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Howard Zinn Quotes to Bring Out Your Inner Democratic Socialist

These Howard Zinn quotes highlight his views and beliefs about life, death, American society, and more.

Howard Zinn was a prolific author of over twenty books. He wrote primarily about American history, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, and labor practices.

Zinn was born in Brooklyn, but his parents were both immigrants. They both worked in factories and weren’t highly educated people. One of the first things he read was a collection of works by Charles Dickens.

Zinn’s political and social beliefs stemmed from an incident that occured when he was a young man. He attended a rally with some other young communists from his neighborhood. Even though it was a peaceful rally, mounted police knocked him unconscious.

Howard Zinn had no problem sharing his views and beliefs as evidenced by these quotes.

Howard Zinn quotes about war, tyranny, and death

1. “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” ― Howard Zinn

2. “How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?” ― Howard Zinn

3. “They have the guns; we have the poets. Therefore, we will win.” ― Howard Zinn

4. “In war, good guys always become bad guys.” ― Howard Zinn

5. “When you fight a war against a tyrant who do you kill? You kill the victims of the tyrant.” ― Howard Zinn

6. “Tyranny is tyranny, let it come from whom it may.” ― Howard Zinn

7. “We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.” ― Howard Zinn

8. “The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.” ― Howard Zinn

9. “Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations—consciously or not—that war makes them more secure against internal trouble.” ― Howard Zinn

10. “It was an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control.” ― Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn quotes about the rich and poor, and crime and justice

11. “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.” ― Howard Zinn

12. “You call this progress because you have motor cars and telephones and flying machines and a thousand potions to make you smell better? And people sleeping on the streets?” ― Howard Zinn

13. “It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed—which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.” ― Howard Zinn

14. “It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were, they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.” ― Howard Zinn
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15. “Very important thing to keep in mind, that when justice comes and when injustices are remedied, they’re not remedied by the initiative of the national government or the politicians. They only respond to the power of social movements.” ― Howard Zinn

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16. “I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture.” ― Howard Zinn

17. “It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.” ― Howard Zinn

18. “The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” ― Howard Zinn

19. “I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed.” ― Howard Zinn

20. “A jury is always a more orthodox body than any defendant brought before it; for blacks, it is usually a whiter group, for poor people, a more prosperous group.” ― Howard Zinn

21. “Capital punishment could not be justified in any society calling itself civilized.” ― Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn quotes about America and our society

22. “I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers, and preachers.” ― Howard Zinn

23. “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders… and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” ― Howard Zinn

24. “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” ― Howard Zinn

25. “I wonder how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own.” ― Howard Zinn

26. “They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence; they were absent in the Constitution and they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America.” ― Howard Zinn

27. “If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.” ― Howard Zinn

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28. “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” ― Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn quotes about history

29. “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.” ― Howard Zinn

30. “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” ― Howard Zinn

31. “History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” ― Howard Zinn

32. “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.” ― Howard Zinn

33. “The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” ― Howard Zinn

34. “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak because history is written from records left by the privileged.” ― Howard Zinn

35. “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress.” ― Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn quotes to keep you inspired

36. “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” ― Howard Zinn

37. “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” ― Howard Zinn

38. “The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth. Truth has a power of its own.” ― Howard Zinn

39. “Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.” ― Howard Zinn

40. “Any humane and reasonable person must conclude that if the ends, however desirable, are uncertain and the means are horrible and certain, these means must not be employed.” ― Howard Zinn

41. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” ― Howard Zinn

42. “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an endless succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” ― Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn quotes about resistance and oppression

43. “A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress.” ― Howard Zinn

44. “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.” ― Howard Zinn

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45. “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” ― Howard Zinn

46. “Slavery existed in the African states, and it was sometimes used by Europeans to justify their own slave trade. But, as Davidson points out, the “slaves” of Africa were more like the serfs of Europe—in other words, like most of the population of Europe.” ― Howard Zinn

47. “So long as atrocities remain remote, abstract, they will be tolerated, even by decent people.” ― Howard Zinn

48. “The media, like the politicians, do not take note of rebellion until it is too large to be ignored.” ― Howard Zinn

49. “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” ― Howard Zinn

50. “American slavery is the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.” ― Howard Zinn

51. “But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power.” – Howard Zinn

More Howard Zinn quotes and sayings

52. “Education can, and should be, dangerous.” – Howard Zinn

53. “The violence of our time is caused by obedience.” – Howard Zinn

54. “Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.” – Howard Zinn

55. “If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.” – Howard Zinn

56. “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” – Howard Zinn

57. “The problem in this world is not civil disobedience…the problem in this world is civil obedience.” – Howard Zinn

58. “When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.” – Howard Zinn

59. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” – Howard Zinn

60. “People should go where they are not supposed to go, say what they are not supposed to say, and stay when they are told to leave.” – Howard Zinn

What did you learn from these Howard Zinn quotes?

Zinn fought in World War II, but after his experience, he developed his strong anti-war policies.  He questioned the justifications made by the government and military for dropping bombs on other communities. He would make good use of the GI Bill and eventually earn a Ph.D. in History and Political Science. 

When asked about his political stance, Zinn described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.” The FBI had files on him and believed him to be a high-security risk.

Zinn won many awards before his death, but because of the controversy surrounding him, he had many critics. I wonder what he would have to say now about the Democratic Socialist movement?

What’s your biggest takeaway from these Howard Zinn quotes and sayings? Do you have any other insightful quotes to add? Leave your thoughts in the comment below.

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor
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