A power governments cannot suppress (Howard Zinn) [2007]

zinn power 2

As always, Zinn’s voice is one of reason, thought and memory. After all, he is a historian. What makes him unique though, is his firm rooting in the grass-roots and his conviction that lasting change can only come from ordinary people. Maybe that has kept his courage up through all the years. The message is very clear: if ordinary people rise up and organize, no government can stop them. And where I would fall into cynical pitfalls (complaining about the self-enforcing spiral of monopoly capitalism successively devouring all the means to stop it, making every generation more apathetic and atomised… – oops, here we go again!), he sees the anti-war resistance, alternative media outlets, the promising discontent over financial inequality. He explains his stance clearly in the last paragraph that I’ve chosen to quote, as well as elsewhere; if you don’t play, the game is lost – if you at least try, there is hope – but it is a gamble.

The themes of this book are varied between

  • foreign policy
  • war (good and bad wars – favorite topic!)
  • constitution and unconstitutionality (here he uses the revered American ties to democracy as his lever – came to think about it: there is no such proud history that you could use here in Sweden)
  • organizing
  • unsung heroes (Goldman, Debs, Vanzetti – you know the bunch by now!)
  • popular culture

Always with historic flashbacks, always with a firm understanding of power – who has it, where it stems from, and how power relations are reflected in our every thought and action. And so, Zinn never begs the upper echelons of understanding and compassion – as so many contemporary authors naively do (”Oh, if everybody could just see how terrible poverty is!”). Likewise, he realizes that the backbone of the Seattle protests in 1999 was organized labor. He never calls on the government for ‘human intervention’, be it domestic or foreign. Likewise, he does not point out ‘evil’ corporatists or plotting Cheney, but calls attention to the crooked system we call civilization. He knows where the real power lies:

It would be naïve to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, and dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.

I might say his texts are at times simplistic, sometimes even with a string of nationalism. For instance:

We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

Since we know for sure that Zinn – if anyone! – has no illusions about the founding of the nation, we conclude that the style is a tactical choice, that happens to depend on audience, forum and the purpose of the text – unfortunately, ‘A power governments cannot suppress’ does not state the source or date of the texts. Apart from tactical simplifications of that kind, I found one passage very disturbing, and since Zinn knows that WW2 was already ending at the time of the nuclear bombings, his sentence …even if it ends a war a month or two sooner… is perhaps only a quick and careless wording – but just as wrong, for many reasons. Anyhow.

Don’t you just love when authors let historic persons express their views? Here Adam Smith:

”Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case, a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods, which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.”

Or Thoreau:

”The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.”

Some parts are of course repetitions of chapters of Howard Zinn’s monumental, all-encompassing A People’s History of the United States; here on ‘big government’:

And so the U.S. Constitution set up big government to be big enough to protect slaveholders against slave rebellion, to catch runaway slaves if they went from one state to another, to pay off bondholders, to pass tariffs on behalf of manufacturers, and to tax poor farmers to pay for armies that would then attack the farmers if they resisted payment…

I am very much impressed by Zinn’s dives into popular culture. A few examples: he tells of how the sapper Kip, in the book The English Patient (by Michael Ondaatje) exclaims:

”When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium, and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA.”

And when we turn to the movie – the awarded movie – the scene is gone. Very interesting. A few chapters later, he turns his buzzsaw gaze upon movies that depict war, identifying two kinds: those that view war as something artificial, manufactured and for given economic or political purposes (Catch-22, All quiet on the western front) – and then there are those movies that see war as something destined and heroic (because of the good causes) – for instance, Saving private Ryan:

The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, and won five. But then again, didn’t Kissinger get a Nobel Prize? The committees that give prizes are, too often, bereft of social conscience. But we are not bound to honor their choices.

Turning to domestic issues, Zinn links US wars abroad to domestic terror, here the Oklahoma bombing by Gulf War vet McVeigh (and Terry Nichols), who responded to the Waco siege (where FBI sieged a Christian sect headquarters for 51 days, and caused a fire while storming the building, killing 80 people) by blowing up a federal building on the second anniversary of Waco:

…McVeigh’s own statement that he learned his moral scruples from the government that executed him. […] In defending his bombing of the Federal Building, with all those dead and wounded, McVeigh used the term ”collateral damage”… [TMV also said: If there is a hell, then I’ll be in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who also had to bomb innocents to win the war.] 

On war, Zinn is unrelentingly radical:

I suggest that the history of bombing – and no one has bombed more than this nation – is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like ”accident,” ”military targets,” and ”collateral damage.”

Campaigns to rid the earth of land mines, napalm, white phosphorus, and depleted uranium, are important in themselves, as the reduction of symptoms is important to anyone suffering from a deadly illness. But those campaigns must be accompanied by the understanding that the illness itself must be eliminated.

In one of the texts, Zinn takes his (as far as I am aware) most explicit written stance for socialism. Let’s not delve on that – it’s part of the magic:

Today, as capitalism, ”the free market,” and ”private enterprise” are being hailed as triumphant in the world, it is a good time to remember Debs and to rekindle the idea of socialism.


In the 1860s the Chinese had been welcome as cheap labor for the building of the transcontinental railroad. A decade later, especially after the economic crisis of 1873, hard-pressed white workers saw the Chinese as taking away jobs from the native-born… Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which for the first time in the nation’s history created a category of ”illegal” immigrants.

This is so beautiful! History comes alive in front of you. Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak.

Vanzetti carried a leaflet when arrested:

You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the capitalists. You have wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, the price of your victories? Does the past comfort you? Does the present smile on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak.

I’ll turn a special eye on his ‘optimism’:

We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts… What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability.

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.

It is the warmest, most humane and empowering message. It can probably cure depressions, if you repeat it to yourself and see what he means. All right, let us not get religious.

obsequious = servile


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