What Makes “A People’s History”?

Hannah Zeavin examines the critical possibilities of the “people’s history.”

What Makes “A People’s History”?

A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. Harvard University Press. 336 pages.A People’s History of Detroit by Mark Jay and Philip Conklin. Duke University Press Books. 320 pages.A People’s History of Psychoanalysis by Daniel José Gaztambide. Lexington Books. 270 pages.

IN 1980, HOWARD ZINN published his best-selling A People’s History of the United States. No one, save perhaps Zinn himself, could have predicted its groundbreaking reception: it sold more than two million copies and has been sent up and spun off in nearly every conceivable direction (in television shows and movies; in its afterlives as a book for children and a graphic novel), establishing a new genre of history by making leftist revisions in historiography available and palatable to a wide audience. A People’s History was actually for, as well as of, the people.

Zinn’s book is often its readers’ first encounter with a history that centers workers and radicals over presidents and pundits. For the uninitiated, Zinn works “from below” (following E. P. Thompson’s definitional essay in 1966) across the whole of colonial US history through the Clinton presidency (the book was updated until Zinn’s death in 2010). When Zinn’s account is derided, it’s usually because politics are seen as the antithesis of truth — and Zinn’s politics are everywhere in his writing. Of course, Zinn agreed with the accusation that his work was political; that was the point of his project. He lobbed the critique back at his right-wing critics who claimed good histories were apolitical, writing, “One can lie outright about the past.” Other critics move to discredit Zinn on the grounds of illegitimacy — that a history can only be written by a historian, not a “mere” political scientist (though Zinn’s doctorate was, in fact, in history).

Zinn’s aim was to revise the cherished narrative of the United States as a force for global good. In his own words:

The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most 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.

Zinn wanted everyone to be a thinking person, not just those undertaking historiographical study on college campuses, and he wanted them to take a stand.

Zinn’s project was, obviously, deeply successful, popularizing history from below, or “advocacy history” as his editor termed it, far beyond the university, so much so that the very title of his book has given rise to its own genre. Forty years after the release of Zinn’s first edition, some of his readers have considered their own subjects through his lens. A people’s history has become more than just a method “from below.” Emulating Zinn, the genre implies a mainstream readership, a survey, and an introduction to a history misknown. If Zinn urges his reader not to be on the side of the executioners, three new people’s histories — on Detroit, psychoanalysis, and computing — invite the reader to abandon easy, common, and dangerous associations with their titular concerns.

Mark Jay and Philip Conklin’s A People’s History of Detroit makes people synonymous with system. The authors highlight their work’s indebtedness to Zinn, and they build upon his method by bringing to the fore not only narratives of struggle and oppression, but also a materialist account that places that history within systemic conditions. As Jay and Conklin write, “this means confronting the logic of capital,” which they see as absent from the overt methods of Zinn’s classic. Detroit seeks to untell a tale of two cities — a then (good) and a now (bad, but revitalizing) — instead linking the Golden Age of industrialization of the 1950s with the disaster capitalism and speculation of Detroit’s last few decades, rendering them continuous.

Jay and Conklin are, in their own way, writing a history of the United States using Detroit as a case study, a metonym for the wider nation that retains its local particularity. The authors (and those they cite) refer frequently to Detroit as a microcosm of the 20th- or 21st-century United States when attending, for example, to the murder of Michael Brown as a direct consequence of gentrification patterns in the Midwest (and one would imagine the authors would also point to Breonna Taylor’s recent murder and its relationship to gentrification in Louisville, Kentucky), or when considering mass incarceration, unionization, and radical organizing.

This scaling up from a particular urban history to the level of the nation is, again, conducted via attention to capitalist social relations endemic to the 20th century and the “creative destruction” of the city. The authors assert that the case study functions in two ways: “not only does Marx help us to understand Detroit but that Detroit helps us to understand Marx.” And perhaps a third way the authors point to but don’t claim: how Marxist thought is lived, as the book also traces the impacts of Marxist thinking on Detroit’s history. In this way, the authors’ perspective is perhaps closer to Thompson, who wrote of class history as necessarily being “something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.”

Once inside Detroit’s particulars, Jay and Conklin work backward before working forward. The authors first offer a people’s history of Detroit’s present, subverting chronology to read the resurgence narrative of Detroit against the grain and reveal the erasure of Black Detroit via the myth of Detroit’s “Golden Age” in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. This allows them, and therefore us, to understand the systemic problems facing contemporary Detroit first, and then uncover their prehistory second, instead of the other way around.

