Readers will surmise from the book’s title (taken from a quote by Walter Lippmann) that its content involves a radical theme. It is centered on several coinciding factions of a progressive political movement. The time is 1914. New York City serves as a microcosm of America as a whole. The most prominent factions are the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, represented by William “Big Bill” Haywood and John Reed; and the Anarchists, represented by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Intertwined, and not without competition, are the liberal, progressive, and socialist factions. These elements converge on the streets of New York, challenging the status quo of class inequality and the oppression of labor. It is a panorama of demonstrations, violence, and reform. Jones succeeds in painting a picture where these forces of change can be viewed from afar as a citywide conflagration, while at the same time highlighting the differences between them. Jones’s sympathies clearly lie with the Anarchist movement. The most radical actors figuring in the book decry the ineffectiveness of mainstream liberals and socialists, and it is not difficult to envision Jones arguing the same points on his own.
Jones is clever in his blending of mainstream political history with the radical alternative. He gives us an overview of domestic social conditions intersecting with international crises. As World War I erupts, tensions mount with Mexico, then in the midst of revolution. Both major political parties have embraced the language of progressive reform. (This is one area where 1914 largely differs from 2012: numerous politicians today have eschewed progressivism for austerity measures.) Both President Woodrow Wilson and New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel have been elected on progressive platforms. The events covered in Dynamite illustrate how radical organizing and street demonstration challenged the grip of these mainstream liberal authorities and of the reactionary forces of such capitalist titans as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Dynamite is not a romantic narrative of World War One-era New York City radicalism in the mold of Allen Churchill’s The Improper Bohemians or the epic 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. Far from romantic, Dynamite is a close examination of an environment that has become sadly familiar. The title of the second chapter -- “The Jobless Man and the Manless Job” -- sums up the feelings of hardship, hopelessness, and despair that are tangible in the present day Great Recession. We encounter starving families and a city unable to cope with the influx of the homeless and unemployed crowding the streets and overflowing the shelters. In the midst of this turmoil an unsung hero emerges; teenager Frank Tannenbaum, an out-of-work dishwasher and devotee of the IWW cause. Young Tennenbaum’s story is one of countless prisoners of politics and principle. He is arrested for leading a throng of homeless citizens into a church for the purpose of claiming shelter. Charged with incitement to riot, he is railroaded through a trial, denounced for leading a “mob,” and sentenced to a year at the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Tennenbaum would later graduate from Columbia University to become a distinguished labor historian. In what can only be described as a clear example of historical whitewash, his 1969 New York Times obituary makes scant reference to his radical early life.
Thai Jones, himself the son of Vietnam-era antiwar radicals, an experience he writes about in A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience (Free Press, 2004), explores an accidental explosion on July 4th 1914 in a Harlem tenement that claimed the lives of three Anarchist bomb-makers, who were allegedly planning the assassination of Rockefeller Jr., the man widely held responsible for the April massacre of striking coal miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado. Jones describes the unfolding of the Ludlow Massacre in vivid detail. The images of state militiamen setting fire to the strikers’ tent colonies with women and children huddled inside are haunting. Students of more recent history may want to compare the 1914 Harlem explosion with the March 6, 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse blast in which three members of the Weather Underground died.
The book’s epilogue shifts forward to 1917 and the entry of the United States into the World War I. The anarchists have correctly predicted that mainstream liberals and socialists would be the first to fall for endorsing the war effort, just as it was the social democratic parties of Europe that led their nations into the war in the first place. The revolutionary atmosphere of the previous three years has been effectively disrupted and broken up by the consequent jingoistic fervor and the police repression in the form of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Mainstream liberalism had failed. Mayor Mitchel was defeated at the polls, and Warren G. Harding, running on a “Return to Normalcy” platform, succeeded Woodrow Wilson as president.
There are many lessons to be taken from this gem of a book. One is that only true revolutionary movements can fill the gap left by the failure of mainstream liberalism to address the needs of a restive populace. Though Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percent movement represent a positive step, the future is darkly uncertain. Thai Jones is a remarkable storyteller. One sees the masses marching through Union Square in 1914 carrying signs emboldened with the words, “Bread or Revolution,” and it remains a sign of the times.