Howard Zinn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Radical History: Conversation with Howard Zinn, Author, 'A People's History of the United States'; 4/20/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 7 of 7


Is it fair to say of you, and this is the sense I get from reading your work, that you retain a sweet optimism about human nature?

I don't know if I'd use the word sweet. Howard Zinn

Okay. Well, your smile is making me add that adjective.

I see. I prefer to think of it as a cold, rational optimism.

Yes. As a historian I would expect that of you.

Of course. Historians must not be sweet. But optimistic ... well, yes, a cautious optimism. Cautious in the sense that I'm not positive that things are going to go well. The future is indeterminate. But after all, the future depends on what we do now. If we are pessimistic now, we are doomed in the future. If we give up at this point then we know nothing good is going to happen. If we act on the assumption that there's a chance that something good may happen, then we have a possibility. Not a certainty, but a possibility. So I believe it's useful, it's pragmatic to be optimistic. But not only that, not simply an act of faith, but also because there is historical evidence for the fact that when people act, persist, get together, organize, they bring about changes. There haven't been enough changes. So you can look at that and say, not enough. True. But the fact that some changes have been made. The fact that labor, by struggling, won the eight-hour day. The fact that blacks in the South did away with the signs of segregation. The fact that women changed the consciousness of this country about sexual equality. Even though those are only beginnings, that historical experience suggests reason to think it is possible that other things may change.

What, then, is the link between theory and action that you think everyone should understand?

I think that it's important people read and learn, thinking, "I'm not doing this just because it's fun or because it will enhance my professional career but for the purpose of learning." This goes back to John Dooley, Alfred Lord White, that the purpose of learning is to have an effect on a world in which mostly people don't have the leisure, don't have the opportunity, don't have the breathing space, don't have the physical health even, to read a book or learn. So we who can do those things have an obligation to create a world in which maybe then people can learn for fun.

What advice would you give to students who might view this tape and read your text, A People's History of the United States? What lesson would you suggest that they might learn from your life, that they might apply to theirs?

Of course, I claim there are many things, oh so many things they can learn from me!

One thing is that even if you're engaged in a movement where the future of that movement is uncertain, even if you're trying to achieve an objective which looks very very far away, simply working for it makes life more interesting and more worthwhile. So you don't have to look for some victory in the future. The very engagement with other people in a common struggle for something that you all believe in, that is a victory in itself.

Professor Zinn, on that positive note, I want to thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to be with us today.

Thank you for those good questions.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2001, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page.