A critic of Zinn who misses the point
From Benjamin Kerstein’s A People’s History of Howard Zinn:
Indeed, the work that A People’s History most resembles in spirit is probably The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
With white, property-owning Americans as the evil Elders of Zion controlling the universe?
Alan Roebuck replies:
Kerstein’s main criticism is that People’s History isn’t even clearly-articulated Marxism. The full context of the quote is
Zinn’s thesis can be summed up in a single sentence: The “elite”—which is left unnamed and undescribed throughout—is always and everywhere oppressing everybody else.
Needless to say, this is not really a thesis. It is not even really an idea. It is a sentiment, an unfalsifiable article of faith that bears out Karl Popper’s merciless but valuable observation that vast explanatory power is not a virtue but a vice; since any theory that explains everything by definition explains nothing at all. Indeed, Zinn’s “elite” is more akin to a conspiracy theorist’s villain than anything that has ever actually existed or acted upon human history. However, this singular concept does do us the service of making nonsense of Zinn’s claims to Marxism. Many charlatans in search of intellectual respectability have attached themselves to Marx, and Zinn was not the worst of them, but he was perhaps the most amateurish. Indeed, if A People’s History is any indication, Zinn never actually read Marx in the first place. His version of American history has no dialectical materialism, no examination of the means of production, no analysis of class struggle, alienation, or the larger historical and economic forces behind them; there is simply a wicked elite going up and down upon the earth, spreading evil and suffering wherever it goes. This is, at best, vulgar Marxism of the type Marx himself despised and, at worst, a semi-theological form of paranoia. Indeed, the work that A People’s History most resembles in spirit is probably The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
I don’t like the drift of this, because Kerstein seems to be saying that because Zinn’s work is not “real” Marxism, we can dismiss it as superficial and unserious. Does Kerstein want real Marxism? Would he be happy then?
In reality, the Zinn-type cartoonish reduction of the world to guilty oppressors and virtuous victims is the dominant idea of modern liberal society. It’s what forms our educational curricula, our entertainment (with the biggest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, expressing that precise theme). It’s what drives feminism and the diminishment of men. It’s what drives Global Warmism. It’s what drives the surrender of the white West to Third World immigration and Islam.
Alan Roebuck replies:
Point taken. Reading the essay again I see more examples of the common tendency to call the left incompetent rather than wicked. Zinn undoubtedly was incompetent to perform genuine scholarship, but that was the least of his sins.
Still, the original quote stands as a fitting comparison of two wicked conspiratorial-minded works.
(This discussion also continues in another entry
Dale F. writes:
I read Kerstein’s article a few days ago and found it odd and unpleasant.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 10, 2010 08:54 AM | Send
I’ve never been able to make myself read Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and it may be every bit as awful as Kerstein claims, but you’d think in the course of a long article he could have come up with a few concrete examples of why he believes it’s such a poor work of history. Not only does Kerstein not prove his case against Zinn, he doesn’t really make one; it’s all invective and ad hominem.