Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.1

I’ve started re-reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” with some friends, and as we go through and discuss I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on it and some of the issues that came up in the discussion. I’m particularly trying to read with a Marxist perspective, that is to say, looking for the economic basis for the events and processes described or else for evidence that economic causes are an insufficient explanation. This is Chapter 1, “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress”. Next: chapter 2.

The first thing that really stood out to me about this chapter was not the descriptions of Spanish and English violence towards and exploitation of Native Americans, but that Zinn is using it as a way of laying out his philosophy of history and as such setting the groundwork for the rest of the book. He argues, in short, that a work of history cannot be unbiased, and that neutrality inherently masks a support for the status quo (i.e., for the ruling class). As such, the intention behind this work is explicitly to show another side of history, details that may be overlooked in histories in favour of (or not in opposition to) the status quo. In this sense it fits into the tradition of Marxist histories like E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”, although Zinn was not, as far as I know, a Marxist in either his politics or his historical approach.

In terms of the historical content of the chapter, the parts which I found the most significant were those which hinted at the broader worldwide historical processes. Although only a few paragraphs are spent on the motivations behind Colombus’ voyages, the implications here go well beyond the activities of the early Spanish colonists. Spain had, as of its first contact with the Americas, only very recently ended a long-running series of wars against the Muslim Emirate of Granada. The increasing cost and complexity of wars in this period meant Spain, along with other states, needed to find a new financial basis in order to support them. Along with the attempt to find new sources of income from trade with Asia, this also prompted a shift in forms of land ownership (in part because huge tracts of land were granted to the nobility in return for military and financial support, with an impact on Andalusian agriculture that lasted into the twentieth century). As such, the colonial ventures of this period are a fundamental part of the development of capitalism on an international scale.

One thing that seemed weak in this chapter was an understanding of the reasons and justifications for European brutality towards Native Americans. While, objectively, we may now understand that the conflict was brought about due to the European need for resources, particularly given the expansionist tendencies implicit in the newly-emerging capitalist social relations, this in itself doesn’t help to understand the subjective reasons — the justifications Europeans made to themselves for their behaviour. Zinn does briefly refer to these economic impulses, even specifically to the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation, but there’s little in the way of an explanation of the mindset that justified these impulses. Relevant to the topic, for example, would be an understanding of the ways in which liberal–capitalist property rights developed in the context of colonialism (e.g., Locke), but even this seems to me to be only a partial explanation — was the belief that their ownership of the land was justified sufficient to justify (even to themselves) the violence with which they enforced that ownership?