“Murdered By Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the American Left”
by John Ross (Nation Books, 2004)

In his most recent book, author John Ross combines the fire of Edward Abbey with the rampaging flare of Hunter S. Thompson to produce a masterpiece of historical prose. Caught between his personal memoir and an intimate discussion with the dead the author slips in and out of history - fueled by wine, whiskey, and drugs - to tell the story of the American Left.

The book begins in Trinidad, California at the grave of Eddie Schnaubelt brother of Rudolph Schnaubelt an anarchist who was implicated in the bombing at the Haymarket on May 4th, 1886. The historical narrative begins when Ross accidentally spills a bottle of wine at the grave and hears the voice of Eddie demanding more.

Anyone who has ever gone to a protest hung-over will immediately recognize the inspiration for this book. Facing-down a police line one gives into the temptation to imagine how Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, or Mother Jones might have handled the situation. You strain to hear their words between the drumbeats in your pounding head as the police advance ready to deliver the tried and true hangover cure of gas, guns, and batons. Then in a moment of clarity you realize “shit… they were not these visionary figures they were just as stoned and confused as you are.”

This is the most enjoyable part of the book. Ross allows all of the bones rattling around in their graves to maintain their egos. When Voltairine de Clyves interrupts Emma Goldman she snaps back “Not now, dear, this man has come to talk to me about my life and my long list of lovers.” The bones fight for preeminence and for the reader’s attention. They snipe at each other and at Ross if he spends too long on his own personal memoir. They remind Ross that they have seen this all before and that nothing in America of 2006 is new. But Ross has a message for the dead as well. He reminds them that he knows them from all the petty ego battles he has witnessed in his life and that even after all these years in the grave nothing has changed. And this is perhaps the most powerful critique of the American Left delivered by Ross.

The writing is brave, especially in America post 9/11. In a chapter entitled “The Lives of the Assassins” Ross retells how he has dreamed of assassinating a long list of American Presidents. Later he spends a chapter at the grave of Schnaubelt listening to the corps describe how to “whack Bush.” For a book that begins narrowly focused on the Haymarket bombing the final section entitled “Kaboom!!!” provides a perspective on bombing as an American activity. “[B]ombing is as American as rhubarb and the electric chair” Ross taunts “Americans were bombing each other before they were even Americans…”