A people’s history of Howard Zinn
Radical popular history and its readers
in Marxism and America
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This chapter situates Howard Zinn’s popular and controversial book A People’s History of the United States (1980) in relation to the development and reception of Marxist ideas in twentieth-century America. It uses close readings of the historian’s work along with archival materials from his personal papers. In doing so, it advances three arguments: first, that Zinn’s eclectic articulation of historical materialism was influenced by both the Old and New Lefts; second, that his skepticism about capitalism was inseparable from his radical analysis of racial inequality; and third, that the reception of A People’s History by general readers demonstrates the striking influence of Marxism on popular understandings of U.S. history. To contextualize Zinn’s political ideas in this way reframes the intellectual cultures of American radicalism in the late twentieth-century United States, pointing to the enduring influence of historical materialism not only in the academy but also among the reading public.

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