The ZINNterview

Chris Brady chris_brady at
Tue Oct 17 02:33:23 MDT 2000

Chris Brady interviews historian and long-time activist Howard Zinn for
The Student Insurgent [as published Jan. 1996] .

This is my interview Howard Zinn, well, most of it. I've never done "an
interview" before. I learned a thing or two. Number one: Get to the
point. I prepared a list of topics, but I think I wasted valuable time
with small talk and trying to make the man comfortable first. There is
no need to jolly a pro into an interview. I think "just call me Howard"
was as concerned with me being relaxed as I was about him. Especially
since I was zooming along the Interstate, fiddling with notes, one hand
on the wheel, manipulating the tape recorder with the other, etc. After
I dropped the tape recorder and we began edging into the next lane as I
fumbled around after it under my seat, Howard generously offered to
operate the [tape] machine for me. All that aside, I thought we had a
pleasant intro-chat/small talk. We commented on the weather. I jabbered
inanely about my family. Then we discussed our feelings about art. It
may be a judgement call, but I think it was around then that we began
investigating topics of more interest to this readership. Professor Zinn
was commenting about the commodification of art and the role of art
HZ: ...The critics become voices of the dominant culture in a very
odious way. Critics should be, well, what the word "criticism"
represents: they should be the opposition, they should be gadflies, but
they're not. And so if the critics don't rave about a play it's not
going to last.

SI: You wrote a play, "Emma..."

HZ: Yeah, right.

SI: ...seemed to have not a bad run in Boston.

HZ: It had a long run in Boston; it was the longest running play in
Boston in 1977.

SI: It was about, uh, let me guess, Emma Goldman?

HZ: Yes, it was about Emma Goldman, the anarchist feminist. And it got
great reviews from the critics in Boston. Showing that what I said about
critics isn't always true [we laugh]. It's most true in New York.
("Yeah, sure.") But it got very good reviews, terrific audience
responses, and went on to play in New York, and London, and Tokyo. It's
had a number of productions all around the world, and in the States. And
then I wrote a couple of plays after that. My most recent play is about
Karl Marx.

SI: Oh, really. So, you've got Emma Goldman and Karl Marx. (He laughs).
I wanted to ask about anarchism, historical materialism and how they
relate, what the possibilities are. I'd like to know, do you identify
yourself, and I'm somewhat sensitive to categorization, as a libertarian
socialist or an anarchist or not. I noticed in your book [Zinn's memoir,
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train] you referred to yourself as a
"democratic socialist," and that could mean a number of things.

HZ: Well, like you, I resist categorization. A lot of people have asked
me, "Are you a Marxist?" And, uh, I would...

SI: "Je ne suis pas une Marxiste." [I interrupt to quote from Zinn's
essay of that name, Marx's words actually, from Zinn's book Failure To

HZ: --Exactly! [Zinn laughs]... and, uh, yeah, but I usually say, well,
uh, yeah, sort of, maybe, partly, it depends. Uh, I'm partly Marxist,
partly socialist, partly anarchist, and partly small "d" democrat,
libertarian--all of these things. Probably anarchism comes closest to my
way of thinking than anything else, but you know there are so many
different kinds of anarchists that I'd have to explain that. But
generally, the anarchist critique of the state, including socialist
states, is one that I'm sympathetic with. And the anarchist idea that
you make the revolution as you go along, that you don't, uh, look
forward to some one cataclysmic moment when suddenly the revolution has
taken place. But you revolutionize your life and the life of other
people around you. It's a process. So that becomes a revolution not by
an elite which seizes power--even though it seizes power with the
support of the people, it's still an elite--but a revolution that's made
by a people who have revolutionized themselves, over a period of time,
and has a possibility, at least, of being a true popular revolution...

SI: Over the summer, I was involved with a dialogue or a debate, it
depends on who you're talking to, concerning the Unabomber.

HZ: Oh.

