A Brief History of The Masses
A revolutionary and not a reform magazine— a free magazine; 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 moneymaking press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers— there is room for this publication in America.
—John Reed, 1913
This was The Masses. Hilarious, creative, controversial, free-thinking, and free-loving. In just a seven-year span, from 1911 to 1917, the magazine made a legendary mark. Its contributors wrote about strikes, birth control, wealthy politicians, lazy businessmen, dangerous working conditions, socialism, and prostitution. Some called it their written Savior. Others dismissed it, either as smut or the plaything for young dilettantes.
The Masses paid harshly for its irreverent, radical message. The U.S. entry into World War I forced the magazine to adapt its irreverence into a concerted protest against U.S. militarism. And the refusal of the editors to back away from their anti-war position soon led to government censorship and prosecution, culminating in one of the most stunning courtroom dramas of the twentieth century.
As the United States today engages in war, the experiences of The Masses seem both timely and disconcerting. To be certain, we are not living in a time where writing "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers," results in a ten-year prison sentence as it did for radical Rose Pastor Stokes during World War I. While the story of The Masses reminds us that freedom of the press is never sacrosanct, it also suggests that the right is not the only threat to the left’s freedom of expression.
The Masses, founded in 1911 by Dutch immigrant Piet Vang, was initially just like any other radical publication: indignant, provocative, but ultimately mostly dry and theoretical. However, when Max Eastman was appointed editor in 1912, he immediately set about changing the magazine. In the first issue under his editorship, he wrote, "Our appeal will be to the masses, both Socialist and non-Socialist, with entertainment, education, and the livelier kinds of propaganda."
The Masses soon attracted some of the best journalists and artists of its time. Writers like John Reed (who would later write 10 Days That Shook the World), Mary Heaton Vorse (the premier labor journalist of her time), and Floyd Dell (a fiction writer who became literary editor in 1913), injected The Masses with an overwhelming enthusiasm for social change. Artists such as Art Young (a burly and hilarious man who combined Thomas Nast-influenced drawings with socialist content) and John Sloane (pioneer of what came to be known at the Ash Can school of art) brought humor, realism, and beauty to the magazine’s pages.
The magazine reported on everything from the labor movement to the military tendencies of the Boy Scouts. Its writers poked fun of pot-bellied politicians, wealthy capitalists, society ladies, and puritanical socialists alike. The magazine continually made fun of itself and the rest of the radical movement. In the process, it often angered activists such as Emma Goldman, who thought the magazine should adopt a more serious tone in fitting with the serious problems of the times.
"The Masses was and maybe still is one of the few journals on the left that could make fun of itself as well," explains labor historian Nick Salvatore. "That’s not to say that they took their politics lightly, but I think they had an understanding of human absurdity." Similarly, Dan North, son of New Masses editor Joseph North, recalled one of his favorite Masses cartoons. "It shows a fat plutocrat dragging a prostrate woman before a judge and saying, ‘Your honor, this woman gave birth to a naked child!’ That was vintage Masses stuff. Good satire beats self-righteous proclamations every time."
The Masses’ unique combination of humor, art, and politics was threatened in 1915 by the growing possibility of U.S. entry into World War I. Americans had elected Woodrow Wilson to the presidency in 1916 based largely on his promise to keep the U.S. out of the conflict. But after re-election, Wilson began openly agitating for war.
The mission of The Masses suddenly became more complicated. The magazine that prided itself on its lack of ideology or dogma decided that it had to take a stand against the war. The position alienated some contributors. In March 1917, Eastman circulated an anti-war petition among the artists and writers and asked them to sign it. Artist George Bellows refused. In his letter to Eastman he wrote:
The Masses has no business with a "policy." It is not a political paper and will do better without any platform. Its "policy" is the expression of its contributors. They have the right to change their minds continually, looking at things from all angles.
Although most contributors signed the policy, the change was significant. The Masses began publishing more serious articles than ever before, and did so alongside satirical drawings of wealthy politicians gazing off into the distance as dead soldiers piled up on flat European fields.
With the Socialist Party divided over whether to support U.S. intervention, The Masses became one of the few periodicals that consistently printed articles against the war. One issue carried James Hopper’s description of a dead French soldier:
On the stretcher lay a little dead piou-piou in red pants. His head was covered with a blue sweater which recalled to me the days of coming winter when all the women of France had been knitting. He lay on his stomach, his knees brought up slightly beneath him, as if he had been struck while vigorously butting forward, and because of this position, which shortened him, and because of the gay red pants, he looked like a child.
