The Rise and Fall of The Masses

Criticism Was a Crime in the Not-So-Great War

By John Strausbaugh

0A hundred years ago, Greenwich Village was in full flower as the bohemian capital of America. It wasn't just Left Bank, but leftist as well. Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World was hanging out there, and the anarchist Emma Goldman, and most of the staff of the magazine The Masses.

The Masses began in 1911 as a politely Socialist monthly and ran out of funding within a year. Members of the staff, led by the illustrators John Sloan and Art Young, decided to continue the magazine as a collective. They talked the poet and activist Max Eastman into being their non-salaried editor. He had never edited a magazine, but he was charming, charismatic, and intellectually flexible enough to ride herd on a collective of artists and radicals. Assisting Eastman was the earnest and energetic Floyd Dell, just arrived from Chicago, where he'd edited the Chicago Evening Post books supplement and been a major figure in that city's bohemian scene. His assistant was a young journalist and bohemian named Dorothy Day, who would later co-found the Catholic Worker movement and is currently on her way to being canonized, something none of her bohemian friends in the 1910s could possibly have predicted.

The new version of The Masses was launched in January 1913 with a mission statement in all caps. It was to be "A REVOLUTIONARY AND NOT A REFORM MAGAZINE," but defined its revolution more in cultural than political terms: "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 MONEY-MAKING PRESS: A MAGAZINE WHOSE FINAL POLICY IS TO DO AS IT PLEASES AND CONCILIATE NOBODY, NOT EVEN ITS READERS."

The Masses was priced at ten cents an issue, one dollar for a year's subscription, so the working masses could afford to buy it. Apparently not many did -- the circulation averaged around twelve thousand copies an issue -- but the real audience for its message was other artists and intellectuals of the "Lyrical Left" anyway. Distribution was never easy. The Masses was banned from subway newsstands in New York, refused by distributors in Philadelphia and Boston, kicked out of the Columbia University library and bookstore, and not allowed into Canada.

In addition to Eastman and Dell, John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World) wrote for The Masses, as did both his lovers, journalist Louise Bryant and Village scene-maker Mabel Dodge. Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Walter Lippman, Upton Sinclair, and the poet and Marxist Louis Untermeyer also contributed. Women's rights, workers' rights, the plight of the Negro, the hypocrisy of established religions and the prudery of contemporary censorship were frequent topics. Much of the writing has aged poorly. But the political cartoons and illustrations -- by Sloan, Young, Robert Minor, George Bellows, Stuart Davis and others -- remain beautiful, trenchant and humorous, surviving not only as great political art but as some of the best works of the so-called Ash Can School of social realism.

When the Great War started in Europe in 1914 The Masses condemned it over and over as a territorial conflict fought by the young and poor entirely for the benefit of kings and capitalists. Asked what he thought the war was being fought over, John Reed gave a one-word answer: "Profits." Then in January 1917 Germany gave its U-boats free reign to sink any ships in the Atlantic, including American commercial vessels. America entered the war that spring, and the staff of The Masses found themselves in a quandary. Some, like Reed and illustrators Sloan and Young, remained staunchly anti-war. Others concluded that now that America was in it, it was their patriotic duty to support the American boys being sent Over There. George Bellows even drew recruitment posters for the government.

With the U.S. entry into the war and the Bolsheviks' coup in Russia, the government moved against radicals and extremists in America. Congress passed the Espionage Act, making it a crime to interfere with war recruitment efforts, in 1917; in 1918 it added the startlingly harsh and broad Sedition Act, which made it a crime simply to criticize the government. In the summer of 1917, the Post Office seized the August issue of The Masses under the Espionage Act, primarily because of Reed's writings. The magazine took the government to court, and had the good fortune to argue their case before the liberal Judge Learned Hand, who agreed with them that dissent was not espionage. He ordered the postal service to mail the issue. The government instantly found a conservative judge to block Hand's ruling. Meanwhile, when the September issue was presented for mailing, the Post Office informed the editors that their second-class mailing privileges were about to be revoked. Because the August issue hadn't been mailed, the argument went, The Masses was no longer a regularly-distributed periodical permitted by law to use the second-class mails.

With two issues now held up, Eastman et al. decided that whatever they tried, the government would figure out how to prevent them from selling their magazine, and soon ceased publishing. The government pursued them even after the magazine died. In April 1918 it brought Eastman, Dell, Reed (who was in Russia) and others to trial under the Sedition Act. The trial ended in a hung jury; so did a retrial several months later.

Eastman started a successor to The Masses, called The Liberator, which would morph into The New Masses in 1926. Early contributors included Eugene O'Neill, John Dos Passos, and Hemingway. In the 1930s the magazine turned more doctrinaire Marxist and all those figures dropped out. As the failures and horrors of Stalinism became known in the late 1930s, Eastman's socialist ardor cooled. In the 1950s he supported Joseph McCarthy, helped William F. Buckley start the National Review, and wrote Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, published in 1955. He died in 1969.

Published January 28th, 2016


John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.