In the War for American Ideals
by Jeremy McCarter
Random House, 2017, 400 pages
What is radicalism really about? When does it make sense? Do we need it now?
These seem to be impossibly abstract questions. At first glance, everything turns on the substantive commitments of those who purport to be radical. Do they believe in theocratic rule? In authoritarianism? In decentralization? In economic growth? In liberalism? In the collapse of liberalism? In property rights? In free markets? In self-government? In liberty? In freedom from discrimination on the basis of race and sex? In executing or imprisoning political enemies?
In Young Radicals, Jeremy McCarter explores the lives and views of five American radicals, who thought that society had to be remade in fundamental ways. John Reed, Alice Paul, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, and Walter Lippmann are his cast of characters. I want to use McCarter’s account to cast light on five enduring radical “types”: Manicheans, democrats, identitarians, propagandists, and technocrats. All of them should be immediately recognizable today, especially on the political left. (Importantly, we can find analogues on the right as well.)
I will suggest, with some qualifications, that we do not need Manicheans, propagandists, and identitarians. (I will be especially hard on the first and last of these.) But we do need democrats, or at least a certain kind of them. Insofar as she opposed something like a caste system, Alice Paul was an American hero. We also need technocrats, whom we will not be able to categorize in ideological terms. In a period in which expertise of all kinds is under serious pressure, we are past due for a Lippmann revival. Some of his work is clunky, and some of it seems dry and desiccated; it is not exactly teeming with life. But it speaks directly to our current situation.
Was there ever a writer like John Reed? Swashbuckling, mischievous, exuberant, and vain, he was both impossible and difficult to resist. Here’s how McCarter introduces him: “John Reed prowls the docks, laughing with the sailors, chatting up the whores.”
Walter Lippmann knew Reed well, and in an affectionate, merciless profile, titled “Legendary John Reed,” he ridicules Reed’s initial attempts to embrace socialism: “He made an effort to believe that the working class is not composed of miners, plumbers, and working men generally, but is a fine, statuesque giant who stands on a high hill facing the sun.” Disdaining one of the most celebrated young journalists of the time, Lippmann proclaims, “By temperament he is not a professional writer or reporter. He is a person who enjoys himself. Revolution, literature, poetry, they are only things which hold him at times, incidents merely of his living . . . I can’t think of a form of disaster which John Reed hasn’t tried and enjoyed.” But he also offered a tribute: “Wherever his sympathies marched with the facts, Reed was superb.”
Reed began his career as a poet as well as a journalist, making his reputation with jubilant, silly, memorable verses about Greenwich Village and its various bohemians: “O Life is a joy to a broth of a boy / At Forty-Two Washington Square!” He offered his own merciless portrait of Lippmann:
Our all-unchallenged Chief! But were there one
Who builds a world, and leaves out all the fun,—
Who dreams a pageant, gorgeous, infinite,
And then leaves all the color out of it,—
Who wants to make the human race, and me,
March to a geometric Q.E.D.—
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if walter l. were he?
As McCarter puts it, Reed became, for various radicals and dissidents, “part crown prince, part jester,” and much of McCarter’s book can be read as a tale of the pitched battle between the legendary John Reed, perpetually young, and that “all-unchallenged Chief,” middle-aged before his time. But Reed also had a serious streak. He was a Manichean, because the struggle between good and evil excited him, and because it gave his life a kind of meaning. (I speculate that he felt empty inside. I mean that as a general point about some radicals.) Eastman, editor of the socialist magazine the Masses, read Reed’s stories and ran them, and made him part of the journal’s small, informal editorial board. Together, they wrote the magazine’s manifesto, which sounds like Reed’s self-understanding:
A revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable; 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 a field for this publication in America.
While writing for the Masses, Reed created scenes, literally and figuratively. With radical friends and workers, he masterminded the performance of a play—“proof of concept of a kind of people’s art”—on Fifth Avenue. Displaying a picket line, the shooting of a striker, and the funeral procession, the play received national publicity. He had an affair with his patron, the wealthy heiress Mabel Dodge, who fell desperately in love with him. He became a war correspondent, pushing his way right to the middle of the Mexican Revolution, where he danced, drank, and sang with the rebels who followed Pancho Villa. When war broke out in Europe, he headed straight to Paris, “frantic to reach the front lines.” Returning to Greenwich Village, he became more sincerely radical, seeing war as a “capitalist swindle.” After Lippmann endorsed Theodore Roosevelt, Reed broke savagely with his old friend, accusing him of having betrayed his radical principles and supporting a monster. He broke up with Dodge and fell in love with Louise Bryant, a married writer.
