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on 10 July 2015
If you’re looking for the source of the expression “the one percent” it’s right here. In the final, 2003, edition I’m holding in my hands (the original was published in 1980), the call to arms comes on page 632:
“One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another. I am taking the liberty of uniting those 99 percent as "the people"”
The author’s stated aim here is to write an alternative history of the US, filling in the bits the official history books leave out: the struggles of the 99%, those he calls “the people.”
I’ve owned the “People’s History” for some time. I finally picked it up when it became clear Hillary would be running for President. There’s a chapter here on the Clinton years that I thought I had to read. But I needed the context (for example, what did Zinn think of the Carter years?) so I forced myself to plod through the whole thing before getting to the events of 1992-2000. I read it, dunno, in one week.
A history of the people, anyway one cares to define a people, it most certainly ain’t.
There is a history hiding in this book, but it is the history of American Socialism and civil disobedience followed by a diatribe against American Imperialism (not once named by its name in the entire book!!!), tightly fused with a compendium (but NOT a history) of the most salient dates and figures plucked from the histories of (i) the autochthonous American Indians (ii) the negro slaves and the civil rights movement (iii) the women’s movement and (iv) the labor movement, provided they tie in to the history of socialism in America. The history of the oppressed is very much a supporting act.
So I sat down and I read it again, to make sure this was not just a first impression. Second time I read it slower and took notes. The notes I took probably reflect my prejudices, but also strongly strengthened my views about the “People’s History.”
Bottom line is Howard Zinn worships revolutionaries and dissidents, but has very little time for the people who arrive at the compromises that move us forward. If he were alive today and had to write a book about the Arab Spring, he’d be all over the Tunisian greengrocer who set himself alight and the students who occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, but (much like the coverage in today’s press) would not spend any time on the plight of the current prime minister of Tunisia, Habib Essid (yes, that’s his name, I had to look it up, have never read it in the paper, nobody cares), who’s having to deal with reviving an economy in the middle of ISIS attacks.
So if your history class never discussed the Wobblies, if you never heard Hellen Keller was a Socialist, if it’s Sacco and Vanzetti you want to know about, if you want to brush up on the injustice inflicted upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, if you want a good account of the Attica prison uprising, or the blood letting of the Plowshares Eight, if you forget who Ron Kovic was or if you want to read about the connection between David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh, this is the book for you. But be prepared to also read that it was all in vain and that nothing good came of it. Any and all advances in workers’ rights, working conditions, voice, universal suffrage, prosperity etc., all advances in civil rights, environmental protection, freedom of speech are invariably brushed off as the crumbs off the high table that were thrown the workers’ way to prevent Revolution.
If you agree with Malcolm X that President Kennedy hijacked the March on Washington, that it was “a sellout, a takeover” you will not hear otherwise in this book, that’s for sure. If you think that the spectacular advantage the USA gained versus other developed nations in the 19th century by making education mandatory was entirely aimed at aiding the industrial system and that “Loyalty oaths, teacher certification, and the requirement of citizenship were introduced to control both the educational and the political quality of the teachers” you’ll find that as a quote on page 263.
And another thing: the book is packed with inaccuracies. Some are nothing more that poor fact-checking. On page 657, for example, the Chinese student massacres are dated as a 1991 event. Tiananmen happened in 1989, of course.
Some inaccuracies are more annoying than that, they reflect laziness, a reluctance to check the facts in the interest of telling a good story. For example, on page 426 Zinn discusses the aftermath of the communist attempt to take over my home country of Greece and its defeat by the allies as follows:
"The rebellion was defeated by 1949. US economic and military aid continued to the Greek government. Investment capital from Esso, Dow Chemical, Chrysler and other US corporations flowed into Greece. But illiteracy, poverty, and starvation remained widespread there, with the country in the hands of what Richard Barnet called a "particularly brutal and backward military dictatorship""
This is plain wrong. Greece had a series of democratically-elected governments between 1949 and 1967. We did have a military dictatorship, but that was much later, from 1967 to 1974 and it was indeed very backward, but not particularly brutal. This is something Zinn could very easily have checked, but he didn’t bother to. How am I supposed to trust him on the stuff I don’t know about when the only historical reference I can pass judgment on does not check?
