Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



Howard Zinn And The Co-option Of Social Change


by Michael Barker





(Swans - November 16, 2009)   The writings of widely regarded historian Howard Zinn have influenced the education of thousands of progressive social activists, and two of his seminal books are A People's History of the United States: 1482 - Present (1980), and his The Politics of History (1990). Both of these books provide a welcome corrective to much vaunted Pulitzer-Prize-narratives of social change, and demonstrate the palpable fear that economic and political elites have of the public, especially when they organize to promote popular rather than elite interests. Owing to their natural fear of justice, elites have always acted to co-opt and defuse the disruptive power of popular dissent to maintain their own tenuous and unwarranted positions of privilege; a history of deceit and manipulation that is amply illustrated in Zinn's books. By reviewing Zinn's work on these co-optive repertoires of power, this article seeks to understand how modern-day elites maintain their domination in spite of a massive array of organizations that ostensibly exist to represent the public's interests.

When given the opportunity humans have a strong tendency to cooperate, and so elites have always attempted to monopolize and co-opt this aspect of human nature to serve their ideological purposes. Thus in the seventeenth century, in spite of the widespread occurrence of slavery, it was the case that "where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals." (1) Such a state of affairs was problematic for those ruling elites profiting from slavery so laws were passed to prevent, or at least limit, such cooperation. Moreover, by playing different groups within society (classes) against one another, elites consolidated class loyalty to their regime of injustice by making limited concessions to selected constituencies (i.e., the middle class).

While money had previously played an important role in manufacturing such loyalty, in the 1760s and 1770s, ruling elites determined that the rhetoric of humanitarianism was a more useful tool for manipulation than mere financial rewards alone. Consequently, by appropriating the "language of liberty and equality" elites succeeded in "unit[ing] just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality." (2) Seen in this light, America's Founding Fathers provided...

... a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries. (pp.60-1) (3)

The key to the success of such endeavours was to use rhetorical devices that inspired all classes against the British. Propaganda needed to be "vague enough to avoid class conflict among the rebels, and stirring enough to build patriotic feeling for the resistance movement"; Tom Paine's immensely popular pamphlet, Common Sense (published in 1776), did just this. (4) In addition, much like today, war served a critical role in homogenizing political action, "forc[ing] people onto the side of the Revolution whose interest in Independence was not at all obvious." (5)

It seems that the rebellion against British rule allowed a certain group of the colonial elite to replace those loyal to England, give some benefits to small landholders, and leave poor white working people and tenant farmers in very much their old situation. (6)

The American Constitution itself provides another illustration of how the interests of the wealthy minority were protected by offering enough concessions "for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support." (Not so for "the blacks, the Indians, [and] the very poor whites.") This open conspiracy thus "enable[d] the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion". (7) Likewise, in the face of mass pressure to abolish slavery, the American government recognized the need to take the initiative, so that slavery's "end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation." This allowed a safe and profitable reconstruction of national politics and economics... (8)

... under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism. He would keep the abolition of slavery not at the top of his list of priorities, but close enough to the top so it could be pushed there temporarily by abolitionist pressures and by practical political advantage. (p.182)

As one might expect, legal and economic injustice also bolstered elite power. "In the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit the capitalist development of the country." (9) On top of this, the chaotic nature of the economic system meant that...

... only the very rich were secure. It was a system of periodic crisis -- 1837, 1857, 1873 (and later: 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929) -- that wiped out small businesses and brought cold, hunger, and death to working people while the fortunes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, kept growing through war and peace, crisis and recovery. During the 1873 crisis, Carnegie was capturing the steel market, Rockefeller was wiping out his competitors in oil. (p.237)

Building upon such injustice, the nation's financiers rose to tremendous positions of power. Zinn writes how Louis Brandeis in his book Other People's Money (written before he became a Supreme Court justice) observed how financiers "control the people through the people's own money." (10)

