It seems Howard Zinn not only can’t get his facts right, he embraces others who substitute fantasy or imagination for fact. Consider the case of “Drawing the Color Line,” where Zinn tackles slavery in America. He quotes an otherwise reliable historian, Edmund Morgan, in one of Morgan’s few lapses into counterfactual thinking. In discussing the Virginia colonists, Zinn quotes Morgan’s otherwise good book, American Slavery, American Freedom as saying:
If you were a colonist [in Virginia], you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians’. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages . . . . But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did . . . . So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority . . . . But you still did not grow much corn . . . .
There are two big problems with the above paragraph. First, Morgan himself was no quoting any documents or any person. Morgan was “imagining their mood” according to Zinn (p. 25, 2003 ed). Oh, so he was imagining what the colonists’ “mood” was. What if another historian “imagined” they had a different mood? Or better yet, wouldn’t it be nice—heck, even professional—to actually find documents that told you their “mood?” If their mood was so horrible, why did more and more Englishmen keep arriving?
From there, Zinn jumps from Morgan’s “did not grow much corn” to the line, “Black slaves were the answer.” Except after about 1613, Englishmen were not growing that much corn. They had started growing something much more profitable, tobacco. In other words, slaves absolutely were not the answer for growing corn, which was not a “cash crop,” but were needed for large-scale tobacco agriculture.
Immediately above that passage, Zinn explained that the whites were “outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return.” Really? So mutual assured destruction worked then, but it didn’t work in the Cold War? And just where did whites get these “superior firearms?” Or, for that matter, superior ships, wheels, eyeglasses, and any number of inventions the Indians lacked? Zinn never wants to make the connection that the superior firearms were just one element of a technologically superior society that made most things better.
While he is on the subject of Virginia, Zinn quotes the journals of the House of burgesses to discuss the starving time and correctly notes that people barely made it. But he then completely flies off the rails by saying “The Virginians needed labor, to grow corn for subsistence, to grow tobacco for export.” Yes and no. They had all the labor they needed for corn. They did not have what they needed for tobacco, yet the first tobacco exports did not come until 10 years after they arrived at Jamestown, 1617. (Zinn doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize tobacco in his typical moralist, preachy manner by saying “like all pleasurable drugs [it was] tainted with moral disapproval, [and] it brought a high price. . . .”)
The introduction of servants and indentured servants gives Zinn another opportunity to engage in his class-struggle rhetoric. Let’s digress for a moment to recall the essence of Karl Marx’s “class struggle” approach to history (which he completely stole from Hegel, without credit). Marx held that all history was the history of class struggle. The difficulty is that Marx could never define “class.” For his theory to work, a “class” had to be immovable, unchangeable, carefully defined. No one could enter, or exit, a “class.” In the so-called “dialectic of history,” all history was a series of struggles between classes—except it started with multiple classes in the past (Marx is fuzzy on how this happened), then eventually, after capitalism and the industrial revolution, landed on just two classes, the “bourgesoisie” (owners) and the “proletariat” (so-called workers, especially industrial laborers). Wikipedia defines the bourgeoisie as “a sociologically-defined social class . . . referring to people with a certain cultural and financial capital belonging to the middle or upper middle class.” Can you say circular reasoning? They are a class defined as a class. Pretty weak stuff there.
More accurately, under Marx the bourgeoisie owned the “means of production.” Ok, but what happens when proletariat or workers earn enough to buy stock or even to buy their own company where they are the earners? Did they just “jump class?” If this were possible, all Marxism would be reduced to rubble. If it was easy—and normal—for proletariat to no longer be proletariat, then no communist revolution would be necessary. For Marx to work, a class is rigid and unbending. Once a prole, always a prole. Of course, in our everyday lives we see dozens, if not hundreds, of people who went from (as Jessie Jackson used to say) “the outhouse to the penthouse.” American history is full of such people. It is in fact the American dream.
As a side note, however, everyone should realize that not all people are cut out to be owners, and more important, most of them know it. I have friends who were promoted into “management” and turned it down because they did not want the added pressure. The old “9 to 5" was fine with them.
Back to Bacon’s Rebellion: after introducing Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia as “a rebellion of white frontiersmen, joined by slaves and servants,” and quoting a Royal Commission report that suggests that he was a commoner—so as to portray the Rebellion as one of “class”—Zinn quickly notes that “Bacon himself came from this [upper] class.” Wait! So, this is not class struggle but one aristocrat leading an uprising against others? Come to think of it, wasn’t that how the American Revolution started—with the well-off merchants and planters rebelling against taxation and improper procedures for implementing taxes? And later still, in the French Revolution it was not factory workers but lawyers, bankers, and merchants who led the “Third Estate.” And even in Russia, Marx was wrong again: the factory workers had no interest in communism or socialism, instead simply seeking more pay and lower hours.
Zinn goes on to say (p. 47 of 2003 paperback edition) that “class lines hardened through the colonial period; the distinction between rich and poor became sharper.” Then he cites the oft-misused statistic of “the top 5 percent” who controlled most of the property and of those 5% only one percent consisted of 50 rich individuals who had 25% of the wealth. Here is the problem with this analysis: in any population, you have about 1/3 of the population under 18 or so, and (in general) not earning or not part of “the economy.” Certainly they have no wealth. On the other end of the spectrum, elderly people are spending down their wealth and not earning. So the only genuine measurement of “what % of people own what % of wealth” is the wrong question. It should be, “what % of 50-year-old wealth does the top 5% possess?” You would still get a smaller percentage controlling some, perhaps 15 to even 25%, but nothing like is normally portrayed by the modern left (the so-called “one percenters”).
Of course, there is the larger—but more difficult to explain—issue that in any successful, thriving economy you will have some people with a great deal, some with somewhat less, some with less than that, and some with very little. But in a “good” economy, those numbers change fairly regularly. Zinn then cites Boston from 1687 to 1770 noting that 29% owned no property. Except we have a very good study of Philadelphia prior to the Revolution showing that while the standard “x % owned y% of the wealth,” historian Thomas Doerflinger found that there was considerable movement up and down between the classes as some less wealthy people “made it” and as some of the wealthy lost their fortunes. George Gilder’s titanic work, Wealth & Poverty, noted that if one excludes women who are almost always inheritors of great wealth, about one-third of the top wealth holders in the Fortune 400 drop off every ten years. Put another way, in a generation, the Fortune list would turn over entirely.
But then there is the larger issue still: if there is no incentive to wealth, then no one will achieve—or achievement will be minimal and stultified.
Oh, and by the way, the King sent soldiers to bring Bacon under control, arrest him, and try him. But before they got there, Bacon died of natural causes. Many in his “rebellion” were arrested, and some 24 hanged. But to portray Bacon’s Rebellion as an example of “class struggle” is just one more case of horrible history from Zinn.