The Masses’ contributors knew too much about government censorship to expect that they would be able to continue to protest the war openly. In the April 1917 issue, Reed wrote, "War means an ugly mob— madness crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists, side-tracking reforms, revolutions, and the working of social forces." Then in June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, making many forms of speech unlawful, including those that tried to obstruct the recruiting of soldiers.
About three weeks later, The Masses received a letter from the postmaster of New York City, informing them that the August issue was "unmailable." Eastman demanded to know why, and after some legal wrangling, Judge Learned Hand revealed that four cartoons and three editorials were to blame. The cartoons included: a drawing of the Liberty Bell breaking apart, a drawing titled "Making the World Safe for Capitalism," a wheel of destruction called "Conscription," and an Art Young drawing of arm dealers bossing around Congress, saying, "Run along now! We got through with you when you declared war for us!" The editorials included two by Eastman, one defending Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman’s anti-draft activism, and another opposing their imprisonment, and an unsigned article (by Floyd Dell) advocating for conscientious objection.
Judge Hand, a staunch defender of civil liberties, ruled on behalf for The Masses. He said that the pieces in question "fall within the scope of that right to criticize which is normally the privilege of the individual in countries dependent upon the free expression of opinions as the ultimate source of authority." But the postmaster did not stop there. He filed an appeal and brought the case before the small, conservative town of Windsor, Vermont. He sought out the most conservative judge he could find. The judge intentionally delayed his ruling, thus harming The Masses, which depended, as all magazines do, on mailing its product to subscribers in a timely manner.
What happened next seems more like a cruel joke than the rulings of a judiciary system. When Eastman presented the September issue for mailing, the postmaster informed him that he was revoking The Masses’ second-class mailing privileges on the grounds that, since it had not mailed its August issue, it was no longer a regularly published periodical!
The fiasco soon came to a close. A three-judge court overturned Judge Hand’s verdict and declared The Masses officially "unmailable." The magazine could not survive without the use of the mails. The November/December issue was its last. On the same day The Masses closed up shop, its staff heard news of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. "It was as though we had achieved the revolution and could now take a rest," Eastman recalled.
The Masses’ troubles were far from over, however. Although the magazine had stopped publishing, in 1918 the government charged several Masses contributors— Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Art Young, John Reed, H.J. Glintenkamp, Merrill Rogers, and Josephine Bell— with violating the Espionage Act.
The case, United States v. Eastman et al., charged the seven artists and writers with conspiracy to obstruct enlistment. A guilty verdict would mean 20 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. The chances of conviction were real. In Los Angeles, the director of a Revolutionary War film called The Spirit of ’76 was sentenced to 10 years in prison because, as the judge said, the film tended "to question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain." (The case, incidentally, was officially called U.S. v. Spirit of ’76.) In South Dakota, a farmer named Fred Fairchild was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for saying, "If I were of conscription age and had no dependents and were drafted, I would refuse to serve. They could shoot me, but they could not make me fight." On and on it went. By war’s end, over 900 people were sent to prison under the Espionage Act.
The seven defendants approached trial with great fear and uncertainty. However, in typical Masses fashion, they kept their sense of humor. They sent out postcards to their friends that read, "We expect you for the— shh!— weekly sedition. Object: Overthrow of the Government. Don’t tell a soul."
The trial, which opened on April 15, 1918 in New York’s City Hall, became quite a spectacle. As it was going on, a Liberty Bond rally was being held on the street. The sounds of "The Star Spangled Banner" could be heard in the courtroom. Merrill Rogers, The Masses business editor, immediately stood at attention, with a solemn and mock patriotic stance. The judge, Learned Hand’s cousin, Augustus Hand, had no choice. He stood, too. Then the entire courtroom had to stand. Twenty minutes later, the band played the song again. Again, Rogers stood up, and the whole fiasco repeated itself. This happened no less than four times, after which the judge declared, "I think we shall have to dispense with this ceremony from now on."