SI: And in so doing, I had warned against cozying up to assassins and
killers, irrespective of their stated cause, uh, because there had been
some emanations from certain quarters extolling the FC Manifesto as
introducing the debate over industrial capitalism.

HZ: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

SI: And in so doing, I said that I doubted whether--you know a lot of
this was emanating from people who were self-described anarchists...

HZ: Mmm-hmm.

SI: Okay. And I said I doubted whether Chomsky or Zinn--and this is a
presumption I admit--would go along with, uh, let's say rationalizing
the Unabomber.

HZ: Yeah. No! Never. I mean the fact that somebody like that makes some
statements that make sense should not, you know, encourage us to speak
kindly of somebody who commits random, irrational acts of violence which
are not revolutionary acts at all. After all, we don't need the acts of
a Unabomber in order to make sound analyses of what's wrong with
society. I don't understand why people think that they have to embrace
all of the elements of something that is said by somebody, why they
can't say, "Well, yes, there's this statement that's a rational one but
the other three statements are absolutely stupid and absurd and awful."
SI: In a rebuttal from Tad Kepley, who's the editor of Anarchy: A
Journal of Desire Armed, he declared that "the grand number of
anarchists in the United States don't consider Chomsky and Zinn to be

HZ: Who cares what he says?! ...of course, I don't care whether he
considers us to be anarchists or not. I don't consider him to be an
authority--no matter what he considers himself. And I hope he doesn't
consider me an authority, and obviously he doesn't. So, we're even.
   It would seem to me very contrary to the anarchist philosophy to set
yourself up as a judge of whether somebody else is an anarchist or not.
One of the fundamental principles of anarchism is a lack of dogmatism,
and a lack of rigid definitions, and that's one of the reasons why there
are many different kinds of anarchists. I doubt that Noam Chomsky would
be offended, although he might be slightly amused by this man
questioning whether he is an anarchist or not.

SI: We talked a little about "authority" before.

HZ: Right. And I was saying that it seems to me that it is fundamental
to anarchism not to accept the word of authority. You were asking about
"experts," people who know a lot more than other people, and I agree
that there are people who know a lot more than other people do, but the
fact that they do should not be proof of the fact that their word should
be or will be taken without question. In fact, when somebody does know a
lot about a subject, you have to be especially on guard, because the awe
with which knowledgeable people are looked on very often becomes an easy
entrance to unquestioning acceptance of whatever they're saying.
Also, there are times when somebody's huge knowledge about something is
expected to carry over to another area where that person really doesn't
know anything. The facts that a person knows are assumed therefore to
give credibility to a conclusion that that person draws from those
facts, and facts may be right and the conclusion may be wrong. And,
sure, when somebody like Noam Chomsky, who knows so much about so many
things, and so much more about so many subjects than I do, because he
and I have, fundamentally, the same values, I will trust what he says
more, than I will trust the opinions of Henry Kissinger, let us say.
I know Noam will appreciate the comparison. But if somebody says to me,
"I think that Chomsky is wrong on this matter," I will listen to them on
the supposition that anybody can be wrong, even Noam Chomsky. Everybody
should be open to scrutiny.

SI: This leads into another "authority" as far as economics is
concerned. Lester Thurow, the economist from MIT, described how the
greatest inequality between the richest and the poorest parts of our
society is now becoming evident. For the first time since the figures
were even recorded, it is the greatest discrepancy ever. Now we've been
reading this sort of thing in the left press for years ("Sure.") It is a
trend that is not a big surprise to us. ("Sure.") This is coming on the
scene now from respected authorities, like Thurow, and Klugman, and
Stephen Ratner...

HZ: Yeah, it is entering the mainstream. It has become so obvious; so
evident, so overwhelming, that it is no longer just the talk of the
left. As you say, it's these established economists and writers that are
pointing this out.

SI: I wonder if some of the concern expressed is not so much for this
feature in the economy itself rather than as a warning to capitalists.
HZ: Well, Lester Thurow talks to a lot of capitalists. I mean, he goes
around and gives talks to corporations and I can't say I know what his
motivation is, but, uh, ...

