YOUNG RADICALS: IN THE WAR FOR AMERICAN IDEALS (2017)
Random House, 340 pages.
I didn’t like this book; I adored it! It is so well written that it reads like novel. Among the unorthodox things Jeremy McCarter has done is pen it in the present tense. Another is to make its major theme the death of idealism. Or perhaps I should say its betrayal.
McCarter, a Chicago-based writer and critic, turns his gaze to the first two decades of the 20th century, a time in which American socialism sprouted, blossomed, and was pulled up by the roots—its dreams of a global cooperative community sacrificed upon World War One’s altar of militarism, nationalism, greed. Rather than tell this tale through the usual channels of analyzing historical forces, material conditions, and mounting tensions, McCarter shows how larger dramas played out in the lives of five fascinating characters: Max Eastman (1883-1969), John Reed (1887-1920), Alice Paul (1885-1977), Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), and Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). He chose well, as between them, they moved in circles that represented the numerous strains within American culture.
The book’s title is apt, for the five radicals were indeed young and were, in their own ways, warriors within the “war for American ideals.” If you associate socialism with glum Russian apparatchiks, think again. Max Eastman was the editor of The Masses, a publication that was as much bohemian as socialist. Its pages supported labor unions, social equality, and pacifism, but also sported graphic art, poetry, and fiction that ranged from agit-prop to whimsical. It survived on a hope, serendipitous donations, and Eastman’s dogged determination to keep it afloat.
Journalist “Jack” Reed was an energetic swashbuckler crossed with a frat boy. He seduced and exasperated, pontificated at one moment and betrayed his half-baked views the next, pissed off his friends as he exhaled and charmed them on the inhale. He was the very scarred embodiment of a fast, hard, full, short life. He needed to be where the action was, which is why he didn’t allow a lost kidney to keep him out of Europe as war clouds gathered and why he was a firsthand witness to the Russian Revolution.
Alice Paul wasn’t good at moderation either. Like a reckless campus radical, she put her body on the line for the cause of suffrage and wore out others in the process, including Inez Milholland Boissevain who died from taking part in Paul-orchestrated non-stop agitation. Paul’s was a world of picketing, workhouse internments, force-feedings, and embarrassing President Wilson. One of the book’s many revelations is the depth of mutual contempt between Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt saw Paul as an impetuous troublemaker who threatened her careful one-state-at-a-time strategy and nearly cost Wilson the White House; Paul saw Catt as a self-aggrandizer willing to tolerate the status quo to be an insider player in the Wilson administration.
The latter charge was also leveled at Lippmann, with some justification. Lippmann, who co-founded the New Republic, was an intellectual who had trouble reconciling idealism and pragmatism. As war loomed, he jettisoned socialism for liberalism and joined Wilson’s team in the vain hope that the war would “make the world safe for democracy.” Lippmann actually wrote most of Wilson’s famed 14-Points, but their abandonment led him to leak an internal document that doomed Wilson’s nationwide campaign for the League of Nations.
A good tale requires a tragic figure and few were more so than Randolph Bourne. His was one of the most inventive minds of his day. Bourne dreamt of transnational identities, cosmopolitanism, and universal citizenship decades before Greenwich Villagers imagined themselves global villagers. His capacious mind was housed in a sickly hunchbacked body that he felt was doomed to be unloved. He was wrong; the beautiful free spirited actress Esther Cornell seems to have accepted his marriage proposal, only for Bourne to perish in the postwar influenza epidemic.
The postwar fallout took more than Bourne with it. Socialism’s promise also faded—not just because of wartime repression and the postwar Red Scare—but because idealists often battled with each other, and bitterly so over the war. It has been said that World War One was the only war wished into being by the left. Though somewhat hyperbolic, roughly half of U.S. socialists—including Lippmann and John Dewey—supported the conflict. Pro-war socialists were mistaken. History would soon judge the Great War a disaster in nearly every way one can measure such things. Ideals such as transnationalism gave way to cynicism and insularity. Paul would hold fast to her principles, but Eastman and Lippman would embark on several journeys between left, center, and right before settling into contrarianism.
McCarter’s book is a masterpiece of forgotten and overlooked detail. It is also an examination of how dream worlds and officialdom overlapped and separated. The book is so compellingly written that I shall refrain from quoting so you can make your own discoveries and savor the richness of its prose. Kudos to McCarver for restoring the “story” in history and making tales come alive in real time. One can dispute whether the hopes of McCarter’s five young radicals were admirable or misguided, but there is something tragic in the observation that we now live in a world too parochial to conceive of globalism in non-economic terms.
University of Massachusetts Amherst