Marvelous Victories: 5 Lessons from the Late Great Howard Zinn

I was fortunate enough to know Howard Zinn a little. He wrote a blurb for my first book, Saving Private Power, in 2000…not only calling me “iconoclastic and bold,” but lending me instant credibility with a single paragraph. Also, when I later asked him to write an introduction for another of my books, A Gigantic Mistake, he replied with a short comment about not liking introductions. He preferred to dig right into a book, he said. I promptly asked if I could use that comment as my book’s “anti-introduction,” and he loved the idea.

Thus, it is with a heavy heart I write the word “late” before Zinn’s name. He died on January 27 at the age of 87. Perhaps best known for his book, A People’s History of the United States, Zinn spent most of his life defending the underdog while telling the story of the people. Back in the days before we humans became too smart for our own good, someone like Howard Zinn would’ve rightfully been called a “saint.”

Zinn’s legacy can and must live on through us. I suggest you take some time to read his work and explore his life. For now, I offer…

1. “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

2. “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 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.”

3. “The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth. Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson—that everything we do matters—is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. 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.”

4. “As dogma disintegrates, hope appears. Because it seems that human beings, whatever their backgrounds, are more open than we think, that their behavior cannot be confidently predicted from their past, that we are all creatures vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes. And while such vulnerability creates all sorts of possibilities, both good and bad, its very existence is exciting. It means that no human being should be written off, no change in thinking deemed impossible.”

5. “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.”

  • First published at planet green.
  • Mickey Z. is the creator of a podcast called Post-Woke. You can subscribe here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets. Spread the word. Read other articles by Mickey.

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    1. bozh said on January 29th, 2010 at 10:09am #

      But zinn had not, or had he, promoted or helped establish a second party in US?
      Instead of saying: “Protest beyond the laws…” it makes more sense to say: Protest under THEIR laws. Or even better to say that we’ve had no laws anywhere-anywhen until just recently.
      We’ve always lived in lawless societies. US is a lawless society; how else to explaing that a set of laws known as constitution did not prevent civil war, 170 wars, lynchings, just to mention some of the legal american activities and amusements. tnx

    2. Josie Michel-Bruening said on January 29th, 2010 at 10:30am #

      Appreciating this contribution of mourning and grieving for “late” Howard Zinn very much I want to add that not only U.S. Americans have reasons do to so, but many people world wide, as for the Cubans for instance, please, see
      Howard Zinn, a Historian for the People
      and please, see in German:
      28. Januar 2010:
      “Der Historiker für das Volk” ist tot.
      In tiefer Trauer erfuhren wir vom Tode Howard Zinns. Er starb nach einer Herzattacke im Alter von 87 Jahren, während er an einer Vortragstour in Santa Monica, Kalifornien, arbeitete.
      Howard Zinn war ein Zivilrechts- und Antikriegsaktivist, der bekannt für seine akkurate Darstellung der amerikanischen Geschichte aus der Sicht der arbeitenden und unterdrückten Menschen war. Er entmystifizierte die Lügen der Geschichtsversion, die in US-Schulen gelehrt wird. […] at
      I learned about him for the very first time because of his involvement in the campaign for the release of the “Cuban Five”.
      He was co- author of Lamrani et. al., “Superpower Principles – US-Terrorism against Cuba”. You certainly will find similar articles in nearly all languages of the world within the Internet, I guess.
      Thank you again, dear Mickey, especially for “Zinn’s Legacy”.

    3. Melissa said on January 29th, 2010 at 10:36am #

      Thank you Mickey Z. for this article and vids.

      Zinn’s death is our loss, but also an opportunity to re-visit his works, written and performed.

      My greatest hope is for the message of disobedience and disruption to become celebrated, employed, and respected rather than feared.

