Liberty Tree (Vol. 1, Issue 1), October 1, 2005


Must we know when the revolution starts? Instead of looking, waiting, observing, we should just act and it will gradually become obvious. As John Dewey said: "Don't predict, so you'll know what to do. Do, so you'll know what to predict." -- Howard Zinn

[Rachel's introduction: "A profound and fundamental change in the economic system of this country is a necessary, although not sufficient, requirement for seriously addressing and diminishing racism."]

By David Cobb

David Cobb interviews Howard Zinn.

How did your upbringing in New York affect your view of the world?

I grew up in a working class family, in a working class neighborhood. At the age of 18, I encountered young radicals, and worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I remember reading Upton Sinclair and Charles Dickens as a young teenager, and Marx and Engels later. I went to my first demonstration in Times Square when I was only 17, and I got knocked unconscious by a plainclothes cop.

All those experiences certainly intensified my conviction that something was wrong with this country! And it also intensified my conviction that there was something fundamentally wrong with the entire notion of capitalism. I also began to realize that the claim that the United States was a democracy was -- at least to great extent - a sham. That the rich dominated the country.

You were a decorated air force bombardier during World War II. Can you talk about that experience?

I was an enthusiastic bombardier. I left the Navy Yard to volunteer for the Army Air Corps. I wanted to fight against Fascism! I had read about the totalitarianism of Mussolini and Hitler, and I had read about the fight for liberty and freedom during the Spanish Civil War.

So you were a flag-waving American throughout the war?

Not exactly. There was a fellow I became pretty good friends with who introduced the first jarring note into my certainty that this was a just war. He was the first person I heard who described it as an "Imperialist War." He argued that both sides were actually ruled by powerful economic interests, and claimed that the governments of all the countries were openly hostile to the working people in their own country.

But the truth is that it wasn't until after the war, when I was reflecting on my own experience in bombing a small French village on the Atlantic coast, that I began to put the pieces together. This was only a few weeks before the end of the war, and a totally unnecessary bombing from a military point of view. And the reality is that I dropped napalm on a untold number of Germans and French, including civilians. This lead me to ponder the very nature of war itself.

Reading John Hershey on Hiroshima made me think further. And as I observed the post-war world, and watched the Cold War unfold as two superpowers armed themselves to the teeth with nuclear weapons, it made me wonder about the 50 million people that had "died for democracy." I thought about the huge numbers of civilians that had been killed in the bombings of Germany and Japan.

Don't get me wrong, I was and am still am convinced that Fascism had to be stopped. But I began to wonder if a war with over 50 million dead, leaving the world still in such a dangerous state, with totalitarian states in so many countries in the world, was really the best way to fight fascism.

And over time I simply became convinced that war itself is simply an outmoded and unnecessary solution to whatever problems the world may face. So I was an early and adamant opponent of the war in Vietnam, and against every war since.

That leads me to my next question, Howard. You were an active participant in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. What can we learn from those prior struggles?

Well, I learned that when ordinary people resist oppression it is mostly ignored by the contemporary corporate media, and it is definitely ignored by traditional history textbooks. So I think we have a responsibility to future generations to document those struggles.

I also learned that important social change does not come from the initiative of governments, but from the organization and agitation of people's movements. And that lesson is repeatedly corroborated by studying the history of this country.

Throughout your career as a historian you have provided a scathing indictment of many -- if not most -- of the traditional American "heroes." Who are some of the folks you admire?

Granted, it is good to have historical figures we can admire and emulate. And such people certainly exist. But it is just silly to hold up as models the fifty-five rich, white men who drafted the Constitution as a way of establishing a government that would protect the interests of their class -- slaveholders, merchants, bondholders, land speculators.

Our country is full of heroic people who are not presidents or military leaders or Wall Street wizards, but who are doing something to keep alive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war. Today I think of Kathy Kelly and all those other people of Voices in the Wilderness, who, in defiance of federal law, have traveled to Iraq over a dozen times to bring food and medicine to people suffering under the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

I think also of the thousands of students on over a hundred college campuses across the country who are currently protesting the Iraq War or their universities' connection with sweatshop produced apparel. These are the people who give me hope and inspiration.

