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(en) Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 7, #1 - Spring 2003 - War is the Health of the State - An Interview with Howard Zinn

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 8 May 2003 18:14:36 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Howard Zinn has been a pivotal figure in the American Left for
decades. As an activist and writer, he has influenced generations of
leftists and helped encourage a strong commitment to direct
democracy, anti-racism, and grassroots action.
We asked Zinn about the current changes in the political
environment, his theoretical commitments, and some of the
challenges faced by radical intellectuals. This interview was
conducted by e-mail in the spring of 2003.
How would you define the "War on Terrorism"? What kind of war is
this and whom is it directed against?

The notion of a "War on Terrorism" makes no sense. You cannot
make war on terrorism: it is an ideology that springs from many
sources and one that can be located in many countries. The
terrorism of September 11th was real, but the United States is using
it as an excuse to first bomb Afghanistan, now Iraq, and to expand
American power in the Middle East.

So, the "War on Terrorism" is just a cover to perpetuate US global

Exactly. It is also a way to cover up the failure to solve domestic
problems and build support for a President who got into office
through a political coup and needs to show he has a mandate he
doesn't deserve.

Today there is all sorts of talk of war: the "War on Terrorism" and
the war on Iraq and a possible war with North Korea. At the same
time the economy is in trouble, unemployment is up, and local
governments are cutting back education, health care, and other
social services. Have we seen this dynamic before in history and
how can radicals draw out the connections between the two?

War against an enemy abroad is always simultaneously a war against
people at home, because war always draws the resources of the
nation into military activity. One reason why there were Black
uprisings during the Vietnam War was that the needs of the ghettos
were neglected in order to carry on the war in Vietnam. How to
draw the connections? Simply point out how much money is going
to the military and what human services are being diminished. For
example, just the other day, along with stories of the increased
military budget there was a story about the Bush administration
taking money away from the school lunch program.

But in the 1960s the Johnson Administration, while pursuing the
War in Indochina, tried to placate the population with a
simultaneous War on Poverty and Great Society programs. How is
today different than that period?

Clearly, Bush is not trying to placate the population, but he is trying
to placate his corporate supporters who will benefit hugely from
military contracts and from his tax program. Also, Johnson was
respond-ing to powerful social movements which were demanding
reform: the Civil Rights Move-ment; the Black Uprisings in the cities
(such as Watts 1965). Bush faces no such popular upsurge.

What would you say to those who believe the US government, if
not directly involved in the attacks of September 11th, at the very
least let them happen in order to justify everything that has
happened since? What is it about conspiracy theories that
captivates the imagination of people on the left and right so much?

It's always intriguing to talk about conspiracies. But it's a diversion
from real issues. They are attractive because they simplify problems
and enable people to focus on a handful of people instead of on
complex causes.

What is your assessment of the anti-war movement, particularly its
more radical wing? Drawing from your study of history, what
advice would you have for today's radical activists and thinkers?

Don't get involved in internal squabbling, concentrate on what
unifies you, allow different groups to pursue the common anti-war
agenda in their own way. But concentrate on fundamental
principles: war is terrorism, war is always a war against children. War
always has unpredictable consequences.

Certainly ANSWER is one of the most important groups in the
anti-war movement. This group has been criticized for its link to the
authoritarian Communist group, the Workers' World Party. Do you
think such criticisms are important and do you believe that
ANSWER's link to this group is a problem?

I don't believe in setting political tests for a broad-based movement
that is centered on one issue, like ending the war. The labor
movement at its best, in the 1930s did not worry that Communists
led some of the organizing drives. The Lawrence textile strikers of
1912 weren't bothered by the IWW organizers who came in and led
them to a successful strike. The Civil Rights movement did not
respond to red-bating. My own attitude is: if there is a
demonstration against the war, and I believe in the goal of ending a
war, I won't ask who organized the demonstration. You march with
people who have signs representing many different groups and
ideologies but you are all there for the same purpose, stopping the
war. I distrust the sincerity of people who peck away at
broad-based movements by pointing to organizers or participants
who have special political positions.

So do you believe that it has been a mistake for groups on the
left--from Z Magazine writers, to Nation writers, to anarchists--to
criticize ANSWER?

Yes. We should not give political tests to people who do good
organizing work. A broad movement must include all sorts of
groups, including anarchists.

Regardless of our opposition to the US government, al Qaida does
not distinguish between our ruling class and ordinary citizens.
Certainly US policy in the Middle East contributed to the birth of al
Qaida: the US provided direct support for bin Laden and other
Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviet Union, not to mention
other policy initiatives, such as uncritical support and funding for
the repressive policies of Israel and the stationing of US troops in
Saudi Arabia. Yet now we are all potential targets in al Qaida's
campaign against the United States. What is the best way to
address this problem?

