Young Radicals of the 1910s

“This is a story about hope and what comes after hope, and despair and what comes after despair.” (xiii)

This may sound over-wrought, and it is. Jeremy McCarter can say that is what his book, Young Radicals, is about, but I’m not sure, having read it, I am convinced. “It’s about,” McCarter continues, “what happens when the world, which had seemed to be spinning rapidly in the direction of peace and social progress, falls to pieces.” In fact, Young Radicals is much less grandiose than he’s claiming. It is also much more exciting and important than I seem to be implying. There is much to learn and much food for thought in this book.

McCarter is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda on Hamilton: The Revolution, published the year before Radicals but begun after his research on the latter was already underway.  He was drawn to his subject, radicalism in the second decade of the twentieth century, by a nagging question: Why so many radicals of this period risked personal safety, their reputations and their livelihoods, in the pursuit of their ideals? Indeed, he was so fascinated with the era he spent most of six years trying “to imagine what it felt like to live through the 1910s.” I was surprised to hear him express these motivations, so similar to my own–and for the same decade!–when researching early automobiles, Eddie Rickenbacker, silent pictures, and nurses in World War I.

McCarter’s interest is in the “dreamers” of the era. He chose to set his lens to “close up, not panorama,” yet on a number of individuals, not just one. He settled on five who were sufficiently representative, whose individual lights, in concert, provided enough shape to constitute a “constellation,” a meaningful pattern in the decade’s firmament. They are, in order of appearance: Walter Lippmann, John Reed, Max Eastman, Alice Paul, and Randolph Bourne.

Walter Lippmann

We meet Walter Lippmann on New Year’s Day, 1912, just as he is assuming his duties as secretary to the newly elected Socialist mayor of Schenectady, George Lunn. The story starts in media res, in other words, and is told in the present tense with bits of backstory enter recounted in the present perfect. The reader struggles a bit to get his bearings (at least this one did), but McCarter sums up the situation pleasingly on the third page: “It’s all going according to plan–for [Lippmann], for Schenectady, for socialism. He is tasting the pleasure–is any pleasure sweeter?–of winning an argument with the old man. So why is he uneasy?” [5] It is a growing disillusionment with the socialist regime of which he is a part.

Four months into his tenure–and four pages into the text–Lippmann quits. McCarter has us imagine him, much chastened, slinking back to his parents’ home in that bastion of socialist thought, the Upper East Side. There he pens what McCarter calls a “blistering attack” on his recent boss, an act of either principled courage or perfidious opportunism. (Or some of both.) The rest of Lippmann’s long career will be played almost entirely as an insider. A radical he was not.

But McCarter did well to include him. The up-and-coming Jewish whiz kid plays, alternately and to varying degrees, foil and rival, supporter and promoter for each of the book’s other protagonists. Besides, his ideals were no less lofty or deeply held for being more reformist rather than radical; his efforts for change no less strenuous for being conducted through more mainstream channels.

Lippmann became an advisor to the Wilson administration. He helped draft the Fourteen Points and was called on to define them for befuddled Allied negotiators. At this point in the narrative, McCarter’s editorial voice steps forward to explicate Lippmann’s role among his five “dreamers.” I heard a voice well-grounded in a Harvard liberal arts education:

An idealist, to have any chance of winning the world to his or her ideal, needs to be a translator: A vision only gains power if enough people share it. Shakespeare understood this. In A Midsummer night’s Dream, Theseus, the practical-minded leader, dismisses every variety of dreamer who ‘gives airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.’ But Hippolyta, his new bride, sees things more clearly: She points out that when many people come to share a dreamer’s vision, it grows to something of great constancy.
That constancy–that conversion of a dream to a fixed reality–is the essential movement of human progress, in every place and time. [241]

The dream and the constancy, both, shattered on a hard rock of reality. What with the Espionage Act during the war and the Palmer Raids in the Red Scare after, Lippmann’s disillusion was complete.

You know what hopes were put in this administration, how loudly and insistently it proclaimed its loyalty to the cause of freedom. …Well it was possible to fail in those hopes. It was credible that the administration announcing the most spacious ideals in our history should have done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years. [282]

For a second time, Lippmann returned home chastened. For a second time, he opportunistically threw his former boss under the bus. Switching metaphors, he aimed the torpedo that sank Wilson’s cherished League of Nations. But, Lippmann went on to have a long, influential career. What came after despair (disillusion) for Lippmann? More hard work.

John Reed

Jack Reed was the prototypical radical in the bunch. But he didn’t start out that way. At Harvard he frustrated his classmate, Lippmann, with his unseriousness. He was more committed to pranks and poetry than to politics. At least, he never officially joined Lippmann’s Socialist Club.

