Skip to content Skip to footer
Howard Zinn Never Stopped Demanding the Impossible
Historian Howard Zinn. (

Howard Zinn Never Stopped Demanding the Impossible

Historian Howard Zinn. (

Anthony Arnove got to know Howard Zinn’s distinctive voice when he collaborated with Zinn on “The People Speak.” As a result, Arnove was selected by the Howard Zinn Trust to edit four decades of his speeches. Although Zinn’s remarks are in text form, his passion, his energy, his humor, and his desire for long-term systemic change jump off the page and inspire the reader. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout. Just click here to receive a copy.

The following is the foreward, written by Anthony Arnove, to “Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963-2009.”

Reprinted by Truthout with permission of Haymarket Books.

Introduction by Anthony Arnove

My work with Howard Zinn over the last decade was punctuated with frequent enthusiastic calls and e-mails, his dispatches from the road and the home front. I remember Howard calling the morning after he appeared on stage at a Pearl Jam concert. Eddie Vedder had brought him out on stage in front of tens of thousands of Pearl Jam fans and handed him a microphone. “I gave the best speech of my life last night,” he said. “It was three words long: ‘End the war.'”

As a speaker, Howard understood the power of brevity, of never making anything simple complicated. He understood the power of the dramatic pause, letting his audiences have a moment to take in his thoughts, the power of humor to convey radical ideas in a compelling and dramatic way—and the power of the simple word “no.” “They say war is the only solution,” he’d say in one of his many talks delivered against the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “No . . .”

Our relationship began with a call, when I happened to pick up the phone one day at South End Press, where I was working as an editor at the time. He was calling to see if South End might have work for a friend of his who had just been released from prison after a number of years. That, of course, was exactly the kind of radical Howard was.

Other calls over the years were more mundane. He and Roz had listened to the Bob Dylan album I’d sent him. Or they’d watched a film Brenda and I had recommended. The Red Sox had beaten the Yankees.

I had the great privilege of working with Howard on the book Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which then led to dozens of live performances that we cast, produced, and narrated together, and then the movie The People Speak. If Howard loved a specific performance, he didn’t even use words to describe it. There’d just be a visceral “Mhmmm” and his remarkable smile would grow into a full grin. After our first few Voices performances, I figured out that I had to tell the sound technicians to turn off Howard’s microphone during the readings, because otherwise our tapes of the performances would pick up his sounds of pleasure during particularly good readings.

Filming our documentary The People Speak in Boston one afternoon, Howard observed that the camaraderie between our cast members, the sense of collective purpose and joy, was a feeling he hadn’t experienced with such intensity since his active participation in the civil rights movement. Since Howard’s passing, I have thought often of that moment, which crystallizes for me what made him so compelling an example of someone committed to, and enjoying to its fullest, a life of political activism.

Howard jumped into the civil rights struggle as an active participant, not just as a commentator or observer. He decided that the point of studying history was not to write papers and attend seminars but to make history, to help inform grassroots movements to change the world. He was fired from Spelman College as a result, and risked losing his next job at Boston University for his role in opposing the Vietnam War and in sup- porting workers on the campus. When there was a moment of respite after the end of the Vietnam War, Howard did not turn back to academic studies, or turn inward as so many other 1960s activists had done, but began writing plays, understanding the importance of cultural expression to political understanding and change. He also began writing “A People’s History of the United States”, which came out in 1980, right as the tide was turning against the radical social movements he had helped to organize.

“A People’s History” would provide a countercurrent that developed and grew as teachers, activists, and the next generation of social movements developed new political efforts and new movements. Howard was there to fight alongside them.

Throughout, he reminded us of the history of social change in this country, and kept coming back to the essential lessons that it seems we so often forget or need to learn anew: that change comes from below; that progress comes only from people resisting and organizing—workers going on strike, consumers boycotting, soldiers refusing to fight, saying no to injustice and war. He reminded us that we cannot rely on elected officials or leaders, that we have to rely instead on our individual and collective actions: social movements, civil disobedience, and political protests; that change never happens in a straight line but always has ups and downs, twists and turns; and that there are no guarantees in history.

