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'Bush Drives Us Into Bakunin's Arms!': An Interview with Howard Zinn

On the day before George W. Bush was inaugurated as president, we asked Zinn about his observations concerning this juncture in American history.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit

Issue #54, March 2001

At last year's Sundance Festival, historian Howard Zinn was invited to give a lecture on Hollywood's propagandistic slant. Zinn's talk was recorded and recently released as Stories Hollywood Never Tells by San Francisco's Alternative Tentacles Records and the UK-based radical publisher, AK Press. Over the course of sixty-some minutes, Zinn, speaking to the alternative film elite, spins out a marvelously accessible lecture about how Hollywood has always toed the establishment's line, reinforcing falsehoods and mythologies across the board. Not only does it offer an incisive expose of Hollywood chicanery, but the compact disc also provides the perfect forum for an activist cum academic like Zinn to reach beyond privileged university students seeking liberal arts enlightenment before moving on to law school and connect with another audience, the culture industry itself.

The recording's one flaw is its introduction, which David Barsamian provides. Barsamian, noted leftist talk show host, head of his own syndicated Alternative Radio Project program, and much-loved in progressive media circles, introduces Zinn to the Sundance audience by comparing him to one of the towering figures of Islamic esoterica Sufi mystic Jalal al-din Rumi. Zinn, Barsamian explains, is not so much a religious mystic, rather he, like Jalal al-din Rumi, teaches forbidden knowledge, in this case, real history. For those familiar with the basic tenets of Marxist ideology criticism, there's some truth to Barsamian's discomforting, extremely 1960s analogy: Ideology is always about disguising the truth, that is, about the process of 'mystification.' In this instance, Zinn is the great revealer of suppressed truths or, in other words, the great demystifier.

In all likelihood, this kind of Freudian slip was not what Barsamian intended. Instead, Barsamian most likely wanted to underscore Zinn's standing in a particular community of progressive intellectuals tired of the layers of lies consistently put forth by an academic and a media establishment all too willing to embrace the self-congratulatory narratives of the corporate state and big business. It's not as though Zinn isn't worth mystifying to a certain extent either. Now a professor emeritus in Boston University's history department, he's been one of the most influential US historians of his generation. Zinn's People's History of the United States (1980) decisively influenced the study and teaching of US history, opening it as a field of multicultural discussion. Revised editions have secured its status as one of the most popular university history texts in recent memory.

On the day before George W. Bush was inaugurated as president, we asked Zinn about his observations concerning this juncture in American history.

BS: Since George W. Bush seems so much the emblem of commerce and the privileging of capital in the US, how might he also speak to an older history of robber barons and 19th century capitalism?

Zinn: Let's go back to President McKinley and the age of the robber barons and ask who was the original cause of people like George Bush? In 1896, McKinley beats the populist candidate William Jennings Bryan and represents corporate wealth. It's a time when monopolies are being created. A few years after McKinley's election, US Steel is formed from a merger of two major steel companies. The railroads are consolidating, and the Supreme Court is making all sorts of decisions in favor of big business and corporations.

   So sure, you can go back to the era of the robber barons in the late 19th century and say, "Here we have Bush again, representing robber barons." But it would be deceptive to pretend that this is a departure from what we have had under Clinton or Carter, just as McKinley wasn't a tremendous departure from Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland was a Democrat — and McKinley was a Republican. And although McKinley was more in tune with corporate power than Cleveland, Cleveland was certainly a friend of big business and not a friend of labor. It was Grover Cleveland who brought out the troops in 1894 to break the Pullman Strike.

   The point I'm making is that whether you have a Republican or a Democrat in power, the robber barons are still there. If you look at Clinton, his administration was very good to the corporations. The Dow Jones average during the Clinton years went up from four thousand to ten thousand. Well, whom did it go up for? Who benefited mostly from that? The great stockholders of the nation are the ones who benefited the most. Under the Clinton administration, more mergers of huge corporations took place — more than any others that had ever taken place before under any administration.