Jay and Conklin’s third chapter on the Great Rebellion of 1967 and their fourth on the repression of the Black Power movement are perhaps of greatest relevance this summer. Even in offering fine-grained details of rebellion and uprising, the authors are explicit in their aim to analyze macro-level causes, taking a decidedly structural approach in order to “allow the reader to make sense of the dramatic shifts underway in contemporary Detroit.” Their book offers a people’s history as an evaluation of relations under capital — a history from below that gives onto a macro prospect — by examining every possible category of economic failure and success (which are frequently one and the same) facing the people of contemporary Detroit: the water shut-offs, foreclosures, extremely rapid gentrification, and the blight of charter schools.

If A People’s History of Detroit is a dialectical study of a single city, Daniel José Gaztambide’s A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology moves psychoanalysis away from its monolithic Freudian origins toward multiplicity, away from central narratives and theories of the ego toward the discipline’s entanglements with Marxism, antiracism, and social justice practice. (Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield and the publisher of Gaztambide’s A People's History of Psychoanalysis, is set to publish a new book series, “Problems of Anti-Colonialism,” co-edited by Bruce Gilley. A recent petition has received more than 500 signatures, demanding that Rowman & Littlefield terminate the contract for the reactionary series.) Gaztambide doesn’t do away with the “Great White Man” theory of psychoanalysis completely. Without giving Freud a pass, and partially by interrogating his failures and self-opacities, Gaztambide works to uncover the origins of the understanding that psychoanalysis is exclusively a white practice, a prescriber of colonial ideology, and concerned solely with the individual rather than the collective. Quoting a softer, more psychological moment in Zinn, Gaztambide argues that “the lines are not always clear” between the oppressor and the oppressed and, continuing with Zinn, that part of the work of a people’s history is to avoid replacing stale master-narratives with new ones formed in the wake of an old story’s destruction.

Gaztambide opens his book by reading Freud’s works on society in order to present Freud’s theories and clinical practice regarding antisemitism, racism, and classism. While other authors have attended to aspects of this history, from Edward Said to Elizabeth Danto, Gaztambide assiduously situates these works within Freud’s own cultural background and extensive cultural writings. Gaztambide, repurposing Juliet Mitchell’s classic formulation, claims that Freud’s works provide a description of his society, not a prescription for it. As a descriptor, then, Gaztambide teases out Freud’s “mentalization” of race, otherness, Jewishness, and Blackness, alongside the more well-known critiques of Freud’s writing on so-called “primitive” states.

The first chapters have two aims: to restore the political history of psychoanalysis, firmly grounding it in European colonial, racial, and capitalist discourses and histories (while extensively quoting from Zinn) and to demonstrate thereby that Freud elaborated a psychoanalysis at once a product of Jewishness and the experiences of antisemitism as well as firmly on the center left. Gaztambide conveys the heartbreaking history of World War II that spread psychoanalysis around the world but also foreclosed its more radical inquiries into the social and its relationship with Marx. The rest of the book provides an iodine trace of the revolutionary possibilities of psychoanalysis, from radical Black thought, to the politics of emancipation, to psychoanalysis within Harlem’s LaFargue Clinic (founded by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and psychiatrist Fredric Wertham), to Frantz Fanon’s famous psychosocial approach to decolonization. As the subtitle claims, these chapters are in service of the book’s ultimate aim, which is to detect the traces of radical psychoanalysis in Ignacio Martín-Baró’s liberation psychology via the work of Afro-Brazilian psychiatrist Juliano Moreira, educator Arthur Ramos, and other practitioners in South America, where psychoanalysis has a long history (the first place the practice took hold outside of Vienna was Brazil). The book’s conclusion demands that its reader not merely take in this history as a past to celebrate and critique, but use it in working toward restoring social justice aims to clinical practice. A People’s History of Psychoanalysis offers a lineage and tradition of mental health praxis that will be especially rewarding to those participating in contemporary conversations about the radical potential of psychoanalysis alongside its whiteness and conservative tendencies across the last 70 years.

Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in The United States addresses two potted histories in computing. The first: That computing was invented in the garages and startups of Silicon Valley and the hallowed halls of Stanford and MIT. The second: That personal and social computing began in the late ’70s and early ’90s, respectively.

