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Agitation with a Smile: Howard Zinn's Legacies and the Future of Activism

reviewed by Robert Lake - March 07, 2014

coverTitle: Agitation with a Smile: Howard Zinn's Legacies and the Future of Activism
Author(s): Stephen Bird, Adam Silver, & Joshua Yesnowitz (eds.)
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1612051820, Pages: 256, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

It has been four years since Howard Zinn’s passing and it is only natural to still experience a palpable sense of loss when such a larger than life and deeply humane person is gone from us. Yet from what we know of his life, the last thing he would have wanted to see is a volume that recounts his legacy without challenging and inspiring the bereft to sustain and expand the embodied conversation that was and is his life. This book fairly and substantially critiques Zinn’s philosophy of activism, yet in doing so, challenges the reader to move beyond internet activism or “clickivism” which certainly has its place. Zinn’s legacy calls for direct, face-to-face, non-neutral and unorthodox democratic engagement, and this volume inspires one to such. This book consists of thirteen chapters, a foreword by Frances Fox Piven and an afterword by Noam Chomsky. The chapters are broken up into clearly delineated sections. This configuration is perfect for teaching the text without falling prey to the often overly specified arrangement of a textbook.  In fact this book is so rich with significant concepts that it needs at least a semester of contemplative reading to be fully appreciated. As I read each section of this book I imagined myself walking through passenger “cars” on Zinn’s famous metaphor of history as a “moving train” (2002) and each contributor sparked an inner dialogue with their unique readings and encounters with Zinn’s life.

The book begins with Francis Fox Piven’s personal narrative in which she recounts her days with Zinn at Boston University during the early 1970’s, when he was targeted by the administration for his resistance activities and was subjected to salary freezes and limits on enrollment in his classes. Piven writes that Zinn “never complained-never whined about the unfairness of John Silber” (p. vii) who was the president of BU at the time. Piven captures a superb snapshot of Zinn’s joyous warmth, wry humor, and generous soul, then quickly moves out of reminiscing to set the tone for the entire book by placing Zinn in historical context as a “radical democrat in the sense that he believed in the capacity of ordinary people to shape their own collective life” (p. xi). This statement provides a perfect entree for all that follows in the book as each contributor either directly or indirectly addresses Zinn’s deeply humanistic philosophy of social change.

In Chapter One the editors provide a clear thematic framework for assessing and conceptualizing possible futures of Zinnian scholarship and activism. The five aspects of this framework (direct democracy, disobedience, the danger of neutrality, dual convictions, and disposition) are introduced in this chapter and substantially extended upon throughout the rest of the book. Direct democracy is defined as “popular participation and mass action [wherein] the people are the ultimate power” (p. 7). Disobedience is an organized, focused and “deliberate violation of the law for a social purpose” (p. 7). The danger of neutrality is one of the most prominent themes in Zinn’s activist scholarship. “Impartiality can breed apathy; apathy then perpetuates the status quo” (p. 7). This notion overlaps somewhat with dual convictions, which the editors define as “antagonisms or tensions between poles” such as individual rights versus the public good and “skepticism of authority versus the proper exercise of state authority” (p. 7). The last aspect is disposition, which has to do with “humor, optimism, the ability to reach people at their level” through popular media and culture while maintaining “decency of spirit” (p. 7).

The editors elucidate the influence of these five aspects of Zinn’s praxis within three spheres of activism: participation in direct forms of activism, academia, and the arts and culture. The examples that are given to describe Zinn’s approach to direct action go far beyond the bare minimum of ballot box democracy. For example, Zinnian direct action took place when he encouraged his students at Spelman during the civil rights movement to fight for the desegregation of public libraries or when he traveled to Hanoi with the Daniel Berrigan to secure the release of American prisoners of the Vietnam War. Zinn took on the sphere of academia through his critique of mainstream political science and supposed “value neutrality” scholarly writing. This included his most popular and controversial rendering of American history, which overlaps with his engagement of popular culture and the arts as a playwright and collaborator with famous American actors on the Peoples History project.


