By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications, July 16, 1999 and in The Progressive, September 1999,  as “Words in Encouragement”

The order came from above (I will not reveal the name, unless tortured): “Write something inspirational.” The exact words were: “Inspire, please.” The courteous approach concealed a certain desperation. For those not in the know, let me explain that we who write for the progressive-radical movement have our specialties. Some specialize in writing depressing stuff. Others write humorous pieces. Some concentrate on trashing other Left writers. It seems that there was an opening this month for someone to inspire, and I was chosen.

Not an easy job, when the United States government (I was about to say “we”, in Dan Rather style, but decided that my interests and those of the White House do not coincide) has just finished dropping thousands of cluster bombs on Yugoslavia, the victims being whoever happened to be in the vicinity, whether Albanians or Serbs, men or women, adults or children, who are now dead, or without limbs. And yet my editor says: “Inspire, please.”

Okay, let me have a go at it. I’ve just returned from London, where I was invited to speak to a gathering of socialists (I won’t get more specific than that) who assemble every year, I learned, around the topic of “Marxism.” I confess that what enticed me was that they promised to do a one-evening performance of my play “Marx in Soho,” a one-person play in which Marx appears in the present, saying, with a laugh (yes, Marx really said this to someone who annoyed him: “I’m not a Marxist!”)

Well (to get away from promoting my play, though it’s hard), I expected to find assembled in London a few hundred aging, solemn Leftists who, against the general insistence, across the political spectrum, that “Marxism is dead,” insist on the importance of the old “Moor” and the validity of the socialist ideal.

I had the numbers wrong. Not hundreds, but six thousand were there, mostly from the United Kingdom, many from other European countries, and some from the United States. I also had the ages wrong. They were almost all young people, from early twenties to early thirties. And I had the temperament wrong. They were lively, exuberant, fun-loving people.

Maybe you won’t agree, but I found this inspiring. Or, to use less extravagant language – encouraging. Six thousand people, assembled in one place, who believe in socialism, and who were denouncing the actions of the U.S. and Britain in Yugoslavia? At a time when the British Labor Party, once committed to socialism, is Blairing forth its belief in the wonders of the market and the miracle of bombing? Yes, that’s encouraging.

Now comes the difficult part. The gathering was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party. Yes, as some on the Left would say, caustically, “the Trots.” And about half of the 6000 people seemed to be trying to sell the Party newspaper, the Socialist Worker, to the other half. I have always been careless about security matters, and have never checked the credentials, or run their literature through a scanner, of people or organizations who invited me to speak to them. I suppose I have been so hungry for listeners that, unlike Groucho Marx, I will talk to any group that will have me.

I recall a moment during the Vietnam War when a self-appointed political commissar of the anti-war movement phoned me: “Howard, I see you endorsed the anti-war rally called by the SWP [yes, that same inescapable bunch]. You really should have run that by me.” Well, I was always repelled by this scrutinizing of people who, whatever they were doing at other times, seemed to be devoting themselves at the moment to a worthy cause. As sectarians often say, let’s not be sectarian.

The London conference began with a spirited rally at the Friends Meeting House (those Quakers don’t scrutinize either, the softies!) at which Tariq Ali, the veteran English radical, subjected the New Labor honchos now ruling Britain to an eloquent and scathing critique. And the next days were filled with dozens and dozens of gatherings, with these young, eager people rushing from one to another, whether the subjects were topical (East Timor, global warming, Kosovo, blues and rock, the arms trade) or theoretical (“the birth of historical materialism” – “is there progress in history”), or esoteric political economy (“the labor theory of value” – “the declining rate of profit”).

It was encouraging to find people there who foreshadow a coming multiracial generation of radicals. Like the young woman, born in Vietnam, transported to the United States at the age of two by her parents. Her father had been in the Saigon army and a supporter of the United States, but over the years his daughter, now an enthusiastic socialist, had led him to rethink his views.

The evenings were filled with music, disco , plays. And movies: Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (Vietnam at its rawest), “Gallipoli” (one of the most powerful of anti-war films), “When We Were Kings” (Mohammed Ali). It was not a gathering of scholars but of activists. And so the air was filled with leaflets advertising this or that rally, demonstration, action.

There was no coverage in the mainstream English press: not in the Times, the Guardian, the Independent. Which should instruct us all not to judge the degree of dissidence in the society by what we see in the media. Imagine how many gatherings and actions are taking place all the time that we don’t know about because they are not covered by radio, television, or newspapers.

But when you look closely, when you listen to alternative radio broadcasting, read outside-the-mainstream periodicals (The Progressive, Z Magazine, The Nation, In These Times), check the stories in The Nuclear Resister, or the newsletters put out by Jonah House in Baltimore, keep your eyes open for unorthodox sources of information, secretly check the internet – you realize how many people in this country and all over the world do not accept the political and economic system that now dominates.

I don’t know about you, but I am encouraged.

Published in ZCommunications, July 16, 1999 and in The Progressive, September 1999,  as “Words in Encouragement.”


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