I've often heard you reference the famous George Orwell observation that "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." Could you talk about that.

It is more true today than when Orwell said it! Those in power quite literally control the past because they actually control the writing of the history books. Conscious decisions are made to omit the actions of ordinary people.

Those in power own the media -- print, radio and television -- and they intentionally fail to provide the public with the basic sense of history that would equip the ordinary citizen to understand government policies or how those polices are even made.

By omitting the struggles of people's movements from history, they convey the idea that all we can do as citizens is to vote for a savior in one of the major parties. In short, media is designed to reduce us to passive recipients of whatever action the government wants to take. And of course, that action is always taken at the behest of the rich and powerful.

In light of the incredibly subtle but effective corporate media propaganda machine in this country, what are the implications for today's social change agents?

We must develop our own independent media that can provide news, information and analysis without the corporate filter. And we did that during the Vietnam War. Community newspapers and counter- cultural papers sprang up in high schools and on college campuses. And we also created the independent press associations like the Dispatch News Service, which actually broke the story of the My Lai massacre.

And today we have the Pacific news network, and perhaps 200 truly independent community radio stations. We have Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. We have David Barsamian and Alternative Radio. We have community cable stations and alternative newspapers. We even have a few radical columnists at mainstream papers.

Howard, this first issue of the Journal raises the question of reform and revolution. What do you see as the tensions and possible synergy between these two approaches to social change?

Putting off revolutionary change to some infinitely distant future and only dealing with "achievable" reforms consigns us to the absolute slowest pace of incremental change. Indeed, the pace can seem so slow that it seems like nothing is changing at all, which drives people into either apathy or cynicism.

On the other hand, disdaining reform and arguing that only radical revolutionary change is meaningful is to alienate the vast majority of our fellow citizens, and to miss the opportunity to help leverage incremental reform into something deeper.

It is a serious question you are raising. How can we make immediate and important reforms -- ending a war, stop racial profiling -- but at the same time to move towards more profound change. How can we work not just to end a war, but to educate people about the real nature of U.S. foreign policy, the history of U.S. expansionism, and the inherent and inescapable connection between capitalism and imperialism.

We must not only oppose racial prejudice, but to point out and remedy the underlying roots of racism. And we have to be willing to point out that any system based on corporate profit will always have an underclass. In fact, such a system requires an underclass.

So the reality is that a profound and fundamental change in the economic system of this country is a necessary, although not sufficient, requirement for seriously addressing and diminishing racism.

Is it possible to pursue both reform and revolution simultaneously, or are they mutually exclusive?

Not only is it possible to pursue reform and revolution simultaneously, as difficult as it is, they must be pursued simultaneously.

Can you expand on this? How does one pursue them simultaneously?

I always encourage people to look around themselves in their community and find an organization that is doing something that they believe in, even if that organization has only five people, or ten people, or twenty people, or a hundred people. And then get involved, especially with those groups that are committed to systemic change. This is an admittedly "reformist" approach.

But if we are not educating people regarding the underlying connections, if we don't create a consciousness of how power operates, we won't be able to create the conditions necessary to help nurture a non-violent revolution.

Is one or the other more appropriate to this particular historical moment?

Clearly we must concentrate on the movement to withdraw U.S. military forces from Iraq. But at the same time we must force our fellow citizens to dig deeper, and confront the reality of the U.S. as a war- making state.

To prepare to stop the next war before it starts, we need to be talking about alternative ways of resolving disputes, and we need to talk about creating a global justice movement so the underlying causes of war are greatly decreased.

We need to be building the global movement that will demand the end to empire, and a commitment that the wealth of the world will be shared fairly and be used to meet human needs.

Howard, is it possible for you to envision a successful and peaceful democratic revolution in the United States? If so, what does that path look like, and what would it take to move down that path?