SI: ...with the "intentional fallacy" consideration...

HZ: yeaw, yeaw, it's hard to know what his intention is. But certainly
there have always been in the capitalist system those capitalists who
are worried about capitalism going too far, in creating the danger of
uprising and reaction. This happened during the New Deal. After all,
Roosevelt was supported by some very powerful capitalists, who, like
Roosevelt, saw that the system was in danger.
   The Twenties was a period that's in some ways like the present
period. That's a period when the Stock Market was booming, profits were
going up, productivity was going up, and the workers' wages were not
going up. The Twenties was a period when the tax structure of the
country was changed. [Multi-millionaire] Andrew Mellon was Secretary of
the Treasury and he saw to it that the progressive income tax became
much less progressive. That change in the tax structure benefitted the
rich in the Nineteen-Twenties, and the gap between rich and poor became
very great. Unquestionably, it was a factor that led to the great crisis
of 1929. It was something that I think comes very close to affirming
Marxist theory about crisis under capitalism resulting from the
discrepancy between runaway production and the existence of surplus
value and the inability of workers to buy back the products--I'm giving
a rather crude explanation of the Marxist theory of economic crises
which some Marxists would agree with, others would not--but I think
that, fundamentally, that it is true.

SI: I wanted to ask, in talking about Marx, about the relevance of
"historical materialism" today as far as the historian is concerned. Is
this a term that's useful anymore, or should it be renamed, or is it an

HZ: Well, uh, I don't think we should eliminate any term that has some
degree of truth to it, and I think "historical materialism" lost its
reputation because it was turned by Stalinism into a very rigid dogma
of, you know, this is how society, how history moves: it moves from
primitive communalism to slavery to feudalism to capitalism to socialism
to communism--and that's it, you know. And it moves from one to the
other because of the difference between the way the productive forces
develop and the way the productive relations develop. Generations of
Marxists were taught that in this very rigid way, certainly in the
Soviet Union and even in Communist Party educational schools in the
United States.
   It's too mechanical a way of approaching the development of history
because things simply haven't happened that way. Developments like
fascism had to be given a special kind of analysis by Marxists. I
remember an Indian Marxist named R. Palme Dutt wrote about fascism and
explained it as a certain variant form of capitalism--which makes sense,
yes--but my point is that you have what we've seen in the most recent
period: no clean-cut progression from capitalism to socialism. We've
seen the Soviet Union develop from a semi-capitalist/semi-feudal state
into what seemed to be, although it called itself a socialist state,
what more and more became more like state capitalism, although some
people call it state socialism. And so we see these various forms
developing. In China we're seeing social forms develop which don't fit
neatly into categories of capitalism and socialism.
   Historical materialism has something in it that is worthwhile, that
is: the very idea that you should look at systems historically, take a
look at the contradictions within systems. One of the fundamental
principles of historical materialism is to look at the clash between how
the technology is developing on the one hand and how production is
advancing on the other hand, how human relations develop
correspondingly. The idea that in capitalism there is a fundamental
contradiction, that is conflict, discrepancy, between the productive
forces becoming socialized, people becoming more interconnected, a world
economy being created, yet at the same time you have national states,
you have private entrepreneurships, private taking of profits. Yes, I
believe that conflict between the two is an important element of the
theory of historical materialism; I think that that is a very, very
accurate analysis of what we are seeing in modern capitalism, certainly
in the United States.
   The problem with phrases like historical materialism is that they
become shorthand expressions for very complex phenomena. And so it's
okay to use the shorthand expression, just so long as you can explain
it, and explain the complexities, just as it's okay if you ask me if I'm
a Marxist and I said, well, maybe, sort of, and then explain what I
mean, it's fine. In other words, the term is an introduction to a
discussion, and not the end point of the discussion.

