Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is ostensibly a book of American history, yet there are many parallels with contemporary America, especially on the recurring themes of colonialism, race, class, and gender: “To awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance”. And therefore through the examination of key historical documents – and how they were written, as well as the background of the Americans who wrote them – such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, and key historical events such as the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War, readers are offered a loosely-chronological retelling of how the country came to be, and how it continues to negotiate this past, its present, and the future.
For instance, on the 1776 American Revolution:
“[Certain important people] found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favourites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership”.
And tangentially on the Constitution:
“When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support”.
The writer makes it clear from the beginning that he is telling this historical story from the points of view of “a community of people with common interests”, as opposed to that of “governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders” (who, throughout the book, are also critically evaluated for their flaws and personal motivations, in contrast to the conventional veneration heaped upon them). In this vein, from this other side, the 25 chapters chronicles the experiences of the average American, and the exposition is interspersed with quotes, recollections, and conversations. Criticisms of the lack of balance are warranted, though Zinn concedes that it is a “biased account”, with the intent of providing “counterforce” against the dominant narratives which are “tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen”. And it is only towards the end of the book, moreover, when there is a shift from the stories or anecdotes of others, to his personal perspectives and (Socialist) commentary.
Embedded in this commentary is the thesis that effective change “to defeat the combination of private capital and government power” can only be brought about through protests, mobilised through community organising and grassroots resistance. This is even more important given the state of political captivity – on both sides of the aisle – to corporate interests, and in particular the military-industrial complex. Throughout “A People’s History of the United States”, causal links (with supporting evidence) are drawn between revolts and social change, and this cumulative change, it is argued towards the end, “[comes] through citizens’ movements, educating, organising, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed”. But with the stubborn persistence of the historical problems and faultlines, one has to wonder whether such calls to action will still bring about change, in the future.