After the United States entered World War I, Reed was devastated. He wrote numerous essays for the Masses, attacking both the logic and the justice of U.S. engagement. In 1917, he found his way to Russia, having been told that “the new world was being born there.” There he met Leon Trotsky, who dazzled him, explaining that the soviets (councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers) are “the most perfect representatives of the people—perfect in their revolutionary experience, in their ideas and objects.” Reed was entranced. He covered the Russian Revolution, eventually producing his classic, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). He hoped for a revolution in the United States, in which “the proletariat will finally lose its temper and rise,” and “blood will flow—in rivers.” No longer “a baffled, wayward reporter,” he became a genuine revolutionary, probably the most important Communist in the United States. As editor of the New York Communist, he got to know Lenin. He was prepared to take orders directly from Moscow, where the Bolsheviks created the Third Communist International, an organization that steered what it hoped would be the global revolution. Reed died of typhus in 1920, with Bryant holding his hand. In Moscow, he received a hero’s funeral. He was buried at the Kremlin.
Alice Paul grew up in a traditional Quaker family, whose members sometimes addressed each other as “thou,” but embraced highly advanced ideas about sex equality and a commitment to making the world a better place. Early on, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association and, working on her own, she effectively served as its congressional committee. On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, she organized a monumental suffrage parade in the very center of the nation’s capital. Two weeks later, she found herself in the White House face-to-face with the new president, who emphasized that his priorities were currency reform and tariff reform. “But, Mr. President,” Paul asked, “do you not understand that the Administration has no right to legislate for currency, tariff, and any other reform without first getting the consent of women to these reforms?” Wilson’s baffled response: “Get the consent of women?”
Paul became a thorn in Wilson’s side. Relentless, optimistic, inventive, and laser-focused, she started a magazine—the Suffragist—and founded the Congresssional Union for Woman Suffrage, whose purpose was to raise funds to fight to amend the Constitution. Later she created the National Women’s Party in order to bring political pressure to bear on those who did not support the suffrage amendment. As the war began, she redoubled her efforts, invoking the war itself and proclaiming:
We have no true democracy in this country, even though we are fighting for democracy abroad. Twenty million American citizens are denied a voice in their own government. We must let the public know that this intolerable situation exists because, toward women, President Wilson has adopted the attitude of an autocratic ruler.
Her message got through to her fellow citizens. With a huge crowd watching, two women unfurled a banner as Russian diplomats entered the White House gates: “We, the Women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy” (Eastman, Bourne, and Reed endorsed their efforts). Paul was arrested and jailed for unlawful picketing, where she faced horrendous conditions. “The food is vile beyond belief, consisting of worm-ridden pork, bug-ridden soup, and stale bread.” She refused to eat and was moved to the prison’s psychiatric ward. Through what can only be described as a form of torture, she was forcibly fed raw eggs through a tube. Her life was in danger, but she was suddenly released—possibly as a result of personal intervention from the president.
Wilson eventually came around and publicly supported the suffrage amendment. To the nation and Congress, he spoke very much as she had a few years before, arguing that the suffrage movement is a test of whether “we be indeed democrats, and wish to lead the world to democracy.” The House of Representatives voted for the amendment, but the Senate was unmoved.
Paul did not think that Wilson’s commitment was firm enough. In 1919, she arranged to have Wilson burned in effigy, right outside the White House. In June, Congress voted in favor of the amendment, and in 1920, the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For the next fifty years, Paul served as leader of the National Women’s Party, which worked to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, of which she was the original author back in 1923. She did not succeed. But at the age of seventy-nine, she played a key role in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex. That ban continues to have a major impact in American life, and is now essentially uncontested.
Born with a facial deformity and a hunchback, and just five feet tall, Randolph Bourne was a theorist of identity. In 1911, he wrote an unusual essay called “The Handicapped,” part of which was deeply personal:
When one, however, is in full possession of his faculties, and can move about freely, bearing simply a crooked back and an unsightly face, he is perforce drawn into all the currents of life. Particularly if he has his own way in the world to make, his road is apt to be hard and rugged, and he will penetrate to an unusual depth in his interpretation both of the world’s attitude toward such misfortunes, and of the attitude toward the world which such misfortunes tend to cultivate in men like him. For he has all the battles of a stronger man to fight, and he is at a double disadvantage in fighting them. . . . He is never confident of himself, because he has grown up in an atmosphere where nobody has been very confident of him; and yet his environment and circumstances call out all sorts of ambitions and energies in him which, from the nature of his case, are bound to be immediately thwarted.
