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On the tenth anniversary of radical historian Howard Zinn’s death, Cornel West opens up about their friendship and what Zinn would have made of the decade—including whether he would have voted for Bernie.
Ten years ago, on January 27, 2010, activist historian Howard Zinn died. I never met him, but his death felt like losing a family member. If you had told me on that mournful day that a decade later I’d be interviewing Cornel West about Zinn, I would’ve told you to stop playing with me. Both Zinn and West transformed my social consciousness as a teenager.
I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where radical abolitionist John Brown lived when he first met Frederick Douglass. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, John Brown, along with others, formed the League of Gileadites, an armed militia that made Springfield into one of the few effective safe havens in the country for those who’d escaped slavery. It was Zinn’s work that introduced me to Brown, as well as to so many other freedom fighters left out of textbooks.
Zinn would not fetishize Trump. He would offer an analysis of a consistently imperial system that’s tied to predatory capitalism, white supremacy, and male supremacy, a perspective we badly need today.
In my sophomore year of high school, kicked out of history class one day for insubordination, I fled to the library. When the librarian asked me what I was doing there and I told her, she handed me a copy of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980). In Zinn, I found a kindred spirit and a mentor: a secular Jew like myself, he gave me a language to express my outrage at war, the exploitive practices of predatory capitalism, and the absurdities of racial discrimination.
Zinn’s words led me to the work of Cornel West, and gave me the audacity to walk up to “Doc” (as I call him now) on a chance encounter in New York City in 2017. We were both waiting outside the IFC Center on West Fourth Street to see Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s documentary about John Coltrane, and I was inspired to thank West for his work. Since that day, I’ve had the honor of auditing eight of his classes and have gotten to know him as I wish I had been able to know Zinn.
In this interview, West opens up about his friendship with Zinn and what he thinks his friend would have made of the past decade.
• • •
Mordecai Lyon: Where did Zinn develop his intellectual framework, which connected a critique of capitalism with a critique of white supremacy and empire?
Cornel West: For me, Zinn represents the best of a secular Jewish culture coming out of Brooklyn, trying to escape Jew-hating Europe. I think of Bernie Sanders as being in that same group, and Stanley Aronowitz although he’s from the Bronx. And Muriel Rukeyser, who was Alice Walker’s mentor at Sarah Lawrence. The list could go on and on. Family sits at the center of that tradition. Zinn’s parents, Eddie Zinn and Jenny Rabinowitz, were working-class people who spent their last pennies so he could read Charles Dickens as a boy. So, in the midst of this unbelievable immigration and then exploitation as workers in the United States, his parents still had a commitment to the life of the mind.
ML: Zinn also had a deep commitment to Russian history and literature—indeed, Alice Walker took his class on that topic when he taught at Spelman College. I think most people probably don’t know that you are also a scholar of Russian literature. What is the connection between Russian literature and the tradition of U.S. radical politics?
I can understand why Zinn’s thinking was rooted in Russian literature, a tradition that arises out of the question of how we pursue truth and justice under conditions of censorship and oppression.
CW: I can understand why Zinn’s thinking was rooted in Russian literature. Keep in mind that the Russian empire snuffed out Russian civic culture, so intellectuals were the major figures left who could raise the most fundamental issues of truth and justice. The intellectuals were superfluous to the functioning of the empire, but they were indispensable in every other sense. It was in Russia that you got the first notion of the intelligentsia, those who were courageously connecting the life of the mind to issues of truth and justice, and hence Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Leskov, on and on. The Russian novelistic tradition completely arises out of the question of how we pursue truth and justice under conditions of censorship, oppression, and repression.
It should come as no surprise that black folks would immerse themselves in this Russian literary tradition that is so profound in its willingness to raise unsettling questions. They say when you go into James Baldwin’s house, the first thing you see is Chekhov. You go into Ralph Ellison’s house, the first thing you see is Dostoevsky. You go into Richard Wright’s house, the first thing you see is also Dostoevsky. So I can imagine Walker reading these Russian texts, like Notes from the Underground, in Zinn’s class and saying, “Oh my God, this sounds like Letitia down here. Sounds like Shaniqua down here.” With all the brilliance that a Shaniqua—which means “God is gracious”—and a Letitia—which means “Joy”—can have, trying to make sense of the world given the absurdities of predatory capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and U.S. empire.
ML: Zinn was an influential figure in the civil rights movement through his work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he advised with Ella Baker before the group took its turn to Black Power and ejected white members. What do you think SNCC organizers saw in Zinn and Baker in particular?
CW: I think of both of them as existential democrats—small-D democrats, as in treating ordinary people with dignity. Brother Howard would treat a pauper the same way he would treat a king, he would treat somebody on the corner the same way he would treat the president of the university, he would treat a working person the same way he would treat an elite, he would treat a black person, a brown person, a woman, the same way he would treat his best white male friends. That’s radical and he was that kind of person. Do you know how rare that is? Howard was qualitatively different from the white liberals in SNCC who would cry crocodile tears without trying to get into the skin of the black folk who had been so viciously niggerized by predatory capitalism and white supremacy.
