The historian Howard Zinn asks the American left to follow the new president closely.

“Radically sceptical” of government, indeed summarizes Howard Zinn’s view of the United States for more than 50 years. His conception of its history is far from being that of a history of States, political classes or diplomacy. It is, on the contrary, a conception of black slaves, industrialization and young workers in textile factories, of the First World War as seen by socialists and of Second World War as seen by pacifists...

So – one could wonder – is he radically sceptical of the elected president, Barack Obama, this "product of the collective imagination" in which, he says, "everybody saw what he wanted to see" - which worried him , but would not have prevented him from voting for him. There was no risk that Obama could lose in Massachusetts, where Mr Zinn lives. “In fact, I voted for Ralph Nader, but I would have voted for Obama if I had been in Virginia or in Ohio.” The man had the good fortune to be able to contribute to an end of the years of Bush and the republican right without having to betray his principles in the polling booth.

Comrade-in-arms of Noam Chomsky, of the left, with no tolerance of a politician like John McCain, an antimilitarist from the soul, an earlier activist, when he was teaching in Atlanta, of the movement for civil rights, the author of the first book to demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the American troops from Vietnam (Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in 1967), Howard Zinn remains, at 86 years old, a star of the American critical left, who denounces the exiguity of the bipolar democratic-republican political system and who seeks for the United States, O blasphemy, a public health system like the Canadian one. This specialist of the impact of social movements pronounces this evening at a conference in the Université du Québec A Montréal at the invitation of publisher Lux, the Maison Québécoise which, in 2002, translated into French the fascinating work, ‘A Peoples History Of the United States’.*

The extraordinary capacity for mobilization of Barack Obama gave his election campaign the appearance of a popular movement. Will this movement survive the presidential election? “Possible, but improbable.” It will have to though, says Zinn, from Boston, if the American left does not want to be too greatly disappointed by its new president. “People are deluded by illusions. I blame them for having so wanted to erase Bush’s years that they built up for themselves an imaginary Obama. I speak to my friends, to my children and I notice that they imagined a much more progressive Obama than he really is. They wanted him like that. The question is now whether, noticing that he is very much a centrist in fact, they are going to mobilize to pull him towards the left or carry on as usual and dive back into the cynicism that has characterized the American electorate since decades.”

Mr Zinn is not close to blaspheming against the political order established in the United States. If he were president, he would tax the rich and their accumulated wealth much more than Mr Obama promises to do and would use this money massively to fund programs of access to employment and to break the dictatorship of health insurance companies.

On an international scale, this veteran of Second World War would start a revolution of radically demilitarizing American foreign policy and giving it determinedly mediating function. He would immediately remove the American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan: “We do not prevent violence; we provoke and maintain it, as before in Vietnam where the American disengagement not provoke, the blood bath which we had already augured.” He would close the American military bases throughout the world: “It is fundamental; it is necessary to stop being an aggressive, expansionist power.” He would reduce military budgets to their lowest possible levels by facilitating the creation of more “constructive” jobs: “We have elected representative Obama; he has potential. He could be leading and educative. He would know easily how to explain to the people that being a military power does not protect us, but puts us rather in danger by feeding terrorism.”

Howard Zinn is an idealist, but an idealist who does not have too many illusions. At first, he says, Obama played on both boards: ”In the campaign, he declared that it was not only necessary to pull our troops out of Iraq, but also to finish it within the state of mind, the frame of analysis that has formed the basis of American foreign policy. The problem is that, suggesting then to increase troops in Afghanistan, he shows that he did not give up a way of thinking that requires the use of force”.

Then, he surrounded himself with councillors who belong mostly to the old conservative guard - Clintonian advisors of the democratic Party, an old guard, Zinn thinks, that deliberately underestimates the open spirit of the American public opinion. “The Democrats and Republicans do not listen to people.” The Democrats would like to make deep political changes, which they could, in spite of the constraints imposed by the current economic crisis: “The problem is more the weight of Bush's inheritance than the will of the Democrats to break with him, thinks Mr. Zinn. Today, Obama did not show an inclination to make this break.”

Finally, the combination of an economic crisis and the two unpopular wars have not yet, except in the bringing of Barack Obama to power, provoked a collective outcry by Americans. It is not even similar, emphasizes Mr Zinn, to the big depression of the 1930s, when the social situation was much more terrible: a third of the working population was unemployed; the protest movements and general strikes were happening everywhere in the United States... But the lesson for the current situation, says the historian, is interesting: it is under popular pressure that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to power in 1932 without precise projects, tilted to the left, set up the New Deal and left Americans with an inheritance, the Social Security system.

*Translators note: A People's History of the United States is a 1980 nonfiction book by American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. In the book, Zinn seeks to present American history through the eyes of those rarely heard in mainstream histories. A People's History, though originally a dissident work, has become a major success and was a runner-up in 1980 for the National Book Award. It has been adopted for reading in some high schools and colleges across the United States and has been frequently revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2003. In 2003, Zinn was awarded the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique for the French version of this book, Une histoire populaire des Etats-Unis. Over one million copies have been sold.

See further: http://en.wikipedia.orgiki/A_People's_History_of_the_United_States