Finally, there is deliberate inaccuracy here. My favorite example is on page 98 where he quotes Beard in saying the Constitution substituted "life, liberty and property" for the original "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness" from the Declaration of Independence, but I just read both texts and he's deliberately letting this INTERPRETATION of the constitution pass of as an actual QUOTE, which it isn't. Tut tut tut.
By the time I got to the Clinton years, I had to concede that given there isn’t a good word here for FDR or for Carter, any criticism of Clinton would have to be taken with a pinch of salt. His main complaints on my favorite Arkansan (not) are as follows:
p. 646 Clinton's attack on Waco is deemed to have been "a reckless decision to launch a military attack on a group of men, women and children" "As so often happens in cases where the government commits murder, the surviving victims are put on trial" Renos Avraam (convicted): "This nation is supposed to run under laws, no personal feelings. When you ignore the law you sow the seeds of terrorism."
p. 646 "This turned out to be a prophetic statement. Timothy Mc Veigh, who some years after the Waco tragedy was convicted of bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which cost 168 livs, had visited the Waco site twice."
p. 646 "Clinton's "law and order" approach led him early in his first term to sign legislation cutting funds for the state resource centers that supplied lawyers to indigent prisoners."
p. 647 "The "Crime Bill" of 1996,…,dealt with the problem of crime by emphasizing punishment, not prevention. It extended the death penalty to a whole range of criminal offenses, and provided $8 billion for the building of new prisons."
p. 648 "Both major political parties joined to pass legislation, which Clinton then signed, to remove welfare benefits (food stamps, payments to elderly and disabled people) from no only illegal but legal immigrants. By early 1997, letters were going out to close to a million legal immigrants who were poor, old, or disabled, warning them that their food stamps and cash payments would be cut off in a few months unless they became citizens."
p. 649 "In early 199, Congress and the President joined to pass an 'Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,' allowing deportation of any immigrant ever convicted of a crime, no matter how long ago or how serious. Lawful permanent residents who had married Americans and now had children were not exempt."
p. 649 "The aim of welfare reform was to force poor families receiving federal cash benefits (many of them single mothers with children) to go to work by cutting off their benefits after two years, limiting lifetime benefits to five years, and allowing people without children to get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period."
So nothing we did not know, really. Not worth reading a 700 page book for.
That said, there is a story that’s told well here, and it’s the story of American Socialism. To prove I did read this book, I leave my summary as an appendix.
But if you’ve not read this book, don’t feel compelled to do so. Read something else!
Appendix 1: The History of Socialism in America, as told by Howard Zinn
The story of American Socialism as told in this book goes as follows: the United States of America was set up to serve the interests of the “landed white aristocrats, who coopted the white artisans and laborers” (p. 65) to fight their war against taxation by the British. However, “no new social class came to power through the door of the American Revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling class" (p. 85) and “rebellion against British rule allowed a certain group of the colonial elite to replace those loyal to England, give some benefits to small landowners, and leave poor white working people and tenant farmers in very much the same situation" (p. 86)
Zinn next takes aim at the Constitution, which he dismisses as “a compromise between slaveholding interests in the South and moneyed interests of the North” (p. 98) reflecting the fact that “most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation to pay off those bonds” (p. 89), also noting that “forty of the fifty five men who drafted the constitution held government bonds” (p. 89)
In summary, the Founding Fathers “did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white” (p. 101)
The way Zinn sees it, the “people" next got diverted into fighting the Indians: “with the eastern elite controlling the lands on the seaboard, the poor, seeking land, were forced to go West, thereby becoming a useful bulwark for the rich because "the first target of the Indian's hatchet was the frontierman's skull" (p.88) A full chapter is dedicated to the systematic elimination of the Indians, especially under President Alexander Hamilton.
The Civil War comes under the microscope next. It’s not at all the standard version. The main claim is that Abraham Lincoln may or may not have had his personal preferences when it came to the abolition of slavery, but that, in the words of the London Spectator: the Emancipation Proclamation had "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading: The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States." (p. 192) Zinn basically alleges that Lincoln was mainly looking after the interests of the North and not much more. Extensive coverage is also given to the large number of deserters, which is where the “civil disobedience” theme of the book kicks off.
