My friend Stacy McCain has a very long, very thorough, and excellent post that details the FBI doc dump on historian Howard Zinn. In essence, J. Edgar was miffed at some pot shots Zinn took at the Bureau and, typical of Hoover’s paranoia and megalomania, ordered Zinn investigated.
Read all of Stacy’s post for an excellent analysis of why Zinn is one of the few on the left that I gladly refer to as “anti-American.” The FBI files reveal a man deeply committed to Communism and a shameless apologist for Stalin. As Stacy points out, Zinn joined the Communist Party USA after World War II - after the American left’s brief flirtation with Communism (until it came roaring back in the 1960’s) in the 30’s where it really seemed that capitalism had failed and socialism was the only viable model for some. At that time, many very naive, but loyal Americans joined the CPUSA believing as many on the left believe today, that there are shortcuts to a just society and that socialism is the wave of the future. Even after groups like the ADA had purged Communists from their midst, and Henry Wallace had been denounced by liberals like a young Hubert Humphrey, Zinn continued his association with the CPUSA, attending meetings 5 times a week and conducting seminars for initiates.
Clearly, Zinn was a big boy and threw in his lot with the Communists with his eyes wide open. So it is not surprising to find that Zinn was a card carrying Communist. The question is, does it matter?
For many of us who read A People’s History of the United States and were transfixed by the voices Zinn brought to life - the voices of the underclass, blacks, women, and others who had been silenced in American history textbooks - there was rush of insight not granted us previously . Social history had, until that time, been quite selective in which voices were heard. For example, the stories of people included in Arthur Schlesinger’s (senior) social histories (The Rise of the City is still considered one of the best social histories ever written) were inspirational and their activism was guided by a love of America and American ideals.
On the other hand, the raw emotionalism expressed by Zinn’s subjects was a splash of cold water on many reader’s sophomoric notions of America. People beat down by capitalism, racism, and sexism have lost hope and optimism and all that’s left is a cynical loathing that makes many of our pretentious twaddle about America ring quite hollow.
America is a good country that has done very bad things to many people and unless you can accept both of these schizophrenic realities, your understanding of American history is shallow and incomplete. There is no scale upon which you can balance this good and evil to judge America as you might decide a court case. Both exist - many times in the same place at the same time. They are inseparable parts of the same whole and recognizing the dual nature of our history is the first step to truly understanding our remarkable national story.
Zinn wasn’t much of an historian. Most Marxists aren’t. Not only was Zinn rightly accused of shoddy scholarship, but his deterministic view of of history ultimately warped his writing, making it banally predictable and ridiculously shallow. Human beings are not motivated by what the economic determinists believe, nor do they act the way that most historical materialsts conclude they should. It is a tragedy that Zinn himself is taken seriously by so many.
But since we knew Zinn was a radical, a determinist, and a devotee of historical materialism, does it lessen the respect we rightly feel for those who were previously left voiceless and invisible in our national narrative now that we know what we long suspected; that Zinn was a Communist?
I don’t see how it makes any difference except as it adds another strange footnote to the life of an American original who hated the very idea of America, despised her origins, dismissed her accomplishments, and spent his adult life apparently working to bring her to her knees.