It's possible to envision that future, although it does take some straining of the imagination and eyesight! I see it as winning victories step-by-step. Stopping a war, reducing the military budget, universal health care, re-creating a more fair and progressive tax system. I imagine us concentrating on each of these until they are won. And when enough victories are won, and if we have been strategic and smart about educating and organizing while we work on these reforms, there will be a sudden realization that systemic change is taking place, and that a democratic revolution is underway.

You have been clear that you do not consider yourself a pacifist, yet you have spent your entire life working for peace. Can you talk about that?

To me, the term "pacifist" suggests being passive -- rather than active -- resistance. This is a profound difference. For example, think of South Africa, where a decision to engage in out-and-out armed struggle would have led to a bloody civil war with huge casualties, most of them black. Instead, the African National Congress decided to put up with apartheid longer, but to wage a strategic and long-term campaign of attrition. That was a very active but non-violent resistance movement that used an incredible array of tactics -- strikes, worker sabotage, economic sanctions, and international pressure. And most importantly for me, it worked.

Is violence ever justified?

I am not an absolute pacifist, because I can't rule out the possibility that under some, carefully defined circumstances, some degree of violence may be justified. For example, if it is focused directly at a great evil. I certainly believe slave revolts are justified. And, if John Brown had really succeeded in arousing such revolts throughout the South, it would have been much preferable to losing 600,000 lives in the Civil War. And it is important to note that the makers of the U.S. Civil War -- unlike slave rebels -- did not have as their first priority the plight of the black slaves. This is sadly proven by the shameful betrayal of black interests after that war. And the Zapatista uprising that has been underway in Chiapas for a decade seems justified to me. But some armed struggles that start for a good cause get out of hand and the ensuing violence becomes indiscriminate.

Each situation has to be evaluated separately, because each one is different. In general, I believe in non-violent direct action, which involves organizing large numbers of people. Far too often, violent uprisings are the product of a small group. If enough people are organized, violence can be minimized in bringing about social change.

What historical revolutionary movements inspire your political vision and practice?

I am inspired by the Paris Commune, by the anarchists of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. I am inspired by the workers councils in the Soviet Union before the Bolsheviks seized power. I am inspired by the Hungarian uprising of 1956. I am inspired by the Cuban revolution in part -- deeply opposing the concentration of power, the jailing of dissidents -- but honoring the profound systemic improvements in education, health and culture.

What historical reformist movements inspire your political vision and practice?

Well, there is the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Howard, the reality is that U.S. elections have never been very democratic. What changes would it take to make U.S elections really meaningful and democratic?

We need to change the rules in the various states so that third parties have a chance to compete. Third parties must have access to the ballot and to debates. We need to change our voting system away from the "winner-take-all" system and move to proportional representation. We need to equalize campaign expenditures. A system of publicly funded elections would be a start.

Were the 2000 and 2004 elections merely "business as usual" or something more?

I agree with you that every U.S. election is flawed as a result of the monopolization of the electoral process by the two major parties. But the last two elections definitely introduced a special corruption because of the position of the United States in the world.

Thank you for speaking with us, Howard.

About Howard Zinn


Howard Zinn was raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions for the United States in World War II, an experience he now points to in shaping his opposition to war. In 1956, he became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil rights movement, which he participated in as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and chronicled, in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored a young student named Alice Walker. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War. He is perhaps best known for A People's History of the United States, which presents American history through the eyes of those he feels are outside of the political and economic establishment.

About David Cobb


David Cobb was the 2004 Green Party nominee for President of the United States. He served as General Counsel for the national Green Party until declaring his candidacy in 2003. His legal career is dedicated to challenging illegitimate corporate power and to creating democracy. In addition to his service as a Democratizing Elections Fellow with Liberty Tree, David is a member of the Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County Steering Committee, a co-founder and member of the Board of Directors for the Green Institute, and a member of the Sierra Club's national Corporate Accountability Committee.