The story moves on to the plight of the small farmer in the late 19th century. Either he was indentured to an estate (and the story of several movements and uprisings is given, with emphasis on the Rensselaer Estate) or he found himself sliding from small landowner to renter as the price of agricultural products fell, while his costs rose. The Homestead Act of 1860 distributed land to independent farmers, but, in the author’s words, "the government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money -based on the gold supply- steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation. The farmer had to pay off his debts in dollars that were harder to get. The bankers, getting the loans back, were getting dollars worth more than when they loaned them out - a kind of interest on top of interest. That is why so much of the talk of farmers' movements in those days had to do with putting more money in circulation -by printing greenbacks or by making silver a basis for issuing money.” (p. 284)
This segues naturally into the tale of the Progressive movement: its humble beginnings in 1877 Depression Texas with the Farmers’ Alliance, the Cleburne Demands and the formation of the Populist Party, its 1890 convention in Topeka, Kansas and the ultimate miscalculation the Progressives made when they entered mainstream politics in coalition with the Democratic Party in the 1896 elections, who coopted them by promising to introduce Silver into the specie, reducing the entire thrust of the Progressive movement to a single issue.
"Once allied with the Democratic party in supporting William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896, Populism would drown in a sea of Democratic politics. If the Democrats won, it would be absorbed. If the Democrats lost, it would disintegrate. Electoral politics brought into the top leadership the political brokers instead of the agrarian radicals." (p. 294) And so it was that this movement came to a dead end when Bryan, the Democratic candidate, was defeated by William McKinley.
This is a brief interlude and from there we get to the robber barons of the late nineteenth century, the railroad and steel magnates, the Carnegies, the Morgans etc. Here’s where they fit into the narrative:
"Land cost money and machines cost money -so farmers had to borrow, hoping that the prices of their harvests would stay high, so they could pay back for the loan, the railroad for the transportation, the grain merchant for the handling of the grain, the storage elevator for storing it. But they found the prices for their produce going down, and the prices of transportation and loans going up, because the individual farmer could not control the price of his grain, while the monopolist railroad and the monopolist banker could charge what they liked. (p. 283)
The robber barons are not Zinn’s favorites: "By 1904 more than a thousand railroad lines had been consolidated into six great combinations, each allied with either Morgan or Rockefeller interests" (p. 323)
"The imperial leader of the new oligarchy was the House of Morgan. In its operations it was ably assisted by the First National Bank of New York, (directed by George F. Baker) and the National City Bank of New York (presided by James Stillman, agent of the Rockefeller interests). Among them, these three men and their financial associates occupied 341 directorships in 112 great corporations. The total resources of these corporations in 1912 was 22,245,000,000, more than the assessed value of all property in the twenty-two states and territories west of the Mississippi River.” (p. 323)
Even their philanthropy is portrayed as a cynical attempt to support a system:
“Rockefeller helped found the University of Chicago. Huntington, of the Central Pacific, gave money to two Negro colleges, Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute. Carnegie gave money to colleges and Libraries. Johns Hopkins was founded by a millionaire merchant, and millionaires Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ezra Cornell, James Duke and Leland Stanford created universities in their names” (p. 262) “These universities did not encourage dissent; they trained the middlemen in the American system - the teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, technicians, politicians - those who would be paid to keep the system going, to be loyal buffers against trouble.” (p. 263)
He does not think much of the sundry attempts to contain the robber barons and their trusts. He cannot get himself to say anything nice about the Sherman Act, even:
"The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, called itself "An Act to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints" and made it illegal to form a "combination or conspiracy" to restrain trade in interstate of foreign commerce. Senator John Sherman, author of the Act, explained the need to conciliate the critics of monopoly: "They had monopolies of old, but never before such giants as in our day. You must heed their appeal or be ready for the socialist, the communist, the nihilist. Society is now disturbed by forces like never before" (p. 259)
He regardless complains that: "In 1895 the Court interpreted the Sherman Act as to make it harmless. It said a monopoly of sugar refining was a monopoly in manufacturing, not commerce, and so could not be regulated by Congress through the Sherman Act,” (p. 260) which to my ears does not sound consistent. Either it was no big deal, or its reinterpretation was no big deal, but one can’t advocate both…
He also views the Supreme Court as an instrument of suppression:
"State Legislatures, under the pressure of aroused farmers, has passed laws to regulate the rates charges farmers by the railroads. The Supreme Court (Wabash v. Illinois, 1886) said states could not do this, that this was an intrusion on federal power" and, separately, "the Supreme Court accepted the argument that corporations were "persons" and their money was property protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Supposedly the Fourteenth Amendment had been passed to protect Negro rights, but of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, nineteen dealt with the Negro, 288 dealt with corporations.” (both p. 261)
Having gotten these preliminaries out of the way, he dives into the birth of American Socialism, which was born in the great labor uprisings of 1877 – 1894. This is, very much, the heart of the book, the book Zinn really cared to write, and it shows: it’s rather good.