ML: Even people who don’t know much about Zinn are aware that he was staunchly anti-war. But few know that he was a bombardier in World War II and dropped bombs all over Europe. It was only after he returned home that he had a spiritual awakening, became vehemently anti-war, and earned his PhD in history. Later he would be among the first in the United States to publicly denounce the Vietnam War, for which he was pilloried. What do you think Zinn would be saying about Iran right now?
CW: When Zinn’s anti–Vietnam War book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, came out in 1967 from Beacon Press, it was so early to come out against the war, people thought he was losing his mind. But he was a canary in the coal mine. From the end of World War II until 1989, there were seventy-two U.S. interventions around the world and Brother Howard was critical of all of them. I remember marching with him with regard to El Salvador, in regard to Honduras, in regard to South Africa, in regard to the Dominican Republic. He was consistent, you see? Vietnam is just a highly visible peak, but he was consistent all the way through. We got arrested together protesting Iraq near the end of his life, and he’d be opposed to war in Iran today. I think he would’ve said: “Hey, this is nothing new. Let’s go back to 1953 in Iran with the CIA-led overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, which then leads to the Shah who then leads to the Islamic Revolution and the right-wing twist that follows from there.” Zinn would not fetishize Donald Trump as an individual. He would offer an analysis of a consistently imperial system that’s tied to predatory capitalism and white supremacy and male supremacy, a perspective we badly need today.
The question is how do we remain vigilant about anti-Jewish hatred and prejudice but also remain as much in tune with Palestinian humanity as with Jewish humanity?
ML: It’s impossible to disentangle U.S. relations with Iran from the United States’ longstanding support of Israel. Many Americans, and particularly American Jews, continue to dismiss Zinn because he was very critical of Israel for its crimes against the Palestinian people. Zinn, of course, is not alone in this: Noam Chomsky and Sanders have also been attacked for their critique of Israel. When some of the leading Jewish intellectuals and politicians of our day get categorized as anti-Semitic, it highlights both the success of the campaign to fuse anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, as well as the absurdity of how we understand anti-Semitism—and at a time when, with the rise of anti-Semitic violence here and aboard, the stakes of understanding it correctly really couldn’t be higher.
As someone who has been critical yourself of Israel and therefore called anti-Semitic, I know this is something you’ve thought about a great deal. A whole chapter of Race Matters (1993) is devoted to black and Jewish relations. I suppose the questions I’m trying to get around to are: How could anyone in the world think that Cornel West is anti-Semitic? Or how could anyone in the world think that Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky are anti-Semitic?
CW: Well, when you have a narrow litmus test that says, if you do not conform to the uncritical defense of Israel—meaning Israel can do whatever it wants in the name of self-defense—if you don’t accept that, then you can be cast as anti-Semitic. Or if you have a righteous indignation against Israel’s occupation of Gaza or the second-class citizenship of Palestinians in their own land, you can be called anti-Semitic. Never mind that I also defend the Israeli poor and the Israeli working-class, who are being subordinated in the name of neoliberal economic policies under the right-wing administration of Benjamin Netanyahu.
I don’t like the word anti-Semitic, a term coined in the middle part of the nineteenth century that has implications of both a certain kind of politics and, frankly, of race science. I prefer the term anti-Jewish hatred because you’ve got a lot of people who are Semitic but are not Jews, plus you’ve got some European Jews who mistreat black Jews. Both of those are obscured by the term anti-Semitic. Now let me say, and this is very important: I speak here as a Christian—as a revolutionary Christian—to say that there has never been a civilization deeply shaped by Christianity that has not also been deeply anti-Jewish. This is one of the cancers of my own tradition. So, the question then becomes how do we remain vigilant in terms of keeping track of anti-Jewish hatred and prejudice but also remain as much in tune with Palestinian humanity as with Jewish humanity, given these structures of domination coming at all of us when it comes to capitalism as a global system? That complexity is hard to convey, especially in the United States.
ML: You’re out on the campaign trail with Sanders right now. Zinn was a big admirer—as I believe Sanders is—of Eugene Debs, the nineteenth-century Indiana politician who ran five times as the socialist candidate for U.S. president.
I think Howard would have supported Bernie—though it would have been a critical support. Bernie has never called for a socialist economy, and that’s what Howard was for.
CW: Bernie made a film about Eugene Debs!
ML: I didn’t realize that.
CW: Oh yes. It’s not Spike Lee or Steven Spielberg, but it’s Bernie Sanders on Eugene Debs, one of the great figures in the history of the country.
ML: Sanders feels like he’s coming out of that legacy.
CW: Oh yes. That’s his hero. Not the only one; Norman Thomas, who also ran for president as the socialist candidate, is another. I think Howard would have supported Bernie—though, like Chomsky, like myself, it would have been a critical support. Because Bernie can’t run as a democratic socialist, he’s running as a radical FDR-like progressive. He’s not talking about nationalizing anything, he’s not talking about workers’ councils or anything like that, you see? Our discourse has moved so far to the right in the last forty years that FDR begins to look like a communist. If you listen to Fox News, FDR was a communist. And all Bernie’s trying to do is recover the four freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the best of FDR. They’re pegging him as a democratic socialist because he identifies with the legacy of Debs and Thomas. But he’s never called for a socialist economy. Not at all, and that’s what Howard was for. See what I mean?