And so it went, in industry after industry -- shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies. These industries were the first beneficiaries of the "welfare state." By the turn of the century, American Telephone and Telegraph had a monopoly of the nation's telephone system, International Harvester made 85 percent of all farm machinery, and in every other industry resources became concentrated, controlled. The banks had interests in so many of these monopolies as to create an interlocking network of powerful corporation directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many other corporations. According to a Senate report of the early twentieth century, Morgan at his peak sat on the board of forty-eight corporations; Rockefeller, thirty-seven corporations. (pp.251-2)

As in earlier years, these ruling elites recognized the power of humanitarian rhetoric to legitimize a fundamentally unjust capitalist system, and so this device of "liberty and equality" was institutionalized by the latter day robber barons.

The rich, giving part of their enormous earnings in this way, became known as philanthropists. These educational institutions did not encourage dissent; they trained the middlemen in the American system -- the teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, technicians, politicians -- those who would be paid to keep the system going, to be loyal buffers against trouble. (pp.256-7)

Zinn highlights the key role that such elite philanthropists played in founding universities across America. "Knowledge is a form of power," thus...

... in modern times, when social control rests on "the consent of the governed," force is kept in abeyance for emergencies, and every-day control is exercised by a set of rules, a fabric of values passed on from one generation to another by the priests and the teachers of the society. What we call the rise of democracy in the world means that force is replaced by deception (a blunt way of saying "education") as the chief method for keeping society as it is. (11)

In order to maintain Negro quiescence in the face of massive exploitation, philanthropic aid was distributed "to two Negro colleges, Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute," the latter of course being the institutional base for Booker T. Washington. (12) Zinn notes how a young black man named William Monroe Trotter, who was an associate of W. E. B. Du Bois, regularly "attacked the moderate ideas of Booker T. Washington." And Zinn goes on to suggest that Trotter's arrest in 1903 "may have added to the spirit of indignation which led Du Bois to spearhead the Niagara meeting," which led the formation of the Niagara Movement. (13) Just a few years later, in 1910, Du Bois helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with whites dominating the organizations leadership. (14)

Returning to the so-called "Progressive Period," Zinn sums it up as a time of "reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes." (15) Here Zinn refers to Gabriel Kolko's groundbreaking study The Triumph of Conservatism: A Re-interpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (Quadrangle, 1967), which noted how the businessmen of this "age of reform" initiated the reforms and "pushed them, to stabilize the capitalist system in a time of uncertainty and trouble." (16) In a similar vein, Zinn draws upon James Weinstein's classic, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 (Beacon Press, 1968), writing:

Weinstein sees "a conscious and successful effort to guide and control the economic and social policies of federal, state, and municipal governments by various business groupings in their own long-range interest..." While the "original impetus" for reform came from protesters and radicals, "in the current century, particularly on the federal level, few reforms were enacted without the tacit approval, if not the guidance, of the large corporate interests." These interests assembled liberal reformers and intellectuals to aid them in such matters. (p.344)

In the face of such extensive elite manipulation Zinn remains optimistic and he concludes that these capitalist-led "reforms "only succeeded "[t]o some extent, perhaps." Zinn maintains such a positive outlook because in the face of these reforms socialism still continued to become more popular among the masses, as exemplified by the Colorado coal strike (at the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation) that occurred shortly after Woodrow Wilson took office. However, in the wake of the Colorado coal strike, which began in September 1913 and ended in the "Ludlow Massacre" of April 1914, (17) Zinn observes how the Rockefeller Foundation "stepped up its activities, and that foundations in general multiplied" (as part of their renewed commitment to public relations). (18) This attempt at damage control demonstrates how elites cannot always contain public dissent as easily as they might desire. Thus in the face of concerted socialist resistance to capitalism, ruling elites had to resort to state repression to literally smash the resistance, a process that intensified with the outbreak of World War I. (19) This overt repression did not however render the liberal elites reformist efforts redundant, as once the progressive resistance had been broken down to a manageable level, the propaganda of the Progressive Period could be more easily disseminated amongst the populous.

