I certainly believe that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a deeply flawed book. It’s way too simplistic and polemical. Zinn was not much of a scholar and wrote his book for the explicit point of countering dominant narratives of American history without much of a concern for nuance. This doesn’t bother me all that much because it serves an audience that may not read much history in their lifetimes. Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America serves the same useful function for Latin American history. There’s room for this kind of book in our society, even though I would not call it a good history book.
However, David Greenberg’s hatchet job of Zinn is kind of awful. Other than red-baiting Zinn in a classic Cold War liberal way, Greenberg completely misrepresents left-leaning history and modern historiography. As a historian, this bothers me a lot more than the bog-standard red-baiting:
While excellent work is done by self-identified leftists, too much academic work today assumes such dubious premises as (to name but a few) the superiority of socialism to a mixed economy, the inherent malignancy of American intervention abroad, and the signal virtue of the left itself. Franklin Roosevelt’s rescue of capitalism is routinely treated as a disappointment because he did not go all the way to socialism. Truman’s suspicion of Stalin is treated as short-sightedness or war-mongering. Anti-Communism of even the most discerning sort is lumped in with McCarthyism as an expression of mass paranoia. Labor’s mid-century decisions to work with management to secure good wages and benefits are seen as selling out. And too seldom is it acknowledged that throughout its history the left has operated from low motives as well as high ones, and has caused social harm as well as social improvement, and has destroyed as well as created.
Um, citations please? What recent work of history has said that FDR is disappointing because he didn’t embrace socialism? Instead, I think of nuanced recent works on the New Deal like Jennifer Klein’s For All These Rights, Lizabeth Cohen’s 1990 masterpiece Making a New Deal or Neil Maher’s Nature’s New Deal. All of these books, and so many more, have deepened our understanding of the New Deal from a left-leaning perspective (broadly defined) in useful ways and none of them argue anything close to Greenberg’s characterization of New Deal historiography.
What respectable book on the early Cold War says that Truman’s suspicions of Stalin were misguided. It’s one thing to say that Truman’s belligerence didn’t help matters. Historians do say that. The historiography I am most familiar with is of course that of labor’s mid-20th century shift to business unionism. But Greenberg typically misrepresents these arguments. Some radical historians might call labor’s decisions to work with management a “sell-out” but the real criticism is that it turned out to be disastrous in the long-run for labor. These contracts absolutely secured short-term gains for working-class people that cannot be ignored. However, the shunning of communist organizers and embrace of business unionism also created a staid movement that could not then adjust when corporations began eliminating union jobs through capital mobility in the 1960s. Business leaders knew this and took advantage of it. This is all far more complicated than Greenberg describes.
The real crux of this is Greenberg’s discussion of anti-communism throughout the essay. Essentially, that’s Greenberg’s real interest here. Zinn was a Red and needs to be shunned. Why Greenberg has this axe to grind in 2013 and not, say, 1984, I do not know. But his own intellectual blinders are just as powerful as Zinn’s. A little self-recognition of that would go a long way here.
I’m fine with a critique of Howard Zinn that accuses him of misrepresenting the past. However, such a critique should not then misrepresent Zinn’s influence and the state of the historical profession.
….Rebuttals from radical historians Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Cohen.