Jump ahead seven years and, while Lippmann was in  thrall to the Wilson administration, Reed was be in Russia committed to the Revolution’s success. Reed was a man of action as much as dreamer. He reported on the revolution in Mexico while traveling with Pancho Villa. He bounced about the western and eastern fronts reporting on the war in Europe. When he returned and read Lippmann’s latest insider essay (“Integrated America”), he seethed–and dashed off a “savage letter,” in McCarter’s words. The letter is lost, so we have only Lippmann’s equally ferocious reply. Referring to his friend’s club-climbing days at Harvard, he (unfairly) dismisses Reed as “hardly the person to set yourself up as a judge of other people’s radicalism.” Warming to his counter-attack, he adds, “You are no more dangerous to the capitalist class in this country than a romantic guerilla fighter.” [102-103] (Can we agree that Lippmann’s voice is essential in this book?)

Jack Reed is also the tragic figure. He died for the cause, in Russia, 1920, of typhus, and perhaps of a surfeit of zeal. But he didn’t live long enough to see his ideals made constant–or to grow disillusioned when they didn’t. Or did he? McCarter makes a strong case that, the scales were beginning to fall from his eyes in the final months of his life. Eulogizing his friend, Max Eastman praised his ability to bridge ideals and reality: “He was a poet who could understand science. He was an idealist who could face facts.” [296] And because his is that kind of book, McCarter allows himself to ask the big “what if.” His answer is more pleasingly cheeky than it is convincing: “Honestly: Could any power on earth have kept Jack Reed out of Hollywood?” [318]

Max Eastman

Max Eastman was the reluctant radical of the group. As we first meet him, he is getting his arm twisted to take on the editorship of the socialist magazine, The Masses. It’s not that he wasn’t committed to the cause. In his tenure as editor (he took the job!) Eastman probably did more to cultivate the soil of American socialism than Reed, and certainly more than Lippmann.

Yet, in McCarter’s portrait, Eastman’s first love was poetry. He would not subsume his art to the socialist cause. As evidence, McCarter cites at length from Eastman’s preface to his 1916 poetry collection, Colors of Life. I can’t resist doing the same:

Life is older than liberty. It is greater than revolution. It burns in both camps. And life is what I love. And though I love life for all men and women, and so inevitably stand in the ranks of revolution against the cruel system of these times, I love it also for myself. And its essence–the essence of life–is variety and specific depth. It can not be found in monotonous consecration to a general principle. Therefore I have feared and avoided this consecration, which earnest friends for some reason always expect me to exemplify, and my poetry has never entered even so deeply as it might into those tempests of social change that are coloring our thoughts today. [262]

Despite strong political convictions, Eastman remained resistant to socialism’s dogmatic tendencies. He valued free thought over party orthodoxy, and he made sure The Masses embodied this value. Under his editorial leadership, its masthead contained a delightfully provocative mission, which reads in part:

This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable; frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for the true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found; printing what is too naked or true for a moneymaking press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers–there is a field for this publication in America. [28]

For me, Eastman was the easiest to like. In McCarter’s portrait, he is anything but “arrogant” and “impertinent.” His radicalism is mild-mannered doesn’t seek to call attention to itself. He is circumspect and risk averse. The exact opposite of a John Reed. That makes the final words of his closing statement in his 1918 trial all the more poignant: “I am not afraid to spend the better part of my life in a penitentiary, if my principles have brought me to it.” The statement was widely hailed as “one of the greatest addresses of modern times” and is still considered one of the most powerful affirmations of the First Amendment in our history. [237]

Yet 1920s disillusionment hit Eastman as hard as any of the five. Bitterness pinched his sense of humor, broke his resistance to dogma. Editorializing in his next journalistic venture, The Liberator, he admonished readers:

We have not only to cultivate the poetry, but keep the poetry true to the science of revolution–to give life and laughter and passion and adventures in speculation, without ever clouding or ignoring any pint that is vital in the theory and practice of communism. [304]

In a dramatic turn around, he even lost faith in free speech, using arguments much like those today’s social activists might use: that there is no such thing, that speech is a handmaiden of power, for good and evil.

Eastman’s transformation continued to surprise. In the forties, he disavowed the Soviet experiment, then called Socialism itself “a dangerous fairy tale.” [314] In the fifties, he joined the editorial board of William F. Buckley’s conserative National Review, with which he would sooon enough become disillusioned. By his last year of life, living in tropical Barbados, the erstwhile dreamer had resigned himself to realism, telling a reporter, “We have to patch up the world as it is and accept it, although I don’t feel very happy about it.” [316] A fitting epitaph perhaps for all the radicals of this book. Except one.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul was the most successful radical of McCarter’s quintet. She refused to accept the world as it was, and her relentless agitation brought the change she sought: woman’s suffrage.  No one worked more determinedly for political change than she did, none, in the words of next generation agitator Pauli Murray, displayed such “a single-mindedness bordering on fanaticism.” [314]

Paul was, famously, raised a Quaker, a community in which women were given (relatively) equal voice. While touring England and Scotland, post-masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, she got an education in the ways of rock-hurling and hunger strikes under the tutelage of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Thus radicalized, she became a thorn in the side of more established suffragists back in the States. National American Woman Suffrage Association president Carrie Chapman Catt repudiated Paul’s impatience as well as her tactics, which, McCarter emphasizes, was much how Susan B. Anthony viewed the young Catt twenty years earlier. [96] This is a telling window into the generational politics of radicalism more generally.

