'Progressive change is possible'
Interview with Howard Zinn, historian and political activist.
To remain united in times of war is to surrender to the strategies and policies of the state. Falling in line, not thinking for oneself and obeying the state's commands are, according to famous journalist I.F. Stone, ways to avoid conveniently coming face to face with truth.
Howard Zinn's writings make a case for "transcendence", a need "to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought, and dare to say things that no one else will say". This statement is substantiated by Zinn in book after book, from A People's History of the United States to You cannot be Neutral on a Running Train, from Terror on War to Artists in Times of War and Rule by Force. The United States' governments, according to him, have economically and politically exploited its own people and people of the world.
This is largely kept out of the histories taught to school-going students. War, which has always accompanied economic exploitation, needs to be rejected at all costs. Zinn feels that the role of artists, activists and publishers is vital to resistance movements aimed at peace and protection of human rights as well as to offering a "a significant corrective to the triumphalism" of U.S. military power.
Zinn asks: "Are you going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country?" At the outset, he makes a case against the professionals who deride any one who dares to comment on an important question concerning the nation. Zinn asserts: "All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world. We must be undeterred by the cries of the people who say, 'You don't know. You are not an expert. These people up there they know'."
The White House or the Congress are not the only bodies that have to take decisions and which "know"; the involvement of citizens, as emphasised by Rousseau, is crucial to the running of the country. "When the government becomes destructive... then it is patriotic to dissent and to criticise." And, finally, Zinn sends out a clear admonishment of his country's rulers: "Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back." He is of the view that the average citizen can shape history through social involvement.
In 1980, Zinn lay down his account of the American history in the best-selling A People's History of the United States. More than a million copies of the book have already been sold. It's a classic as well as an amazingly far-reaching and radical view of the world.
In his famous play, "Marx in Soho", Zinn resurrects Marx so that he can speak to the contemporary audience in Soho, urging them "to get off their asses" and remember that to be radical is to "simply grasp the root of the problem and the problem is us". His suggestion at the end of the play is: "Pretend you have boils (remember Marx had boils from which he suffered till the end). Pretend that sitting on your ass gives you enormous pain, so you must stand up. You must move, you must act."
Going beyond socialism or capitalism, he wants people to have food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, and "some hours of work, more hours of leisure". As far as wars go, workers of all countries must unite against the criminal foreign policies, which squander people's blood and wealth and vindicate the laws of morals and justice in international affairs.
Complimenting Howard Zinn as a teacher, writer Alice Walker notes: "What can I say that will in any way convey the love, respect, and admiration I feel for this unassuming hero who was my teacher and mentor, this radical historian and people-loving trouble-maker, this man who stood with us and suffered with us? Howard Zinn was the best teacher I ever had, and the funniest." This was corroborated by Chomsky. Recently asked who he thought was one of the great dissidents of our time, he remarked "Howard Zinn" without thinking twice.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier during the Second World War, Howard Zinn went to Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. in history. He taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and later at Boston University. A history Fellow at Harvard University and a visiting Professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bolgnahis, his career spanning 40 years have put him at the forefront of contemporary intellectuals as a major radical historian and a progressive political theorist. His social activism has brought a new and sympathetic approach to the study and teaching of history.
Shelley Walia, Professor of English Studies at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh, interviewed Professor Howard Zinn recently. Excerpts:
Could you throw light on important influences on you in the early stages of your life?
I grew up in a working class family, reading Marx, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. And most important of all, I became class conscious.
Could you elaborate on your becoming class conscious?
I grew up in a working class family, saw how hard my father worked, how hard my mother worked, without becoming prosperous. On the other hand, I saw in newspapers and magazines the photos of the rich, and I could not tell whether they did any work or not, and when I found out what kind of work some of them did it seemed to me dangerous for society. When I went to work in the shipyard - long hours, hard work, little pay - I realised that most of the people on the planet work hard, with very little compensation.
Would you say that the American society is deeply class conscious?
Americans are class conscious, though they don't use that expression. Americans know that the country is controlled by a small number of rich people. But they feel they can't do anything about that, so there is a sense of resignation in the face of something inevitable. But the history of the United States is a history of labour struggles, always involving class consciousness. Some of the most bitter labour struggles in the world have taken place in the United States, between the 1870s and the 1930s.
Should I say that your writings have been interventionist because you believe in 'libertarian anarchism'?
I don't like to label my views that way. I'm a certain kind of socialist, a certain kind of anarchist. Maybe 'democratic socialism' comes closest. I like Dalton Trumbo's vision which advocates 'socialism without jails'.
Could you comment on your brand of 'democratic socialism'?
