The meeting of History and Ideology

Howard Zinn, Historical Materialist

In Walter Benjamin on January 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm

“The historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic standstill, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.” -Walter Benjamin, Thesis XVII on the Philosophy of History

This is a bit of a strange first post for this blog, but I feel like it’s important for me to write something about Howard Zinn passing away.

Howard Zinn has changed so many lives, radicalizing entire generations. I never had the fortune of meeting him personally, but everything I have read from people who did attests to the fact that he was as as profoundly kind and loving as he was intelligent and committed. I only had one brief interaction with him and it was mediated by the internet.

When Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine was searching for endorsements for its successful campaign to push Hampshire College to divest from American corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, my friend Brian and I emailed Dr. Zinn at around 2 in the morning asking him for a brief press quote endorsement. He responded in about 15 minutes with his statement. I think Brian and I shared this strange sort of moment then, when we realized that this man that we had grown up admiring and looking up to for inspiration was also checking his email at 2:15am. It was humanizing. We laughed.

The reason this fits into this blog though, I suppose, is because Howard Zinn was an historian of the oppressed. Howard Zinn in many ways lived and practiced historical materialism, the historical methodology that Walter Benjamin articulated in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. I was particularly struck by part of the AP’s obituary:

Even liberal historians were uneasy with Professor Zinn, who taught for many years at Boston University. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Professor Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter, not the last, of a new kind of history.

“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Professor Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

I remember when I cited A People’s History in my high school U.S. history class for my independent research project on railroad arbitration law in the late 19th and early 20th century. I was essentially arguing that arbitration laws, which were popularly portrayed as being in workers’ interests, were actually specifically designed to break the radical industrial unions by only allowing workers to negotiate by craft, rather than by industry. This had the affect of breaking, for instance, the potential solidarity between engineers and firemen, or a black porter and a white conductor. Zinn had an excellent little section on the American Railway Union and Pullman Strike saga, including a description of how Richard Olney, the Attorney General who ordered the injunction that broke the strike, was in the pockets of the Railroad Managers. My history teacher echoed Shlesinger’s sentiments: my research was good, but Zinn was not a legitimate source or a legitimate historian.

But the only legitimate historians are in fact polemicists. In Thesis VII Benjamin writes

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

This is precisely what Zinn achieved through his “polemicism.” By brushing history against the grain one rubs off the shiny veneer of historicism and reveals the history of the oppressed, the history of exploitation, silencing, erasure.

The historical materialist knows that there is no material hope for the generations of the oppressed about which he writes, but that writing about the past can have a meaningful impact upon the present and future. The shattered hope of the past for a better world is the engine that drives the utopian potential of the present.

Like every generation the preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. The historical materialist is aware of that fact. -Walter Benjamin, Thesis II

When you read A People’s History it’s not just that history is written from a different perspective, “from below,” as it were. You can tell there’s an entirely different voice in the writing, a different approach to history. It redefines what “counts” as History. Most historians try to write complete, objective, universal histories. This is not to say that they necessarily try to write everything in their particular historical document, but that they imagine what they write as contributing to a larger project of a single continuous, linear, and unitary History. Benjamin rejected universal history (Thesis XVII) because it has no understanding of its purpose in the act of writing history. Universal history simply chronicles and catalogs events, sequencing them and arbitrarily establishing causality. But the historical materialist never forgets that “there’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete.” At best we can piece together fragments of a past that might, as Benjamin says, “blast open the continuum of history.”

The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism, so the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations. -Walter Benjamin, Thesis IV

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. -Howard Zinn

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  1. Awesome blog post Jay. Just one historical revision, however (as you asked me to make) – Howard Zinn contacted us first and e-mailed us at 1:30 in the morning, asking how he could support our efforts. We asked him for an endorsement at 2. Then he got back to us with his endorsement.

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