Book Review: ‘A People’s History of the United States’

By PAUL SIEGEL

Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present,” (Revised and Updated Edition). Harper Collins, l995. 675 pp. $16.

 

Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” sold more than 350,000 copies in its 1980 edition. Published in a revised and updated edition in 1995, it passed the 500,000 sales mark. It was also issued in an abridged teaching edition, and the Public Broadcasting System is now planning a TV series based on it.

That “A People’s History of the United States” has achieved such a wide readership and is a subject for study is a cause for rejoicing. For the history by this 75-year-old historian who contributed significantly to the anti-war and civil rights movements of the l960s and has continued as a radical activist is like no ordinary academic history.

The aim of “A People’s History” is to show the events of U.S. history from the point of view not of the exploiters but of the exploited-Native Americans, slaves, the poor, women, and workers. He does not romanticize them or engage in lamentations of the injustices visited upon them but tells of their struggles, in which he finds hope for the future.

“A People’s History of the United States” can be compared with A.L. Morton’s “A People’s History of England.” Morton, then a member of the British Communist Party, published his book in 1934, and it went through a number of reprintings and editions.

Morton’s book contributes frequent new insights into England’s history but, although it pays greater attention to the play of class forces than conventional histories do, does not functionally differ from them in its recounting of the doings of the rulers of society. Those are described in a rather pedestrian way.

Zinn, on the other hand, writes with a vigor that makes it a pleasure to read. He vividly describes mass struggles, making them come alive by quoting from those engaged in them words that illuminate their significance.

In a creative synthesis he makes use of specialist studies by young radical historians who came of age in the 1960s as well as of historical works by previous generations of radicals and of standard academic histories. These are given in useful bibliographies for each chapter.

Not only does Zinn tell of what the standard histories omit, he casts new light on the things they write about. An example is the Jacksonian period.

In high school and elementary textbooks, Andrew Jackson is represented as the ultimate democrat, a man of the people. Zinn shows him to have been a slave trader, a perpetrator of Indian massacres, a speculator in land robbed from the Indians, and an executioner of soldiers who dared to complain about their conditions.

At a time when, thanks to popular struggle, suffrage was being extended, Jackson claimed to speak for the common man, but this was mostly rhetoric.

What Zinn has to say about Jackson was brilliantly anticipated by Harry Braverman, not a professional historian but a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in its Trotskyist days. He found that Jackson was representative of the new Southwestern cotton planters, who were more aggressive than the old Eastern seaboard aristocracy, and fought against the Northern industrialists by using “a pseudo-democratic movement” that attracted “large urban and agrarian masses.”

Braverman admitted that his analysis was “simplified and schematic.” Zinn, while not quite precise in exploring class relationships, gave flesh and blood to this analysis through the rich detail he acquired from studies subsequent to Braverman.

Braverman’s two essays on the Jacksonian period were published under the pseudonym of Harry Frankel in 1946 and 1947 and reprinted in “Essays in American History” (Pathfinder Press, 1966).

The two chief contributors to this volume were Braverman and George Novack. Novack found that the American economy throughout the course of American history was “a component part of [the] world economy,” not a “self-enclosed organism” or even merely a “microcosm” of the world economy.

Zinn’s book does not follow through on this hint. Nevertheless, he does show in great measure the economic forces that generated the struggles he chronicles, and his description of these struggles is both revealing and inspiring. “A People’s History of the United States” belongs on every radical’s bookshelf.