Magazine article Monthly Review

More Powerful Than Dynamite: Explosive Storytelling Illuminates Our Present Moment

Magazine article Monthly Review

More Powerful Than Dynamite: Explosive Storytelling Illuminates Our Present Moment

Article excerpt

More Powerful Than Dynamite: Explosive Storytelling Illuminates Our Present Moment Thai Jones, More Powerful than Dynamite: Radicab, 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 wellportrayed 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. …

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