   I'm saying this not to soften the impact of Bush's alliance with the rich — only to say that the Democrats have made a similar alliance with the rich, except that they cover this over with a lot of different kinds of rhetoric and a softer approach because the Democrats need the votes of the labor unions, women and black people. Nevertheless, whether you have Republicans or Democrats in power, big business is the most powerful voice in the halls of Congress and in the ears of the president of the United States. So Bush is more of the same, only more so.

BS: You mention primarily domestic policy and the internal organization of capital in the US. How about any comparison between the old-fashioned imperialism of William McKinley and the questions surrounding the WTO today? Are they comparable?

Zinn: Well, they're generally comparable, although they look different. Under McKinley, we were engaging in blatant military occupation of foreign territories and blatant imperialism. Under McKinley, we go into Cuba in 1898, drive the Spaniards out, and put ourselves in — including our banks, our railroads, our corporations. We take Puerto Rico, Hawaii, we send an army to take the Philippines. It's blatant imperialism at its height in those years.

lecture    What we have in our time with the WTO and the power of the World Bank and the power of the IMF and the reach of American corporations around the world is a more sophisticated kind of imperialism in which we don't have to send armies into other countries. We send corporations instead. We send Disney and McDonalds into other countries. When we think we have to, we're certainly ready to send a military force abroad. The elder Bush sent a military force into Iraq ten years ago in 1991. I would call that 'imperialism'.

   Imperialism always has an excuse. The elder Bush's excuse was that the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait. And we had the excuse with Cuba — if not us, then it's the Spaniards. We had an excuse in the Philippines. If we don't take it, somebody else will. We had an excuse in the Persian Gulf in 1991 with Kuwait, but it was oil. President Bush was not weeping tears over the Kuwaitis. He didn't weep tears over the fate of any other countries which were invaded by other powers. Oil was the consideration. When you're sending a military force halfway across the world to engage in a war for oil, that's imperialism.

   What we have is a more sophisticated form of imperialism, which is economic. But lurking in the background, always ready to go, is an armed force. That's why, even though the Soviet Union is gone, the politicos — not just the Republicans, but the Democrats — wanted a military budget as huge as it was during the Cold War. Why did they want it? So they could use our military power, if necessary, to reach into far corners of the world and extend our political and economic power through military bases.

   Imperialism is the factor in American policy, not just since 1898, but in fact long before it when we were expanding across this continent and taking away Indian lands in order to enlarge the territory of the United States. We have been an imperial power and an expansionist power for a very long time. It will continue regardless of whether we have Republican or Democratic administrations in power. In fact, it's hard to tell who would be more likely to further the ends of imperialism. The Democrats or the Republicans, Bush or Gore? I mean yes, in domestic policy you can find some differences among them. Look at the appointments to the Attorney General, environmental affairs, and so on....but in foreign policy, it's very hard to find a difference.

BS: So beneath the globalist consciousness that is so discussed, we basically find a repetition of older patterns of American imperialism?

Zinn: Right, but as I said, it takes a more sophisticated form now.

BS: Why do you think that progressives have adopted the term 'globalization' so readily instead of using the term 'imperialism'? To our progressive ears, 'globalization' has a far less pejorative connotation. It seems to be used to describe a systemic world-wide capitalist integration that is far more neutral than a term with a Leninist history like 'imperialism', for example.

Zinn: Are you suggesting that progressive forces should be using the term 'imperialism' more than using the term 'globalization'?

BS: (Laughter) Yes, because it more fully expresses the value judgment latent in the way progressives talk about the integration of world economic systems.

Zinn: Sure, it's very important to point out that globalization is in fact imperialism and that there is a disadvantage to simply using the term 'globalization' in a way that plays into the thinking of people at the World Bank and journalists like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times who are agog at globalization. They just can't contain their joy at the spread of American economic and corporate power all over the world. Sure, it would very good to puncture that balloon and say "This is imperialism."

