A Practical Application of Howard Zinn’s Conception of People’s History in Three Pamphlets

by Steve Cushion

I have been involved in producing 4 pamphlets with the Socialist History Society and Caribbean Labour Solidarity that roughly fall under the heading of “People’s History”. Today I want to look at how they fit with Howard Zinn’s approach.

Howard Zinn’s definition of People’s History is openly political. Most historians use the study of history to reinforce the status quo, Zinn’s approach is aimed at undermining the system by promoting the activities of ordinary people who have chosen to resist the rich and powerful as well as fighting for their rights.

Zinn warned of “attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest“.

Treason, Rebel Warriors and Internationalist Traitors, edited by Christian Hogsberg and myself, looks at those who fought against their own nation state in times of war. This seemed a good way to undermine the pernicious effects of nationalism and patriotism. Such is the ideological power of nationalism that most people feel uncomfortable with such treason, even when the country they betrayed was Nazi Germany.

Zinn says:

I wanted to tell about war from the standpoint not of the generals and the military heroes, but from the standpoint of the ordinary guys who were in the war. And maybe even to tell the story of wars from the standpoint of the enemy, the other side. How does the Mexican War look to the Mexicans? 

We looked at the mainly Irish soldiers in the US Army who, in the words of David Rovics’s song “fought for the Mexican State” in 1847. David Rovics allowed us to include his song about these San Patricios in the pamphlet. Yesterday Christian spoke of AL Morton’s use of poetry, this is song as people’s history.

The pamphlet deals with the anti-Nazi resistance and follows Zinn’s: “And seeing history in class terms I think is a much clearer and more honest way“.

This is history from below that primarily looks at active resistance originating within the workers’ movement, looking at the actual activities of the rank and file anti-Nazi militants and in the process rescuing the memory of some heroic fighters who otherwise risk being lost from history. An important part of people’s history is the history of ordinary people.

Another section in the pamphlet chronicles how German refugees contributed to fighting the Nazis in France.  From spreading anti-Nazi propaganda in the German Army and attempting to organise mutiny and desertion, through to extensive involvement in urban terrorism and the rural guerrilla struggle. 

Of course, a book on Treason would not be complete without some of our own compatriots, indeed it would have been hypocritical to praise those who betrayed other nations, while ignoring our own.

My personal favourite is Arthur Wicks, a British anarchist, member of the IWW, who went to Dublin in 1915 to avoid conscription into the British Army. He turned up at the Headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army in Liberty Hall saying he had conscientious objection to fighting for a capitalist / imperialist government in his homeland, but that he also had a conscientious objection to being left out of a fight for liberty in Ireland. He fought in the Post Office during the Easter rising in 1916 where he was wounded and later died of his wounds. 

These histories are useful in undermining the idea of a “Good War”, a concept that Howard Zinn opposed, having been a bombardier in the US Air force involved in the fire-bombing of Dresden:

in our indiscriminate, deliberate bombing of civilian populations, of working-class populations in German and Japanese cities, culminating with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we committed atrocities.
The reason I think it’s important to subject them to criticism is that this idea of good wars helps justify other wars which are obviously awful.

When writing of the early history of the USA, Zinn says: “I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the standpoint of the Arawaks….“. 

He wrote of the conventional representation of Christopher Columbus: 

So the problem is omission and emphasis. It’s possible to mention all of those things, to be thorough, to mention all the facts, but to mention them in such an order as to give Columbus’s seamanship at least as important a place in history as his killings and his enslavement omission and the emphasis are not accidental. They’re not oversights. 

A similar argument could be made about the Mayflower. The Mayflower voyage has become an important foundation myth of the USA and, in recent years, even if they will not use the word genocide, the detrimental effect of the English invasion of North America is receiving more public recognition. Nevertheless, the involvement of New England in the slave trade has largely been ignored and Telling the Mayflower Story, Thanksgiving or Land Grabbing, Massacres & Slavery?, written by Danny Reilly and myself, attempts to paint the full picture. 

The Mayflower passengers who started the New England colonies in 1620, are taken as the Founding Fathers of the USA, hence their importance. But this English colonial territory was founded on land forcibly taken from the Indigenous Nations of the region. The effects of these early colonial invasions were devastating.

Again, Zinn on Columbus also applies to the Mayflower:

The expansion of the United States followed very much the pattern set by Columbus, that is, the elimination of native peoples in order to find riches.