For her part, Paul chafed at NAWSA’s timidity, strategically as well as tactically. She could not abide NAWSA’s state-by-state approach to suffrage, viewing a federal constitutional amendment as the only effective strategy and logically consistent goal. In 1913, she split off and formed her own organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Three years later, during the presidential campaign of 1916, she formed the National Woman’s Party in an effort to exploit the muscle of women voters in western states (which gave credence to her rivals’ state-focused approach).

In her single-mindedness, Paul infamously sacrificed African American women to racist political reality. Planning the 1913 march down Pennsylvania Avenue on the occasion of Wilson’s inauguration, she balked at an inclusive “procession”: “As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a negro procession, or no procession at all.” [33] In the end, African American women were allowed to march at the back of the parade. McCarter cites a later Paul editorial in which she reassures the southern (white, male) voter that woman suffrage “will increase the relative power of the white race in a most remarkable way.” [66] The most successful radical here, perhaps, but not the most woke.

Paul stands as a paragon of both the benefits and dangers of single-minded, goal-oriented radicalism. Both her virtues and flaws are boldly apparent. Who knows how much longer (white) women would have had to wait for the vote without her? Who knows how much sooner black women would have achieved the vote if she had included them in her vision?

Randolph Bourne

In McCarter’s quintet, Randolph Bourne stands out as perhaps the most singular of them all. Birthed with the aid of inexpertly-used forceps, he started life with a deformed head. Childhood spinal tuberculosis further marred his appearance by stunting his growth and giving him a hunchback. Though he was raised in comfortable, middle class conditions, as were the other four of the book’s radicals, he could never escape the glaring otherness that came with his repugnant physical appearance.

His interests ranged more widely than the others’, too. He wrote on youth, education, immigration, and other topics, in addition to socialism and democracy. His early essays were mostly about living, hence his focus on youth whose approach to life, he believed, deserved to be emulated. In his essay, “The Experimental Life,” he averred, “Life works in a series of surprises. One’s powers are given in order that one may be alert and ready, resourceful and keen. The interest in life lies largely in its adventurousness….” [Bourne 150] Nothing rankled him so much as seeing “success” turn members of the older generation fat (metaphorically) and complacent. “The great paradox is that it is the sleek and easy who are prematurely and permanently old. Struggle brings youth rather than old age.” [Bourne 95]

Yet McCarter’s biographical research also allows us to see the man behind the essays. We see him confess the gap between his literary and his actual selves in a letter to his first love-interest. (He had [mostly frustrated] romantic relationships!) Referring to one of his early essays, he wrote, self-deprecatingly, “That is ‘Youth and Life’ from one who was never young, and has only partly lived.” [48] In a nutshell, the tension between ideal and reality.

Each of the five dealt with this tension in his own way–Lippmann effecting change through channels of power, Reed allowing theory to inform action and vice versa, Eastman insisting the ideal of free expression come first, Paul employing militant action until vision became reality–but none embodied it as completely as Randolph Bourne. Elsewhere, Christopher Lasch has attributed to Bourne a maxim of seeing “things as they are, thrown against the background of things as they ought to be.” [Bourne 37] His idealism and realism were tightly intertwined.

It is hard to say, then, whether his defiant opposition to the war was an expression of idealism or realism. Bourne never forgave Lippmann his perfidy in joining with Wilson. His break with John Dewey over the war was even more personally painful. Bitterness crept into his tone. The man who sprang on the scene spouting the virtues of the “experimental life” and “trans-national America” began writing lines like, “War is the health of the state.” [321] Randolph Bourne had much more to say to American readers; they had much more to learn from him. But Bourne became the first of the quintet to die, a victim of the influenza epidemic a month after the Armistice.

In the War for American Ideals

McCarter’s subtitle is well chosen. “War” has a double entendre, both the more figurative battle for justice and rights, but the literal European war which the United States joined in 1917. Both are of equal importance in McCarter’s narrative. The war did more than anything to shatter the ideals these five individuals had been “fighting” for in the 1910s.

