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More Powerful Than Dynamite

Explosive Storytelling Illuminates Our Present Moment

Joseph J. Varga is assistant professor of labor studies at Indiana University, where he teaches courses on labor history and workers in a global economy. His Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space was published by Monthly Review Press in August 2013.

Thai Jones, More Powerful than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (New York: Walker and Company, 2012), 416 pages, $28, hardback.

The setting of Thai Jones’s wonderful book will be all too familiar to those involved in direct action politics: a liberal urban administration, a radical protest movement, disparities of wealth deepened by economic crisis. A series of incidents sets off a new phase of demonstrations, with demands from the city’s elites for a restoration of order. The radical protests become disruptive, challenging the “progressive” administration’s commitment to free speech and the right to protest. Strident radicals, bent on revolution over reform, become objects of fascination for the press, and a political tennis ball for the city’s governing class. As it happened in 1970 and 2011, so it was in 1914, New York City’s “year of anarchy” in Thai Jones’s talented telling. The parallels to the protest waves of the past, particularly the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and the recent Occupy phenomenon, are obvious, and most reviewers of Jones’s fine work have highlighted these connections. Jones himself makes this history relevant to our own times, but perhaps not in the more obvious ways.

The easy way to view this fascinating book is to talk about how Jones brings history to life, and, to repeat another worn out canard, that he demonstrates how history repeats itself. He brings life to the story through good writing, deep research, and novel-like structuring. But reading this narrative of 1914, it is striking how, rather than being brought to life, history seems frozen in time. And in spite of the old maxim, and Marx’s “the second time as farce” axiom, history does not repeat itself, but here seems stuck, unmoving, some version of Walter Benjamin’s dialectical images connecting not a distant past with a present moment, but effacing linear history, bringing past, present, and future into some strange new configuration. Jones brings us images of history so familiar, so much like our own, yet at the same time contingent, historically located, unique, awaiting the moment when some catalyst, some rupture, will illuminate them all into some coherent synthesis of real history, the history that is always the current moment waiting to burst open time itself to reveal something new and redemptive.

In other words, this book is valuable both as a work of history, and for what it tells us about how we understand history.

The method Jones employs is good historical narrative storytelling. His tale is of the year 1914. He follows the events of that year, mainly in New York City, by interweaving three main lines of historical trajectory: the stories of the new progressive mayor John Purroy Mitchell, the plutocratic industrialist turned philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the anarchist Alexander Berkman. The dynamite of the title plays both a material role as the centerpiece around which the different stories turn, and as metaphor, based on the early use of the quote that makes the title of the book, from the haughty and well-portrayed journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann contends that to the true believer such as Berkman, the Cause to which he is dedicated is “more powerful than dynamite.” Jones early on turns this statement into his central thesis, the great question that drives the narrative: “either violent protest would forcibly create a truly democratic society, or the combined restraints of reform, philanthropy, and scientific expertise would prove more powerful than dynamite” (3, emphasis in the original). The actual dynamite explodes in mid-summer, destroying the best-laid plans of the radical anarchists, such as they were. The metaphoric dynamite, the question of whether militant radicals could turn a series of events into a catalyst for revolutionary change, is one that is, as yet, unsettled.

The story of New York City in 1914 begins here with the ascension of the “boy mayor” Mitchell to City Hall. Jones weaves through the setup the basic outline of Progressivism, the dynamic nature of New York City, the problems that often overwhelmed urban administrations, and the struggle between Mitchell’s version of “reform” and the entrenched politics of the urban machine. We are also introduced to class struggle, 1914-style, through deft sketches of Rockefeller, the city’s working poor, and the radicals who loved them, including the more-famous Berkman, and the lesser known Frank Tannenbaum, Alex Caron, and Rebecca Edelson. We meet Berkman as an embittered older radical, released from his prison sentence for the attempted murder of Frick in 1894, still stridently militant, sneering, uncompromising, a historical ancestor of some of the angry, black-clad anarchists of our current moment. It is the tensions within the radical movement and within the hierarchy of urban administration that most lend themselves to the frozen feeling, of history in neutral. For liberal administrative types and strident political radicals, there are good lessons and parallels to be drawn here.