These narratives of computing’s origins valorize the few and erase the many, making them ripe for exactly the kind of historical untelling that Zinn invites. While Rankin acknowledges that many other historians have complicated these tales, arguing for the primacy of “government funding and university research in producing American computing,” they still comprise the mainstream understanding of computing’s development in the United States. Rankin’s people’s history decenters the “Silicon Valley ideal,” which “venerates grand men with grand ideas,” by documenting the work of students and educators who built our contemporary computing landscape while enjoying no such acclaim.

Silicon Valley likes to start the personal computing clock either with Xerox PARC or the Homebrew Computer Club and its Apple spin-off (or, if looking outside the Valley, that improbable Albuquerque-based company MITS and its Altair 8800 computer). Rankin counters this timeline by investigating networked computing at several local sites in the 1960s and early 1970s: Dartmouth and its related Kiewit network that allowed for timesharing across the country, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), and the University of Illinois’s work with PLATO. Rankin connects the history she elaborates to the history of the Valley, via BASIC, the programming language developed by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz for timesharing at Dartmouth, and the westward spread of that code by Bob Albrecht, from Minnesota to the Bay Area, where Silicon Valley companies began manufacturing minicomputers explicitly to run the program. Silicon Valley culture asserted that a personal computer was better than shared networked computers, but Rankin writes, “For the students and educators, sharing was a feature, not a bug,” and she compellingly recasts people’s computing as one of networked belonging, intimacy, and coterie. In doing so, Rankin restores a crucial forgotten 10-year period between mainframe and personal computing, chronicling a history of networked belonging and user culture well before Jobs and the Woz rolled out Apple I.

Whereas the Silicon Valley model of history glorifies a sales and popularity contest — which machine went mainstream when — Rankin’s book is interested in how students and their teachers worked at the margins to elaborate varying notions of computer citizenship. Rankin doesn’t quite replace the evils of Silicon Valley (the executioners) with the victims, to borrow Zinn’s formulation; she deepens the account of computing in all its problems. Despite their collective example, Dartmouth’s students and teachers don’t come off as heroes. Rankin is careful to document the racism of programs like RACECHECK (the program “determines the probable racial group to which the user belongs” but ended up “reinforcing racial stereotypes and bolstering racism”) and the male-dominated, macho computing culture. In another section, Rankin details the harassment PLATO’s women users faced (perhaps including assault in their bathroom, though that remains unclear) — for which Rankin endured harassment in turn just a few years ago.

This is not, however, merely another computer history that tells the story of men trying not to be evil and failing — Rankin tracks these non-corporate initiatives because they were interested in spreading computing to the many, and frequently for free, via schools (with governmental support). The decade Rankin restores shows computer citizens pre-computer consumption, which Rankin terms personal computing before personal computers. Rankin situates this sharing within the broader concept of computer citizenship, which “hinges on membership in a computing community […] mirroring the ways in which the advocates of time-sharing networks envisioned computing access as broad and inclusive.” Rankin leans hard here on an extra-economic relationship to computing — preferring the word “citizen” (which she says is not intended in the political sense) to “user,” which she argues is synonymous with consumer.

Rankin closes her book by focusing on the first word in her title: A. She writes, “I have written this book not to be exhaustive” and invites — hopes — that other people’s histories of computing will follow. The multiplicity that a people’s history invites is precisely what makes the genre so generative and inviting — including to non-historians; of the four authors considered here, Rankin is the only one with a doctorate in the discipline (Gaztambide has a PsyD, and Jay and Conklin are graduate students in sociology and the History of Consciousness, respectively). On the 40th anniversary of Zinn’s classic, these three new entries into his genre show that history itself can become a textual monument, one that, via a careful rereading, can and should be reimagined from below.


Hannah Zeavin is a Lecturer in the Departments of English and History at UC Berkeley. Her first book, The Distance Cure: A History of Tele-Therapy, is forthcoming from MIT Press next year.

LARB Contributor

Hannah Zeavin is the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, 2021). She is a Lecturer in the departments of History and English at UC Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Center for New Media’s Executive Committee, where her research focuses on intimate histories of technology, media, and communication. Zeavin is at work on her second book, Mother’s Little Helpers: Technology in the American Family (forthcoming from MIT Press).


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