BS: In terms of counter-forces to that imperialism, could you talk about how American progressivism has fared considering, for example, that Nader achieved three percent of the popular vote, which is a historic low in terms of the percentage of vote for progressive presidential candidates?

back in baby's armsZinn: I think that the Nader campaign made a mistake in hitching their reputation on how many votes they would get. I think they made a mistake in insisting that they must get five percent, that they must get a certain number of votes. It's a bad move for progressive organizations to tie themselves to the electoral system because the electoral system is a great grave into which we are invited to get lost. For progressive movements, the future does not lie with electoral politics. It lies in street warfare — protest movements and demonstrations, civil disobedience, strikes and boycotts — using all of the power consumers and workers have in direct action against the government and corporations. To sink too much of our energy into electoral politics is a mistake. The result is to dishearten people because it gives us a false picture of how much strength the establishment has; because counted up, it looks as though all these people voted for Gore or Bush, but only a handful voted for Nader.

   The fact is that millions and millions of people voted for Gore who would have voted for Nader if they thought he had a chance to win. That is, millions and millions of people would whose basic views are closer to Nader than they are to Gore. But because people are trapped in this electoral system in which two parties and wealth control the media and control the electoral process, people are trapped in that therefore they vote their conscience, they don't vote their beliefs. They become pragmatic the moment that they go to the polls. They sort of shrug their shoulders and go "We've only been given two choices — we've been given a multiple choice test with only A and B. We can't do C or D." So the result is to give a misleading picture about the strength of the progressive movement. That was the mistake of the Nader campaign, to fall into that trap.

BS: The other depressing way that one could read the Nader campaign is to listen to what certain conservatives have been saying: that Nader's failure to do better demonstrates the limits of the new progressive movement that has arisen since the WTO protests in Seattle.

Zinn: They would do better by taking a look at the actions people have been taking these past few years — the new vitality in the labor movement, the unionization of white collar workers, the victory of the United Parcel Workers strike, which is one of the largest labor victories of the past decade.

   Ten thousand people will turn up in Georgia to protest the School of the Americas. Take a look at the tens of thousands of people that turned up in Seattle or Washington, DC. Take a look at the thousands of local organizations around the country that are working on women's issues, environmental issues, local issues of all sorts. That gives you a better picture of the energy of the new progressive movement than to count the votes in an election campaign.

BS: One of the things that's been very curious about this new progressivism is its political character. One of its most over-hyped motifs, particularly in the US, is its anarchist leanings. Do you want to address that? Is this really the case, and if so, why?

Zinn: There's always been an anarchist element in progressive and radical movements in the history of this country. But it's also true that as a result of the movements of the sixties, movements moved away from the Old Left and its hierarchical, centralized organization, into more participatory democracy, into more egalitarian forms of organization. Examples of that are the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee with its decentralized actions and emphasis on grassroots organization or the women's movement, which didn't have any real center or any charismatic leaders but had little centers all over the country.

   Since the sixties, the reason why it was called the New Left was because it broke away from the old form of organization, and it had more ideas that fit anarchist philosophy — decentralization and direct action, as opposed to emphasis upon politics. I mean the Civil Rights Movement's greatest achievements were a result of direct action, not through politics. The women's movement didn't succeed in getting an Equal Rights Amendment, nor did it depend on one — it depended on its own power against employers, against oppressors in every aspect of their lives.

   So I think if we separate out those people labeled anarchists by the press —anyone who throws a brick through a window is labeled an anarchist — if we separate that out and we look at the anarchist philosophy, which is not centered on brick-throwing, but centered on certain forms of organization and action which are direct action, then I think anarchism has stronger roots in the progressive movement today than it's ever had.