Following their previously successful efforts to control the masses, during the Depression ruling elites supported the New Deal to quell the public's palpable discontent with capitalism. Money flowed down to the poor to "put thousands of writers, artists, actors, and musicians to work"; however, "in 1939, with the country more stable and the New Deal reform impulse weakened, programs to subsidize the arts were eliminated." (20) Around this time, in order to pacify the Negro population, President Franklin Roosevelt...

... learned a lesson which was passed on to subsequent presidents (perhaps the idea came from Theodore Roosevelt's dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington): the placement of a few important Negroes in high government posts could substitute for genuine social change. (21)

Given the history of the New Deal, counter to popular representations of history, it should not be surprising that: "It was not McCarthy and the Republicans, but the liberal Democratic Truman administration, whose Justice Department initiated a series of prosecutions that intensified the nation's anti-Communist mood." (22) Zinn continues:

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, set up specifically to defend the liberties of Communists and all other political groups, began to wilt in the cold war atmosphere. It had already started in this direction back in 1940 when it expelled one of its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, because she was a member of the Communist party. In the fifties, the ACLU was hesitant to defend Corliss Lamont, its own board member, and Owen Lattimore, when both were under attack. It was reluctant to defend publicly the Communist leaders during the first Smith Act trial, and kept completely out of the Rosenberg case, saying no civil liberties issues were involved. (p.428)

Fast forward to the Civil Rights movement, and Zinn cites commentators from both sides of the political spectrum (Malcolm X and White House adviser Arthur Schlesinger) to describe the co-optive repertoire of President John F. Kennedy's liberal elites. Zinn, however, argues that these tactics "did not work" and America's black population continued to demonstrate their discontent, often through rioting. Indeed, even in August 1965, when Lyndon Johnson "was signing into law the strong Voting Rights Act, providing for federal registration of black voters to ensure their protection, the black ghetto in Watts, Los Angeles, erupted in the most violent urban outbreak since World War II." (23) Again falling back on militarism, in the face of increased riots the government turned to assassination to eliminate leading anti-capitalist activists (i.e., Martin Luther King and numerous members of the Black Panther Party), while simultaneously promoting capitalist alternatives to their critical analyses.

Chase Manhattan Bank and the Rockefeller family (controllers of Chase) took a special interest in developing "black capitalism." The Rockefellers had always been financial patrons of the Urban League, and a strong influence in black education through their support of Negro colleges in the South. David Rockefeller tried to persuade his fellow capitalists that while helping black businessmen with money might not be fruitful in the short run, it was necessary "to shape an environment in which the business can continue earning a profit four or five or ten years from now." With all of this, black business remained infinitesimally small. The largest black corporation (Motown Industries) had sales in 1974 of $45 million, while Exxon Corporation had sales of $42 billion. The total receipts of black-owned firms accounted for 0.3 percent of all business Income. (p.456)

Such tactics did not go unanswered by the black community and Zinn cites Robert Allen's book Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Doubleday, 1969), which had called for the "dismantling of capitalist property relations in the black community and their replacement with a planned communal economy." Moreover it is important that Zinn cites Allen's book as it provided the seminal critique of the more subtle philanthropic aspects of the cooption of the Civil Rights movement. Here, Allen noted that the Ford Foundation might have been the "most important, though least publicized, organization manipulating the militant black movement." (24) Evidently the effects of such deradicalizing and manipulative funding practices are subtle and enduring, and as Zinn concludes:

More and more elements of American life have been invited into the dominant in-group of American society, usually after overt violence of various kinds. Each accretion solidifies the group, which can then continue, or even increase, the violence directed toward those outside the consensus. (Respectable Negro leaders will become more welcome at the White House, while the police will get more and more brutal in breaking up Negro rebellions in the cities or on college campuses.) The creation of a substantial consensus at home seems to create the possibility of using even greater amounts of violence against out-groups abroad. (25)

