A Conversation with Michael Kazin

Mariam Aiyad

Photo: Phil Humnicky/Georgetown University

Michael Kazin is a historian of US History, writer, and professor in the History Department at Georgetown University. Journalism has always been a key factor in Michael Kazin’s life. Throughout middle school, high school, and college, Kazin wrote and edited for his school newspaper. Later in his early career, he wrote for Leftist underground newspapers. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Kazin’s reason for pursuing history was political, “I wanted to change the world, and I felt understanding the history of my country was a good way of understanding why.” His work has been inspired by the current political trends in the United States.

Who was your audience, and how did that change over time?

I’ve always done some journalism, when I was in high school I would have a column for the little daily newspaper about what was happening, and I edited one of the newspapers at my middle school. “The Middle School News,” or something like that. When I was in college, I was in the New Left and I wrote for “underground,” or alternative newspapers… I wanted to change the world, and I felt understanding the history of my country was a good way of understanding why. So in that sense, I’ve never not tried to have a larger public audience. I think writing history is hard, all writing is hard, writing books is hard. It takes a long time, it’s an investment of time and money…your reputation among other historians depends on it, and so what’s the point of doing it if other people aren’t going to read it? 

I want people to know what I’ve written. Nobody wants to write a song nobody listens to. It’s fine, you know, to do things for yourself, but to me writing is always an interactive thing.

Is there a difference in your approach to public versus academic writing?

When you write for academic publications, you can assume more knowledge about the subject. You don’t have to explain what the New Deal was, for example, or who was on what side of World War I.

In your last book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, how did you approach that writing process?

My last book is on the anti-war movement during World War I in this country, and, for most Americans, World War I is the forgotten war. People jump from the Civil War to World War II. So in that book, I have to explain some things, where if I were writing academic articles about it, I wouldn’t have to explain as many details.

Is there a specific tone to your public writing?

Whenever I write, I try not to use specialized language. I try to use language that anybody who was interested in the subject can read anything I’ve written. Some of my books have been assigned in some high schools, for example, and that makes me happy because I want to instruct people and be part of a dialogue with other people.

Have you seen the impact of your work on the field and/or the public?

I’m not fooling myself, I mean, my books aren’t bestsellers and probably more historians have read my books than any other group of the population. But if I’ve had any impact on historians, I think it’s partly because I do take on, or try to take on, bigger questions that are of interest to many people who are not historians as well.

Has being outwardly on the Left had an impact on your credibility?

Well, certainly when I criticize any aspect of the Left, it enhances my credibility. For example, several years ago, I wrote a critical piece on Howard Zinn, who is a prominent left-wing intellectual. I am a Leftist, but I’m not a polemicist. I believe in telling the truth as I see it, and not putting my finger on the scales. I believe empathy is a key tool for historians, and I try to understand and read different points of view.

I think it’s impossible for anybody to be deeply involved for many years in writing about American history to not have a point of view, politically. I could write about the history of, I don’t know, postage stamps, and maybe I wouldn’t have a point of view, but when you read about American politics and social movements, that is an intrinsically political subject—there’s no way in the kind of choices you make with what to write, how to write about it—it’s all to some, not entirely by any means, but to some degree, shaped by your politics. It’s inevitable.

There seems to be a delicate line between academia and the pursuit of activism—is it inherent to a historian’s “objectivity” to have to stay out of that realm?

I don’t think you can be objective, I think that objectivity is impossible. There’s a good book called “That Noble Dream” by Peter Novick, and it’s a history of objectivity and what he thinks is the myth of objectivity in American historical writing. I think reading different kinds of sources and evaluating them, reading historians who use different points of view, that’s essential. We need arguments, and I think what’s most crucial when doing activist history, or being an activist. When you’re doing history, or any kind of scholarship, you have to be fair to different points of view, even making clear you don’t agree with them, but you have to be fair in representing them accurately.

Michael Kazin is historian of US History, writer, and professor in the History Department at Georgetown University. Kazin’s main research interests are American social movements and politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. He has authored books on labor history including Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era; populism The Populist Persuasion: An American History, and a biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Kazin also co-authors with Maurice Isserman, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He has also written  American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation and War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. In his newest project, What It Took to Win, Kazin writes a history of the Democratic Party, and analyzes the party’s long-running commitment to creating “moral capitalism”—a system that mixed entrepreneurial freedom with the welfare of workers and consumers.

Image: Public Domain Pictures

Mariam Aiyad is an M.A. student at Georgetown studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include twentieth century resistance, culture, and empire.

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