Yes, the terrorists don't discriminate between leaders and ordinary
people. One thing we must make clear: we will not be guilty of the
same thing. Therefore we will only direct our anger at the terrorists
themselves, and at no one else. As for addressing terrorism, it
means looking at its roots, the grievances behind that, and if those
grievances are legitimate, act to relieve them.

The emergence of the anti-globalization movement was one of the
most exciting developments in recent years (which you celebrated
in your essay, "Seattle: A Flash of the Possible"). However, this
movement has largely disappeared from the political stage in the US
since the terror attacks of September 11th. Do you think there is
something about the movement that makes it particularly vulnerable
to the post-September 11th changes in the political environment?
Also, do you believe that the anti-globalization movement will be
renewed or has its moment passed?

I do believe the anti-globalization movement, while given a
temporary setback after September 11th, is coming to life again.
The Port Alegre meeting recently is one sign.

Do you think that there is a possibility that the anti-war movement
could contribute to the revival of the anti-globalization movement?

Yes, by energizing people. There is a long history of one
movement stimulating other movements. For example, the
anti-slavery movement stimulated the feminist movement and the
Civil Rights movement, which lead into the anti-Vietnam War
movement and also the Feminist and Gay Rights movements.

You describe a constant struggle between the powerful and the
powerless in the People's History of the United States. This
struggle takes place in different historical contexts and is carried
out by different actors, but the struggle itself is continuous. A
precept of the classical revolutionary perspective is that one day
this struggle will come to an end, that there will be a qualitative
change in social relationships and the division between the
powerful and powerless will disappear. Do you believe this change
can occur and, if so, how is this idea reflected into your historical

I do believe this change can occur but it will not happen "one day"
or in one cataclysmic moment. It will happen over time as people,
little by little, take over the institutions of society--the economy, the
universities, the neighborhoods--and run them democratically.

But traditionally the Left has embraced the idea of revolution (in
which sweeping historical changes take place in a relatively short
period of time). Do you reject the idea of revolution? Or, if not, how
do you conceive of it?

I don't reject the idea of revolution, but I reject the idea of armed
struggle, or a military action to achieve it. The revolution must be
democratic in means as well as in ends, and this requires building
mass support for change by long, persistent struggle.

Your work seems to be motivated by the idea that people will
change society if they are simply presented with the facts of social
injustice. However, countless authors before you have presented
"the facts" and yet deep social conflicts endure. What is it about
your presentation of the facts that is unique and how would you
respond to those who argue that our problem lay not in the
absence of facts but in the absence of theoretical frameworks with
which to comprehend the facts?

No, presentation of facts is not enough. People must then act on
those facts. I don't think theoretical frameworks are necessary, that
is, not necessarily spelled out. People, given enough information,
themselves supply a theoretical framework, which may not be put
into language, but which informs their thinking and their action.

Your historical work has focused on the capacity of ordinary
people to band together, fight for justice, and change society.
However, you have written very little about the frameworks that
leftists have used to understand and theorize opposition, such as
Marxist-Leninism, social democracy, anarchism, etc. Why is this? Is
not reclaiming such a political vocabulary an essential part of
rebuilding a democratic culture?

I don't see much point in abstract theorizing, or getting into
arguments about Marxism, Leninism, etc. When the issue comes up
I try to deal with it. For instance, I don't make a big fuss over
anarchism, but when it is brought up in a distorted way I try to show
what the distortions are. It is possible to get across anarchist ideas,
socialist ideas, without using abstract words that have different
meanings for different people.

OK, but the idea of a free or just society is abstract. And certainly
the Left has been shaped by abstract theoretical works, such as
Marx's Capital, Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, or countless other works.
Do you believe that such theoretical inquiry has been a waste of
time or do you believe that the moment for such works has passed?

Theoretical analyses are useful but not crucial. There is a lot of
wasted time in such endeavors, but not all is wasted. Marx's
Communist Manifesto was a theoretical analysis, immensely useful
and inspiring. His first volume of Das Kapital was useful too. His
second and third volumes, and his Grundrisse, were probably a
waste of time!

You have consistently urged people to place moral considerations
at the center of their engagement with society, to "not be neutral on
a moving train" (to cite the title of your autobiography). The idea
that people's political practice should be shaped primarily by moral
concerns is radical break from classical revolutionary theories, such
as Marxism or anarcho-syndicalism, which understand politics as
something determined by or subsumed under socio-economic
contra-dictions. Do you believe that it is necessary to break with
the older traditions of revolutionary thought and, if so, how?