The personality sketches are well drawn, and they duly illustrate the nature of the class struggle that was waged daily in America’s true capitol of capital. Jones weaves in several parallel narratives, of the city’s New Years traditions, of the struggles with overcrowding and poverty, of the shift in policing to professional methods, and reform itself. He takes us out of the city, to Tarrytown, home of the Rockefeller estate, and to Ludlow, Colorado, home of one the worst capitalist massacres in U.S. labor history. Most of the side trips work well, and are brought back into the main trajectory, but some, like the brief foray into film and popular culture, seem to meander. Far too much time and attention are paid to details such as Mitchell’s experience as a war pilot and Rockefeller’s attempts to rehabilitate his own image, but these are minor issues.

There are some obvious points of interest for historians of American, urban, and Progressive Era history, and also some illuminations that are less obvious, and perhaps beyond the author’s intent. Jones demonstrates the tensions and contradictions in the relationship between Progressives like Mitchell and the city’s political radicals, between Fifth Avenue and Tenth Avenue in the struggle over reform between the upper middle class and the working poor. He also skillfully weaves in the attempts to police and control a city whose essential conditions were rupture, movement, and radical change. The question of “can the center hold” is never far off in Jones’s telling, and he brings an even-handed approach to the query in spite of his family background in the radical left.

But the real strength of Jones’s work is in illustrating several important processes and in demonstrating that while history may seem to repeat itself, events are ultimately contingent. In the former case, we see the shift in the Mitchell Administration to a bio-political form of governance, a change from the moral, use-the-nightstick form of crowd control to forms of order maintenance based on encouraging certain behaviors like public protest—but controlling their time, place, and manner. Jones also points to new methods of civil discourse, such as Rockefeller’s extensive use of professional public relations in dealing with negative perceptions of his business empire. The shift to professionalism in civil service, public relations, and city administration is the center that holds: the radicals’ call for revolution does not founder, as Sombart would have it, on shoals of roast beef, but on the bio-political management of discontent and disorder.

In the latter case, Jones’s chapter, “The War Has Spoiled Everything” is an excellent example of the contingency of history, especially as it concerns social movements and public discontent. Far from repeating itself, history is based in these contingencies, and the example of how the outbreak of war in Europe affects the ability of radicals to organize in New York is a classic illustration of the process. Anyone who has worked hard to organize social movement mobilization, only to see the movement either founder or explode based on incidents outside of collective control, will recognize the importance of this point. Jones makes it well.

More Powerful Than Dynamite should be read by historians of New York City, of political movements, of the Progressive Era, and urban history in general. Serious students of history can gain much from the research, and instructors of Progressive Era history would do well to include it in any sections on radical politics in the period. It is also important as historical form and methodology, as an example of how to weave fine storytelling with good scholarship and attentive research. Readers who enjoy “history brought to life” in the classic sense of the phrase, will revel in the plot twists, the attention to detail, and the interwoven structure of the narrative flow. Whether from the point of view of a reader of history, an academic concerned with political movements and working-class life, or just as a fan of good writing, this book cannot be recommended more emphatically.

For all its charms and positives, it also demonstrates the impossibility of writing comprehensive history. The history here is compelling and well told, and the reader cannot help but come away from Jones’s work feeling they have better knowledge of how the complex interactions of personalities structure historical change. The big ideas being debated, the big personalities whose actions had such wide-ranging effects, and the profound human dramas played out on the pages are all deeply moving. But there remained a disturbing feeling of “is that all there is?” No historian can ever capture the whole picture, the elusive total history, and Jones is not making that claim or effort. But as with most histories that follow this style, the intermeshing of different, contradictory narratives leaves the feeling that, as readers and as students of history, we miss a great deal when our focus is on the personalities, whether famous or “from below.” What is missing here is dirt; the architecture; the infrastructure, of both the city and of capital. The human players work out their issues on the physical built environment as if it is a backdrop or canvas, rather than itself an actor in the drama. The actors’ tales are well told, but for each story, there are thousands untold, and processes unaccounted for, as the archive of human reportage, the backbone of historical writing, misses much. This is not a critique of Thai Jones, as much as it is a critique of the field of professional historical inquiry. Jones has told a brilliant tale of the personalities shaping this period. It is a must read. The tale of how those personalities are in turn shaped by their spatial environment is one that is yet to be told.

2013, Volume 65, Issue 06 (November)
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