The scene is set as follows: "There were 5.5 million immigrants in the 1880s, 4 million in the 1890s, creating a labor surplus that kept wages down. The immigrants were more controllable, more helpless than native workers, they were cultutrally displaced, at odds with one another, therefore useful as strike-breakers. Often their children worked, intensifying the problem of an oversized labor force and joblessness; in 1880 there were 1,118,000 children under sixteen (one out of six) at work in the United States" (p. 266). Also, we’re informed that "The new immigrants became laborers, housepainters, stonecutters, ditchdiggers. They were often imported en masse by contractors" (p. 266)
We then get a blow-by-blow account of the execution of the nineteen “Molly Maguires” in coal-mining Pennsylvania in 1874, the Great Railroad Strike of 1874 in Martinsburg, West Virginia and how it spread to Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh and taken through the full story of the great railroad strikes of 1877, as a result of which “a hundred people were dead, a thousand had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities" (p. 251), on the way to a full account of the most celebrated workers’ uprising in history, the events that took place in Chicago in the spring of 1886.
I don’t know why, but Zinn studiously avoids making the link to the internationally celebrated Mayday holiday which refers to the Haymarket Square events. Here’s the only quote where you get any hint:
"By the spring of 1886, the movement for an eight-hour day had grown. On May 1, the American Federation of Labor, now five years old, called for nationwide strikes wherever the eight-hour day as refused. Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, opposed the strike, saying that employers and employees must first be educated on the eight-hour day, but assemblies of the Knights made plans to strike.” (p. 269)
But he does describe the events rather fully, referring to the May 4 Haymarket Square bomb that left 66 policemen wounded, 7 fatally, and the blame that was laid at the feet of Parsons and Spies, the leaders of the Central Labor Union, the eight death sentences that followed, and of course the fact that when four years later four of the Haymarket eight were executed, people all over the US arose: "it is impossible to know the number of individuals whose political awakening came after the Haymarket Affair" (p. 271) Moreover, “with over 1,400 strikes involving more than 500,000 people, year 1886 became known as the year of the great uprising of labor; this came after an average of 500 strikes a year involving 150,000 people from 1881 to 1885” (p. 273)
Strong accounts follow of the 1891 Tennessee Coal Mine Company strike in 1891 and of course the 1892 Carnegie Steel Plant strike at Homestead Pennsylvania, where Henry Clay Frick (who later survived being shot by anarchist Alexander Berkman in his office) hired the Pinkerton detective agency to fight the strikers and protect the strike breakers, leading not only to many deaths, but crucially also to the acquittal of the strikers, possibly the first instance in the history of the US labor movement where the workers won over the sympathy of the jury.
And so the scene is now set for the establishment of the Socialist Party:
“The year 1893 saw the biggest economic crisis in the country's history: 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of a labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed” (p. 277)
It was the Depression of 1893 that propelled Eugene Debs into a lifetime of action for unionism and socialism. He formed the American Railway Union despite having opposed the great strikes of 1877 (p. 278)
The 1894 Pullman Palace Car Company strike, which was crushed on orders of President Grover Cleveland (13 dead, 55 wounded and 700 arrested) resulted in the arrest of Eugene Debs. "Debs, in court, denied he was a socialist. But during his six months in prison he studied socialism and talked to fellow prisoners who were socialist.. Later he wrote "I was to be baptized in Socialism in the roar of conflict."" (p. 281)
“The Socialist party was founded in 1901 and made Eugene Debs its presidential candidate 5 times; its newspaper, "Appeal to Reason" had half a million subscribers (p. 393), as "Socialism moved out of the small circles of city immigrants -Jewish and German socialists speaking their own languages - and became American. The strongest Socialist state was Oklahoma, which in 1914 has twelve thousand dues-paying members (more than New York State" (p. 340)
From that point it’s been steadily downhill for American Socialism, and it’s downhill for the “People’s History” too, I’m afraid.
