into the background not just
by the general culture, but also by left culture, because the Communist Party
was the dominant force in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Emma Goldman was
anti-Communist. She had written a very strong attack on the Soviet Union as a
result of her experiences there. She was relegated to obscurity not just by
the establishment, but also by the left.
I did not know anything about
her until I encountered at some meeting in Pennsylvania in the mid or late
1960s a fellow historian named Richard Drinnon who told me he had written a
biography of her called Rebel in Paradise. His biography of Emma
Goldman is stunning. It led me to read her autobiography, Living My Life. What
fascinated me was that here we were in the 1960s, the New Left had
distanced itself from traditional Communist Party doctrine and, without
calling itself anarchist, had many of the anarchist sensibilities in being
anti-state, anti-dogmatism, and wanting to make revolutionary changes in the
culture simultaneously with changes in the politics and economics. So Emma
Goldman fitted, in my view, a New Left conception of the universe.
I found that my students, far
from seeing her as an antiquated and irrelevant figure, as I feared at one
time when I began to give them her writings, were excited by her ideas and her
approach to life, her powerful feminism, her anarchism, her position against
the state, against capitalism, against religion, against all of the
traditional rules of sexual behavior, of marriage. She was a free spirit. The
play was a matter of the desire and the opportunity joining.
What influenced your play
writing? Did you have any models, were you interested in Bertolt Brecht's
work, for example?
There were a number of
influences in my life that led me toward play writing. First there were people
in my own family who had been involved in the theater. My wife was an actress
for a while in Atlanta and here in Cambridge. My daughter did some acting in
the Altanta production of the Diary of Anne Frank in 1962. She played
Anne Frank and won a prize as the best actress of the year in Atlanta. Our son
was a musician and an actor and devoted his life to the theater, which he is
still doing, running a little theater in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. We saw the
first Broadway productions of Death of a Salesman and Tennessee
Williams's Streetcar Named Desire.
Brecht's politics and
theatrical imagination spoke to me. When I got involved in theater, I learned
a number of things that were very happy learning experiences for me. I learned
that when you become a theater person, it's very different from being an
academic. You immediately become part of a group project. The academy, the
university, is very isolating. Presumably you're a member of a department
and presumably you have colleagues, but it never works that way. You really
are alone. You're writing your things alone. It's not a collective
enterprise. In the theater it immediately, inevitably becomes a collective
enterprise as soon as your play is taken over by the director. The director
becomes equal, in fact more than equal, to you. As soon as the actors come in,
the set designer and costumer and stage manager come into the picture, you
have a little collective working on this project. Everybody is eager to do
this well, as you are. So it was very heartwarming to suddenly find myself
with a group of people who were all working together on this project. Actors
and actresses rehearse for six weeks and go on stage every night for another
six weeks and give their all, give their time, their heart, for nothing or for
very little because they're in love with and believe in what they're
doing. I have enormous admiration for these people.
Returning to Brecht, he gave
a remarkable, and I have to say, theatrical performance at the House
Un-American Activities Committee. It was very funny. Brecht's testimony
before the House Un-American Activities Committee was at a time when they were
investigating Hollywood. People who want to read the full transcript of it can
get Eric Bentley's book Thirty Years of Treason, which reproduces the
transcripts of actors and actresses and writers and directors who appeared
before the HUAC in 1947 and 1948. Brecht baffled them. They didn't know what
to do with him. The answers he gave were like conundrums that led them into
labyrinths of confusion out of which they never came. They would say, Mr.
Brecht, is it true that you wrote the following lines in your play The Good
Woman of Setzuan? And he would say, No, I think you don't have it quite
right. Did you read that in the German? You could see the nervous tremors that
developed in the members of the committee sitting there. Somebody who watched
or listened to that testimony before the HUAC said it was like a zoologist
being cross-examined by apes.
One of the great cultural
figures of the 20th century is Charlie Chaplin. The witch hunters in
Washington, too, investigated him. Was that politically driven? Wasn't
Chaplin was not an American
citizen, and they would not allow him to stay in this country. There's no
question but that it was politically driven on the basis of the fact that
he'd been a supporter of various progressive and left-wing causes and
because of the films that he made. Although they did not want to declare his
films subversive, there's no question they were. Modern Times was a
devastating critique of the capitalist industrial system. Of course, they did
not want to admit that his film The Great Dictator was a powerful
anti-fascist film at a time when so many leaders of this government were soft
on fascism. His other comedies, his silent comedies, were permeated with
class-consciousness, with subtle and not-so-subtle critiques of the police and
a system that reduced people to poverty—the tramp, and the immigrant. None
of that would have endeared him to defenders of the American establishment.
Chaplin's works were not
dry polemics. They were enormously entertaining. They were funny.
That's what made him even
more dangerous. The system can handle dogmatic, dry, and boring critics of the
system. But it infuriates them to see somebody who is a critic, who is on the
left and whose films are being watched by hundreds of millions of people
around the globe, who's funny, who's entertaining. There were times when
the HUAC deliberately did not call certain people to the stand because these
people were too popular. I have a friend, a student activist, who's the son
of Robert Ryan, the actor. He told me, and I don't think he'd mind me
repeating this, that his father, who was a progressive person who supported
anti-fascist causes and who had a real consciousness about the American
system, was not called before the HUAC, as so many other people were, because
he was a popular figure in the movies. He was a kind of John Wayne figure, a
hero, a tough guy, 100 percent American. Too many Americans identified with
Robert Ryan in that heroic way. He was white Anglo-Saxon, handsome, heroic,
didn't fit the stereotype of the subversive. You might say they preferred to
call short Jewish writers to the stand to exemplify communism, which would
make it easier for bigotry to become a factor in anti-communism.
The U.S. gives $98 million
a year to the National Endowment for the Arts. It's fiercely debated. What
would be an ideal situation in terms of funding?
There are countries in
Western Europe where the government gives 100 times as much money,
proportionately, as the U.S. does. Denmark, Holland, Germany, England, and the
Scandinavian countries subsidize the arts in a far more important way than the
U.S. does. Yet this pitiful amount of money, less than the amount allocated
for military bands, becomes the subject of debate on whether art should be
subsidized when that art sometimes is outrageous, maybe politically or
culturally, because it maybe involves nudity or lesbianism or in some way is
offensive to those people who are still living in another century. By another
century I don't mean the 21st century. I mean the 14th. In a decent society
art would be subsidized because artists need to be paid, because writers and
painters need to survive.
I remember once on a flight
from Capetown, South Africa to London, I met a German woman who got on in
Frankfurt. It turned out she was an actress. What are you doing in London?
I'm going on vacation. She told me that she gets a salary from the German
government. They don't ask her what she's going to play in, if she's
going to be acting every week of the year. When there are plays, she acts in
them. When there are no plays, she goes on vacation. But she is paid an annual
salary, just as Congresspeople in this country are paid an annual salary, even
though they spend a lot of time doing other things besides being in Congress.
One school argues that if
you accept government funding, you accept government restrictions, controls,
and constraints. What side do you come on in that?
The system impoverishes
artists.Since a good part of our taxes go for stupid things, like nuclear
weapons, I think we have a right to demand that part of our taxes be used for
the arts. Sure, when this happens there will be forces in the society which
will then try to determine the content of these arts, but that's another
fight that must be waged. So we have a double battle in the culture, one to
get the government to subsidize the arts, and the second to make sure that the
subsidization is not accompanied by political strings.
Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio in Boulder,