But Howard added a distinctive element to these arguments by embodying the understanding that the shared experience of working alongside others for political change is the most rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful life one can live. The sense of solidarity he had with people in struggle, the sense of joy he had in life, was infectious.

The stereotypical image our corporate media presents of the left, especially the radical left, is that it is humorless, boring, and out of touch. Howard shattered this convenient caricature. His voice, as this collection of speeches clearly illustrates, combined personal conviction and powerful historical narratives with comedic punch-lines that delivered keen social observations and compelling political criticism. These qualities are in full view in his play Marx in Soho, which manages to simultaneously reclaim Marx from his critics and his Stalinist distorters while bringing down the house with humor that evokes Sid Caesar and Zero Mostel.

Howard knew how lucky he was—with Roz, with his family, with his experiences of being part of movements for social justice and the friendships he formed in them. He conveyed this with a sense of joy that was inspiring. He communicated to everyone around them that they mattered, that they were an active part of history making.

In an article on Eugene Debs that Howard wrote in the 1990s, he said, “We are always in need of radicals who are also lovable,” and said what we need to learn from Debs is a “determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas that are both bold and inviting—the more bold, the more inviting.” When David Strathairn read those lines at a celebration of Howard’s life and work in California soon after his passing, it was clear to all of us that those words described Howard as much as they did Debs. Howard’s ideas were bold, inviting, inspiring. As is his example—and that is something that, like the remarkable life force Howard had, is still so very much with us.

There are, from time to time, people who can crystallize the aims or goals of a movement in an especially compelling way, who can rally greater numbers of people to take a particular action and make a lifelong commitment to activism. But such people cannot substitute for a movement. Eugene Debs, who understood this problem well, once put it this way: “I am no Moses to lead you out of the wilderness .. . because if I could lead you out, someone else could lead you in again.” That was the spirit of Howard: think for yourself, act for yourself, challenge and question authority. But do it with others.

As he writes in Marx in Soho, “If you are going to break the law, do it with two thousand people .. . and Mozart.” I think if Howard were here today, he would be excited by the boldness and inventiveness of the Occupy movement. I know he would appreciate the humor and creativity of its slogans, particularly those drawing attention to the important issues of class that are usually so hidden here. But I think Howard would also want to make a connection between the dispossession of the 99 percent and the obscene spending on our nation’s endless wars. He would have appreciated the placards calling for money for schools, health care, and jobs, not for war, and the placards saying we should Occupy Wall Street not Palestine.

I think Howard would also have something to say about the question of Occupy’s demands. I am reminded of one of the slogans of the French struggle of 1968: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” By “demand the impossible” I do not think the French meant demands that were literally utopian. I think they meant we should raise demands that are achievable, but not within the logic of the current system. So, for example, we are told that universal health care is unrealistic, that we can’t afford it. But we can. And there are other demands we need to make. We want to house the homeless. We want education and jobs for everyone. We want an end to our nation’s wars.

I believe Howard would also be thinking of ways to involve more people in the Occupy movement, new ways of bringing the energy of Occupy into cultural expression and new arenas of social activism, such as the ex- citing work to occupy homes that have been foreclosed and to engage in neighborhood-based actions such as Occupy the Hood. As important as the spaces at Zuccotti Park and other encampments have been, these spaces are ultimately too small to contain all the people we want to be part of this movement. We need to think about new spaces we can occupy and new tactics for expressing our goals and principles.

As we look at Howard’s lifetime of work, and his remarkable example, he has something else to teach us that is very important. As urgent as the present moment is, we need to build and strategize for the long term and have the patience to weather the attacks and challenges that are coming. The kind of change we want, systemic change, will not happen overnight or even this year. People are now raising questions about the entire system, about capitalism, that cannot be addressed by electing a new president— as more and more people now realize—or Congress.

This moment in which popular protest worldwide is toppling dictatorships, and forcing even establishment discussions to address vital social issues, is one Howard had worked years to bring about and did so much to contribute to making possible. It was something he knew would come. He had the unwavering belief that people would eventually rise up and seek a more just society. It was something he would have been so overjoyed to see and to be part of.

It is my hope that this collection of Howard Zinn’s speeches will connect with a new generation of people, inspiring them and reminding them that history matters, that we do not have to begin anew, and that we can draw inspiration and lessons from those who have come before us.