Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States considers the history of the US from the perspective of the underdog: the lower classes, workers, women, immigrants, African slaves and their descendants and indigenous people. The Washington Post has described Zinn as a hero of the modern far-left, with his pessimistic reading of US history and socialist or even neo-Marxist leanings. Predictably, Zinn is widely criticized as a poor historian by critics on the right, who believe that he has damaged young people’s understanding of American history.
Zinn’s writing can be dense, and is broken up by multiple lengthy quotations. He writes most passionately when he relies less on his sources and more on his own voice: particularly in his later chapters on the Civil Rights movement and the Carter, Reagan and Bush years.
Zinn expresses concern that US history is being taught in a way that erases the experiences of marginalized groups, including indigenous people and African slaves. This was probably true when the book was written, in 1980, though it is far less true today.
Zinn also argues that our country functions largely as an oligarchy. This argument still resonates today. Numerous aspects of our system, such as the role of lobbyists, campaign financing and the financial resources it takes to become involved in politics, suggest that Zinn is on target here: American politics tends to benefit the elite at the expense of those further down the chain. Unfortunately, Zinn’s message that the lower and middle classes should unite in challenging those elites has often been lost on his left-wing descendants, who too often emphasize polarization, divisiveness and even racial stereotypes.
However, there is cause for concern about Zinn’s historical accuracy. Zinn himself explicitly states that he never intended the book to be an objective work of history. Instead, it is a paean to a quasi-Marxist socialist utopia. Though this utopia is only briefly sketched out, it seems to involve a loose confederation of socialist communes, with little overarching federal authority. To say this vision is unworkable is an understatement. But my greater concern is Zinn’s ostensible lack of commitment to objectivity, which he appears to believe is simply unachievable. As I note in my own book How Madness Shaped History, objectivity in history is indeed difficult to achieve, as people tend to want historical narratives to relate comforting things about the present. We want to learn that our enemies are bad and we—or those with whom we identify—are good. Zinn provides this reassurance—except that the enemies here are US capitalists. But, however much a historian may struggle to overcome his own biases in presenting history, history does contain objective facts and we should strive to discover them.
Zinn rightly criticizes past historians for skipping past inconvenient details, but then does the same thing in his own narrative. Every decision made by the US—including our involvement in both world wars—is interpreted in the worst possible way, while atrocities committed by other cultures are barely mentioned. Zinn criticizes other historians for breezing past Columbus’ harsh treatment of indigenous people, but then barely mentions the Aztecs’ mass human sacrifices, or the fact that some indigenous tribes owned black slaves. He reluctantly admits that Stalin was a monster, yet suggests that the Soviet system became much better after Stalin and that “A remarkably open discussion had been initiated” in the Soviet Union by the the 1950s. This elides the fact that Soviet Russia remained a brutal, censorious, aggressive, authoritarian regime until its fall. The horrors of Maoist China are brushed off entirely, as are the failings of Communism wherever it has been tried. Mao’s brutal and murderous revolutionary faction, which caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese is described by Zinn as “a Communist movement with enormous mass support.” If older historians’ celebration of Columbus’ adventures and omission of their effects on indigenous peoples is, as Zinn suggests, irresponsible history telling, this certainly is too.
Zinn also fails to provide broader historical context. Before the mid-twentieth century—and all too often afterward—the history of humankind in most cultures was one of aggression, barbarism, elitism and ethnic strife. This context is critical to understanding the aggressiveness of a young eighteenth-century republic and its failure to live up to the values of the twenty-first century and to its own Bill of Rights. Brutal and vicious slavery was exceedingly common across human cultures—and still is today—as were violent wars of territorial expansion and ethnocentric empires. The fact that the United States made an attempt to move towards equality and liberalism—slowly and imperfectly to be sure—is historically uncommon. This does not mean that we should excuse the serious moral lapses of slavery and aggressive wars against indigenous people, but we should understand these in the context of generally poor human behavior at that time. Zinn is correct that the narrative of American exceptionalism often glosses over inconvenient truths. But Zinn is equally guilty of promoting what might be called reversed American exceptionalism, by giving unwitting readers the false impression that US history is uniquely evil. Ironically, this diverts considerable attention from the continued slavery of millions across the globe today.
Zinn also presents historical moments as exceedingly simple moral choices, in which the US consistently fails to make the right choice. He is almost relentless in depriving the US of any credit at all. I’m skeptical of the insinuation that the world would have been better had the US made Zinn’s morally pure choices at every turn. Zinn’s history promotes a moral ideal devoid of practical ramifications. For instance, Zinn seems almost desperate to paint Lincoln as unconcerned about slavery, yet even the examples Zinn provides suggest a president wrestling with the practical realities of the Civil War—not someone indifferent to the plight of slaves. Had Lincoln emancipated the slaves by decree upon assuming the presidency—had that even been possible—more states might have joined the Confederacy, which would have meant that the North would have lost the war and slavery would have persisted for longer.
Is A People’s History of the United States worth reading? Absolutely. Should it be taught to students as if it were true? Absolutely not. Zinn’s main contribution is noting that US history must take account of the horrors of our past. But he is wrong to paint a picture in which the US is incapable of any good action. His tome is no less biased than the propaganda histories he condemns. US history is still waiting for a narrative that at least strives toward objectivity, by acknowledging our failings and the harm we have inflicted, while celebrating our achievements and our ongoing struggle to overcome the limitations of our past. That is the book our students need to read. I look forward to the day it has been written.