Michael Walzer on Howard Zinn


Posted to www.marxmail.org on May 31, 2004


Speaking of Howard Zinn, I should mention that Dissent Magazine has an attack on him by the Editor Michael Walzer. This was something that first appeared on the web a month or so ago and was answered here and there at the time. For example, 7 Oaks has a good retort at: http://www.sevenoaksmag.com/commentary/06_zinn.html.


I do think there are some additional points that can be made, especially in light of Gitlin's attack on Nader in the same issue. The two articles fall within the purview of "policing the left", something that Dissent Magazine has been doing for decades now.


A word or two might be in order about Walzer. He is a member in good standing of the cruise-missile left who has developed an extremely tortured defense of intervention in Iraq, as opposed to the more outright bellicosity of his collaborators at Dissent, Paul Berman and Kenan Makiya. As a theoretician of "just wars", Walzer takes an almost Talmudic approach to killing the dirty Baathist enemy:


"But now that we are fighting it, I hope that we win it and that the Iraqi regime collapses quickly. I will not march to stop the war while Saddam is still standing, for that would strengthen his tyranny at home and make him, once again, a threat to all his neighbors."


I am quite sure that when he was penning these words, a John Philip Sousa march was playing in the background. This combination of Pecksniffian moral posturing and imperialist bombast has been honed to perfection at Dissent Magazine. I am sure that scholars of future generations will study it just as some scholars study William Henry Seward today. This is imperialist apologetics at its gory best.


Turning to Walzer's attack on Zinn, the first thing you will notice by reading between the lines is its affinity with Gitlin's piece. Walzer writes:


Zinn omits the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true pathos, and drama, of their decisions. In fact, most Populists cheered Bryan and voted for him because he shared their enemies and their vision of a producers' republic. Unlike Zinn, they grasped the dilemma of third parties in the American electoral system, which Richard Hofstadter likened to honeybees, "once they have stung, they die." And to bewail the fact that liberal Democrats saw an advantage to supporting rights for unions and minorities is a stunning feat of historical naiveté. Short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of "the Establishment" is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy.


In other words, American society is a kind of Platonic ideal in which nothing strays from the perfection of the two-party system, which was with us yesterday and will be with us tomorrow and forever. Or as they say in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."


The message really is that it is futile to run against the Democratic Party, which is not as bad as the Republicans but can achieve electoral victory. About ten years ago a term was coined to describe this sense of limited options. It was "TINA", or "There is no alternative" (to capitalism.) For people like Gitlin and Walzer, it is really TINACP: "there is no alternative to capitalist politics."


The interesting thing, of course, is that despite Zinn's support for Kerry this year, he still gets mud flung at him because his history of the USA is replete with examples of Democratic Party treachery, including that which occured during FDR's presidency, a kind of Golden Age for social democrats like Walzer.


Walzer seems particularly miffed that FDR would be depicted as a warmonger in Zinn's book:


Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, "to step forward as a defender of helpless countries." Zinn thins the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.


One can certainly understand why WWII would loom large in the calculations of somebody like Walzer. Along with the European Social Democracy, they cheered on the bombing of Yugoslavia under the rubric of "stopping fascism". Milosevic was the latest Hitler, who was necessary to stop in his tracks unless we would risk another Chamberlain appeasement. It is most odd that the USA, which has had military bases all over the world backing up ruthless dictators since WWII, would be seen in this light today. Most reasonable people that observed consistent US support for the Pinochet, Thieu, Suharto and Rhees of the world might conclude that an "abhorrence of fascism" is the last thing on the minds of American presidents. But, of course, people like Walzer are not reasonable. They are hysterical opponents of the barbarian enemy who threaten US interests everywhere in the world.


It is particularly galling to see Walzer conclude his hatchet-job with a recommendation of CLR James (among others)as a positive alternative to Zinn. Supposedly, "their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies."


If CLR James knew that somebody as oily as Walzer was praising his work, I am sure that he would begin to spin in his grave at such a high rate that a dynamo attached to his corpse could satisfy the electrical needs of a medium sized American city for the next 5 years. For, in fact, this was how CLR James viewed the New Deal:


"In 1932 the Negroes, like the rest of the labor movement, followed the New Deal program with its vast promises of a new order in America. But the Roosevelt government, while of necessity including the Negroes in its social service program for the unemployed, did nothing to implement its vague promises for the amelioration of the national oppression of Negroes in the country."


Finally, it is of some interest to consider that James was a passionate supporter of Ethiopian anti-colonialism. If you apply the same kind of yardstick to Ethiopia in the 1930s that Walzer applies to the Iraqi resistance today, you would soon come to the conclusion that the two have nothing in common. Even though slavery was practiced in Ethiopia and even though that Haile Selassie ruled with a feudal iron fist, James understood that between a dependent African nation and world imperialism, justice was served by a victory of the Africans just as it would be served by a victory of the Iraqis today. Here are James's observations on the struggle from the conclusion to the 1936 article "Abyssinia and the Imperialists".


But British imperialism does not govern only the colonies in its own interests. It governs the British people in its own interests also, and we shall see that imperialism will win. It will talk a lot but it will do nothing for Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. The only thing to save Abyssinia is the efforts of the Abyssinians themselves and action by the great masses of Negroes and sympathetic whites and Indians all over the world, by demonstrations, public meetings, resolutions, financial assistance to Abyssinia, strikes against the export of all materials to Italy, refusal to unload Italian ships etc.


Mussolini, the British government and the French have shown the Negro only too plainly that he has got nothing to expect from them but exploitation, either naked or wrapped in bluff. In that important respect this conflict, though unfortunate for Abyssinia, has been of immense benefit to the race as a whole.