Howard Zinn on the Limits of Nonviolence

While sometimes misrepresented as a pacifist, the beloved Howard Zinn was a genuine militant for much of his life. Zinn’s work as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was crucial in establishing the historian’s radical reputation, and it was in this period that Zinn recognized “The Limits of Nonviolence” – in fact this was the name of an influential essay he published in 1964. In his 1965 book the New Abolitionists, Zinn declared:

"The members of SNCC- and indeed the whole civil rights
movement – have faced in action that dilemma which confounds
man in society: that he cannot always have both peace and justice. To insist on perfect tranquility with an absolute rejection of violence may mean surrendering the right to change an unjust social order."

The fullest expression of this theme is in his 1968 book Disobedience and Democracy, where Zinn expounds that, "the simple distinction between violence and nonviolence does not suffice as a guide...the very acts with which we seek to do good cannot escape the imperfections of the world we are trying to change."

Illustrated with examples from the violent underside of the civil rights movement, this short text is a crucial reminder of how social change actually occured in 20th century America, inspired by the writings of one of its greatest chroniclers.

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