It’s hard to know where to start in describing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It’s a long read; a history of the United States, told with a focus on the lives of everyday people, and of the movements and communities that resisted the centres of power.
Zinn does an excellent job of pulling out how particular power balances shifted and changed, often opportunistically rather than on principle:
George Washington had turned down the requests of blacks, seeking freedom, to fight in the Revolutionary army. So when the British military commander in Virginia, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to Virginia slaves who joined his forces, this created consternation.
As part of his analysis, he also captures the inherent contradictions that can emerge:
In short, as Francis Jennings puts it, the white Americans were fighting against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West.
And the ways a kyriarchy can intersect with popular movements:
In 1840, a World Anti-Slavery Society Convention met in London. After a fierce argument, it was voted to exclude women, but it was agreed they could attend meetings in a curtained enclosure. The women sat in silent protest in the gallery, and William Lloyd Garrison, one abolitionist who had fought for the rights of women, sat with them.
Or later, in the 20th century:
In the summer of 1964 , in McComb , Mississippi , at a Freedom House ( a civil rights headquarters where people worked and lived together ) the women went on strike against the men who wanted them to cook and make beds while the men went around in cars organizing.
Throughout, there are fascinating historical points, that I hadn’t come across before. Apparently the expression ‘pie in the sky’ comes from an old protest song, before or around World War I. There was a time when children, working sixty hours a week, went on strike, carrying signs that said “We want to go to school!” The Lusitania actually may have been carrying weaponry, the Allies intervened in the Russian Civil War, American servicemen were killed in the bombing of Hiroshima, and the term ‘fragging‘ has its origins in rebellion in the Vietnam war. This was all news to me.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect. At times, it seems like it’s easy for Zinn to idealise cultures outside white, capitalist America. Making the case that they are more egalitarian requires more than simply going on a few secondary sources. At times that can feel particularly shortsighted, for example when he writes:
In January 1949 , Chinese Communist forces moved into Peking , the civil war was over , and China was in the hands of a revolutionary movement , the closest
thing , in the long history of that ancient country , to a people’s government , independent of outside control .
It would be nice, at least, to acknowledge some of the subsequent history that follows that sentence.
It also feels at times that although Zinn tells interesting stories in isolation, of how particular groups used, exploited, or controlled other groups, he doesn’t go to the next level of causality, in explaining how or why particular groups were able to achieve control – was it technology, or media, or history? Without that underlying story, at times it feels as though he is simply telling history as one thing after another. In particular, it feels that although his story is continually one of suffering and hope, there’s no clear underlying story of whether, why or how things may change. Zinn concludes:
… the world … is still in the hands of the elites, that people’s movements, although they show an infinite capacity for recurrence, have so far been either defeated or absorbed or perverted, that “socialist” revolutionists have betrayed socialism, that nationalist revolutions have led to new dictatorships.
This is a bleak point to end on, and Zinn doesn’t offer much beyond that viewpoint. The closest he comes is to speculate:
Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.
The society’s levers of power would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state – the giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need – by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country – to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most … The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires …
A final weakness is that in his material, covering from about the 60’s onwards, Zinn’s focus seems to shift away from the movements and overarching groups that make his earlier writing so interesting, and to zoom much more closely in to the horse-race politics of Presidential decisions and appearances, where his contribution isn’t as strong.
For all that, though, this is a powerful and thought provoking book. It’s powerful because, as Zinn writes of his approach:
To uncover such history is to find a powerful human impulse to assert one’s humanity. It is to hold out, even in times of deep pessimism, the possibility of surprise.
Well worth a read.
Quotes and notes
The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.
… the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.
Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes eroding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperately tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.
It was a complex chain of oppression in Virginia. The Indians were plundered by white frontiersmen, who were taxed and controlled by the Jamestown elite. And the whole colony was being exploited by England, which bought the colonist’s tobacco at prices it dictated and made 100,000 pounds a year for the King.
Blacks ran away to Indian villages, and the Creeks and Cherokees harbored runaway slaves by the hundreds.
In describing how leaders in America came to direct resentment against Britain, Zinn concludes:
It was not a conscious conspiracy, but an accumulation of tactical responses.
Locke himself regretted that the labor or poor children “is generally lost to the public till they are twelve or fourteen years old” and suggested that all children over three, of families on relief, should attend “working schools” so they would be “from infancy … inured to work”.
