Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was the book that transformed me from an youth in a country that just transitioned from communism into capitalism and liberal democracy, being aimlessly angry at the world without really knowing why to a politically aware person with a purpose. I read it more by chance. It was lent to me by a friend who studied English language and who got it as assigned reading at the university.
The book was an eye opener for me at that time. It’s approach of documenting history by showing events from the perspective of regular people instead of the perspective of the generals and statesmen that I was taught in school really made me see the world with new eyes.
The history I was taught in school always presented regular people as just being along for the ride. It never gave them any agency, they never had ideas or positions on the issues at hand, their words were not presented, how they came to be part of the historic events was never mentioned. Conversely when reading People’s history we find that more often than not we find that regular people were part of historic events because they were brought into them by force, against their will, having their dignity destroyed, their objections smashed. We find that when people tried to assert their agency, fighting to improve their lives or realize their supposedly inalienable rights they were regularly violently dealt with, or had been deceived with empty promises. In short you find that in history, often it is the powerful that do what they want and the regular people suffer what they must on pain of starvation and death.
Once I recognized this pattern and understand the fundamental unjustness of it you can no longer unsee it. Even though the book was about events in the U.S. and sometimes centuries ago I was able to recognize the pattern in my own society as well and its recognition fueled my activism ever since.
I believe the book to be essential reading for any activist.
Howard Zinn himself was a remarkable person and since in 2022 we are celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday it is well worth listening to his words of wisdom preserved in this collection.