Old Flames

Echoes of Revolt: The Masses 1911-1917

edited by William O’Neill, Introduction by Irving Howe
Quadrangle Books, 304 pp., $12.95

This handsome, almost too handsome, collection of pieces and drawings from The Masses (the old pre-Communist magazine, not to be confused with the New Masses) could not have come out at a better time. For with the emergence of a New Left, the radicalism of the past has come into vogue again, though lately some periods have become more fashionable than others. Hence the recent renewal of interest in the Thirties. But for people who like their radicalism on the light side the Thirties seem to be too old and heavy with ideology, too much associated with failures, too sectarian, and too full of questions that radicals today, particularly the younger ones, do not care to revive. It now looks as though we will have to go back further still, to the period in this country before World War I and the Russian Revolution, to find a seemingly more carefree spirit on the Left, one that at least appears to be youthful and innocent and frisky—unencumbered by theory and too immature to be worried about its responsibilities.

Hence Echoes of Revolt is bound to fill a need to escape into the past. For it takes us back, as Irving Howe says in an Introduction that is remarkably balanced yet quite personal (a rare combination), “into a happier or at least more innocent world of an earlier American radicalism, in which native moral indignation and European political thought, a flare of cultural exuberance and some sharp-teethed criticism of our social arrangements all came together.” The militant and exuberant army of intellectuals gathered around The Masses had an easy-going confidence in themselves and in the principles and causes for which they fought. They were entirely freewheeling in their choice of aims or targets as they made themselves the spokesmen for every variety of dissent, reform, and revolt. Some of the contributors to The Masses were Marxists, in one form or another; many were socialists; many believed or acted as though they believed in the class struggle; most of them put their faith generally in the working class, in progress, in justice, and in history. But above all they were very American and very much of their time in that they were not bound by any one system of thought, nor, in fact, too much concerned with theoretical questions. They were embattled but full of optimism, and almost cheerful in their opposition to the injustice and brutalities of the system and in their reliance on the future. They came before the age of total belief and, of course, before the age of doubt; and they offer a kind of negative proof that ponderous and monolithic theories are needed to overcome or to prevent doubt. But The Masses was also expressing the crusading spirit of the period. Thus the magazine promoted such progressive causes as birth control, feminism, free love, and atheism, which in the past have been connected at various times with radical movements, though not always out of any theoretical necessity …

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