Echoes of Revolt: The Masses 1911-1917
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. Since these battles have in the main been won they are no longer thought of as part of radical politics. We have our troubles today, but we don’t have to stand up for women’s rights or nudism or Planned Parenthood. We have been graduated to bigger questions, like atomic warfare and the threat of total destruction.
I SUPPOSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to avoid giving the past the appearance of another commodity when it is presented in anthologized form. But Echoes of Revolt strikes me as being too carefully packaged. The size, the fancy paper, the chic jacket, the marvelous reproductions—all seem to transform this radical collection into a gift-book. (Pretty soon we’ll be giving revolutions for Christmas.) It is also over-edited, something which creates the look of a predigested product. The collection is divided into five sections, with these headings: “Matters of Policy,” “The Freedom to Express,” “The Class Struggle,” “Moral Issues,” “Wars in General and The War in Particular”; and each heading has its own subheadings. There is a general Preface to the collection, and then every section has its own Preface by William O’Neil, the editor, explaining the subject and relating it both to its own period and to the present. The divisions are obviously quite arbitrary, and have the specious exactness of a librarian’s filing system. Thus Chapter IV, called “Moral Issues,” is broken down into The Prostitute, Feminism, Birth Control, Christ and the Churches, the Masses, and the Negro. Sex, however, is discussed in the Preface to Section I, where we are told that in no other area was The Masses so advanced, for it “held that sex of itself was a good thing…and regarded the nude human body as the most beautiful product of the material universe.” Then there is an “Afterword” by Max Eastman, who edited the magazine in its best years, which emphasizes mostly the dedication to freedom of The Masses as compared with its Communist successor, the New Masses. In addition, many of the pieces are preceded by little notes explaining in the manner of undergraduate texts what the piece is all about and how to react to it.
But in spite of the pedantic editing and the arty get-up, the raucous, unselfconscious quality of the period does come through. The selections on the whole are quite representative and they do give the flavor of the first modern radical movement in America. Most of the famous rebels of the time are here: there are typical pieces by John Reed, Floyd Dell, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Emma Goldman, Randolph Bourne, William Walling; and drawings by Art Young, Robert Minor, and Boardman Robinson. There are also contributions by figures who were not the political mainstays of the magazine, like Picasso, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, George Bellows, Amy Lowell, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg. In a way, these writers and painters who were caught up in the general movement of the Left were premature fellow-travelers, but since the inner group of The Masses was itself so varied and undisciplined, it, too, had the characteristic traits of the fellowtraveler.
TAKEN AS A WHOLE, the spirit and the sense of direction of The Masses is certainly quite impressive and refreshing, particularly since radical activities until quite recently had come to be associated with fatigue, boredom, and cynicism. But the quality of the individual pieces and of much of the editorial thinking is another matter. The best things in the book—as in many publications (like The New Yorker, for example) which substitute atmosphere for quality—are the drawings. Though many of the cartoons are nakedly propagandistic, their use of bulky shapes in place of line created a new pictorial style. Perhaps even more remarkable is that these ultra-naturalistic sketches seem to have some of the selfassurance, the massiveness, the inflation of scale that was later stylized by abstract expressionist painting. Of the fiction and poetry, the best thing is Sherwood Anderson’s famous story “Hands.” But this is not really characteristic of the literary side of The Masses, which was generally either directly agitational or exuded the pathos of the downtrodden and the marginal. As O’Neill says approvingly in his Preface, the stories are “simple and realistic in style.” Prostitution is one of the favorite themes, since it combines a critique of society with a morbid sympathy for a victim. One of the stories, by Floyd Dell, describes the whipping of a girl in jail. The poems are generally morale-builders, except for some fulsome lyrics that aim straight for the heart (“I hear that Spring is back again, /That flame-buds kindle all about; /But in my heart the buds of pain/Are swiftly breaking, breaking out!“). Amy Lowell is an exception, but again she does not exemplify the prevailing sensibility, nor is the poem in the book one of her better ones.
The journalism, however, is quite good, and often distinguished. Like the fiction it, too, is concerned with injustice and exploitation, the most common subject being the strike. But because of the nature of the medium, which is not so easily violated by moral or political stresses or by a literal rendition of social “reality,” the reportage in The Masses was quite successful. In fact, the outstanding pieces of writing in the book are John Reed’s story of the famous textile strike in Paterson and his funny accounts of his run-ins with the cops. If only to remind us of what a first-rate journalist John Reed was, The Masses would be worth resurrecting, particularly since the conservatism of the last few decades has tended to bury not only the radical ideas but the radical figures of the past.
It is hard to understand why The Masses crowd, which was so anarchic and bohemian, should have gone in for high-minded, propagandistic art, unless we assume that they simply succumbed to the occupational diseases of past radical movements, lack of taste and a vulnerability to social significances. As Susan Sontag has noted, the younger generation today is the first to have combined a radical literature with a radical politics. What one thinks of the result is another question, but it is true that the peculiar combination of commitment and copping out, of seriousness and playfulness, of an experimental attitude both to life and to art has brought politics and esthetics together for the first time. In his Preface, O’Neill claims such a fusion for The Masses. “Their political radicalism,” he says, “was a corollary of their artistic radicalism…. The Masses is perhaps the best example in American history of a nearly successful synthesis of poetry and propaganda, politics and art.” But this is not true. For, as O’Neill admits, “the editors had fairly conservative tastes,” and they kept a safe political distance from the avant-garde, publishing few of the new non-political writers of the time, and paying little attention to the new abstract painting. Nor, indeed, does one find much literary criticism of any sophistication. It seems almost as though The Masses was insulated from many of the cultural advances of the time. In fact, Eastman’s own theories of art were not very enlightened. He believed, for example, as did the promotors of socialist realism and proletarian art later, that “realism” was the natural mode of radical writing and painting, because it presumably bared the “truths” of social and personal life. He also seemed unaware that editorial leniency was not a substitute for some genuine connection with what was going on in art and literature. “I did not harp incessantly on propaganda,” says Eastman proudly in his Afterword.
IN SPITE OF THESE LIMITATIONS, The Masses was an exciting magazine; at least it seems so to us now, since the period it brings back to us was alive with hope and with the feeling that what people did mattered. Hence one can understand Irving Howe’s nostalgia when he says, “It is hard, in the Sixties, for a socialist writer and editor to avoid some feelings of envy…as he looks back upon the life and times of The Masses.” But the bleakness of our own situation should not make the past out to be rosier than it was. For the fact is that radicals and liberals in the period before World War I came up against power much more naked and brutal than we face today. Maybe the editors of The Masses had fun doing what they did, but the working class people in whose name they spoke had a harder time. A world war was then an actuality, and the jingoism it aroused finally killed The Masses, and virtually wiped out the radicalism it represented. I am not, of course, suggesting that we have it so good today. On the contrary, our predicament is in some ways more frustrating and more desperate, because while our problems are so enormous as to seem almost insoluble, at the same time they are made to appear less pressing by the affluence and the more liberal atmosphere in which even radical intellectuals live.
No doubt the feeling that our situation is unique and unprecedented affects our view of the past. In any case, looking backward is always tricky, for what one finds is in a way what one is after, but it is especially complicated when one is looking to the radical movements of the past for a lost childhood. Thus, however much one might admire the spirit of The Masses, I see no point in making a myth of its radical innocence. And I, for one, find it difficult to think of Max Eastman, who set the intellectual tone for the magazine, either as part of my lost childhood or as my political daddy.