Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

  • Location:
  • Mood:
  • Music:


Have I really gone four months since last updating the Fifty Book Challenge?  It's not for any lack of reading, perhaps it's that enjoying the Great Outdoors or Working on The Railroad are more compelling uses of my time.

Never mind all that.  For Book Review No. 17 I offer Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present.  The book is apparently a best-seller in collegiate history courses, perhaps out of some sense of offering differing perspectives, perhaps because it makes the usual suspects comfortable with their race-class-gender priors.  Whatever.  Professor Zinn, in an afterword, suggests that there's more to history than learning facts, and more than one way to interpret those facts.  And in the text, he notes that the historian, or any other observer, ought not judge the behavior of previous generations against the standards of the current generation.  That caution is particularly germane to a work that explicitly bases its criteria for telling the stories on some standards of the current generation.

What, then, to make of the stories he tells?  We begin in 1492, concurrent with the explorations of the European maritime powers, who have found new lands populated by different people who lack sailing vessels, or cannon, or decent swords.  And thus the European maritime powers are in a position to colonize, and to enslave subject populations.  Not that there's anything wrong with telling the story of the people who lose the war: there are, after all, retellings of Beowulf from Grendel's mother's point of view.  But People's History becomes the basis for arguing that "conceived in Liberty" is more like conceived in Sin.  Secular religion, you see.

Thus, perhaps the most jarring interpretation in People's History: that American Independence is all about the local elites deciding it would be easier to exploit the local plebeians if they cut out the middleman, which is to say, Parliament and the Crown.  Montesquieu, Locke, Smith, Burke: irrelevant.  (Likewise for the War Between the States, it's all about the Establishment Screwing the People.  Well, it is.  There's a serious argument Professor Zinn could have made about institutions that enable emergence and foster diffusion of power away from the Ruling Class, but we look for that perspective, even as a foil for his argument, in vain.)

What comes after Appomattox?  Here, the chapters read like Professor Zinn simply extracted, and strung together, all the short stories of protests as covered by The Nation or The Progressive or The Militant or The Daily Worker or Kaleidoscope.  The reader can append the obligatory "Chanting 'Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho ...'" lede that is a staple of such stories.  Meanwhile, the political-entertainment industry distracts people with horse-races and horse-race interpretations of polling data.  There's more than one way to respond to those phenomena.

Perhaps it's because I'm somewhat familiar with the business history of manufacturing and railroading during the Gilded Age that People's History's coverage of the class struggle leaves me cold.  Here, there might be opportunity to interpret, to suggest hypotheses, to do more than report who went on strike and how many people got shot.  I offer a brief passage from Daughen and Binzen's The Wreck of the Penn Central, where a brief account of the general railroad strike of 1877 commences at page 39.

To get the trains running again, General Phil Sheridan dispatched a full regiment of soldiers.  In Omaha, locomotives and rail cars were wrecked.  Blood was shed in St. Louis and St. Paul.  The rioting appeared contagious, yet communications were primitive.  Newspapers alone carried accounts of the violence.  Vast numbers of workers were either illiterate or, being newly arrived immigrants, couldn't read English.  One wonders what effect full-scale national television, in color, might have had on events.  Seeing their brothers shot in Reading, would the Chicago rioters have reacted even more violently?  Or viewing troops slain in Pittsburgh would middle-America nativists have demanded more repressive retaliatory measures?  Judging from recent experience, one might surmise that comprehensive TV coverage might have served only to increase the polarization.

And yet, 45 years after the Penn Central collapse, and well into the culture wars, and well into Black Lives Matter, it's still business as usual.  More of the same stories in the usual places, and my edition chronicles the social protests until just before the towers came down.

But the best Professor Zinn can offer by way of advice is ... the syndicalist manifesto I refer to in my title.  Open to page 653.

The society's levers of powers would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state -- the giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators.  We would need -- by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country -- to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need the most.

Since years of protest have accomplished none of these things, and since the tribal societies whose cooperative ways somehow never produced the sailing ships and cannon that might have preempted their enslavement, what, dear reader, have we learned after wading through nearly 700 pages?

Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available -- free -- to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions.

Perhaps, although the chronicle of failures of such movements that adds up to a bound volume of The Progressive or several chapters of People's History ought give readers pause.  Or give professors who assign People's History reason to assign Mandeville's Fable of the Bees and Smith's writings on the society of perfect liberty and Mill's On Liberty at least a hearing.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Tags: academic, cultural studies, history, myth and legend, unimpressed

  • December 2020 - Books 71 to 76

    71. Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park A young mixed-race girl moves with her widowed father to a fledgling South Dakota town in 1880. This is the…

  • Books 8-9

    The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg My rating: 4 of 5 stars I received this in a Goodreads Giveaway which did not influence my review. I'm…

  • Book #8: The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum

    The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is the second of L. Frank Baum's Oz book series, and features some…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded