Whatever Happened to American Idealism?

by Hans Rollman

16 June 2017

Young Radicals reminds us that idealism and progressive radicalism are not terms of insult; they are core American values that America needs desperately to rediscover.
 
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Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals

Jeremy McCarter

(Random House)
US: Jun 2017

For much of the 21st century—like the decades preceding it—idealism has seemed in short supply in America. As the country lurches from dubious democracy to outright oligarchy, and the fledgling achievements of the Civil Rights era are back-pedaled into barely veiled disenfranchisement and targeted violence against black Americans and other minorities, idealism has seemed the scarcest resource in a country where hope itself has inexorably dwindled. Even the country’s dissenters—
those pundits and politicians who challenge whatever status quo holds sway in the halls of Washington and board rooms of Wall Street—seem more intent on proving the legitimacy of their own voices than proving the legitimacy of any high ideals.

However, suggests Jeremy McCarter, the spirit of radicalism and idealism may be returning to America. As his book went to print in early 2017 he witnessed the march of a nation against the president it found itself saddled with; a president who seemed to embody all of the country’s most terrible qualities.

Perhaps he’s right, and something is awakening in the American soul. Perhaps it requires great struggle against the most formidable and despicable of foes to break through the collective cynicism of a country disillusioned with its ideals; to quicken a people’s heart and enable them to believe in the potential for progress once again.

Driven in part by the hope this might be the case, McCarter looks back to a former century for inspiration. Young Radicals might appear on the surface to be a group biography, but its subject is actually the spirit of an age. McCarter explores the progressive-minded radical idealism of the 1910s, an era which produced some of the century’s greatest hopes and greatest horrors. In America: socialism and suffrage. Internationally: world war and the Russian Revolution.

Behind the fury of events and ideas were vibrant, living people, and McCarter weaves his narrative primarily around the stories and struggles of five of them. Walter Lippmann starts off the tale as an employee of the newly elected Socialist mayor of Schenectady, New York; he quickly grows disgusted with the municipal administration’s failure to implement serious socialism and embarks on his own career as a writer and journalist, helping to found The New Republic magazine and eventually serving as advisor to presidents.

Alice Paul: the Quaker who learned militant resistance from the suffragettes in Britain and brought it back to America where she fought for women’s right to vote, and broader equality, until her death in 1977. John Reed, swashbuckling journalist, poet, and playwright who produced the most famous chronicle of the Russian Revolution, tried to kickstart communism in America, and died as a member of the fledgling Soviet government in 1920, the only American to be honoured with burial at the Kremlin. Max Eastman, editor of the radical journal The Masses. And Randolph Bourne, radical writer and essayist whose refusal to commit himself to any ideological stricture was no doubt aided in part by his tragically early death.

The five core characters, and the many others who came into their orbits, were united by more than just their radical organizations, journals, and Greenwich Village roots. There was a spirit in the air. America was idealistic. People believed they could identify the country’s problems, and by thinking about them, solve them. There was a deep-seated faith that the answers were out there; a faith that coincided with the birth or maturing of doctrines that would go on to play an important role in 20th century history: feminism, socialism, communism, internationalism, transnationalism. There was a concomitant belief in the power of art to change the world—non-commercial; radical; political art—art for and by artists, not for or by corporate profit or state-sponsored regimes.

There was a purity to the struggle and idealism of the era, or at least McCarter helps it to appear that way in hindsight.

Of course, he handles his characters with passion, but also integrity. He knows they weren’t perfect. Alice Paul’s suffrage militancy collaborates with white supremacists. John Reed and Max Eastman both wind up disillusioned after their first-hand experiences as part of the Russian revolutionary regime. Walter Lippmann becomes an apologist for America’s involvement in World War I, lured in by the prospect of influence at the highest levels of power in Washington.

But the gradual evolution of these characters is at least as instructive, and important, as the genesis of their radical idealism.

Biography of an Era

McCarter’s subjects at first appear to be a disparate, random grouping of intellectuals and activists, waging their own struggles and lives, linked here and there by common causes and employers. But what gradually emerges—and McCarter does a consummate job in breathing it slowly into life—is a common spirit of idealism and radicalism that animates not only this core of characters but also the movements and people around them. From the arts to politics to journalism and more, every field of endeavor seems infused by this sense of grappling with big ideas. No matter where the characters turn their energy, their projects take on a sense of fundamental radical importance.

During a summer break, John Reed, Louise Bryant and several others form what would become the famous Provincetown Players, at first just for a lark but they take it so seriously it develops a life of its own (in the process they accidentally discover and recruit Eugene O’Neill, who would go on to become what many consider America’s greatest playwright). The theatre troupe’s constitution, drafted during an intense 24-hour writing session by Eastman, Reed, and a couple of others, deeply resembles the manifesto for their radical journal The Masses, grappling with issues of democratic and artistic control by the artists themselves, and dedicated to presenting the sorts of things capitalism would not be interested in. The two projects—and countless others during these few years—are really one and the same.