Considering the comprehensive means by which leading capitalists manipulate society, Howard Zinn's work provides a vital tool by which concerned activists can gain a detailed overview of the odorous relationships that exist between elites and democracy. Only when one recognizes the manner by which capitalist elites proactively manipulate civil society and co-opt agents of progressive social change can progressive citizens present an effective challenge to elite domination. This challenge will involve undermining the legitimacy of all aspects of elite power, most especially in those areas which are least understood, like that of liberal philanthropy. In this regard we can turn to other critical writers, like for instance Joan Roelofs, who have shed much needed light on the means by which elite philanthropy has undermined democracy and fortified capitalism. (26) Progressive revolutionary change will be a long time coming, but it is vital that activists apply Zinn's insights to the present day and identify elite philanthropy in all its protean guises so that they can build a powerful grassroots movement that is able to actively resist elite manipulation in all its forms.


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1.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.31.  (back)

2.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.58.  (back)

3.  In Boston, "certain lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper classes, but excluded from the ruling circles close to England -- men like James Otis and Samuel Adams -- organized a 'Boston Caucus' and through their oratory and their writing 'molded laboring-class opinion, called the "mob" into action, and shaped its behaviour.' This is Gary Nash's description of Otis, who, he says, 'keenly aware of the declining fortunes and the resentment of ordinary townspeople, was mirroring as well as molding popular opinion.'" Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.60.

"In Boston, the economic grievances of the lowest classes mingled with anger against the British and exploded in mob violence. The leaders of the Independence movement wanted to use that mob energy against England, but also to contain it so that it would not demand too much from them." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.65.

"In the countryside, where most people lived, there was a similar conflict of poor against rich, one which political leaders would use to mobilize the population against England, granting some benefits for the rebellious poor, and many more for themselves in the process. The tenant riots in New Jersey in the 1740s, the New York tenant uprisings of the 1750s and 1760s in the Hudson Valley, and the rebellion in northeastern New York that led to the carving of Vermont out of New York State were all more than sporadic rioting. They were long-lasting social movements, highly organized, involving the creation of counter-governments. They were aimed at a handful of rich landlords, but with the landlords far away, they often had to direct their anger against other, closer farmers who had leased the disputed land from the owners." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, pp.62-3.  (back)

4.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.69.  (back)

5.  Zinn continued: "Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations -- consciously or not -- that war makes them more secure against internal trouble." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.78.

"With World War I, England became more and more a market for American goods and for loans at interest. J. P. Morgan and Company acted as agents for the Allies, and when, in 1915, Wilson lifted the ban on private bank loans to the Allies, Morgan could now begin lending money in such great amounts as to both make great profit and tie American finance closely to the interest of a British victory in the war against Germany." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.353.

Later Zinn refers to a May 1915 article by W. E. B. Du Bois in the Atlantic Monthly titled "The African Roots of War." Zinn writes: "Du Bois saw the ingenuity of capitalism in uniting exploiter and exploited -- creating a safety valve for explosive class conflict." He continues how the United States fitted Du Bois's ideas: "American capitalism needed international rivalry -- and periodic war -- to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements. How conscious of this were individual entrepreneurs and statesmen? That is hard to know. But their actions, even if half-conscious, instinctive drives to survive, matched such a scheme. And in 1917 this demanded a national consensus for war." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, pp.354-5.  (back)

6.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.85. "Carl Degler says (Out of Our Past): "No new social class came to power through the door of the American revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling class." George Washington was the richest man in America. John Hancock was a prosperous Boston merchant. Benjamin Franklin was a wealthy printer. And so on." (p.84)  (back)

7.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.98, 99. "In premodern times, the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force. In modern times, exploitation is disguised -- it is accomplished by law, which has the look of neutrality and fairness. By the time of the Civil War, modernization was well under way in the United States." (p.235)  (back)