As discussed above, a big problem is that Zinn only seems capable of celebrating revolutionaries, rather than all true leaders. So we are treated to a the full story of the (admittedly rather remarkable and often very effective) anarcho-syndicalist “wobblies” of the IWW who advocated "direct action by, for and of the workers themselves, without the treacherous aid of labor misleaders or scheming politicians" and aimed to bring about "the general strike which will complete the expropriation of the employers" (p. 330).
On the other hand, there’s contempt for the more mainstream unions that actually negotiated and brought about serious and lasting reforms. The achievements of the “Progressive Period” leave Zinn cold, basically. He recounts how:
• Teddy Roosevelt brought the Meat Inspection Act, the Hepburn Act (on railroads and pipelines), the Pure Food and Drug Act;
• Taft created the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate telephone and telegraph, proposed the 16th Amendment (graduated Income Tax) and the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators);
• Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission to control the growth of monopolies and the Federal Reserve Bank
but he’s rather churlish about it all, complaining that Roosevelt’s action against the trusts, for example was “to induce them to accept government regulation in order to prevent destruction.” (p. 351). The accusation here is that "The new approach was concerned with the long-range stability of the system, even at the cost, sometimes, of short-term profits” (p. 351) and the fact that by 1920 forty-two states had workmen’s compensation laws is presented as a negative, perhaps because "It seems quite clear that much of this intense activity for Progressive reform was intended to head off socialism." (p. 353)
My reaction is “who cares?” The US has plenty to be proud of in its past, and if the people who made these changes were looking to find a balance between the labor movement and business who is Howard Zinn to complain? The fact that “old age pensions and insurance against sickness, accident and unemployment are cheaper, are better business than jails, poor houses, asylums, hospitals" (p. 354) does not bother me, personally, at all. They are better, period.
The gilded age of the twenties is comes next and is granted the appropriate contempt, followed by the story of the Great Depression, which of course did some serious damage to the Socialist Party. Zinn tells the story of the bonus army parade on Washington of 1932 that saw Douglas McArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton in charge of four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a machine gun squadron and six tanks, all there to disperse the 20,000 WWI veterans who asked for but were refused some help. (p. 391)
Next, Zinn finds plenty to celebrate in the emergence of the major advance of the labor movement in the thirties, the sit-down strike (p. 399), but does not have it in him to show the same exuberance about the fact that child labor was officially abolished in 1938 or the fact that both minimum wage and the forty hour week were also established at that time. (p. 403)
With the labor movement having fully achieved all its goals, Zinn then turns his attention fully to decrying American Imperialism (which he never calls by its name) and the military-industrial complex (which he also never calls by his name)
Appendix 2: The History of American Imperialism, as told by Howard Zinn (can’t bother to finish it, sorry)
This thread of the book starts with his account of President Polk’s Mexican war, which the US apparently provoked (no reason to doubt him), continues with President McKinley’s Spanish-American War (an American invasion of Cuba in all but name) and goes on to the annexation of the Philippines (the Philippine-American War)
The main idea here is that not only were these wars were fought in the interest of business, they also reflected American racism:
"would not a foreign adventure deflect some for the rebellious energy that went into strikes and protest movements toward an external enemy? Would it not unite people with government, with the armed forces, instead of against them? This was probably not a conscious plan among most of the elite - but a natural development from the twin drives of capitalism and nationalism" (p. 297)
"by 1891, the Rockefeller family's Standard Oil Company accounted for 90 percent of American exports of kerosene and controlled 70 percent of the world market." (p. 301)
"an appeal for foreign markets would be especially strong if the expansion looked like an act of generosity -helping a rebellious group overthrow foreign rule -as in Cuba" (p. 301)
Winston Churchill is quoted as having written about the Cuban revolutionary war: "A grave danger represents itself. Two-fifths of the insurgents in the field are negroes. These men would, in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government of the country, the result being, after years of fighting, another black republic." (p. 303)
President McKinley is also quoted saying "There is nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died"