      Peace, Resistance, Hope,

    4. dan e said on January 29th, 2010 at 12:04pm #

      Zinn does deserve high praise for his work and is definitely worth reading. However.
      Long before Zinn came to prominence I’d encountered most of the history he reports in the works of earlier writers like WEB Dubois, Herbert Aptheker, Philip and Eric Foner, Charles & Mary Beard and others. Also I notice Zinn associated himself closely with the “semi-progressive” strain in recent US “left” politics, people like Amy Goodman & the “Z” publishing empire.
      In my mind, there’s a parallel between the Great Man roles of Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Both are undoubtedly great writers, persons of great achievement, major figures on the US Left. But in Chomsky’s case also, before he came along I’d encountered the main facts about the “Isreal” problem in works by other writers such as Ralph Schoenman, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Rabbi Elmer Berger, Israel Shahak, Lenni Brenner, Rashid Khalidi, Jeff Blankfort, Livia Rokach, Hilton Obenzinger, just to name a few.

      Now if some Historian would come along and provide us with a comprehensive true history of the emergence of the Jewish Zionist power network as a major force in US politics and warmaking…

    5. Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2010 at 12:53pm #

      I have to second DanE commentary. Zinn stood for a lot of the right things as does Chomsky but on the question of Zionism there was silence and/or that ethnocentrism that limits both these men from confronting this problem.

      In addition, Zinn on the “moving train” in 2004 decided to back the “Anybody But Bush” / support Democratic candidate “John Kerry” / diffuse the anti-war movement anti-Nadar tactic (ABB). This “strategy” was supported by the Z-Mag crowd primarily due to the fact that other members in the anti-war movement started to shine a light on the influence of Zionism on the War on Iraq. The Z-Mag crew preferred the “War for Oil” canard which has been completely discredited and only shows that the Z-Mag crew chose deception and lies over confronting the truth.

      The consequence of Zinn’s support for the ABB strategy helped not only to weaken the anti-war movement but placed the Left in an extremely weaken position for the 2008 election cycle which opened the door for Obama. In addition, the weak and divided condition of the Left creates a vacuum that is now being filled by right-wing populism. The Left today is too divided and does not have a coherent strategy to offer a real challenge to the Capitalist crisis and the political domination of Zionism.

      Dan mentions WEB DuBios, now here’s a man who didn’t compromise his principles on the moving train.

    6. sidneyfalco said on January 30th, 2010 at 1:10pm #

      And I’ll second Deadbeat’s post. Zinn deserves a lot of credit, but his support for the ABB strategy didn’t stop there. It’s incredible to me that a man like himself could back Obama in the 2008 campaign with such an incredible display of political naivety as to defy common sense. The left is paying a huge price for this kind of leadership.

    7. dan e said on January 30th, 2010 at 2:17pm #

      thank you DB and Sidney F, for going straight to the heart of the problems Zinn’s dual nature poses for the unwary.

    8. bozh said on January 30th, 2010 at 3:05pm #

      At least chomsky voted for greens or so he says to me. Chomsky had always written to me that children and grandchildren of the expelees cannot return to their homeland.
      This means that only expellees who are now + 61 cld return and then cld die there from neglect by ‘jews’.
      I have never written zinn; so i can’t tell whether he also repudiated ROR. At least, chomsky admitted to have been a zionist and anarchist. This means he had been an asocialist and a ‘jew’. tnx

    9. bozh said on January 30th, 2010 at 3:08pm #

      A correction ab “always written to me” . No, only once andin last of the 4 emails to me!

    10. dan e said on January 30th, 2010 at 3:37pm #

      the Green presidential ticket in 2008 was Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente; I don’t recall any indication that Chomsky had endorsed them. Does he now claim that he did?

    11. kalidas said on January 30th, 2010 at 4:02pm #

      I wasn’t the least bit surprised at his or any of ‘their’ loyalty, their reasoning, their ciphering when it actually really and truly counted.
      It was and is expected every single time.
      How anyone deceives and tortures themselves that it ain’t so is pathetic and childlike.

