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The Folk-Histories of John Ross

A Spectre is Haunting the American Left…Thank God

by JUSTIN TAYLOR

There are things that are theorems and things that are rags; they’ll go by like Euclid, arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots. Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins.

Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned

Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat /
In this distracted globe.

-Hamlet, 1.5.95-7

"Do you know how depressing it is to always be on the losing side?" writes John Ross in Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left. Yes, in fact I do. And so does he. But Ross asks the question intending to trigger that stock response, just so he can jolt the reader out of it. It’s not so much that John Ross doesn’t see the temptation to resort to the standard self-pitying Leftist Christ-pose, it’s just that he doesn’t see the point. Ever the irreverent roustabout, Ross usually manages to sidestep whininess, a trait which tends to cripple the work of more than one radical writer.. Even when he’s talking about hard times or tragedy, and many of these stories either end or begin with events so horrific you want to throw down the book, Ross is writing an affirmation ­ of the unkillable urge for freedom that grows in every society, in every oppressed class, and of the heroism of the all-too-killable individuals who made their way into immortality by tending to and fanning that flame.

In a swirl of personal memoir and history, including both official and not-so-official accounts, Ross tells the story of his own lifelong affiliation with the Left while also giving voice to history’s radicals: outlaws, activists, the occasional villain. The first and most oft-recurring voice is that of E.B. Schnaubelt, brother of Rudolph "Haymarket" Schnaubelt, and the man whose epitaph reads "Murdered by Capitalism." From the depths of his grave in Trinidad, California, Schnaubelt tells his story to Ross, who eggs him on by pouring bottom-shelf booze and blowing pot-smoke into the earth where Schnaubelt lies.

When Ross gets lost telling stories about himself the ghost of Schnaubelt starts to get pissed off. The less-than-political anecdotes cover his enviably misspent youth in the West Village, his various love affairs and involvement with the Beats, the heyday of the American counterculture, and so on. At first I was siding with the defensive Ross, who appeases the ghost and then continues with another personal story. After a while, I started to take the ghost’s side.At least I kept reading. Schnaubelt’s ghost gets so mad at Ross that he won’t talk to him anymore.

So Ross hops on a Greyhound. (Almost blind from head injuries sustained in various encounters with cops, he doesn’t drive). He goes to Waldheim, the cemetery just outside of Chicago where dozens of heroes and anti-heroes of the American Left are buried. Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Dr. Ben "King of the Hobos" Reitman, Irving Abrams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William Z. Foster, and more, are each given a chance to tell their own story. Even the hated late senator Joseph McCarthy dials in briefly. He gleefully explains to the radical bunch that he’s wire-tapped all their graves from his grave in Appleton, Wisconsin. Joe Hill, naturally, graces us with a song.

As the ghosts’ testimonials pile up, contradictory accounts emerge. The revenants interrupt one another, bicker back and forth over particulars and policy, and generally act like the iron-willed, ideologically bent, imperfect human beings that they each, in all probability, actually were. At first I didn’t get why Ross was doing that; it seemed like a whole lot of unnecessary self-flagellation, and in some sense disrespect to those whom the American Left would claim as their hallowed dead. But Ross is on to something with this tactic. The title of the section wherein the phantasm chorale attempts its dissonant music is "The Death of Dogma." It’s not enough for the Left to come up with its own mythology, Ross seems to be saying, equal perhaps in stature to that of the Establishment but equal also in its divorce from historical reality. Ross goes beyond the "warts and all" approach to unromantic historicizing: he shows us the gaps in the teeth and the cracks in the bones (to say nothing of the spelling and grammar problems). His argument is that the flaws of any given individual, group, or movement are not cause for excoriation or white-washing, but for its sober and honest inclusion in the annals of folk-history as exactly what the way things really were.

Now, with that said, understand my emphasis on "folk" in folk-history. Ross is telling stories that have been ignored, rewritten, peripherized, misunderstood, and/or generally neglected for so long that it will probably never be possible to say what really and truly took place. (Of course, this is the case with mainstream Establishment history also, just nobody says so.) Instead, Ross embraces the slippage points, the gaps in the record, the conflicting accounts, and gives us a colloquy of anecdote, hearsay, opinion, and sentiment that tells a larger truth than any pseudo-objective account would have. Who really threw that bomb at Haymarket Square in 1886? Is that really E.B. Schnaubelt buried in that grave, and if not, to whose specter has Ross been shotgunning hits from his pin joints? Ross is brave enough to pose these questions without solid answers waiting for him; then he looks for those answers. Finally, and most important, he’s perfectly and perfunctorily willing to admit when he doesn’t find anything conclusive.

Charged by the ghost of Lucy Parsons to deliver a kiss to Schnaubelt, Ross treks back across the country to Trinidad, CA to make amends with his dead buddy. After delivering Lucy’s kiss, and holding a three-day drunken vigil before the Murdered by Capitalism cenotaph (in a driving rain no less!), Schnaubelt’s spirit revives like a deranged Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. But the ghost has deteriorated somehow, grown wild and half-mad since Ross last spoke with it. Ross draws it back to a state of composure by telling more about his own lifelong dedication to the Left.

"Kaboom!," the final section of the book, is, as you might have guessed, about bombings. "It’s in the blood," Ross writes of our under-publicized national pastime. "Americans are convinced that they have a constitutional right to bear bombs." But for all his veneration of the dead Leftists and frequent recitation of the annals of the "propaganda of the deed," Ross finally throws his lot in with the pacifists. In a chapter entitled "Good Bombs, Bad Bombs" Ross concludes by saying "the only good bomb is a bad bomb."

Having run with the Zapatistas in Mexico and served in Operation Human Shield in Iraq in 2003, if Ross is less than a studious historian he at least suffers from no ossification of street-cred. Doubtless parts of the book will begin to grate on you-I personally grew tired of Ross’s cheesy jokes-but then again I’m fairly agnostic when it comes to the whole Beat scene, so maybe others prefer this kind of fare. And in the end, I’m glad this book exists. Much like the lives and times it chronicles, Murdered by Capitalism is a far cry from infallible. But it is extraordinary and a lot of fun.These are the things that make it worthy.

JUSTIN TAYLOR can be reached at: justindtaylor@gmail.com