In America, too, the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Indeed, 69 per cent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.
It seemed that the majority of white colonists, who had a bit of land, or no property at all, were still better off than slaves or indentured servants or Indians, and could be wooed into the coalition of the Revolution. But when the sacrifices of water became more bitter, the privileges and safety of the rich became harder to accept.
Indeed, this became a characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed.
Thus, Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.
The problem of democracy in the post-Revolutionary society was not, however, the Constitutional limitations on voting. It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system – how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?
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.
Through the war, as Schroeder says, “the politically sensitive Whig minority could only harry the administration with a barrage of verbiage while voting for every appropriation which the military campaign required.”
It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other.
… Frederick Douglass spoke in 1857: … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will …
It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property. Such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North.
In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing discrimination against Negroes using public facilities, was nullified by the Supreme Court, which said: “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment.”
It was the year 1877 that spelled out clearly and dramatically what was happening. When the year opened, the presidential election of the past November was in bitter dispute. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, had 184 votes and needed one more to be elected … The Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, had 166 electoral votes. Three states not yet counted had a total of 19 electoral votes; if Hayes could get all of those, he would 185 and be President. This is what his managers proceeded to arrange. They made concessions to the Democratic party and the white South, including an agreement to remove Union troops from the South, the last military obstacle to the reestablishment of white supremacy there.
The farmers had fought, had been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history.
State legislatures gave charters to corporations giving them legal rights to conduct business, raise money – at first special charters, then general chraters, so that any business meeting certain requirements could incorporate. Between 1790 and 1860, 2,300 corporations were chartered.
In Exeter , New Hampshire , women mill workers went on strike ( “ turned out , ” in the language of that day ) because the overseer was setting the clocks back to get more time from them . Their strike succeeded in exacting a promise from the company that the overseers would set their watches right .
In 1835 , twenty mills went on strike to reduce the workday from thirteen and a half hours to eleven hours , to get cash wages instead of company scrip , and to end fines for lateness .
They lived in slum tenements owned by the company, were paid in scrip, which they could use only at company stores, and were evicted if their work was unsatisfactory.
In premodern times , the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force . In modern times , exploitation is disguised — it is accomplished by law , which has the look of neutrality and fairness .
A study of the origins of 303 textile , railroad , and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle – or upper – class families . The Horatio Alger stories of “ rags to riches ” were true for a few men , but mostly a myth , and a useful myth for control .
But the purpose of the state was to settle upper – class disputes peacefully , control lower – class rebellion , and adopt policies that would further the long – range stability of the system .
There were eruptions against the convict labor system in the South , in which prisoners were leased in slave labor to corporations, used thus to depress the general level of wages and also to break strikes. In the year 1891 , miners of the Tennessee Coal Mine Company were asked to sign an “ iron – clad contract ” : pledging no strikes , agreeing to get paid in scrip , and giving up the right to check the weight of the coal they mined ( they were paid by the weight ) .
A quote from the New York World, describing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire:
From opposite windows spectators saw again and again pitiable companionship formed in the instant of death-girls who placed their arms around each other as they leaped.
… vigilantes in Montana seized IWW organizer Frank Little , tortured him , and hanged him , leaving his body dangling from a railroad trestle .
Labor struggles could make things better , but the country’s resources remained in the hands of powerful corporations whose motive was profit , whose power commanded the government of the United States .
When the New Deal was over , capitalism remained intact . The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth , as well as its laws , courts , police , newspapers , churches , colleges .
Racism , always a national fact , not just a southern one , emerged in northern cities , as the federal government made concessions to poor blacks in a way that pitted them against poor whites for resources made scarce by the system .
The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted ; the laws were on their side . But when the rich did commit crimes , they often were not prosecuted , and if they were they could get out on bail , hire clever lawyers , get better treatment from judges .
The United States government had signed more than four hundred treaties with Indians and violated every single one .
That makes it a biased account , one that leans in a certain direction . I am not troubled by that , because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful , by inattention, to people’s movements – that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen.
There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards … These are white workers, neither nor poor, but angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, hostile to government – combining elements of racism with elements of class consciousness, contempt for the lower classes along with distrust for the elite, and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left.
We may, in the coming years, be in a race for the mobilization of middle-class discontent.
Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from the world, from their work, from themselves.
A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble.
The use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued throughout American history, down to the present day.