      I do understand that people wish very hard to believe and hope there really is a line there, but there simply IS NOT.

      Call it mass psychosis, call it psychopathology, call it ponerology, call it what you want, but it simply is, as Mark Twain said…
      “believing in something you know just ain’t so.”

    12. Deadbeat said on January 30th, 2010 at 4:39pm #

      The Green candidate in 2004 was the provocateur David Cobb who was supported by Medea Benjamin. She trusted herself into the Greens in order to block Ralph Nader. Chomsky, in 2004, while not as prominent as Zinn on the issue, supported the ABB tactic. ABB meant that Chomsky and Zinn would vote for the Green candidate or Nader in Massachusetts since they confidently believed that the Democratic candidate — John Kerry would carry the state but insisted that voters in swing states vote for Kerry over any third party candidate.

      Both men advocated a cowardly and pretentious electoral strategy as a cover-your-ass in order to preserve appearances rather than to really build a real left-wing challenge to the Democrats.

      2004 IMO was a pivotal year for the Left because public sentiment against the War on Iraq ran high and many people were IN MOTION. This was an epochal opportunity for the Left to build a REAL MOVEMENT.

      What occurred during the crucial 2003-2004 period was that you had a strain in the movement would wanted to openly discuss the truth about Middle East policy and Zionist influence driving that policy. The Z-Mag crew on the other hand wanted to sell the public the old and tired “War for Oil” canard in order to DEFLECT away from analyzing and confronting Zionism.

      Recall that Chomsky was praising this motion by the public and the grassroots as the new “superpower”. What they (Z-Mag crew) didn’t anticipate was an emerging consensus in the anti-war movement about Zionism’s role and influence in U.S. foreign policy. This IMO is why the Z-Mag crew shifted their energies and focus from anti-war to ABB. The Z-Mag crew supported suspending the anti-war movement until after the ’04 elections. Essentially the anti-war movement has been dormant since 2004 and never reach the high level of public involvement witnessed just before “shock and awe”.

      Now we are not talking about anyone taking any real risk of life and limb in backing the 2004 Nader/Camajo ticket. It should have been a cakewalk for both Zinn and Chomky to back Nader/Camejo. They should have criticized Norm Soloman for demanding that Nader/Camejo not run for office. They should have outed Medea Benjamin for her sabotaging Nader endorsement of the Greens.

      Had Zinn & Chomsky used their influence to support Nader’s 50-state run in 2004 on the Green Party ticket the Green would have at least held or increased their ballot lines rather than lose those ballot access lines which set both the Green Party and Nader up for irrelevancy in 2008.

      Thus it would seem that “saying the right things” but doing the wrong things are hallmarks of politicians not radicals. Therefore while I would refer to Howard Zinn as “late” but I would not call him “great”.

      Rather than help to fuel the moving train forward for the Left both Zinn & Chomsky have become the Left’s two biggest “breaks” — holding it back.

