Elevate Difference

Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America

Originally published in 1931, Dynamite hearkens back to an era of American capitalism a little less glossy, a little bloodier, and with striking parallels to today. In this account, Adamic provided one of the first overviews of U.S. labor history to that point, although his narrative is clearly not intended to be comprehensive, but rather focuses on the role of violence in the movements. Jon Bekken’s introduction helpfully contextualizes Adamic as a would-be Socialist, and the writing within a slew of other labor books that would provide more comprehensive analysis. Bekken also makes the important parallels to contemporary capitalism, in light of recent government bailouts for the rich and powerful, a revitalized labor movement may be exactly what we need. Adamic’s book certainly imbued me with a new sense of urgency, history and power.

Written in short chapters that capture different groups, movements, and strikes chronologically, Dynamite is easy to read casually and at your own pace. Adamic makes the overarching point that violence in the labor movement emerged because of violence at work and from the capitalist class. Many famed episodes of violence have in fact been misrepresented, including episodes wherein laborers were framed for what was perpetrated by capitalists.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of laborers using violence as a strategy for their cause. My favorite example were the Molly Maguires, an Irish immigrant group that settled in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal mines, led by Molly Maguire herself, but was made up largely of young men, who used assassinations of owners to demand complete control of all work and rent in the area. While unimaginable today, Adamic does a terrific job of painting the conditions of life in industrializing America that makes one understand how so many could be driven to violence to improve their situation.

While Adamic purports to center the immigrant in labor history, his focus on western European immigrants largely ignores race or gender as important lenses of analysis. To be real, this was 1931 so such an analysis from a white guy may be a bit much to ask, and Jon Bekken does address this in the introduction. 

All in all Dynamite is entertaining and informative, and probably best for labor and social movement nerds who may have some of the background information already.

Written by: Katrina Forman, May 11th 2009