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

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview

Chapter 1 The Cradle of Radical Culture

Intellectuals in Conflict

To live before the revolution is in many ways to be alive in the best of times. Radicals who lived and worked in America's Gilded Age, before the Great War in Europe disrupted our society and before the Bolshevik Revolution became a reality and then a disappointment, were alive in a time of great possibility. They were the beneficiaries of America's abundance: industrialization and urbanization had proceeded to the point where artists, intellectuals, and organizers could find full-time support for their activities. They lived at a time of significant unionization and labor agitation and in a period when the Socialist party recorded impressive and encouraging electoral gains. Moreover, they even benefited from the imperialism they opposed: America's rise to a world power brought with it an increasing cosmopolitanism and receptivity to European ideas, including those of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

The difficulty for radicals in this period lay in the fact that they were not committed to a narrow political ideal. Christopher Lasch has demonstrated in his study of this generation that they attached much greater importance to a cultural transformation of America than they did to political reform per se.1 Their concern was for the quality of American life and of their own. As a result, they erected an elusive, perhaps even impossible, standard for their own achievement. They would have to succeed in all of their many roles despite the contradictory demands imposed by each: as artist, political propagandist, educator, intellectual, feminist, Freudian, bohemian. Success demanded tremendous energy and even greater powers of resolution and synthesis.

The radicals associated with The Masses, a socialist literary and political magazine published in New York between 1911 and 1917, were chosen as the basis of this study because their lives represent a variety of attempts to resolve the fundamental conflict confronting left-wing artists and intellectuals in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The premise behind this study is

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