The recent death of Howard Zinn is a tragedy, and leaves a great loss — a vacuum, even — amongst those who work towards peace and a better world.
But to say this is not enough. It is not enough to applaud his pioneering intellectual work in history and historiography. It is not enough to praise his courage, intellectual and physical, against both vicious establishment academics and menacing police batons. It is not enough to admire his modesty, humour, good nature and kindness. It is not enough to celebrate his virtue while living deeply among the worst moral filth of the world — namely, those destroyers of worlds whose legacy is whitewashed and handed down to children and to future generations as heroes with great names like Reagan, Clinton, Shultz, Rice, and Bush.
In short, it is not enough to say that Zinn was a great man for the obvious reasons. More is required. Zinn was a great man, but he was a great man of a special type. He was a great man of the type that plants the seeds for the renewal of the world. I do not mean this only in a philosophical or quasi-spiritual sense. I mean it in a concrete institutional sense.
Zinn waded through the most obscene filth on an everyday basis, both as a professional historian and an activist for social justice. True, Zinn was not at a campus like present-day Stanford, where the mass murderers were actually physically present; but he wrote about it, talked about it, unceasingly for decades; he lived within it. He was a friend to Daniel Ellsberg and Daniel Berrigan, people whose proximity to that filth, and action in the face of it, led them to face the full force of the repressive State. He worked tirelessly within this cesspool — all the obscenities and mendacity of great power, the jackboots with the fallout of a nuclear winter, the unerring brutality which killed and still kills the hope of the world.
Great power, in destroying these brief glimpses of humanity — and especially the US State since it rose to great power status, in which it is now alone — has not only killed hope, not only crushed it with military might, ensnared it with political might, and enslaved it with financial might. It has also erased it from memory: it has erased from the memory of humanity the crushing of its hope; it has erased from the memory of humanity, indeed, the radical formulation of hope itself. It has removed from collective consciousness not only the memory of the great struggles that it mercilessly slaughtered, but the memory of struggle itself, per se. Collective memory then lives in an anaemic, amnesiac twilight, bereft of the history of its soul, a soul artificially transplanted with sanitized fairytales, distracted by superficial overconsumption and lobotomised entertainment, and led into obsession with self, wealth, popularity and vanity. Collective memory is even, perhaps, bereft of the very notion of its social soul in itself, and the solidaristic impulses only clinch insofar as the fire spontaneously erupts, or catches across hermetically sealed boundaries.
The project of power in the contemporary era — or perhaps better, the processes of powerful institutions which dominate the evolution of the contemporary world — operate by various means: diplomatic, power-political, propaganda-journalistic, economic-structural, military-terrorist-barbaric. One merely runs through a list of the less powerful nations of the world — and several of the more powerful ones — to observe a litany of destruction in the last 60 years: Italy, Greece, the Philippines, Indonesia, Guatemala, Iran, El Salvador, Honduras, the Congo, Palestine, Brazil, East Timor, Guyana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Haiti… there are many nations on planet Earth, and few are immune. The books all testify to the facts, which are not in dispute. The yoke of indebted economic restructuring, the bullets fired into demonstrations, the rivers of blood, the mainstream-media articles celebrating the death of hope and the rise of tyranny, the establishment-academic tracts explaining the higher worth of the State’s noble purpose — these are all real enough and are not confined to the past. But one only needs examine one’s own memory, education, and knowledge, and that of others, to notice how much of this is ever discussed, can ever be discussed. Usually, the answer is zero.
And so, the project of power has a foundation below all this. Structurally, the project of power is deeper than the instant death of proxy armies and killer robots; deeper than the grinding servitude of structural adjustment and the receiving end of “free trade”; deeper than the stenographic emollient that journalists pour upon the festering wounds of the present; deeper even than the subservience of approved academic truth that rises above the need for mere fact. Below it all is an historical project: to rewrite history. Nay better, it is an historiographic project: to rewrite what history is and how it is told, so that much of it is not told.
Of course, as with all institutional analysis, I do not say that any of this is deliberate or consciously willed by any individual person, though indeed sometimes it may be. (One need only read the diaries of CIA agents!) I say this is the outcome of the operation of systems of power. I say this is how the world has worked, and still works.
And so it is in this sense that the project of people’s history, of unearthing the histories of struggle, of retelling the stories long forgotten by dominant classes and power structures — Howard Zinn’s project — goes to the foundation of the world. It is indeed planting the seeds for the renewal of the world, in a concrete sense. It is nothing less than an attempt for humanity to remember its own soul: its heroics, its mischief, its rebellion, its intransigence towards oppression, its occasional triumphs, and above all, its relentless tragedies. For we are not there yet: the present is merely the unfinished business of history.
* * *
Time evolves, and societies also. Different times require different kinds of action, and people to carry them out. In various epochs of history, the most effective, most complete, most transformative person of that age would have had vastly different characteristics, traits, and values.
No doubt, in each age, the transformative woman or man must be an intellectual, although not necessarily one with a formal education: one who thinks, one who thinks critically, and one whose own mind is independent enough to hold beliefs against the current — not only as against the vicious undertow of reactionaries and conservatives of every age; not only as against the crashing waves of fomentation and the swirling eddies of the minutiae of the present; but also as against the entire prevailing currents of the time. It must be an intellect strong enough to turn those currents in the direction of progress.
To turn those currents — to be the transformative woman or man, to be complete — requires more than mere thought, discourse, and debate; there must also be some form of action. At certain times in history, perhaps, the most effective agent of social progress would have been a street fighter; in other times and places, a national leader; in other times and places again, a guerilla; and in others again, a leader of nonviolent civil disobedience. It is not for no reason that the person whom Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age” was Che. Whatever one thinks of his judgment, in the present day, in the post-industrial West at least, violence against State military and para-military power is instant death, morally, politically, strategically, tactically, institutionally, and biologically. Nonviolence is the easiest conclusion of the historic present.
But the character of the present, at least in the post-industrial West, combines with this axiom of nonviolence to demand more of its transformative agents than ever before in
history. It demands nonviolence in the face of injustice, provocation, inequality, avoidable death, justificatory doctrinal apparatus and oncoming catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen. It demands optimism of the will in the face of a rational assessment of near-certain disaster. It demands knowledge and accuracy as against an a corporate and State propaganda apparatus which will ignore, and an academic establishment which will defame, debunk and ridicule the slightest of mistakes, even non-mistakes. It demands courage and hope as against a prevailing culture of apathy, materialism, and doom. And, in the age of the miniscule attention span, infantile popularity contests, and global disillusionment with vision for the future, it requires wit, humour, and panache.
The complete human being today has laid upon them all these demands. They are nigh impossible. The human being who can carry them out is infinitesimally rare.
Not everyone need carry out all these demands completely. Nor would I say that everyone needs to carry them out in order for the world to emerge from its present state of crisis with humanity intact.
But there must be people of this calibre, or all is lost.
Howard Zinn was one such person. He was a complete human being of our age.