HOWARD ZINN (1922-2010)

The following statements were made by Howard Zinn at a symposium sponsored by the Humanist at the Ethical Society of Boston on April 10, 1970, on the growing polarization between liberals and radicals.

It’s easy to load the argument in advance by setting up models in which radicalism is symbolized by certain very dramatic and vivid actions which we can see immediately, like blowing up of banks, or enraged groups of irrational people who eschew intelligence and want to violate the civil liberties of others. Then we contrast this with certain tenets of liberalism—rationality, the democratic process, civil liberties, academic freedom, law, harmony, peace, justice. But that is no contest. It seems to me that we ought at least to keep clear, for liberalism and radicalism, the distinctions between the ideals and the reality…though we all find ourselves guilty from time to time of measuring our ideals against the other’s reality—and reality is always more ugly.

…It turns out on close historical inspection, I think, that we’ve always had a class system in this country, we’ve always had rich and poor, though this has been neatly disguised by the fact that we’ve always had a bulging middle. This was a neat device for hiding the fact that the wealth of the country has always been maldistributed in the most liberal of countries. We’ve always had poverty, and the difference between a liberal administration in power and a conservative administration in power was that, when you had a conservative administration in power, the liberals would say one-third of the nation was ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-fed; when the liberals got into power it was only one-fourth of the nation that was ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed.

…Certain elements in liberalism have persisted throughout its historical development: capitalistic economics which breeds exploitation, nationalism which breeds war, and a certain kind of cultural imperialism based on the idea of the supremacy of the white Western powers which became the liberal powers of the world in the past few centuries.

…It seems clear that, in order to make fundamental changes in a society where wealth and power are controlled very tightly and centralized very strongly, it will not suffice merely to place your faith in the ballot box, in writing letters to your Congressmen, in having symposiums, in writing to the New York Times.

…Consider this: we are not going to change the pattern of inequities in society—racial, economic, or otherwise—if we insist on excluding from our range of possible modes such actions as occupying buildings or refusing to participate in activities which the existing order has told us to participate in, such as paying one’s income taxes or acceding to being drafted into the army. My point is that in order to achieve those objectives which liberals and radicals—when they’re both talking—claim they stand for, we are going to have to go beyond the given parliamentary means. What that “going beyond” implies needs to be worked out and defined.