BS: Does anarchism have a critique of capitalism that's analogous to that of Marxism? Is it as conscious of the class composition of capitalist society?

bush babyZinn: It depends on which anarchists you're dealing with. For example, there's a difference between Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkmann. One of the reasons that Bakunin was in conflict with Marx in the First International was because Bakunin didn't accept Marx's class analysis. Bakunin didn't see a cohesive working class as being the makers of revolution. Instead, he saw a kind of generalized dissatisfaction in society amongst people whom Marx probably would not have considered working class — all sorts of alienated and marginalized people. They would create some kind of great force that would overthrow the old order. It wasn't a class analysis.

   On the other hand, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkmann, who did not consider themselves Marxists, were closer to Marxist thinking. Without using the language of class analysis, their actual thinking about American society was a thinking which incorporated the idea of "there are the capitalists, there are the employers, here are the workers."

BS: In God and the State, Bakunin writes one of the classic analyses of the permeation of religious authority into philosophies of state. How might that sort of thought begin to analyze a figure like George W. Bush, who brings such profound reverence for Christianity into government?

Zinn: Well-put! When you have somebody like George Bush becoming President, it drives you into Bakunin's arms!

BS, Zinn: (Laughter)

Zinn: If you were softening up to the church and religion in any way — this goes for liberal elements like liberation theology, radical Catholicism as well— you might be tempted to forget how insidious the power of the Church can be. But then Bush comes and reminds us once again. We see in him and his ties with the Christian right — despite all the rhetoric about the separation of Church and state, which has never really been true in this country — we see the Christian right uniting with the state in the Bush administration. So we see where Bakunin speaks to this. For Bakunin, God and the state were equal targets. For a long time we would put God in second place, which is always a terrible thing to do. Now Bush is compelling us to think about the force of religion as a reactionary power in our society.

BS: Do you see this as being analogous to the Reagan era, when religion re-entered public life, or are the stakes much higher now?

Zinn: I think the stakes are much higher. Reagan talked a lot about God, went to church a lot, and made a big deal of it. But organizationally, in terms of his actions and appointments, it wasn't as dangerous a liaison as we have now with George Bush.

BS: Why do you think the religious right is so powerful a counter-hegemonic force when many of the class explanations that progressives give for religious revivalism, such as a poor economy, increasing class divisions, etc., don't seem to fit the prevailing liberal view of the Clinton era as one of prosperity and generalized wealth? Does the rise of Bush undermine the legitimacy of that kind of perspective?

Zinn: The Clinton era was good for big business, but it left so many people behind and alienated. In fact, disgusted with politics in general. In that kind of situation, people will turn to religious demagogues. Sometimes I make the mistake of turning on the television on a Sunday morning and I'll see thousands of people gathered listening to some real idiot spouting forth. These people — their lives are not satisfying them. So the radical interpretation — Marx's interpretation — is true. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the soul of the soulless society, the opium of the people. People need to turn to something when they are unhappy. And there are a lot of unhappy people in this country. I guess if you don't believe it, then look at the amount of violence that's taking place. The turn to violence and the turn to religion are the twin aspects, the twin consequences of profound alienation. Sometimes they overlap, but they involve the same people — the same people who go to church are the same people who use guns a lot.

BS: So Bush's election can be seen as a product of that same kind of cumulative alienation?

Zinn: The fifty percent of the people who didn't vote at all, and then large numbers of the people who voted for Gore and Bush — the number of people who were enthusiastic about Bush and the number of people who were enthusiastic about Gore was relatively small. Most people, however, felt that they really had no alternative — or voted out of desperation.

BS: What's your prognosis for the next four years?

Zinn: There's going to be a lot of demonstrations and a lot of conflict. I think with the Bush administration, there'll be more possibility for direct action. With a regime so unfriendly to the labor movement, we'll see more strikes, more labor organization. Without that false hope that progressives put in the Clinton administration, people will be more ready to organize and take direct action. I think we'll see a lot more conflict.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit are both members of the Bad Subjects production team.

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.