There was a very close economic relationship between the New England colonies and the West Indian slave-based sugar economy; the Caribbean islands found it more profitable to devote all their land to sugar production and import foodstuffs and other staples, while the New England colonies needed an export market so that they could purchase manufactured goods from England.

A division of labour developed amongst the Puritans in the North American colonies, with those who went to the Caribbean specialising in cash-crop plantations and those in New England supplying, servicing and trading with them. 

If you enter “Grenada Revolution” in the JStore repository of academic articles, 64 articles immediately appear, of which only 9 have anything useful to say about the achievements and challenges of the 4 years of the Revo’ while the rest concern themselves almost entirely with an interminable discussion of what went wrong at the end and who did what to whom and why. Of course these are serious questions, but this discussion has come to dominate study of the Grenadian Revolution and tended to obscure the very real changes that the people of Grenada achieved in their society in such a short time.

I worked with Dennis Bartholomew, who was cultural attaché at the Grenada High Commission during the revolution to produce a pamphlet, By our own Hands, A People’s History of the Grenadian Revolution, for Caribbean Labour Solidarity.

Women were very important for the overthrow of the dictator Eric Gairy. But women were also in the forefront of political activism – the fact that, in the June 1980 terrorist bomb attack on a political rally, the three persons killed and the majority of the injured were women, is evidence that women were present in large numbers. After this outrage, the majority of new recruits to the militia were young women.

Howard Zinn has considerable sections in his books on the fight by women for their rights. He is particularly keen to link the struggle by women for their own emancipation with their involvement in the rights of others. Most inspiring is the link between women’s struggle for the right to vote with their involvement in the movement for the abolition of slavery as spoken by Sejourner Truth at Seneca Falls.

So, what practical lessons have we learnt from these publications.

Firstly, the importance of the pamphlet of less than about 100 pages. They are cheap to produce so that an unfunded organisation such as the Socialist History Society or Caribbean Labour Solidarity can effectively self-publish them and they can be sold at a price that someone with marginal interest can purchase a copy and is likely to read it. People’s history does not deserve the title if it is not read by ordinary people. Telling the Mayflower Story was produced as a reply to the Mayflower 400 commemorations centred on Plymouth, which tell the story almost entirely from the point of view of the so-called Pilgrims, yet our pamphlet has sold particularly well in Plymouth to people wanting to know the other side of the story. 

Left-wing historians frequently poke fun at mainstream history’s obsession with Kings, Queens and Generals, yet much alternative history still concentrates on the actions of revolutionary leaders, senior party officials or leading union bureaucrats. We have tried to bring forward the mass actions of organised workers, farmers or soldiers and search for the activities of women. By our own Hands barely mentions Maurice Bishop or Bernard Coard, but concentrates on the activities of workers’ unions, the National Women’s Organisation, the Militia and the various mass democratic structures that were beginning to form during the Grenadian Revolution. 

This brings us to the importance of photographs where they are available. One can write of a well attended mass meeting, but a picture of hundreds or thousands of enthusiastic people gives an instant image. This is another advantage of controlling the publication. Commercial publishers can be very difficult abut copyright authorisation on images that are obviously in the public domain.

In terms of relating to the general reader with the history of average people, either as heroes or victims, we made a mistake when producing Killing Communists in Havana in not including photographs of our protagonists, many of whom were illustrated in left wing newspapers of the period. Names, particularly in an unfamiliar language, are easily forgotten or confused, a photograph of a person sticks much more readily in the mind and there are thousands of such images available on the internet that may be safely used. I say safely, because copyright is always a question of risk analysis. 

 Of course one aspect of risk analysis that has to be taken into consideration is that, when a pamphlet is clearly part of a political campaign, one’s opponents could use a spurious question of copyright to attack the politics behind the history. Thus, because Telling the Mayflower Story is controversial in Plymouth where the local authorities clearly hope to make money from the official line behind the celebrations, we made sure that all the images we used were definitely in the public domain.

Telling the Mayflower Story is part of a mainly local political campaign, but has a more general intention of undermining an imperialist view of the world that either ignores of justifies the conquest and enslavement of Indigenous people by Europeans. As the anti-immigrant, nationalist far right continue to grow all over Europe, Treason aspires to rescue and honour the memory of those, who for a variety of reasons were not prepared to be cannon-fodder for injustice and oppression, who put their principles above a “national interest” defined by unscrupulous politicians.

Perhaps the best summary of Zinn’s work and our aspiration is:

For me, I became a historian, and went into the past, really for the purpose of trying to understand and do something about what was going on in the present.

Presentation at The Socialist History Conference “Peoples’ History?” February 2020