The first section is “Zinn as a Historian and Public Intellectual” and covers three chapters. Chapter Two, by historians Ambre Ivol and Paul Buhle, provides a fascinating account of Zinn’s perspective on history by placing him in the context of historians of the American Progressive left. Indeed Ivol and Buhle’s analysis of Zinn’s role as an activist historian and Ivol’s genealogy of progressive historians in Chapter Three provides a vital contrast to the kind of detached, modernist, and abstracted forms of scholarly inquiry that for a number of Zinn’s contemporaries may have precipitated an “existential crisis undergone by other intellectuals of his generation” (p. 27). This is certainly true in this present time as well, when critical analysis is often detached from the kind humanistic hope that Zinn sustained up to the very end of his life. In a similar vein, Chapter Four by Paul Reynolds presents Zinn as an exemplar of the public intellectual in the midst of a neo-liberal capitalist global culture. A public intellectual speaks on behalf of a disempowered minority (in Zinn’s case it was the working class) through both theory and praxis in ways that go beyond the constraints of an academic discipline, such as public forums, organized demonstrations, and media outlets. Zinn challenged the status quo to think and act in this direction when he wrote that academics “publish while others perish” (p. 52).  Reynolds closes the chapter with words of challenge and encouragement to the next generation of radical intellectuals. Using Zinn’s life as a “worthy measure” he urges the expansion of the public conversation by becoming “critical, meticulous, careful, informed speakers of truth and reflexive thinkers whose first thought is their work” (p. 65).

The second section, “Zinn in Theory,” contains three chapters and presents an analysis of Zinn’s epistemological and theoretical framework. In Chapter Five, Eric Boehme situates Zinn in the context of historical anarchists and then presents a discussion of radical democracy as direct, non-representative, grass roots action that acts independently of centralized government without advocating revolution. To support this, Boehme cites Zinn’s admonition to “those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well-being” (p. 72). In Chapter Six, Ziga Vodovnik extends the discussion of Zinn’s distinctive variety of anarchy, not as an ideology, Marxist or otherwise, but as ‘actionization’ “that rejects all pretentions of objectivity” (p. 90). Zinn himself has written that “disinterested, neutral, scientific, objective scholarship is impossible” (p. 90). This theme is repeated in various ways throughout the book and brings to mind what Freire (1985) said: “washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” (p. 122).

Taken together, Chapters Five and Six critique stereotypical notions of the anarchist as a terrorist or saboteur.  This is accomplished through the lens of Zinn’s appreciation for and participation in activist activities sans centralized authority. Zinn often used the Wobblies’ workplace democracy and his work with the Civil Rights era Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in his definition of anarchy, because their work was made up of communities as “constellations of power outside the state to pressure it into humane actions” (p. 79). Zinn viewed the state as a “social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another . . . we are the state!” (p. 90). Chapter Seven is the last chapter in this section. In it Christopher Robinson discusses Zinn as a champion of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which, in Zinn’s view, are not gifts that are bestowed on us by our forebears: “rather it should be a democratic achievement that is struggled for and defended by the community” (p. 100). This is reminiscent of Dewey’s idea that “democracy must be born anew in every generation” (Dewey, 1916, p. 139) out of the personal processes of struggle and the kind of choices that create personal agency. To Zinn, “the enemies of free speech and education are forces seeking to perpetuate the status quo. . . . or people who are fearful of the power of ideas” (p.100). The immense value of these ideas calls for a continuous dialectic of critical dissent and creative engagement; one that should be demonstrated in classrooms and certainly beyond in the public sphere.

The third section of the book, “Zinn in Practice,” begins with a powerful performance piece by Alix Olson called “Dear Diary,” which should be read in its entirety, not sliced up into citations. Chapter Eight by Patricia Moynagh prudently elaborates on Zinn’s statement that “war is like tuberculosis, like cannibalism, like slavery” (pg. 114) or as her chapter title declares “War is a Condition in Need of a Cure.” The author masterfully weaves Zinn’s astute distinction of the vast differences between “just causes” and “just wars” with her own insights as she critiques the language of “just causes” with references to Madison Avenue style packaging of wars, replete with weasel words and phrases, such as referring to the invasion of Afghanistan as “Infinite Justice” then later “Enduring Freedom,” both of which sound tragically bizarre 13 years later, with no end of the war in sight. However, Moynagh also recounts Zinn’s experience as an aerial bomber during World War Two and his personal view that “I have never used the word “pacifist” to describe myself, because it suggests something absolute. And I am suspicious of absolutes” (p. 121). Zinn goes on to say that even Gandhi and Dr. King believed that there are times “when a small, focused act of violence against a monstrous, immediate evil would be justified” (p. 121), such as the attempted assassination of Hitler to shorten his regime of evil.

Chapter Nine is a powerful, personal account of Ross Caputi’s nightmarish experience of taking part in killing hundreds of civilians and destroying a major portion of the infrastructure of an entire city during the 2004 invasion of Fallujah, Iraq. The immensely hard lesson he took away from this experience was “it is not enough that we refrain from committing individual acts of harm; we have to refrain from participating in harmful group actions as well” (p. 127). Caputi recounts that after he returned from Iraq he read A People’s History of the United States, and was emboldened to leave the Marine Corps when he encountered Zinn’s perspective on the “losers” in the history of American wars. This led Caputi to reflect on the nature of collective responsibility for good and evil and to critique the missing elements of current anti-war slogans that emphasize the economic costs of war instead of creating empathy with/for the people with whom we are at war. These two chapters together would provide powerful and personal counter narratives on every campus where ROTC recruiting is taking place, including high school history classes. Our young people need an opportunity to make more informed choices about their future, instead of just considering one sided rhetoric that presents the “advantages” of military service, but often conceals the long term psychological damage that now plague so many veterans. Nel Noddings (2006) asks “can we really claim to educate young people if we do not prepare them for the psychological upheavals that accompany war and violence” (p. 63)?