The same radicals, pursuing the same dreams, facing the same problems: The Masses and the Provincetown Players are, at heart, twin children of the zeitgeist. Both explicitly reject the limiting, falsifying effects of commercial production. Both see a true and honest reckoning with the facts of American life as a step toward liberation. Both proceed not with doggedness, but with a light heart. There is, in both, a lively spirit of play.

The First World War is a constant backdrop to the throbbing beat of this zeitgeist, both tempering and quickening it. America watches in horror as Europe—heretofore considered by many the apex of the civilized world—descends into barbarous, self-destructive bloodshed. President Woodrow Wilson is initially determined to keep America out of the war, and public sentiment (along with the radicals) are on his side. Yet as the war drags on, so do the cries for America to do something, especially when growing numbers of American vessels and passengers wind up as unintended casualties of German U-Boats in the Atlantic.

Yet for the time being America rests atop its moral high ground, preaching peace to both sides, ready and waiting to help the world rebuild whenever the war ends. Wilson’s administration sends a moralizing message to both sides: no matter who wins, the war will have been a setback for human civilization, and whatever settlement ends the war must not be grounded in vengeance but in ensuring that new systems are put in place to prevent war from ever erupting again. The government itself seems tinged with the idealism of the era. ‘Peace without victory’ is the call coming from the White House; it is, perhaps, the last stand of institutionalized American idealism and morality.

When more American casualties pile up, and when the Germans not only refuse to rein in their U-Boats but are caught trying to provoke Mexico into a war with the United States, Wilson’s administration finally opts for war (they weren’t entirely hapless victims: militarists and would-be war profiteers at high levels had been advocating for participation in the war for years). But even then, they attempt to varnish it with a moralistic sheen. Granted, war-making American administrations have always claimed they were fighting for some high ideal, but Wilson gives his vision a bit more substance: not only a war for democracy, but he suddenly injects the new vision of a League of Nations, a super-governing global body with the power to prevent future wars, into the mix. It’s a fitting capstone to this radical moment that even the most institutionalized ‘Establishment’ figure, the president, clings on to a radical idea as well.

In many ways, Young Radicals is an innovative history of the First World War. While it engages a broader range of subject matter than just the war, it also offers an important history of the war from the perspective of how it impacted progressive and radical socio-political movements in America. When America finally enters the war it signals a crack in American utopianism and idealism. From the dubious idealism of President Wilson’s administration and its efforts to stay out of the war, to the split in the left caused by America’s eventual entry, the war impacted American progressivism just as powerfully as these young radicals impacted the war. And impact it they did, by challenging its repressive anti-sedition and anti-espionage legislation, which wound up shutting down radical papers like The Masses and eventually deporting hundreds of radicals to Russia after the war. Yet amidst these defeats, the radicals had victories, too, defending themselves from prison and worse in passionately argued court cases. Much of our popular ideals of free speech were shaped in pivotal ways during this period.

One major impact the war had on the radicals was in splitting their ranks, between those (like Lippmann) who bought the government’s claim that it was fighting for democracy, peace and other high ideals; and those who saw America’s entry into the war as treachery and imperialism. These latter included not only radical socialists like Eastman and Reed but also Paul and her suffrage movement, which rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of a government that claimed it was going to war for democracy while it denied democracy to tens of millions of women voters at home.

Lippmann himself became an ideologue for the President’s war-making, narcissistically convinced he would help craft the post-war new world order. When finally faced with the fact of both his exclusion from decision making and the failure of America to achieve the idealistic post-war treaty it sought, he seeks redemption by working to scuttle the fatally flawed treaty. Interestingly, President Wilson himself becomes almost a sixth core character, ostensibly the farthest thing from a radical (as President) yet almost helplessly sharing in the radical and idealistic spirit of the age despite himself.

Young Radicals is a beautiful book; a desperately-needed book for the present era. The prose is passionate and poetic; the narrative is fast-moving, riveting and resonates with the very idealism that its author seeks to explore. McCarter writes with passion and integrity. It’s a book that renders hope real again, and reminds us that idealism and progressive radicalism are not terms of insult; they are core American values that America needs desperately to rediscover. It’s only ever idealism that has driven America forward, notes McCarter in closing. In a dark era like the present, it’s more vital than ever to (re)discover and cling to the most audacious ideals, for they are the only bulwark against the destructive power of cynicism.

Whatever happens, we ought to be braced by the example of the young radicals: how they discovered their ideals, made a decision to fight for them, and went on fighting even when the battle turned against them. Their defeats were painful, but not final. Battles for ideals never are. Ruins stop being ruins when you build with them.

Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals

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