His most influential essay was published in 1916. Titled “Trans-National America,” it celebrates the dismal failure of the American idea of the “melting pot.” With a few details tweaked, it could have been written this year. In Bourne’s view, the failure of the melting pot, “far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun.” What America is becoming is “not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”
With these ideas, Bourne was able to give new meaning to Josiah Royce’s idea of the “Beloved Community.” For Bourne, that ideal did not involve “mere doubtful triumphs of the past, which redound to the glory of only one of our transnationalities.” It would instead require a “future America, on which all can unite,” created as those who are different come to “understand each other more warmly.”
Bourne was also a vigorous opponent of American participation in World War I, and he lost his prominent position at the New Republic because of his beliefs. In his subsequent essays, relegated to journals with a much smaller readership, he deplored what he saw as his friends and colleagues’ betrayal of their shared ideals. “To those of us who still retain an irreconcilable animus against war, it has been a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which the American intellectuals have thrown their support to the use of war-technique in the crisis in which America found herself.” Some of his most characteristic words:
The intellectual who retains his animus against war will push out more boldly than ever to make his case solid against it. The old ideals crumble; new ideals must be forged. His mind will continue to roam widely and ceaselessly. The thing he will fear most is premature crystallization. If the American intellectual class rivets itself to a “liberal” philosophy that perpetuates the old errors, there will then be need for “democrats” whose task will be to divide, confuse, disturb, keep the intellectual waters constantly in motion to prevent any such ice from ever forming.
Bourne was always skeptical of “premature crystallization”—skepticism that was linked, I believe, to his rejection of the idea of the melting pot, which also involved a kind of crystallization and struck him as static and deadening. He died during the pandemic of 1918.
Max Eastman made his reputation as editor of the Masses, a position that he accepted reluctantly in 1912, when he was just twenty-nine years old. The magazine was effectively dead at the time; it was tedious and it had no money. But Eastman transformed it, making it funnier and bolder. He put color on the cover. He added fiction, satire, and poetry. He devoted the middle two pages of one issue to an illustration portraying the New York press as a whorehouse, in which a rich man, labeled “Big Advertisers,” has access to the prostitutes, “who are really the men working at a newspaper in incongruously silky dresses.” In terms of substance, Eastman’s most important decision was to refuse to choose between the pragmatic socialists like Lippmann, who wanted to win elections, and the radicals, who accepted the use of violence to combat capitalism. He made space for both positions.
Eastman’s changes rescued the magazine. A glimpse of his own writing: “The world can be significantly divided into those who are always glad when a convict escapes, and those who are always sorry—with a small remnant who use judgment about individual cases. I don’t use judgment about individual cases. I’m always glad.” (So Eastman was a Manichean as well.) More earnestly: “Another thing about the Income Tax is that it really offers a method by which a great big redistribution of wealth could be effected, if the right people got the power. By the right people I mean the revolutionary workers and their allies who have the courage to fight for a Great Big Redistribution.”
Like Bourne, Eastman vigorously opposed the war and, along with Reed, he repeatedly railed against it in the Masses. Eastman eventually faced serious criminal charges as a result of wartime legislation, which made it a crime to obstruct recruitment for military service. He was brought to trial, but thanks to a hung jury, he narrowly avoided jail. Ultimately, free speech did not prevail. As a result of the Espionage Act of 1917, the Masses had to close down.
Continuing his work, Eastman helped found another radical magazine, the Liberator. Like Reed, he became enraptured by what he saw as the success of the Russian Revolution—and lost his moorings. Despite having been a target of censorship himself, he wrote: “The most rigid political tyranny conceivable, if it accompanied the elimination of wage-slavery and continued to produce wealth, would increase the amount of actual liberty so much that the very sides of the earth would heave with relief.” Perhaps informed by his own experience, he argued, “So long as our civilization consists in its economic essence of a war between two classes, Free Speech will exist only at such times, or to such extent as may be harmless to the interests of the class in power.” A lifelong poet, he still wanted “to cultivate the poetry, but keep the poetry true to the science of the revolution.” (Good luck with that.)
Eastman decided to leave the United States to spend two years in Russia, to see (by his own account) whether what he had been writing was actually true. He did not like Stalin, and over the coming decades came to repudiate his previous thinking, describing socialism as “a dangerous fairy tale.” In the 1940s, he became a friend and admirer of Friedrich Hayek, socialism’s greatest critic. In the early 1950s, he supported Joseph McCarthy.