A socialism that uses resources for human needs of production based on need rather than on profit, a roughly equal distribution of the country's wealth; there should be no person without adequate healthcare, housing and employment. And there should be no control of thought or speech.
How far is anarchism useful for social transformation?
A useful concept with which to be suspicious of centralised authority, to insist on individual freedom, to be sceptical of all governments, and to insist on grassroots democracy.
As a teacher, do you take your classroom as a place for provocative teaching methods to move students towards activism? You say students "need the right circumstances, the right openings". How do you provide these to enable them to begin new student movements? And how do you "mobilise class anger" to bring about social transformation?
Yes, the classroom should not be removed from the real world of social conflict. That would be depriving students of the most important kind of education as well as their preparation to become active citizens. I have always liked to bring my students out into the community, have them join organisations, become active, and then come back to the classroom to report on their experiences. You "mobilise class anger" any time you organise people around the problems of workers or of poor people.
In today's world of television and fast food culture, can "art as politics" or the role of the political theatre influence public opinion? Only a miniscule of the population is aware of such art forms. How do we make theatre reach out to larger audiences?
It's true that theatre has a limited audience, especially for the young who watch movies and television. But it is still a force, and can become more of a force if plays that are both entertaining and socially conscious are written and produced.
Could you comment on the plays that you have written and their social relevance?
My play "Emma" is about the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman, who spoke against war, capitalism, the state, and in favour of women's rights, free love. My play "Daughter of Venus" is about the arms race, reflected in a family's internal conflicts of the 1980s Cold War period. My play "Marx in Soho" is a fantasy about Karl Marx returning today and commenting not only about the distortion of his ideas by the Soviet Union, but about the relevance of his critique of capitalism in today's world.
Could you say something on your support for the activists and students in the 1960s? I believe you were actively involved then in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? You have opposed the very idea of war emphasising that "no war is ever justified". Tell us something about your experience of flying into Hanoi in 1968 to receive the first U.S. prisoners of war released by the North Vietnamese government?
Yes, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. I marched and protested with my students. I came out of the Second World War with the conviction that war solves no fundamental problems and, instead, corrupts everyone who engages in it. As far as my experience of going into Hanoi you could read about that in my memoir You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train. I can only say that it was the first time that I, a bombardier, experienced being bombed, as was true every day and night Daniel Berrigan and I were in Hanoi. It was a sobering experience. Bombing is terrorism. It terrorises people, and it kills the innocent, on an even larger scale than any brand of terrorist can achieve.
You have been a tireless political campaigner, standing up for peace, freedom from war and from political persecution and oppression. Do you think that your role as a dissident writer has in any way intensified movements that help to bring about a civil society?
We never know our effect. Of course there is a kind of feedback, in person, in letters, which makes me think my writings have had an effect on people and have moved them into political activism.
Would you not say that in the wake of the recent U.S. elections, the President's control of Congress will also allow him to put his stamp on the third arm of the federal government, the Supreme Court, the most powerful weapon in the country's continuing cultural war?
Yes, of course, all three branches of government will be controlled by the Bush administration. This puts a greater burden on social movements to act outside of the political structure by means of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, refusals, civil disobedience, and resistance of all kinds. The opportunity to fill three or four vacancies in the court over the next four years could create a solid conservative majority, which could lead to a ban on abortion, among other potentially dramatic changes.
No violence can put an end to human passion for dignity and justice. Then how can the people of the U.S. allow the implementation of the Patriot Act?
Only by refusing to comply. Some librarians shredded their records rather than turn them over to the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]. We must defend every person who is apprehended, publicise all acts that diminish our liberties and inform people that we are in a pre-fascist stage, which is destroying democracy.
Free market economy and the victory of capitalism has brought with it not happiness, but increase in poverty, disparities and violence. In this context how would you react to globalisation and its impact on the developing nations?
We must react to that with a globalisation of resistance, reaching out beyond national boundaries to create an international movement of solidarity.
Your comments on outsourcing. It has been a hot topic recently in the U.S. and India.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union during a protest action in Los Angeles in October 2002. Howard Zinn: "Americans are class conscious, though they don't use that expression. Americans know that the country is controlled by a small number of rich people."
Outsourcing results in terrible working conditions abroad, and loss of jobs in the U.S. The remedies lie in organising working people in other countries and, in the U.S., demanding that workers who lose their jobs are guaranteed new jobs or are compensated with unemployment insurance adequate to take care of their families.
Do you think it would make a difference to corporate power if the Third World boycotts the products of the multinationals?
Boycotts are a very effective way for consumers without power to create a power that frightens the multinationals.