SI: So in effect you might find that, not to put words in your mouth,
but to explore this just a little further, that the utilization of
historical materialism both by its detractors and by its supporters has
tended to resolve into more of a historical determinism than as, say,
the introduction of the quote [from Marx] "the ruthless criticism of
everything existing" leads to a more open ended understanding of
historical processes.

HZ: Right! Right.

SI: From historical materialism perhaps now would be a good time to ask
what your influences were as a developing historian. I was wondering, as
I have more than a passing interest in the subject, if We, The People by
Leo Huberman ever came up?

HZ: I remember We, The People very well. We, The People was for me an
important book when I was a teenager, both because of its substance and
its style, both because it was a left-wing treatment of American history
and also because it was written for the masses. It was written in such
clear, simple language. It's no wonder that Leo Huberman was the
educational director of the National Maritime Union, because in that job
he had to write in such a way that seaman could understand--not that
seaman aren't capable of understanding complex Marxian theory, but
nobody should be subjected to reading Volume Two of Das Kapital.
[Laughter]. Leo Huberman was a wonderful popularizer of history and also
of economics. He wrote a book--We, The People was one of his great
books--another one was Man's Worldly Goods. Ever hear of that?

SI: Sure, I've been working on it. My thesis concerns Leo Huberman. [We
turnoff I-5 at Highway 34 as I ramble about Huberman's papers, then try
to jam in questions before Joey takes Howard the last leg of the trip.]

HZ: ...yeah, Charles Beard, when I was just a kid I read The Rise of
American Civilization. I was struck by both the grace of his style, and
he seemed to be a progressive-minded person. Then I read The Economic
Interpretation of the Constitution and that, really, I felt was a
wonderful, wonderful critique. My influences were not established
American historians, except for Beard. You might say I developed a
radical approach to American history before I really read too many
American historians. There was a book on English history called A
People's History of England which I read, by a man named A. L. Morton,
and I was very impressed with that book. It was not a very fat book, but
a very fine book. It actually, I think, gave me an idea about writing a
history of people's movements, instead of a history of kings and
presidents and so on. But a lot of my influences were not historians;
they were people like Lincoln Steffen's autobiography, and George
Seldes, and John Reed, uh... [there's some banter as we pull to a stop
in the parking lot of the Arco station for the transfer]

SI: Are there other popular histories like yours, and Huberman's? Like
there's Harvey Wasserman's to which you wrote an introduction...

HZ: Yeah, I like Harvey Wasserman's book [big smile].

SI: Are there any other examples of that type of popular history that
would come to mind, immediately?

HZ: Uh, not too much. You might say I'm blocking my rivals in the field
of popular history [I laugh]. I mean, there's a lot of good history
that's been done... A new book has just come out, Lies My Teacher Told
Me is good. And Not So! by Paul Boller...

SI: Just before you go, I wanted to ask your opinion on something, here
[I plug in a Zinn lecture tape and play back my selection: "...something
was missing that I did not really become aware of until I got out of
school, until I got out of graduate school, until I finished my PhD, and
began reading things on my own. Often your education doesn't really
start until you get out of school. What was left out was the human cost
of what was called human progress..."] I was gonna ask--

HZ: When did I give that talk?

SI: That was in St. Michael's College in--

HZ: Where'd you get that from?

SI: Roger Leisner.

HZ: Oh, Roger Leisner! [happily] Radio Free Maine.

SI: Yeah, I was gonna ask, what happens when you get this information
before you graduate?

HZ: What happens--when you get this information?

SI: [garble about radicalisms potential to compromise the validity of
teachings and subsequent alienation of student and professors, etc.] ...
maybe ignorance is bliss. Michael Parenti came across with the same
thing, "I didn't learn about this stuff until I got out." I wonder if
maybe you're "corrupted" if you learn it before...

HZ: Well, not necessarily, not if you've been a bartender.

[We said good-bye, see ya later, etc. Later that evening, we did
exchange nods and grins before he went up on stage to speak in front a
standing-room-only crowd of hundreds in the EMU student union building
at the University of Oregon, November 21, 1995]

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