Though Lippmann began as a radical, he became an establishment figure, perhaps the most respected journalist in the United States, wined and dined by the nation’s leaders, including several presidents. In his early twenties, he embraced socialism. Later he was a cofounder of the New Republic, which rapidly became highly influential. Before the 1916 election, Woodrow Wilson himself courted Lippmann—and charmed him. “I have come around completely to Wilson,” he told a friend, and in October he endorsed him publicly as “a constructive nationalist” whose purpose was “liberal in scope.” He was invited to the White House.
When Wilson decided to join the war effort—a decision that Lippmann supported—he reached out to his friend, Newton Baker, the secretary of war, to seek employment with the War Department (in part, it appears, to avoid the draft). Baker obliged him. By all accounts, Lippmann did terrific work, impressing everyone, including many important figures in Washington. Even the famously skeptical Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. proclaimed him a “monstrous clever lad.” To his delight, Wilson chose Lippmann for diplomatic work related to the peace conference that would follow the war. As his old colleagues Bourne and Eastman rose in status in the antiwar camp—and became increasingly marginalized in the mainstream press—Lippmann was a figure of growing importance in the Wilson administration. After leaving the government, he returned to journalism, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and served as an occasional adviser to several presidents. In 1964, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His work ranged over numerous topics and, to say the least, is not easy to pigeonhole. But let’s bite the bullet: at his most interesting, Lippmann was a technocrat.
Models of Radicalism
Should these figures inspire us today? Should we follow them? Or should we look for other models?
To answer these questions, we need to ask what their goals were, and what they did to achieve them. Reed is an unforgettable character, and he produced some superb work, but what chiefly interested him was drama and bullets, not ideas, not substance, and not even people. He liked to divide the world into the good and the bad. It’s hard to find kindness in his work. In a way, he was merciless. His radicalism ultimately took the form of an ardent embrace of Soviet-style Communism. That’s not exactly admirable. Would he have embraced Hitler too? Probably not, but you can’t rule it out. There is no question that the Nazis would have excited him. He lived for excitement. He wanted to burn down the house. He craved life, and he understood it as a kind of tumult, a battle of big “isms.” We can see John Reed in many young radicals, Left or Right, who find something large and historic to demonize (religion, the New Deal, Statism, Liberalism, Modernity), and who are drawn above all to abstractions and transformational events, along with upheaval and destruction. A way to identify them: they hate what they hate more than they like what they like.
Bourne and Eastman certainly had strong moral commitments. Bourne was a man of deep feeling, and his life had great poignancy. He could easily become a hero to contemporary identitarians. (It is a bit of a puzzle that he hasn’t.) But on inspection, his arguments about transnational America are soupy and half-baked—less analysis than mood. Nor it is clear that they point anywhere. True, the metaphor of a melting pot is far too simple, but it captures an idea: a shared national identity, in which people with disparate racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds come to identify as distinctively American. That is an admirable ideal. It makes a form of civic equality possible; it softens social divisions; it is often friendly and kind. It’s not clear to what extent Bourne would repudiate that idea, or even what the idea of a transnational America really means.
Bourne was a precursor of the multiculturalists of the 1980s and 1990s, and of modern theorists and practitioners of identity politics. At their best, they capture people’s actual experiences, and their keen sense of exclusion and humiliation. That can be helpful and even important, but it is hardly a basis for reform. In fact it is not clear exactly what it does, aside from giving people a sense of having some kind of home. It is probably best understood as a plea, or a demand, for understanding and respect. That should not be diminished. But where exactly does it lead?
Eastman’s work for the Masses displays wit and verve, and he produced a massive amount. But for all his passion and productivity, and his sense of life, it’s not unfair (I think) to wonder how much he contributed to either theory or practice. Propagandists can help causes and disseminate ideas, but it’s reasonable to question whether they can leave much of a legacy. At their best, they are translators, in the sense that they take ideas and give them currency. If the ideas are good ones, great. For the most part, Eastman’s ideas were not good ones.
Paul and Lippmann are the inspiring figures, and they are inspiring for altogether different reasons. Paul devoted much of her life to making American democracy live up to its own ideals. She opposed systematic exclusion. She had a clear political vision—equality on the basis of sex—and for all her life, she stayed true to it. She was a radical about sex equality. She was relentlessly single-minded. She was right, and her views are now mainstream. Astonishingly, she changed the Constitution in a fundamental way, in the process making a massive mark on American law and life. There is a good argument that she belongs in an extended family with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as one of the nation’s founders.
