sacco and vanzetti

Originally published in New Ground 143, July — August, 2012.

More Powerful Than Dynamite by Thai Jones, Walker & Co, 2012, $28.00
In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti by Susan Tejada, Northeastern University Press, 2012, $27.95

Thai Jones’ first book, Radical Line, was an excellent and honest memoir of three generations of radical activism in his family, beginning with his Communist grandparents, his Weathermen parents and himself. This second book firmly establishes Jones as a historian in the “history as narrative” or story-telling camp. Its structure reminds me very much of John Brunner’s novel, Stand on Zanzibar, which of course was an homage to Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Jones doesn’t attempt a self-conscious metaphor of video or movie, fortunately, but the structure does provide a convenient space for context, something that is often missing from narrative histories. Context makes the past far less of a foreign country.

The book began when Jones discovered that three young radicals had blown themselves up in an East Harlem apartment in 1914 with a bomb intended for John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The parallels with the three Weathermen who had similarly blown up their Greenwich Village bomb factory are obvious and eerie, but almost no one remembers the 1914 incident. The 1914 building still stands. It was technological progress of a sort, I suppose, that the Greenwich Village townhouse was solid gone.

1914 turns out to be an extraordinarily interesting year, especially in New York where revolutionary anarchism confronted a progressive (in the Republican, technocratic sense) city administration at a time of economic distress and dislocation. The Ludlow Massacre in connection with the Colorado Fuel & Iron strike that year reverberated across the country, including New York. While Marx’s irritated comments about history not exactly repeating itself apply, there are many useful observations to be had from Jones’ narrative: In particular, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel’s almost accidental discovery that the cure for street riots and rebellion is, often enough, freedom to peaceably assemble and speak. Sound familiar?

The lesson was slow to spread. In 1920, two Italian immigrant anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested for a payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The robbery had resulted in the murder of two of the guards. Sacco and Vanzetti were given a sensational and unfair (even by the standards of the day) trial. They were finally executed in 1927 after a long legal and propaganda battle that was the cause of the day for anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals, and civil libertarians.

If Thai Jones wrote about an utterly obscure topic, Susan Tejada’s In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti covers a topic that has been continually written about and argued over for the nearly 100 years since it happened. Does she add anything new? It’s gotten to the point where one almost needs to be a scholar of the literature to have a qualified opinion. I’m not a scholar of any kind, but I think she has, both concerning the trial and the crime and especially concerning the biographies of Sacco and Vanzetti.

And that is the point of Tejada’s book: Who were Sacco and Vanzetti? The result is a cross between a meticulous biography, history and a true-crime page-turner. Better still, Tejada also includes a survey of historians’ conclusions about the crime — whodunnit and all — and she adds her own. She’s honest about the violence in politics at the time, both from the Establishment and from the left, and she provides some of the context needed to understand it. Tejada does not much cover the covert, self-serving manipulation of the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti by various parts of the left. This is a reasonable omission but those new to this history should know that she doesn’t cover everything.

Both More Powerful Than Dynamite and In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti tell the stories of the principal characters beyond the scope of each book. This is both a bit voyeuristic and extremely interesting. And there is context that both books miss. When Mayor Mitchel found that letting radicals have their rallies with minimal police interference was a great pacifier, Mitchel’s policy did not go unchallenged. Until the mid-1920s, state and local government had the same rights to regulate speech on government property as did private property owners. This meant that a public official allowing unpopular speech (speech that could have otherwise been banned) could be portrayed as being complicit with the speakers: in other words, “soft on” and with no excuse. It was a great incentive for official violence. You can blame the early American Civil Liberties Union for the change in law.

If “Black Bloc” anarchists and communists seem somewhat nostalgic for those days, it should be no surprise. They share, with libertarians, the idea that the state is an inherently and inevitably oppressive institution. Police raids, arrests, and broken heads serve to demonstrate that idea, garner sympathy and support as it’s unfair, and excuse retaliatory actions that lead to more raids, arrests, and broken heads, and thence… to what? Revolution? Given the grudging government toleration (with notable lapses) of dissident speech, it’s probably also not surprising that today’s anarchists and communists are punks compared to then. Maybe that’s no bad thing.