Does McCarter answer his opening question: “What happens when the world, which had seemed to be spinning rapidly in the direction of peace and social progress, falls to pieces.” Or, is the premise even apt? Was the world heading (rapidly, no less) toward peace and social progress (undefined)? Surely there were positive developments in sanitation, medicine, product safety (life expectancy had just surpassed 50 years at the beginning of the decade. Progressives had surely begun to make local government more responsive and effective. But for Americans on the ground–those not raised middle class and educated Ideas, capital I–cities were crowded and dirty. Work was still mostly unsafe. (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster happened the year before McCarter’s story begins.) While lynchings against both blacks and whites had been trending down for two decades, with occasional spikes, homicides jumped steeply after 1905.

The progress that was on many Americans’ minds was mostly of technological kind: automobiles, moving pictures, and industrial machinery. The world was spinning rapidly, indeed, and many Americans were hustling to keep up, some intent on competing for new opportunities; others just looking to maintain dignified working and living conditions. The war did not so much “shatter” their hopes as it put them on hold. Some problems (e.g., worker exploitation) went unaddressed. But ever greater economic opportunities arose for average and even poor Americans after the war and subsequent recession ended.

It is true that socialism, waxing in the first decade of the twentieth century,  waned in the second. (This can be seen in both socialist party membership, in relation to overall population growth; and in votes for the presidential candidacy of Eugene Debs, relative to total votes cast.) Counter-factually speaking, McCarter has a point: The numbers might have gone in the other direction. Three of McCarter’s five (not including Lippmann, disillusioned by 1912, and Paul, indifferent from the beginning) might have wished it so. But, other than their hopes, was there ever a legitimate chance of a third party knocking off one or more of the Big Two American political parties? Was the Socialist Party ever going to represent the “hopes” of a majority of Americans? Would the country, the world, have been better off if it had? There is no obvious answer to this question.

What comes after hope and despair? More hope and despair. The world is ever in the process of being built up and of falling to pieces. McCarter’s book reminds us of this and dramatizes it forcefully. Young Radicals shows that dreamers–radicals–come in many shapes and sizes, and it is good that they do. It takes all kinds of visionaries to make things of great constancy.

Paul‘s vision achieved constancy quickly, if not fully until Black women gained full suffrage. While the others suffered varying degrees of disillusion, Paul was able to call her cause “a triumph.” [272]

Lippmann‘s 1922 critique of democracy itself, Public Opinion, could be seen as the ultimate disillusionment of an erstwhile “radical.” Perhaps, yet his constrained vision for American government has largely come to pass in the form of the administrative state. If he was advocating an aristocracy of elites, it has not come to pass, even if some believe it has.

Eastman‘s commitment to free and irreverent expression is alive and well in satirical publications, such as The Onion. If online irreverence has begun to include more vitriol than humor, if the proliferation of online sites has led to personal siloing and a hardening of prejudice rather than the hoped for expansion of dialogue and opening of minds, then the need for a new visionary, a new Eastman, becomes all the more urgent.

Meanwhile, history has made Bourne look prescient several different contexts. Youth’s revolutionary energy is regularly celebrated by their elders. Education has become a bastion of progressive ideals and practices, including cooperative and project-based learning. Americans have come to see the United States as a land of immigrants, even if they don’t all agree with Bourne’s implications for that fact. Defense is by far the largest budget item of discretionary spending.

Which leaves us with Reed, the erstwhile lightweight playboy, who went all in when Russia initiated the first socialist revolution in history. But subsequent history gave the experiment a bad name. Even fellow travelers turned against the regime, and many against the cause itself. Socialism, a close kin with communism, became ideology non grata, if it had ever been anything but suspect from the beginning. Yet, in the twenty-first century, Bernie Sanders has helped bring socialism out of the closet and make it utterable in polite company. Left-leaning candidates have been elected to Congress and legislatures, and are working to enact (so-called) socialist policies, including childcare subsidies, free preschool, and debt relief for college payments.

If radicals, including these five, share visions that “grow[] to something of great constancy,” it should be acknowledged that that something  can never be precisely what was envisioned. Too many other hands–and minds–will contaminate it. Too many unforeseen consequences–reality–will intervene in its implementation. Why should their visions be enacted, anyway? (Radical does not mean correct. There have been countless radicals whose visions, such as they were, have been lost to the ash heap of history.) Is it because radicals–certain radicals–work harder than others? Use the most effective strategy or tactics? Speak up the loudest? Are the most committed? Or, is it because it their vision is the most just? The most necessary for the moment?

This, in the end, is why McCarter’s book is so valuable. It raises important questions to engage a reader even after the last page has been turned. That and making you familiar with five fascinating personalities and how they interacted with each other. And, really, by helping you imagine what it felt like to live through such a vibrant time, a decade pregnant with possibility, ripe for reimagining…and destined for disillusion.


McCarter, Jeremy. Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals. New York: Random House, 2017.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

Illing, Sean. Walter Lippmann’s Famous Critique of Democracy RevisitedVox, December 20, 2018. “Max Eastman’s address,” p. 46.

Images: Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons


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