For those who focus on how the United States falls short of democratic commitments, Paul provides a kind of compass. Those who speak for #MeToo, at its best, are following in her footsteps. If we want to generalize from what Paul did, we might suggest that she embraced a kind of anticaste principle, maintaining that morally irrelevant characteristics (gender, race) should not be turned into systematic sources of social disadvantage. An anticaste principle can claim deep roots in American theory and practice; it can be connected with the American Revolution itself, with its attack on the monarchical legacy, and its insistence on the equal dignity of human beings. Of course any anticaste principle needs specification. But it is a promising start for any attack, old or new, on practices that entrench and perpetuate injustice. Too many people are suffering from such practices.
By contrast, Lippmann’s most important work is a plea for a (heavily qualified) kind of technocracy. Lippman was a democrat, but a disaffected one, in the sense that the whole idea of self-government seemed to him misleading and simplistic. In his view, we need a stronger role for scientists and experts capable of overcoming the inevitable ignorance of the public. That was then, and is perhaps especially now, an iconoclastic position. In some circles, it is despised. But Lippmann’s arguments deserve sustained attention. It is time, I think, for a Lippmann revival. Above all, his 1922 book Public Opinion repays careful reading. It is clunky and labored, and no joy to read, but it is also astonishingly prescient.
Lippmann’s thesis is that our conception of democracy is fundamentally flawed. In his view, we are asking voters and the press for something impossible, which is a fully accurate understanding of the world. The environment in which we live “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” and so “we have to reconstruct it on a simpler basis before we can manage with it.” That simpler reconstruction is a “pseudo-environment,” constructed in diverse ways by and for different groups, with the inevitable result that people end up living in “different worlds.” More accurately, they live in the same world, but “think and feel in different ones.” Pseudo-environments are by nature full of falsehoods and fake news. Opinions are manipulated, and consent is manufactured.
Nor is the press a solution. “It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.” In the end, people “are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world.” And that “is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions.”
In Lippmann’s view, the last thing we need are earnest platitudes about governance by “We the People.” Of course the public is ultimately sovereign. But it needs to have, and to empower, “a system of analysis and record”—that is, a government structure that makes space for statisticians, scientists, and other experts, who will acquire reliable information, and make it available both to public officials and to the public. Lippmann insists on a large role for technocrats, who are subject to representative government, but who can disregard people’s beliefs in various “pseudo-environments” and help public officials to deal with the world as it actually is. “The real sequence should be one where the disinterested expert first finds and formulates the facts for the man of action,” with pride of place for the “experimental method in social science.”
Expertise is “the way to overcome the central difficulty of self-government, the difficulty of dealing with an unseen reality.” For those who worry about democratic ideals, Lippmann candidly insisted that his purpose “is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push the burden away from him towards the responsible administrator.” (So Reed had Lippmann exactly right: “Who wants to make the human race, and me, / March to a geometric Q.E.D.”)
To be sure, no one ever marched under a banner bearing the words “responsible administration.” But Lippmann was on to something important, and too often neglected. We are used to thinking that large-scale questions legitimately split people with different political convictions, and that what separates citizens, and nations, are values, not facts. But think about air pollution, food safety, infrastructure reform, the opioid epidemic, increases in the minimum wage, and highway deaths. If we can agree on the facts, it should be possible to agree about what to do, or at least narrow our disagreements.
We live in an era in which experts and technocrats are in disrepute. Obviously they can be arrogant or mistaken. They might act on the basis of their own values and interests, rather than their expertise. But good technocrats are aware of their own fallibility; they have a duty to disclose what they do not know (and to stay in their lanes). It is important to ensure, through institutional design, transparency, and democratic accountability, that they are not empowered to act on the basis of private or ideological interests. All that is true and important. But we need expert help to fix a broken train, to deal with a serious medical problem, or to figure out how to build a skyscraper. Many policy problems are very similar, or even the same. To deal with data privacy, health care reform, and infrastructure improvements, we need specialists who can resolve difficult issues of fact.
Not all issues are like that, of course. We are unlikely to sort out moral disputes simply by clearing up the facts. If the question is the relationship between church and state or whether to allow abortion, empiricists cannot tell us everything we need to know. Alice Paul was arguing on behalf of democratic equality, not on behalf of demonstrable facts about men and women (though they might turn out to be relevant).
These are important qualifications. But what made Lippmann’s argument noteworthy, and what gives it enduring appeal and its contemporary urgency, is his emphasis on the centrality of the “responsible administrator” to public decision-making—including when the most responsible form of administration is to rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on free markets. In the United States, and all over the world, there is far too much unnecessary suffering, often manifesting itself in premature death, mental illness, lack of opportunity, and chronic pain. We know enough to do a great deal about each of these.
That is not everything. But it is a lot. And as Lippmann said to his skeptics and colleagues—and to Eastman, Bourne, and above all Reed: “That is the radical way.”