In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Joseph Stalin entered the final years of his reign of terror in the Soviet Union, twentysomething Howard Zinn served as a foot soldier in the Communist Party of the United States of America—this according to recently declassified FBI files. Zinn, the Marxist historian and progressive hero who died in January, may also have lied to the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Is it at all surprising that someone who got history so wrong stood on the wrong side of history?
Zinn’s partisans will no doubt jeer at much of what the FBI files reveal. Who cares if Zinn marched in a May Day parade or if his wife subscribed to The Daily Worker? Other allegations are more serious but vague. One declassified report notes: “Information received on 6/12/53, indicated that the subject was possibly in contact with persons operating in the Communist Party underground.” What information, derived from whom? Was Zinn “possibly” involved with spies or really involved with spies? What kind of “contact”? Who in “the Communist Party underground”? And for some, the identity of the accusers vindicates the accused. J. Edgar Hoover’s personally ordering an investigation of Zinn on March 30, 1949; FBI associate director Clyde Tolson’s ominously asking, “What do our files show on Zinn?”; and FBI spooks’ surveillance of Zinn’s home—these stand as badges of honor in some circles, most notably the ones in which Zinn operated.
But amid charges innocuous and amorphous are specific allegations by numerous eyewitnesses that Howard Zinn was indeed a Communist Party member. After interviewing Zinn on November 6, 1953 and again on February 9, 1954, FBI agents described him as “courteous” and “friendly,” yet willing to part with information only after a repetition of pointed questions. Zinn admitted membership in numerous Communist fronts, including the Americans Veterans Committee and the American Labor Party, which employed Zinn at its headquarters in Brooklyn at a time when Communists controlled it. But he steadfastly denied membership in the Communist Party itself.
Several Communist Party members said otherwise. The files paraphrase one informant’s conversation with Zinn in 1948 as the future historian traveled from a protest outside the Truman White House to a Brooklyn rally for presidential candidate Henry Wallace. According to the informant, “Zinn indicated that he is a member of the Communist Party and that he attends Party meetings five nights a week in Brooklyn.” The files summarize how another informant believed that Zinn was “selected as a delegate to the New York State Communist Party Convention.” The Zinn that emerges from the files manned picket lines, religiously attended almost daily party meetings, and collected subscriptions for The Daily Worker. His work on behalf of radical causes was apparently so conspicuous that even a neighbor told the FBI that she believed Zinn was a Communist.
Zinn, of course, is most famous for writing A People’s History of the United States, an unremittingly Marxist retelling of the nation’s past. Fueled by enthusiastic professors who made the book required reading and by pop-culture name-dropping by the likes of The Simpsons, Good Will Hunting, and The Sopranos, A People’s History has sold more than a million copies. Late last year, the History Channel aired The People Speak, a film partly based on Zinn’s book that featured appearances by Eddie Vedder, Sean Penn, P!nk, and other entertainers. The octogenarian activist was the celebrity’s celebrity.
“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be part of social struggle,” Zinn explained in a 1998 Revolutionary Worker interview. “I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” But what happens when the aims of the social struggle and the facts of history clash?
Zinn the historian is a one-trick pony conditioned by Marxism. One crucial line from The Communist Manifesto—“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”—colors the entirety of A People’s History of the United States. Zinn characterizes the American Founding as a Machiavellian trick to usurp British Empire profits and subjugate the American populace. According to Zinn, the main casualty of the Civil War was not slavery but “class consciousness,” which the drums of war drowned out. Zinn argues that it was “money and profit, not the movement against slavery, that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country.” He explains World War I thus: “American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest among rich and poor.” Columbus’s discovery of the New World, World War II, and every other significant event in American history is similarly described through the lens of Marxism.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the FBI files also note “a photograph of Zinn taken in about 1951 which showed him instructing a class in Basic Marxism at the Twelfth Assembly District, CP Headquarters, Brooklyn, New York.” Were Stalin-era Communists in the habit of inviting “liberals” to teach them about Marxism? That, after all, is how Zinn described himself to the FBI agents: “Zinn stated that he was a liberal and that perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’” He insisted that he joined the International Workers Order, a Communist-controlled front group, “entirely for the insurance benefits.” And what about that Communist Party convention that he allegedly attended as a delegate in 1948? Zinn told the FBI that he couldn’t recall whether he had attended or not.
Howard Zinn, subject of an FBI investigation, was just as deceptive as Howard Zinn, historian.