Quotulatiousness

January 11, 2013

The old left, the new left, and the late Howard Zinn

Filed under: History, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 14:13

In Reason, Thaddeus Russell reviews a recent book on the life of historian Howard Zinn:

There was once a radical left in the United States. Back then, it was common to hear on college campuses and in respectable left-wing publications that liberals and the Democratic Party were the enemies of freedom, justice, and the people. Democratic politicians who expanded welfare programs and championed legislation that aided labor unions were nonetheless regarded as racists, totalitarians, and mass murderers for their reluctance to defend the civil rights of African Americans, for their collusion with capitalists, for their use of police powers to repress dissent, and for their imperialist, war-making policies. There was widespread left-wing rejection of the liberal claim that government was good, and many leftists spoke of and stood for a thing they called liberty.

There was no better exemplar of that thoroughgoing, anti-statist left than Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States, whose death in 2010 was preceded by a life of activism and scholarship devoted to what could be called libertarian socialism. It is difficult to read Martin Duberman’s sympathetic but thoughtful biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, without lamenting how different Zinn and his ilk were from what now passes for an alternative political movement in this country. And for those of us with an interest in bridging the left and libertarianism, the book will also serve as a painful reminder of what once seemed possible. Howard Zinn’s life was a repudiation of the politics of the age of Obama.

[. . .]

Zinn was deeply influenced by anarchists, and this anti-statism kept him from doing what most of the left has been doing of late — identifying with the holders of state power. Some of Zinn’s friends, Duberman writes, resented his “never speaking well of any politician.” When many considered John F. Kennedy to be a champion of black civil rights, Zinn declared that the president had done only enough for the movement “to keep his image from collapsing in the eyes of twenty million Negroes.” Going farther, Zinn argued that African Americans should eschew involvement with any state power, and even counseled against a campaign for voting rights. “When Negroes vote, they will achieve as much power as the rest of us have — which is very little.” Instead, they should create “centers of power” outside government agencies from which to pressure authorities.

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