    13. dan e said on January 30th, 2010 at 6:17pm #

      Yes the 2004 election was a enormous turning point. For a while I was the N. Calif organizer for Nader/Camejo, accidentally because the Reform Party campaign pro Nader picked for the job turned out to be so flagrantly racist an embarrassment that he was summarily canned leaving the N Calif campaign effort in disarray. I’d set up one of those “Meetups” hoping to meet other Nader backers, so found myself being asked to step in and be a point of communication. Which put me right in the middle of all the nonsense going on then in the GP. Locally the Cobbers were totally in control, wouldn’t even let a longtime member of the GP County Committee hold a Nader mtg in the GP office. Seems to have been a degree of turnover since then but local GP leadership sat on their hands in 2008.
      They had me listed as a Nader delegate to the GP convention in Chicago, if he had won any delegates.
      However looking back I think Nader badly misplayed his cards in the way he chose to deal with Cobb’s challenge.
      I remember finding myself in the audience at a “debate” between Camejo and Solomon re the wisdom of Nader running again. When Solomon started into his tired old “lesser evil” rap I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t refrain from interrupting him pointing out his words were an echo of LBJ vs Goldwater. Goldwater ran as the War War candidate, LBJ was the Peace candidate, which meant that Goldwater talked about it, then LBJ did it.
      Was dismayed that Camejo intervened to support Solomon and “decorum”.
      Solomon is a good reference point: anybody who like Alex Cockburn continues to publish Solomon’s stuff sans disclaimer is either simple in the head or is playing some kind of complex game, the kind Petras would describe as “part of the scam”. I continue to read Counterpunch every cpl days, often find good stuff — but dropped my sub to the Newsletter.
      Anyway everybody should demand no repeat of oh-four and oh-eight. No more smorgasbord of “third pty” candidates. We all need to unite behind one ticket in Nov 2012. Yes to a lively primary season but in the fall everybody needs to get behind whoever stands the best chance of making an impact on John Q Mis/Disinformed Voter’s mind.
      BTW I think Zinn was better than Chomsky re Palestinian ROR. Saw what looked like Al Awda eulogy. But can’t vouch for it.
      Another problem is that outfits like PSL/ANSWER, Peace & Freedom, various “Socialist” parties always insist on running their own candidates, which is fine during primary season but becomes sabotage in the fall.
      Kudos to DB for outing the Zmag crew. Another bunch of “erudite Marxists” is the Monthly Review crew who know so much profound stuff but fall silent when talk turns to Walt/Mearsheimer etc.

    14. bobo said on January 31st, 2010 at 2:22am #

      With all due respect, Chomsky recently played down the profoundly implications of the newly installed military bases in Columbia. He dismissed the chance of US-led aggression to destabilize Venezuela. That could not be more misleading.

      You can watch it at Z-video:

      The preventive actions should be taken before US war machine dismantles Venezuela and the rest of leftist movements there. I don’t think we need any more best-selling books to describe how evil the Yankee empire is than a viable anti-war coalition.

      Anyway Howard Zinn deserves a great honor though he wasn’t flawless.

    15. bobo said on January 31st, 2010 at 2:26am #

      Sorry! Colombia not Columbia

    16. Josie Michel-Bruening said on January 31st, 2010 at 8:20am #

      Yes, bobo, as you said, Zinn deserves a great honor, though he was not flawless, as nobody of us.
      Besides of his courage, I appreciate him for his humor.
      Both is needed for keeping tolerant and alive.

    17. Josie Michel-Bruening said on January 31st, 2010 at 9:25am #

      Moreover, I want to join Melissa’s comment.

    18. L.C. Larsen said on February 5th, 2010 at 8:59pm #

      Unlike some readers I don’t feel the need to appear “more radical than thou” by beating up on the reputations of Chomsky or Zinn.

      Yes, their enshrinement as “great men” qualitatively different from the masses is deceiving, and they would be the first to point that out.

      But the point is that they have used the notoriety that society has allowed them to excellent ends, and have helped turn tens of thousands on to a truer and more just understanding of the world.

      So as a “non-great” person who sympathizes with most of their positions I say, thank you both, you’ve been an inspiration even for us “sleeper agents” who await the small chances life may yet bring us to make significant contributions to the well-being of humanity.

    19. bozh said on February 6th, 2010 at 1:16pm #

      C. larsen, what have u forgotten in praising the two cultists?
      Recall, in ’08, 98% of americans voted for wars; against health care, right to be informed-educated.
      In short, voted for own serfdom! I have simple rule ab jews. If a person is a jew, that person is wedded to ‘zionism’; i.e., theft of land with murder-expulsion.
      The label “jews” does not denote any ethnicity but devotions to israel, talmudism.
      In short, only a few “jews” were able to discard their jewishness or a sense of being a specialty and novelty on my planet.
      My planet has no room for any cultist: islamic, jewish, or christian! tnx