How would you describe the corporate control of the media which has left a majority of the population in a state of ignorance of trade proposals, international arms trade and the real reasons of going to war in Iraq? Where does the socialist politics of the non-mainstream media lie in the present world of multinational conglomerate control?
We need to develop alternative media. We have begun. We have several hundred community radio stations. We have the Pacific Network. We have cable stations like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now". And we must use the Internet, which is a powerful tool for information and organisation.
Would you say many journalists still lose their jobs in the media for reporting against the policies of the government?
Much more frequent than losing their jobs is stifling their independence and forcing them into the orthodox consensus.
Is it possible to break the nexus between the media and the elites?
The only answer to that nexus is the nurturing of an independent media, alternative radio and cable TV, alternative newspapers, and especially the Internet, which has revolutionary possibilities in defying the orthodoxy of the media.
Would you agree that there is a definite conspiracy behind the nexus between the corporate media and the political elite?
There is no need for a 'conspiracy' or for planning. They simply have the same common interest and so behave in a way that looks like a conspiracy.
Then, is democracy in crisis these days?
Democracy has always been in crisis. In the U.S. today it is more in crisis than ever before, with the centralisation of power, with an imperial foreign policy defying public opinion, with the media centralised and with corporate control of the economy tighter than ever.
Is the threat to democracy not from the intellectual scientific community and the increasing flow of corporate funds into universities, foundations, managements and major law firms that represent the interests of corporate capitalism?
Certainly. Science and knowledge are ruled by money as is everything else in the society. The real workings of power have to be revealed to the public, especially the students in the classroom. This is mostly concealed from students, but a truly democratic education would teach them the realities.
For instance, no mention was made of atrocities at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in the recent presidential debates. International law applicable to Prisoners of War (POWs) is thrown to the wind. What are your reactions to this conscious evasion of reality?
Of course, it is shameful that the Democratic Party is not an Opposition party at all, and that its candidate John Kerry paid no attention to Abu Ghraib. It is our responsibility to publicise these atrocities as much as we can because the political leaders won't do it.
Could you comment on the position of the Left in the U.S. today? Would you not agree that both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed all progressive principles won over the years in a society that calls itself liberal and free? Is progressive change possible in America where the role of the Left has almost disappeared and the Democrats deep down are no different from the Republicans?
I would say that progressive change is possible. The Left exists in America. You can't find it in the Democratic Party, but you can find it all over the country, in thousands of local organisations that struggle against the war, against militarism, and for the rights of women and the poor and the working people.
Do you think enough pressure can be brought to bear upon the U.S. government to stop its obsession with waging wars against countries and disguising them as 'pre-emptive acts'? Is the popular vote that went to Bush not an endorsement of his very muscular militaristic approach to international politics?
The pressure on the government already exists, but it needs to grow. Remember Bush only got 51 per cent of the popular vote. Forty nine per cent opposed him. And 40 per cent of the eligible voters did not vote at all. This is hardly an endorsement! More than half the country opposed the war, as shown in public opinion poll after poll.
Do you agree that as long as the Zionist lobby remains strong in the U.S., a solution to the West Asian problem is not possible?
Well the lobby may remain strong but the realities of the Middle East [West Asia] may dictate a solution, in spite of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation].
Could you comment on the post-Arafat political situation in West Asia?
Arafat's demise is certainly a watershed in the history of West Asia. A blood-spattered retribution or a peaceful solution still remain the alternatives before Israel and the leadership that will now take over the PLO.
Where does the solution lie?
At a certain time in the future, we can't say when, the Jews in Israel will get tired of the unending violence and will demand that their government get out of the Occupied Territories.
Protest is vital to the notion of social transformation. But war-mongering, religious opposition to homosexuality, elitism and racism all have increased. To counter these anti-social or conservative trends, a new international Left is urgently needed. But how would you suggest we should go about it?
There is no magic formula. We must keep connecting across oceans and continents. Arundhati Roy is an example of someone who crosses all these lines and makes connections between the movements in India and in the U.S. We must do more of that.
Which other writers would you say are making all the difference through their writings that have the potential to intensify resistance movements around the world?
Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali.
What according to you is the role of the intellectual?
The proper role of the intellectual is to tell the truth that is not given in the media, in the textbooks, in the educational system; to be gadflies, whistleblowers, independent investigators, to give people a historical perspective, a philosophical basis, an understanding of the economic underpinnings of politics, and to inspire people with stories of those who have resisted oppression and injustice throughout history.
Have you ever felt over the years and especially in the post-9/11 period of being restricted by state pressure on airing your views on social and economic justice?
The only state pressure I have felt is knowing that the FBI was keeping a record on my activities. That never succeeded in restricting my activities.