An Astounding Comeback

Aug 30, 2019 by

By Paul Gottfried –

A recently posted commentary of mine on the deceased far Left historian Howard Zinn (1923-2010) refers to a critical study by Hamilton Institute research scholar Mary Grabar. In her exhaustively documented monograph Debunking Howard Zinn, Dr. Grabar demonstrates the gross misrepresentations of the American past, starting with Columbus’s voyages down to the Vietnam War, which abound in Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980). Especially in the introductory chapter, Grabar’s work dwells on the enormous celebrity that has accrued to Zinn and his work. It has been featured in movies like Good Will Hunting, been fervently endorsed by Democratic politicians, and has sold over two million copies since the book went on the market almost forty years ago..

Although professional historians, including some with impeccable leftist credentials, like Michael Kammen and Eric Foner, have scoffed at Zinn’s claims to scholarship, his People’s History has obtained the status of a sacred text among progressive intellectuals. The drooling endorsement that this shoddy work received in the Chronicles of Higher Education in 2003 was almost impossible for this reader to get through without feeling slightly nauseated. In my earlier remarks, I may have missed the extent to which  Zinn’s anti-American screed continues to generate fans among American educational, journalistic and entertainment elites. Mary is clearly right on this point; and I may not have been sufficiently aware of Zinn’s enduring popularity among our chattering classes.

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But I am a bit puzzled as to why Zinn enjoys this degree of popularity given what seems to me the almost passé quality of his leftism. Zinn was an angry revolutionary hoping to incite American blacks and Native American activists into overthrowing what remained of the capitalist system and replacing it with his own brand of socialism. There is little evidence that Zinn moved from this frozen Marxist posture into support for feminism and LGBT causes.  Perhaps if he lived a bit longer, he would have followed his look-alike Bernie Sanders (who is also a native New Yorker and veteran Marxist of Eastern European Jewish descent) into espousing what has now become the fashionable form of the Left, one that blends elements of Marxist socialism with intersectional themes.

Mary’s work on Zinn causes me to reflect further on something that I have been thinking about for decades: Why does today’s Left, which focuses on gender and lifestyle victims, continue to glorify an older Marxist Left, which didn’t really care about today’s victim groups, except to whatever extent it could use some of them to make an economic revolution. Obama worshipfully paid court to the Castro family although the Cuban Communist regime threw homosexuals into concentration camps. Mark Bray in his Antifa Handbook celebrates Communists of the 1930s, although it’s highly unlikely that those whom he worships would have had anything but contempt for his pro-gay, pro-feminist, open-borders politics. Although the Left that now exists is rather different from the older Communist Left, it continues to pay tribute to the older Left, as can be seen from the hefty sales of Zinn’s book among today’s leftists.

This attempt to provide an appearance of continuity on the Left paid handsome dividends in Zinn’s case, because it permitted an old-fashioned Communist (or Communist fellow-traveler) to move easily from one phase of the American Left’s evolution to another more up-to-date one. Zinn went from being a run-of-the-mill Communist apologist to a new Left icon in the 1960s and even after his death to someone whom the present intersectional Left is trying to hold onto. In this attempt to show itself to be part of an unbroken tradition, the present Left has distinguished itself from the present conservative movement, which happily throws old heroes under the bus, whether Robert E. Lee, H.L. Mencken, Murray Rothbard, Southern Agrarians, or any other past figure who fails to serve present agendas. The Left by contrast practices filial-pietism to a fault.

Mary Grabar’s book also caused me to reflect on why in my earlier comments I was not as critical of Zinn as I should have been. It was not that I felt that Mary had been excessively unkind to Zinn’s unrelievedly venomous portrait of the American past. Rather I believe that the alternative to this portrait should not be the neocon or 1950s progressive view of American history that Zinn’s “conservative” critics at the Wall Street Journal and Prager University are now pushing. That view of American history as the story of social and moral Progress, the end point of which is reached in the New Deal, Great Society, and Civil Rights Revolution (or wherever else the celebrant decides should be the endpoint) is simplistic and one-sided. It also ignores the grave social and political problems that we face at the present time and which are rooted in our past. It is not only the Left but also the real Right that demands its own critical reevaluation of our history.

In a WSJ interview with historian Wilfred McClay, dealing with “reclaiming American history from Howard Zinn,” there is a panegyric to the present American moment. McClay, who has just published his own anti-Zinn American history textbook, wants young Americans to “enjoy being Americans.” The only drawback to our late modern culture according to McClay is that we’ve already addressed “the great moral issue of our times,” which was black civil rights, and so our youth can no longer find a worthy cause for their energies.

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In contrast to this celebration of today’s America as the high point of human history, we might look at the critical reflections of a now deceased member of the Old Right, Robert Nisbet. In The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy, which was published in 1988, Nisbet deplored the by then dangerously expanded reach of the federal government, its accelerating crusades against “discrimination,” and the size of the military-industrial complex. Nisbet also called attention to the disintegration of the family under the impact of the feminist revolution and the cultural radicalization of youth. While Zinn’s view of the American past is hopelessly flawed and profoundly malicious, part of his attraction (even for the Right) may be his recognition that there was something seriously wrong with how our country was developing. Too bad that he told this story so poorly!

These reflections are certainly not intended to lessen the merit of Mary Grabar’s “debunking” of Howard Zinn, who was a plagiarist (particularly in his narrative about Columbus and the Amerindians) besides being an apologist for Communist killers. In page after page of her critical study, Mary demonstrates the historical lies that Zinn got away with both during his lifetime and then posthumously. Although I might have left the impression in an earlier commentary that Zinn was a consistent opponent of war, he was not that in fact. He never criticized Communist mass murder and twisted himself into a pretzel in order explain away the genocidal behavior of Amerindians (before Columbus ever arrived). Mary Grabar quotes Zinn’s complimentary reference to Stalin, who supposedly led an “astounding comeback” after World War Two. While Zinn had nothing but contempt for American capitalist production, he spared no superlatives in describing Russia’s brutal totalitarian society while inventing or exaggerating its accomplishments. Debunking Howard Zinn reminds us of the falsehoods and double standards that the pro-Communist Left inflicted on us for decades. One may hope that Dr. Grabar will continue her debunking of leftist historians. If she plans to do that, then I shall gladly supply her with deserving names.

Source: An Astounding Comeback – LewRockwell

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