This is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Howard Zinn. We honor his contribution to the remaking of our understanding of the importance of the common man in the making of history by screening his film “The People Speak.” Zinn celebrated the struggles for justice of common men and women, their protests against injustice, our social movements for change. He understood that these struggles outside the established political institutions are the lifeblood of democracy. Democracy is in the streets, not in the halls of Congress where the powerful operate. It is the counter power of the People that makes our country sometimes democratic.
Howard Zinn saw the history of the U.S. as a people’s history and in that pointed to a very different concept of democracy from the one promoted by the powerful. In their narrative the essence of democracy is found in contested elections and in the deliberations among the representatives chosen thereby. The role of the people is to choose from among a political elite who is to rule them; the role of elections is simply to produce a government. Once this is done, we have discharged our civic responsibility as citizens and we are expected to return to the affairs of our private lives. Political scientists call this representationism by the term polyarchy. It is essentially an elitist theory of democracy, a kind of low intensity democracy at best.
Against this, Zinn advocated a participatory democracy in keeping with the original meaning of the Greek word -- the rule or power, cratos, of the people, demos. Democracy means people’s power. Throughout our history there have been periodic democratic moments when the power of the people has found voice. The labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s come to mind as high points of democracy in our lifetime. Those decades of heightened political participation, social protest and citizen engagement in public affairs were among the democratic moments in our history. Social movements made demands on the ruling elites, demands for economic empowerment, for racial equality, for peace, for social justice, demands that the institutions of government address pressing social problems.
This sensibility is expressed in the readings presented in this film from Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes and others.