Subtitled “A memoir of 150 years of life and death on the American left,” John Ross’ Murdered by Capitalism both a memoir of his own life and experience as an activist and how his actions fit into a larger tradition of the left in the United States. His book blends the events of his life with the history of the left through a frequently amusing, off-and-on dialog with Edward Bernhardt Schnaubelt, an anarchist who was killed in 1913 by a landowner and whose tombstone is inscribed with the phrase “Murdered by Capitalism.” Ross engages in a fictional dialog with Schnaubelt at his gravesite and as the two exchange stories of their participation in radical politics, Ross shares the stories of his life and activism and those of the greater left.
John Ross has led an interesting life and has participated in most of the popular social change movements for the last fifty years. Born to radical parents, Ross was an early critic of the Cold War, participated early on in the civil rights movement and was arrested for the first time at a protest in San Francisco, and was one of the first to participate in draft resistance during the Vietnam War. Ross has also worked as a freelance journalist, extensively covered the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, traveled to Palestine to participate in direct action protests in solidarity with the Palestinians, and participated as a human shield during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite the extent of his participation in various movements, Ross remains a humble and never speaks as an elitist, instead relating his experiences in a realistic and human way. Ross never shies from admitting his mistakes, including the fact that he spent much of the late 1960s in a drug-induced haze after aligning with the ultra-dogmatic Progressive Labor movement.
The history of the left in the United States is often forgotten, both by those who identify with the left and its opponents. The current left is weak and has accomplished relatively little in terms of sustained victories since the 1960s, but the left in the United States does have a proud history, especially with the struggles in the early 1900s. Ross relates this history through a bizarre series of exchanges during which he goes to the graves of the men hung for their role in the Haymarket bombing and has a dialog with Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Albert Parsons, Volteraine de Cleyre, Bill Thompson, and other famous anarchist, labor, and socialist organizers. Although Ross frequently gets historical details mixed up, most notably with his calling de Cleyre by the incorrect name (de Clyves), the exchange between the numerous radicals buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetary humorously relates many achievements of which radicals can be quite proud—extensive organizing efforts, concrete changes in living and working conditions, opposition to war and imperialism, and a host of others. In relating the experiences of his own life Ross shares the history of the left post-1930, bringing the reader through the depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam era, and the 1980s, all with an a humorous style, albeit occasionally neglecting various historical nuances.
Of course, it is the sections of his book that discuss political bombings and revolutionary violence that will generate the most controversy. Through the fictional ramblings of the aforementioned Shnaubelt, there is praise for “the Weather boys” referring to the Weather Underground and their bombing campaign of the early 1970s and Ross’ own assertion, Murdered by Capitalism argues that dynamite can be an equalizer in the class struggle. As Ross points out, dynamite has been frequently used by the left in the United States, becoming “good bombs” in the fight against the ruling class and their “bad bombs” which are used to target innocents and popular movements around the world. An argument can certainly be made about the necessity for revolutionary violence within specific political contexts, but such conditions have probably never existed within the United States, and such an argument is poorly articulated in Ross’ book and instead comes off as simply the unorganized ranting in which anything of substance will be overshadowed by the silly and unnecessary mention of bombing the United States government for their invasion of Iraq.
Despite its flaws, Murdered by Capitalism is an engaging and entertaining read. While a better effort could have been made to adhere accurately to history, Ross is able to link the popular movements during his life to those of the greater American left and creates a sense of memory, albeit a romantic memory, that is absent for most on the American left. Coupled with a general understanding of US history and the history of the left, Murdered by Capitalism is among the more enjoyable political memoirs around.
John Ross, Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left, (Nation Books, 2004).