Yes, socio-economic contradictions are basic, but behind any
analysis of them must be a set of moral values--otherwise you can
analyze the society endlessly and not come to conclusions about
what to do.

Do you regard this position as a break with the classical socialist or
anarchist tradition? And, if so, why is it important to make such a

No, I don't consider it a break from the classical traditions, because
there was always a moral principle behind the most academic of
radical analyses.

OK, while a moral principle may have been implicit in the classical
traditions, isn't it true that communists and anarcho-syndicalists
argued that "being determined conscious-ness" and disagreed that
it was possible to advance a moral position that was somehow
independent of or above "the development of class contradictions."
If this is true, isn't your position a significant break with the

Yes, although I think there has been some distortion of the Marxist
position and anarcho-syndicalist position on this or, to put it
another way, that there are several Marxist positions and several
anarchist positions.

What recent developments in the study of social history do you
find particularly exciting and amenable to a radical approach to
social affairs and what tendencies do you find especially

The recent developments in the study of social history which are
important to me are the burgeoning of literature about social
movements--the women's movement, the labor movement, the
African American and Chicano movements, the gay and lesbian
movement. I only find troublesome those studies which are overly
specialized, academic, designed to reach a small number of
scholars without any connection to action.

In several works you note that your encounter with anarchism
(Emma Goldman in particular) only occurred after your period of
intense activism in the anti-war movement. You discovered that
although the term anarchism wasn't used, there were many
connections between anarchism and the New Left (such as the
emphasis on decentralization, direct action, sexual liberation, etc.).
Your experience seems to be common among leftists who came of
age politically during the 1960s. What was it about the political
culture of the New Left that discouraged people from discovering
and investigating such an important tradition and one that was so
close to their views? Why do you believe that so many activists
turned to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism rather than anarchism?
What was it about authoritarian ideologies that made them attractive
and anti-authoritarian ideas less attractive, in those days?

Some activists turned to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Most did
not. Most continued to act out the principles of anarchism without
adopting it in a conscious way as a coherent philosophy.
Anti-authoritarian ideas dominated the movement of the sixties, and
the authoritarians were a small, loud minority.

While many practices may have been anti-authoritarian, certainly a
significant num-ber of activists defined themselves through an
authoritarian socialist ideological framework. This is true of the late
SDS, the Black Panthers, and countless other groups. What was it
about authoritarian ideologies that made them attractive, and
anti-authoritarian ideas less attractive, in those days?

I doubt that it was the authoritarianism that was attractive--it was
the other attributes, such as the boldness, the militancy--but people
accepted the authoritarianism along with that, just as Communists
accepted Stalinism for a long time, not because they believed in
authoritarianism as such but because it came along with certain
social changes.

Why do you think activists during this period did not gravitate
toward an anarchist or anti-authoritarian tradition if, in fact, it was
more consistent with their activities?

Because most activists are concentrated on the moment and don't
see what they're doing as part of long-term theories or traditions.

How would you describe yourself politically? Do you consider
yourself an anarchist or a libertarian socialist?

Something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a
democratic socialist.

This seems contradictory. Could you explain?

I see no contradiction. Look at Alexander Berkman's pamphlet,
Communist Anarchism.

Anarchists and radicals are very good at criticizing society and the
state, as well as advocating a vision of a different, better world. Yet
the question of how to get from our current society to a free
society is often unanswered. What is your perspective on
questions of strategy for the Left? How do we create the changes
that we want in order to fully realize our vision of a free society?

Organization, direct action to liberate different aspects of the
society. We can't have a blueprint, but we can know what we are
aiming for, and move in that direction.

Since the 1960s many leftist intellectuals have become ensconced
in the university and independent theorists (such as Paul Goodman
and Dwight McDonald, for example) are now extremely rare. Do you
believe this is lamentable and do you think the academic
environment has encouraged a more conservative, timid posture
among left intellectuals?

Certainly, the academic environment is stifling, and often leads
leftists into obscure research rather than into activism. But not
always. I believe there is no one place for left intellectuals. They
can function, and should, both inside and outside the academy.

The university tends to draw radical intellectuals into the academic
life. But it needn't do that. Radicals who are in any profession or line
of work face the same problem, of maintaining their ideas and
activity despite the pull of their profession and their need for
economic security.

What projects are you working on now and what future projects do
you have planned?

I'm so involved in the anti-war movement now that I have hardly
time to think about "projects." But, I'm interested in dramatizing
political issues, for the stage, through screen-plays, and at the same
time continuing to write columns for The Progressive, op-ed pieces
for traditional newspapers, and speaking wherever I can to
audiences of all kinds. ~

By Paul Glavin & Chuck Morse

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