In many ways, Howard Zinn’s version of American history is depressing: again and again, he shows how the powerful Establishment uses violence and propaganda to thwart the American people’s efforts to fight for change. However, at times, Zinn acknowledges that American society has seen significant changes for the better: women won the right to vote, black slaves won their freedom, and life expectancy and the literacy rate have risen. Zinn often offers a counterintuitive interpretation of these positive changes. In a Marxist mode, he argues that changes to American society have been small and relatively superficial, meaning that, ultimately, they have strengthened the power of the Establishment. In making such an argument, Zinn draws an important distinction between radical, revolutionary change—that is, fundamental changes to the system of American society, especially in the arena of property and ownership—and mere reform (i.e., small changes that do not address the basic injustices of American society). While reform may benefit people and improve the average American’s quality of life, Zinn argues that it also staves off the radical change that could transform the people’s live for the better and instead perpetuates injustice and inequality in America.
Zinn argues that reform staves off radical change in two main ways. First, reform removes some of the energy and indignation necessary to fuel revolutionary change. For example, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s culminated in the federal government initiating a series of laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, designed to protect the rights of African Americans. In Zinn’s terminology, these laws are textbook examples of reform. The Voting Rights Act, for instance, protected black people’s right to vote, but it did not address the core problems that African Americans faced in American society, such as their impoverishment, the systematic discrimination they faced every day, etc. However, the superficial “success” of the Voting Rights Act took some of the fire out of black activism—some African Americans, thinking that they’d emerged victorious, stopped fighting for radical change. Thus, in the early 1970s, there was no national black activist movement comparable with that of the 1960s, which is evidence that reform had deprived the movement of its full strength. In general, Zinn argues, the result of reform is to pacify the American people by giving them a tiny portion of what they really want.
Zinn also argues that reform staves off radical change in the sense that reform, because it is almost always conducted through the federal government, strengthens and legitimates the structures of the Establishment. For example, in the early 20th century women won the right to vote. As Zinn sees it, winning the right to vote is a classic example of reform, since women’s victory did not address the root causes of sexism and misogyny in American society. By voting, women were effectively “honoring” the American electoral system—a major institution of the federal government and, therefore, of the Establishment. Throughout the 20th century, women almost never had the opportunity to vote for a female, or feminist, presidential candidate, since the Republican and Democratic parties consistently nominated male candidates with moderate, or sometimes sexist, views on gender politics. In short, the result of voting reform in the early 20th century was that a) women won a superficial, symbolic victory, b) women were not able to use their right to vote as a way of electing leaders who shared their interests, and, most importantly of all, c) the institution of voting—and with it, the Establishment itself—won new respect and loyalty from the female population of the United States. By offering a mild reform (suffrage) the Establishment boosted its respectability in the eyes of the American people while sacrificing none of its own power. In general, Zinn argues, reform has the effect of increasing people’s respect and admiration for the federal government and the Establishment far more than it increases people’s freedom and economic well-being. As a result, reform staves off radical, revolutionary change.
It’s important to recognize that Zinn isn’t saying that reform is “good” or “bad”; he’s making a much more sophisticated argument. In many ways, reform has benefited the American people, giving them better wages and healthier lives. However, reform has also staved off the equality and freedom that all Americans deserve. In effect, reform is good, but not good enough.
Radicalism Vs. Reform ThemeTracker
Radicalism Vs. Reform Quotes in A People’s History of the United States
Two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the National Labor Relations Board would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances. Thus it could moderate labor rebellion by channeling energy into elections—just as the constitutional system channeled possibly troublesome energy into voting. The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And second, the workers' organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers' insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.
The point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.
What was clear in this period to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists, was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the "Progressive Period," the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.
In that same period of the early fifties, the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its heyday, interrogating Americans about their Communist connections, holding them in contempt if they refused to answer, distributing millions of pamphlets to the American public: "One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism" ("Where can Communists be found? Everywhere"). Liberals often criticized the Committee, but in Congress, liberals and conservatives alike voted to fund it year after year.
The televised Senate Committee hearings on Watergate stopped suddenly before the subject of corporate connections was reached. It was typical of the selective coverage of important events by the television industry: bizarre shenanigans like the Watergate burglary were given full treatment, while instances of ongoing practice—the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the work of the FBI and CIA—were given the most fleeting attention. Dirty tricks against the Socialist Workers party, the Black Panthers, other radical groups, had to be searched for in a few newspapers. The whole nation heard the details of the quick break-in at the Watergate apartment; there was never a similar television hearing on the long-term break-in in Vietnam.
The result of these higher payroll taxes was that three-fourths of all wage earners paid more each year through the Social Security tax than through the income tax. Embarrassingly for the Democratic party, which was supposed to be the party of the working class, those higher payroll taxes had been put in motion under the administration of Jimmy Carter.
Clinton claimed to be moderating his policies to match public opinion. But opinion surveys in the eighties and early nineties indicated that Americans favored bold policies that neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to put forward: universal free health care, guaranteed employment, government help for the poor and homeless, with taxes on the rich and cuts in the military budget to pay for social programs.