In Chapter 10 itinerant spoken word artist Alix Olson recounts her first encounter with Zinn and his role as an artist/activist, expressed through his writing three plays and producing The People Speak (2010) with actors like Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Marissa Tomei and many more. Olson challenges us to follow Zinn’s example of blurring the lines between artistic and academic roles in public discourses in ways that are relevant and clearly comprehensible beyond the walls of the university. This brings to mind the work of Maxine Greene, the late Stuart Hall, Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed, and a host of musicians, artists, poets and actors whose lives entail “a poetic fusion of political commitment and personal fulfillment” (p. 154). This section ends with a poignant example of this very kind of work by Martin Espada, with a poem that he wrote for Howard Zinn that, like the piece mentioned above, would lose its potency if quoted in fragments.

The last section, “Zinn Today and Tomorrow,” has three chapters and an afterword. In Chapter Eleven, Edward Morgan paints Zinn as a master teacher whose life was continually animated by the hope for a truly democratic, humane, and just society. This mode of being “needs to be at the center of both the movement for change and the imagined vision that inspires it” (p. 169). Morgan reminds us that the most influential aspects of Zinn’s character were his hope, his humor, and his “use of everyday Americanese” (p. 172).  This is powerful advice in the academic world, where all too often the tendency is to take the control of one’s turf far too seriously. Chapter Twelve, by Irene Gendzier, offers a fitting segue for the last chapter, which returns to the book’s starting place by discussing the future of Zinnian activism. Gendzier’s focus is on the consistent theme of economic inequality in Zinn’s view of history, long before the recent Wall Street demonstrations and the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In closing she draws directly from Zinn. “We have believed too long in our own helplessness, and the new history tells us how, sometimes, movements of people who don’t seem to have much power can shake the rich and powerful” (p. 187). The last chapter by the editors critically speculates on his influence in the future of activism. After responding to critiques of Zinn’s scholarship, the authors discuss Zinn’s present influences on creative dissent in the current movements to destroy unions, limit academic freedom, wage perpetual war, and political gridlock. Certainly his influence on written scholarship remains quite strong, with 5,170 references to his work since his death. Moreover, in a phone interview with the co-director of the Zinn Education Project which began just over a year before Zinn’s death, she stated that “there are 35,000 classroom teachers subscribed to the site which has received over 1,000,000 visitors and 100,000 downloads of teaching materials”(D. Menkart, personal communication, February 18, 2014). The book closes with a touching, personal afterword by Howard’s Zinn’s close friend, Noam Chomsky. He begins with a “somber realization that a whole generation seems to be disappearing” (p. 207). Chomsky then takes us onto Zinn’s “moving train” from the beginning of Howard’s work as a labor activist on through the Civil Rights era and his work with the SNCC, then on through the anti-Viet Nam War era and finally to his posthumous influence on the Occupy Movement. Chomsky’s final bit of advice provides a fitting closing.

What matters is to take part, as best we can, in the small actions of unknown people than can stave off disaster and bring about a better world, to honor them for their achievements, to do what we can to ensure that these achievements are understood and carried forward (p. 213).

Since we are all still on this wild, rocky and unpredictable journey together, I heartily recommend that you, your colleagues and students spend time with the text of each of these contributing passenger/authors and be heartened to critically hope and decisively “take part as best we can.”


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education New York, NY: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power, and liberation. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Noddings, N. (2006). Critical lessons: What our schools should teach. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press.

Zinn, H. (2002). You can't be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Zinn, H. (2003). A people's history of the United States: 1492-present. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Zinn, H. (2004). The people speak: American voices, some famous, some little known: dramatic readings celebrating the enduring spirit of dissent. New York: Perennial

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 07, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17452, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 12:32:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Lake
    Georgia Southern University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT LAKE is Associate Professor of Social Foundations at Georgia Southern University where he teaches courses in multicultural education and curriculum theory from local and global perspectives. His research is concerned with the history of ideas through biography, creativity, critical educational perspectives, and social imagination. In addition to his published book chapters, journal articles and edited volumes, he is the author of Vygotsky on Education (Peter Lang, 2011) and A Curriculum of Imagination in an Era of Standardization: An Imaginative Dialogue with Maxine Greene and Paulo Freire (2013, Information Age). He is co-editor of the book series Imagination and Praxis with Sense Publishers.
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