Like many people the first time I came across mention of his name was when I saw Good Will Hunting, in the scene where Matt Damon’s character tells his counsellor played by Robin Williams that he should read Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States. I didn’t get round to reading it until about six years later. It’s a monumental, intensely moving and bracing work of committed political writing, concerned with bringing to light voices and struggles buried by official narratives of US history. If you haven’t read it I recommend you get a copy.
His A People’s History, which sold by the million, wasn’t a work designed for inclusion in an academic canon, but for ordinary people to get a sense of how what is presented as plain historical fact, a reality to be accepted, is but an image crafted and mobilised by ruling class institutions.
In The Politics of History, written some years previous he discusses his approach:
History can have another effect, however. Like memory, it can liberate us when the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature. Memory can remind us of possibilities that we have forgotten, and history can suggest to us alternatives that we would never otherwise consider. It can both warn and inspire. It can warn us that it is possible for a whole nation to be brainwashed, for “enlightened” and “educated” people to commit genocide, for a “democratic” country to maintain slavery, for oppressed to turn into oppressors, for “socialism” to be tyrannical” and “liberalism” to be imperialist, for whole peoples to be led to war like sheep. It can also show us that apparently powerless underlings can defeat their rulers, that men (for at least moments of time) can live like brothers, that man can make incredible sacrifices on behalf of a cause.