ML: So Zinn would be critical?
It’s important to show the degree to which you can be in genuine solidarity with a candidate without agreeing on a whole host of different policies.
CW: He would be a critical supporter, absolutely. I’ve been critical of Brother Bernie for not paying enough attention to empire and imperial policies, and I’ve pushed him on issues of white supremacy and male supremacy. But I love my brother deeply, and he is the most progressive figure in the history of this country to have a possibility of becoming president of the United States.
ML: Sanders has been critical of Israel but he is not a supporter of BDS, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, as you are.
CW: I’m a believer in nonviolence and I see BDS as the last nonviolent possibility to end this ugly form of structural domination and occupation. And I did the same thing in South Africa, I’ve done the same thing in other situations as a last-ditch effort, and of course people have sanctions against a whole host of countries. We have sanctions against Cuba, against Iran. Bernie disagrees that this is something we should do with Israel. I said: “Brother Bernie, I love you to death. I have my stance, you have your stance, I’m not gonna go around trying to impose my view, I’m gonna put forward my argument and we’ll have that disagreement.”
I think it’s important to show the degree to which, like Howard, you can be in genuine solidarity with a candidate without agreeing on a whole host of different policies. Brother Bernie and I disagree about BDS, but we share a strong belief in the need for poverty relief and upliftment here. A trillion dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can’t invest money for health care for all. Can’t invest money for jobs, housing, education. Brother Bernie is absolutely right that this is obscene. His critique evokes one by Martin Luther King, Jr.: The bombs that you drop in Vietnam also land on the ghettos and the reservations, and the barrios, and the poor white sections of the United States. You see, that’s my tradition. And that was Howard’s too.
Brother Howard was a prisoner of hope. He used to say that one truth can conquer a hundred lies. I’m more Chekhovian: sometimes a hundred lies can push out the truth.
I’ll tell you one thing about Brother Howard that was interesting to me: he was a prisoner of hope. People call him an optimist, and he would always have to say: “Wait, wait, wait, let’s be clear about what that term means. I’m no optimist in terms of being naive. I know we’re living a nightmare. But nothing can exhaust or suffocate my energy to think, and fight, and laugh, and love.” I loved that about him. But you know, he used to say that one truth can conquer a hundred lies. And that’s very upbeat. I’m more Chekhovian: that the world is full of mendacity, criminality, cupidity, love of domination, so that sometimes a hundred lies can push out the truth. Howard would always end on the upbeat note, whereas I’m much more of a blues man, you know? Because as a black man in America, we’ve been crushed, defeated so many times. So, when you talk about having swing, and you keep swinging and it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, victory is redefined. It’s not so much whether you’re able in the end to triumph, but it’s whether you’re able to keep on keeping on. You thought you crushed us, but we still come in with a smile and style. You thought that you had suffocated us, but we got new energy, new oxygen, new vitality. See, that’s much more of a tragicomic, blues-like, Chekhovian orientation. I detect that in moments of Brother Howard’s work, but I think that Russian, Chekhovian element, ironically, is closer to me than it was to him. In that sense, he’s more American than I am. I’m more Russian, isn’t that interesting?
ML: A question you get often when you lecture is: How do you sustain? And particularly when we lose a guiding figure, how do we keep the movement going? In this case, how do we make it without Zinn?
CW: You’ve got to look at it this way: there’s a revolutionary piety that says that we remain attuned to the sources of good in our existence based on the history that we build on. It’s natural to ask: “Can we make it without Brother Howard? Can we make it without Sister Fannie Lou Hamer? Can we make it without Malcolm or Martin? Can we make it without Curtis Mayfield? Can we make it without Coltrane?” These are catastrophic losses that leave voids. Yet we remain attuned to those sources that generate wind at our back. That’s what Howard had. That’s what we have. That’s why we really, in some ways, end where we began with his parents, Eddie and Jenny. He never forgot who his parents were. Professor at Boston University, professor at Spelman, lectured at Harvard and so forth. But in his mind he never lost his rootedness in Brooklyn, in the tradition of secular Jews who were mistreated, who were spit on, who were subordinated, and from that he developed a universal vision that embraced all oppressed people around the world. And we do exactly the same thing even though we do it now ten years after he’s passed because we stay following Brother Howard, building on Brother Howard, and of course he’s no God, he had whatever limitations and faults he had as a human being. I know in my life I’ve got gangster proclivities, so I won’t even get into all that, you know what I mean? Good God almighty. Every saint in any form has a vicious past, just like every sinner can have a beautiful future. That’s my Christian sensibility. But we also say that we have to be willing to tell the truth, bear witness, pay the cost, and come to terms with the unbelievable challenge and burden of telling that truth and bearing witness to justice in these neofascist days in the age of Trump.
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