Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917


With John Reed and Emma Goodman, the young, energetic radicals associated with The Masses attacked the genteel tradition in American culture and developed an artistic and literary style that was simple, straightforward, and free from the constraints of commercial magazines. Fishbein demonstrates that the conflicts that initially spurred the young radicals to creativity ultimately led to their political and social failure, for the new socialist order they championed proved impossible.

Originally published in 1982.


The radical renaissance in Greenwich Village just before World War I was fascinating in its kaleidoscopic vitality and inconsistencies. Chief among the anomalies was that between the title and the content of The Masses, the celebrated organ of left-wing bohemians between 1911 and 1917. Its thrust was not toward a readership among the underprivileged but rather the artists and intelligentsia who sought to lead the exploited toward a new utopia. Nor were the editors disposed to set policy otherwise. When one of them proposed tailoring the contents of a successor magazine to working-class reading levels, his colleagues emphatically squelched him. in any event, most working people, like Nixon's hard-hat supporters during the Vietnam years, on social issues at least were far to the right of the reformers. the revolt the editors and writers were proclaiming so energetically was as much against the bonds of an outmoded Victorianism as against the social injustices heaped upon the underprivileged.

The intellectual universe of the bohemian left who wrote for the Masses was one of chaotic incongruity, not the clockwork balance of orthodox Marxism, as Leslie Fishbein points out in this rich and significant study. These gentle rebels bearing more kinship to Bloomsbury than to Petrograd were as concerned with obtaining their own libertarian release from the genteel tradition as with bringing about a socialist economic and political order. Inevitably that led to a confused eclecticism; as Fishbein writes, it was "the true source of the era's creativity, its attempts to resolve tensions among conflicting ideals."

With few exceptions, the radicals were more concerned with individualism than with collectivism. Most of them considered themselves Marxists, but few had thoroughly studied Marx and Engels, and even fewer were willing to accept the ideological restraints or personal discipline of Marxian revolutionaries. There were far more among them like Walter Lippmann, who in the 1920s abandoned socialism completely, than like John Reed, who came to be buried within the walls of the Kremlin. Nietzsche had a pervasive influence . . .

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