The defendants took different approaches to the trial. Some, like Eastman and Dell, spent their time on the stand lecturing about socialism, conscientious objection, and civil liberties. Others, like Art Young, preferred to spend their time mocking their surroundings. Young slept through most of the trial. He later drew a picture of one of his naps, which he titled, Art Young on Trial for His Life. Even Floyd Dell later commented, "One may not smoke, or read, or whisper much, or laugh at all. And this, to such as have not yet got used to it, is one of the serious hardships of being on trial."
Josephine Bell, the Masses poet, had her charges dropped after the judge could not understand how her rambling, free verse piece could even be considered a poem. The others, Reed and Glintenkamp, could not attend the trial, as they were in Russia and Mexico, respectively. The jury would return several days later, unable to reach a verdict. Eleven were in favor of conviction, with one for acquittal. The defendants were free.
In the meantime, Eastman had started a new magazine, The Liberator. Unlike The Masses, The Liberator deliberately toned down its articles and drawings to pass the censor. The magazine supported Wilson’s war effort and the League of Nations. John Reed resigned from the editorial board in disgust.
A year later, however, the government decided to retry The Masses. This time, Reed was present, and spoke eloquently about his beliefs. When asked his feelings on class war, he replied, "Well, to tell you the truth, it’s the only war that interests me." Eastman also spoke intelligently, and at great length. He ended three days of testimony with some concluding remarks on socialism:
It is either the most beautiful and courageous mistake that hundreds of millions of mankind ever made, or else it is really the truth that will lead us out of misery, anxiety, and poverty, and war, and strife and hatred between classes, into a free and happy world. In either case it deserves your respect.
Eugene Debs later called Eastman’s speech "a masterpiece… [which] will stand as a classic in the literature of revolution."
For his part, the prosecutor, Earl B. Barnes, concluded his case with solemn words about a friend of his who died in the war:
Somewhere in France he lies dead, and he died for you and he died for me. He died for Max Eastman, he died for John Reed. He died for Floyd Dell. He died for Merrill Rogers. His voice is but one of the thousand silent voices that demand that these men be punished!
A few seconds before, Young had woken up. Upon hearing Barnes’s words, Young leaned back on his chair and cried out, "What! Didn’t he die for me, too?" The courtroom burst into laughter, and the intended effect of the prosecutor’s speech was ruined. And once again, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, with four in favor of conviction and eight for acquittal. This was the last trial for The Masses.
In the years that followed, Reed would return to Russia, where he died of typhus in 1920. He was buried in the Kremlin Wall. Floyd Dell settled down and spent his time writing fiction. Art Young continued to draw political cartoons and satires and later became active in the Communist Party. Max Eastman was one of the first Americans to point out the dangers of Stalin in the 1930s and ’40s. However, in the ’50s his politics took a turn to the right. He accepted a job editing The Reader’s Digest and supported Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings.
In 1924, The Liberator merged with The Labor Herald and became The Worker’s Monthly, an official paper of the Communist party. In 1926, a magazine calling itself The New Masses appeared. Doctrinaire, serious, and often rigid in its thinking, it bore little resemblance to the old Masses. "Neither the Masses nor the Liberator would have recognized its final left-handed… offspring," wrote poet and old Masses contributor Louis Untermeyer.
As Dan North, now a labor activist, told me, "The Party membership of the leading editors such as my father placed the magazine firmly under Party control. The U.S. Communist Party was never known for its sense of humor. It was not friendly to experimentation or competing ideas. My father and others chafed under these conditions. But they were so committed to the Party’s work against economic inequality, racism and fascism that they obeyed the dead hand of conformity."
The New Masses, to its credit, did publish the work of writers including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and so its reputation may actually be a bit richer than is normally seen. Still, the original, free-thinking spirit of The Masses was gone. With its beautiful drawings, irreverent cartoons, controversial articles, and unconventional cast of characters, The Masses left behind no equal.
The Masses provides an important lesson for the left. None of the leading political magazines today even approach the level of humor, satire, and hard news reporting. "Nothing quite like it," Howard Zinn noted in a recent interview. "The Progressive and The Nation are not as radical, but I suppose that is as close as we can come. But none of them have the cultural figures that The Masses had." For historian Nick Salvatore, "The Onion sort of carries on the tradition today, but in a different way." And thus, as one reads over old issues of The Masses, one cannot help but agree with John Reed, who declared in 1913, "There is room for this publication in America."
MADELEINE BARAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.