8.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.167.  (back)

9.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.235.  (back)

10.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.250.  (back)

11.  Zinn, The Politics of History, p.6. He suggests that a "kind of scholarly segregation serves to keep those in the university from dealing with urgent social problems: that which divorces fact from theory... [F]or instance, a political theorist discusses transcendental visions of the good society; someone else presents factual descriptions of present governments. But no one deals with both the is and the ought; if they did they would have to deal with how to get from here to there, from the present reality to the poetic vision. Note how little work is done in political science on the tactics of social change. Both student and teacher deal with theory and reality in separate courses; the compartmentalization safely neutralizes them." (pp.11-2) With regard to the selection of research topics by intellectuals, Zinn asks "how many biographies of the radical [Eugene] Debs are there, compared to biographies of John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt? The selection of the topic for study is the first step in the weighting of the social scales for one value or another." (p.27)  (back)

12.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.256.  (back)

13.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.340. Du Bois was an important critic of liberal philanthropy. Thus when On May 26, 1958, when Merle Curti wrote to Du Bois asking "for any suggestions you may have regarding the role of philanthropists in Negro education and welfare" he made his feelings on this matter quite clear. Du Bois responded to Curti's letter on June 4, 1958, writing:

"During the Civil War and up until the '80s, this philanthropy sprang primarily from sympathy with freedmen. Then it became an effort to build up a school system for ignorant people. This was halted by the fear of many people, especially in the South, that Negroes might be educated too fast and in the wrong directions, and in antagonism to the White South. After that, philanthropy in the South was directed by special business interests to what was called 'industrial education,' designed to train servants and cheap labor.

"In the same way, today, philanthropy is being guided by Big Business to ward off Socialism and Communism, to control labor unions, and to curb all sorts of 'radical' thought." Herbert Aptheker (ed.), The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois: Volume III Selections, 1944-1963 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1978), p.429.  (back)

14.  "Whites dominated the leadership of the new organization; Du Bois was the only black officer. He was also the first editor of the NAACP periodical The Crisis. The NAACP concentrated on legal action and education, but Du Bois represented in it that spirit which was embodied in the Niagara movement's declaration: 'Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty.'" (pp.340-1)  (back)

15.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.341. Zinn writes that: "Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, published in 1906, brought the conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago to the shocked attention of the whole country, and stimulated demand for laws regulating the meat industry." (pp.340-1)

"Undoubtedly, ordinary people benefited to some extent from these changes. The system was rich, productive, complex; it could give enough of a share of its riches to enough of the working class to create a protective shield between the bottom and the top of the society." Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.341.  (back)

16.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.342. "For instance, Theodore Roosevelt made a reputation for himself as a "trust-buster" (although his successor, Taft, a "conservative," while Roosevelt was a "Progressive," launched more antitrust suits that did Roosevelt). In fact, as [Robert] Wiebe points out, two of J. P. Morgan's men, Elbert Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel, and George Perkins, who would later become a campaigner for Roosevelt, "arranged a general understanding with Roosevelt by which they would cooperate in any investigation by the Bureau of Corporations in return for a guarantee of their companies' legality." They would do this through private negotiations with the President. "A gentleman's agreement between reasonable people" Wiebe says, with a bit of sarcasm." (p.342)  (back)

17.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.346.  (back)

18.  Zinn, The Politics of History, p.100.  (back)

19.  Conflict amongst socialists contributed to their demise in the 1920s, James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (Monthly Review Press, 1967).  (back)

20.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.394.  (back)

21.  Zinn, The Politics of History, p.174.  (back)

22.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.424.  (back)

23.  Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p.450.  (back)

24.  Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Doubleday, 1969), p.61.  (back)

25.  Zinn, The Politics of History, p.246.  (back)

26.  For a discussion of Joan Roelofs' work, see Michael Barker, Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions? (Part 2), Znet, September 9, 2007.  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published November 16, 2009