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

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview

Chapter 9 Art in the Class Struggle: The Personal Politics of The Masses' Radicals, 1911-1917

As a socialist literary and political magazine, The Masses ( 1911-17) claimed to be heir to the Marxist tradition of using art as a weapon in the class struggle. It accepted the goal of consciousness-raising and repudiated any pretensions to "art for art's sake." Its members rushed to the battlefronts and picket lines to report the ebb and flow of socialist success; they, too, marched, were jailed and martyred. But their commitment to socially conscious art was tentative at best. The Masses remained a magazine of "free expression," open to a wide range of opinion, much of it bearing little resemblance to orthodox socialism.

The Masses was heir to the muckraking movement, a phenomenon so brief and transitory that it scarcely could be called a tradition. Turn-of-the-century journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and others leveled their attack not on capitalism per se but on its individual corruptions. Their discontent was reflected in the novels of Booth Tarkington, Frank Norris, David Graham Phillips, Winston Churchill, and Upton Sinclair. In both reportage and fiction, according to Joseph Freeman, the younger generation of intellectuals grew accustomed to two powerful ideas: "first, that American capitalism was corrupt from top to bottom; second, that art and politics were closely related."1 Since the muckrakers were native-born Americans, their limited social critique could lay the foundations for an indigenous radicalism.2

Like the muckrakers, a number of new radicals embraced journalism as the best available means of bringing their message to a mass audience. Jack London pioneered "the alliance of realism in literature and socialism" -- what Floyd Dell dubbed the "journalistic" trend -- and John Reed, Arturo Giovannitti, and Michael Gold refined the genre:

Such journalism was radical, even revolutionary, because it implied that the journalist must not merely be the mirror of events, but a partici-

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