New Book Looks at Progressives and Anarchists in 1914
Jones manages to paint clear and vivid portraits untainted by judgment. The portraits of the times and events are just as clear and stunning.The book also has its weaknesses. While Jones paints a vivid portrait of the historical figures and their setting, he sadly does little work to sketch anything like an analysis.
by Pamela DiFrancesco
It is not surprising to learn that Thai Jones’ interest in the 1914 explosion of a bomb in an apartment building at 1626 Lexington Ave in New York City came through its similarity to the bomb explosion in 1970 on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. The events were similar, to be sure. Both bombs went off accidentally long before their detonation was intended. Both bombs, at the time of explosion, were in the possession of political radicals who intended to use them for subversive purposes. There is certainly a connection between the two events, but it is Jones’ own history that makes the link even stronger. Until age 4, Jones lived under an assumed name, hiding out with his parents, who were former members of the Weather Underground, the group whose members were in possession of the bomb that detonated in 1970. Jones’ first book, “A Radical Line,” details his family’s history of radicalism. Though at the time of that book’s release in 2004, Jones said that leftist politics were not his main interest, he has since become deeply involved in the study and scholarship of radical political histories. He holds a PhD in US History from Columbia University, and teaches courses on such subjects as anarchism on that campus and others. And there is no denying the link between his family’s history with the Weather Underground and the event that inspired his second book, the accidental explosion of the bomb held by anarchists on Lexington Avenue that was allegedly meant to take the life of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The details of this latter event are chronicled in Jones’ book, “More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy.”
Though he makes clear his sympathies for the anarchists in the book’s forward, Jones seems set on providing a balanced history, in humanizing all the players in this history as much as possible. Though the anarchists in question certainly saw villains in presidents and plutocrats, Jones goes out of his way to show the reader that such distinctions are not his own. “A new mayor…who had surrounded himself with a coterie of nonconformists and social scientists…a sympathetic leader, Woodrow Wilson…these were the officials tasked with anarchy’s containment: not some corrupt political machine that could resort to violence without a qualm, but progressive administrations contained by their own ideals of civil liberties and impartial justice.”
With this balanced eye, Jones introduced the reader to a large cast of characters—John Purroy Mitchel, the 34-year-old “boy mayor” of New York City bent on flushing out the corrupt Tammany Hall and making lasting social change; Woodrow Wilson, the triumphant progressive president responsible for the great banking reforms of the time; Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, firebrand anarchist leaders, both of whom had already been imprisoned for acting on their anti-authoritarian beliefs; John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the heir to the massive Rockefeller fortune and also a failure at business, a man who had suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, and someone bent on casting his family name in a new light through philanthropy. Jones has no less balanced a view when it comes to the lesser characters in this history tale, and goes to even greater pains to make them shine through the pages of the book. We meet Frank Tannenbaum, a poor, young member of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W., or the “Wobblies”), who wanted nothing more than work and an education, and who eventually led an army of the unemployed on marches through New York City demanding what was owed to them; Becky Edelshon, a fiery young anarchist said to be “always two steps ahead of Berkman and Goldman,” and known for wearing bright red tights and spitting in the faces of the rich; Arthur Woods, the man appointed police commissioner under Mayor Mitchel who promoted freedom of speech as a method to diffuse violence – while simultaneously using heavy undercover surveillance of radicals to contain them.
If the historical figures Jones introduce seem larger than life, the backdrop against which they are set is no less moving. 1914 saw the rise of the I.W.W. throughout the US, a violent and bloody revolution in Mexico that the US found it harder and harder to remain aloof from, and the beginning of World War I in Europe. While it could hardly be seen as an idyllic time, the jingoistic fervor that accompanied the US entry into WWI had not yet begun, and the stage (in the case of this book, NYC) was set for radicalism. It was able to thrive and flourish in ways that would be impossible in the coming years.
The book, and the year of 1914, both appear to open brightly. Jones takes us into the carefree celebration of New Years Eve 1913 and the hope that fighting in Europe and the Balkans had calmed, to the hope pinned on the coming of a new, progressive mayor to the New York City political arena, to the modernist hope that all was progressing towards the new and the better. These bright longings are barely touched upon before we are taken to the much darker anarchist point of view – the child labor, unemployment, and the ongoing, and at times violent, strike taking place in the coal fields of Colorado. The strike undertaken by the workers of Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (largely owned by the Rockefellers) becomes one of the focal points of the history this book recounts.
The first cold snap of the year takes the gleam of hope out of everyone’s eyes when the new mayor and his team of starry-eyed reformers are faced with the very real problem of the homeless and jobless freezing to death under their watch. When the solution comes in the forms of paying the jobless to shovel snow, backbreaking work that they are paid almost nothing for, radical tensions rise, and anarchists are soon marching through the streets with increasing animosity. The mayor’s new police commissioner adopts a policy of letting radicals say as they please, even protecting them from angry citizens during their speeches. Then tensions rise at the site of the strike in Ludlow, Colorado. Between 19 and 25 people, including women and children, are massacred. The anarchists blame Rockefeller and his uncompromising position on unions and begin to protest in his direct vicinity. And then one of those anarchists accidentally detonates a bomb that authorities believe was meant for Rockefeller.
And yet, Jones paints no villains. Jones does not hesitate to tell us of Rockefeller’s good deeds as well as his bad ones – the Ludlow Massacre inspired Rockefeller to eventually change his views of labor unions, and many union organizers came to see him as a friend. Jones tells us of Berkman’s commitment to the ideals of anarchism (“Humanity was perfectible. Each could prosper. All were worthy of trust. Self-government was government enough. In a society of equals, there would be no need for any authority other than one’s own conscience”), and then without flinching, tells of Berkman’s attempts on the lives of other human beings. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this book. Jones manages to paint clear and vivid portraits untainted by judgment. The portraits of the times and events are just as clear and stunning.
The book also has its weaknesses. While Jones paints a vivid portrait of the historical figures and their setting, he sadly does little work to sketch anything like an analysis. At the very end, Jones seems to draw a conclusion that progressives and anarchists have similar goals, if different strategies. That notion is sure to be a bit alienating to both radicals and progressives alike, the two groups this book is most likely to interest.
“More Powerful Than Dynamite” provides a solid history of anarchism in its heyday, before the nationalistic fervor of WWI and before the Red Scares that pushed radicalism underground for so long in the U.S. Here we see anarchists on the street corners, anarchists leading hunger strikes from prison, anarchists in news headlines, and anarchists taken quite seriously as a political force. But there is more to be found than just a nostalgic look at the “good old days” of anarchy. By viewing police repression, the tensions between two sides of politics that are both (ostensibly) out for good and progress, and the tactics used for containment and escalation, we see a picture not of what anarchism once was, but one that it oddly still resembles today.
A native of Pennsylvania coal country, Pamela DiFrancesco has lived, written, and worked for social change in the City of New York since she was 18. Among other publications, her fiction has been featured in the Carolina Quarterly, who nominated her for Best American Mystery Writing 2012. She maintains a writing blog at www.thebaffledkingcomposing.wordpress.com.
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