Driving passion of a dissident
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left
by Martin Duberman
The New Press, New York. 
Pages 365. $26.95. 

Howard Zinn, a people’s historian, changed the consciousness of an entire generation
Howard Zinn, a people’s historian, changed the consciousness of an entire generation

The book on Howard Zinn, one of the most extraordinary dissident voices in America for the last half a century, is a rare and radical account of the life of the famous "people's historian". As Noam Chomsky writes, "Zinn changed the consciousness of a generation." Though an academic, his activism was always underpinned by his bold creative struggle for social transformation. His life is the story of people "who stand up, speak out, dig in, organise, connect, form networks of resistance, and alter the course of history." Zinn symbolizes the voices raised against the Establishment through the course of history, voices of the marginalised, of the indigenous and the working class attempting to put an end to oppression and class inequality. His teaching and his writings play no small part in raising the consciousness of the people and making them conscious of their own power enmeshed with the collective force of society.

One may refer to the essay "The Optimism of Uncertainty" in which Zinn explains the central issue in the world of subjugation where the state power is essentially weak depending as it does on the obedience of its citizens, and at the moment this subservience to the state is refused, the vulnerability of the system becomes evident: "When I began work, five years ago, on what would become the present volume, Voices of a People's History of the United States, I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent from our history books, to be given place they deserve. I wanted labor history, which has been the battleground, decade after decade, century after century, of an ongoing fight for human dignity, to come to the fore. And I wanted my readers to experience how at key moments in our history some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself."

Having begun his career in Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia, as the Chairperson of the History Department, he came to the early understanding of upheavals in history seen in revolutionary movements which have behind them as impetus not leaders but people who force upon the state the imperative of impartiality and accountability. Being the oldest black college for girls, Zinn's early views of the problem are framed within a location deeply explosive in its racial culture. His zealous stand against racial inequity brought him close to Martin Luther King and spurred him to kick off the Student Movement Coordinating Committee (SMCC). He was sacked from the college for "insubordination", a discharge that became the impelling force behind his unwavering quest of elemental humanitarian principles.

Martin Duberman has done all-embracing research not only on the history of political turbulence through the last century, but on Zinn's personal and political engagement. Having access to the Zinn archives at NYU's Tamiment Library, he has inquired deeply into the man and his complex life, drawing attention to his early childhood of poverty "that shaped his labour politics". Zinn joined the air force during the World War II that provoked him to attack the very idea of violence. Duberman becomes critical at places, pitting Zinn's radical ideology and its human underpinnings against his years of infidelity as well as his blatant overlooking of the contemporary lesgay and second-wave movements. This definitive biography of one of the most celebrated intellectuals of our time takes into consideration the major movements that shaped Zinn and raised vital issues concerning history, war, racism and class conflict.

Martin Duberman underlines the making of the political thinker and historian with his ideology of 'democratic socialism' which, in the words of Zinn, is "socialism that uses resources for human needs of production based on need rather than on profit, a roughly equal distribution of the country's wealth".