“Inspiring and entertaining.”—David Brooks, The New York Times
“It’s not difficult to see why [Lin-Manuel] Miranda would have been attracted to [Jeremy] McCarter as a writing partner.”—The Wall Street Journal
“One of the exciting new nonfiction books this summer.”—Time
Where do we find our ideals? What does it mean to live for them—and to risk dying for them? For Americans during World War I, these weren’t abstract questions. Young Radicals tells the story of five activists, intellectuals and troublemakers who agitated for freedom and equality in the hopeful years before the war, then fought to defend those values in a country pitching into violence and chaos.
Based on six years of extensive archival research, Jeremy McCarter’s dramatic narrative brings to life the exploits of Randolph Bourne, the bold social critic who strove for a dream of America that was decades ahead of its time; Max Eastman, the charismatic poet-propagandist of Greenwich Village, whose magazine The Masses fought the government for the right to oppose the war; Walter Lippmann, a boy wonder of socialism who forged a new path to seize new opportunities; Alice Paul, a suffragist leader who risked everything to win women the right to vote; and John Reed, the swashbuckling journalist and impresario who was an eyewitness to—and a key player in—the Russian Revolution.
Each of these figures sensed a moment of unprecedented promise for American life—politically, socially, culturally—and struggled to bring it about, only to see a cataclysmic war and reactionary fervor sweep it away. A century later, we are still fighting for the ideals these five championed: peace, women’s rights, economic equality, freedom of speech—all aspects of a vibrant American democracy. The story of their struggles brings new light and fresh inspiration to our own.
Praise for Young Radicals
“In this lively, if at times swooningly earnest, portrait of artists, activists, writers and intellectuals, McCarter chronicles a moment in American history when ‘socialism, progressivism, modernism, and feminism all exploded at once.’”—Newsday
“A brisk pace and sympathetic portraits make for an entertaining, well-researched history of a decade marked by ebullience, hope, and pain.”—Kirkus Reviews
“McCarter’s prose is engaging, moving, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Recommended for young radicals today who want to understand past attempts to change the world in the face of repression.”—Library Journal (starred review)
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The future arrives on New Year’s Day, 1912. Walter Lippmann arrives with it.
The brisk young man strides into the city hall of Schenectady, New York. Black-haired, dark-eyed, rounded with baby fat: You might think him handsome, if he did anything that invited you to notice his looks. But he doesn’t. He has no time.
The future arrives that day because a socialist has become Schenectady’s mayor. Other American cities have elected socialist mayors—even larger cities, such as Milwaukee—but they have tended to be in the upper Midwest, a region tainted by alien enthusiasms for Lutheranism, social democracy, and beer. Schenectady, by contrast, is an old city Back East. If Mayor George Lunn can make socialism work here, it will mean a new chapter in the life of America’s cities. A journalist tracing the rapid spread of socialism that year says that Schenectady has an outsize significance because it “well reflected in miniature the economic and industrial problems that press upon the whole country for solution.”1
For Lippmann—arranging his desk outside the mayor’s office, making it just so—one problem presses harder than the rest: “the control of politics and of our life by great combinations of wealth.” The richest 1 percent of the population has about 40 percent of the wealth. In an era before Social Security, workers’ compensation, and effective limits on child labor, that disparity leaves an enormous underclass of poor families. Most Americans are one missed paycheck away from disaster.2
Socialists don’t agree on what to do about this. Some are ready for direct action, sabotage, dynamite. That’s not where Lippmann turns first. His socialism draws from the British Fabians: H. G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw. He wants to see socialists win elections and use their new authority to get rid of wasteful, plutocratic systems that make the rich richer.
Ruminating on the Fabians is not something that mayoral secretaries tend to spend a lot of time doing, but Lippmann is no ordinary secretary. Terrible at stenography (or so he claims) he receives delegations, takes part in planning sessions, and writes speeches—this last task being more impressive than it might sound, considering the texts that Reverend Lunn used to deliver before a congregation.3
Two months into Schenectady’s socialist era, Lippmann extols their early gains in an article for The Masses, a new socialist monthly published in New York City.
“The budget is done, and a splendid piece of work it is,” he enthuses.
(The Masses is not a very exciting magazine.)
Mayor Lunn and his allies have funded more training for mothers, better inspection of the milk supply, and a system for stockpiling ice for cheap distribution in the summer. All of it—even the new playgrounds—will cost less than the old administration’s programs, because of great improvements in coordination and efficiency.4
In other words, socialism in practice has begun, in a modest way, to bear out socialism in theory. Which means it has begun to back up the argument that Lippmann has been making to a prosperous businessman who is sharply skeptical of socialism: his dad.
“It is not the fantastic dream of unpractical men; it is not the cry of the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves’; it is not a thing which may work or may not,” he insisted to Jacob Lippmann a few years earlier, in the first flush of his zeal. “It is rather a hard-headed, sound, scientific business proposition, based on the theory that ‘united we stand, divided we fall,’ which is the next, logical, and practically inevitable phase of industrial society.”5
It’s all going according to plan—for him, for Schenectady, for socialism. He is tasting the pleasure—and is any pleasure sweeter?—of winning an argument with the old man. So why is he uneasy?
Day after day, sitting at his desk, he watches men arrive looking for their share of what he calls “this new heaven on earth which socialism promised them.” They are cold and hungry and out of work—dozens of them, hundreds of them. What can the mayor do for them?
Not much, Lippmann laments to a friend. Not nearly enough. “Inspect them a little closer for disease—give them a municipal skating rink and a concert! Tabulate a few more statistics of unemployment!”6
In his letters to Mom and Pop, Lippmann can expound socialism in tones so steady that they wouldn’t rattle a teacup. But make no mistake: His convictions have been tempered in flame. During his sophomore year at Harvard, a working-class suburb of Boston was devastated by a fire. Lippmann was one of the students who answered the call to help people in what was left of Chelsea. For the first time in his well-upholstered life, his abstract apprenticeship in socialist thought—all those pamphlets and manifestos—rose before him in three desperate dimensions: the smell of charred tenements, the crying widows, the children without homes. Those people had no government to help them, no resources at all.
Now Schenectady is going to fail them, too?
He starts listening a little more attentively to his older colleagues in those staff meetings. He notices that their talk is not quite as idealistic as it used to be. He hears timidity, a lack of reflection, phrasemaking. Worse than all the rest, he watches his colleagues console themselves—congratulate themselves—by saying they are scratching out their little victories at the expense of powerful special interests. He wishes that were true! He once spent a year helping the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens investigate Wall Street’s control of American life, particularly the tangled web of financial corruption in city governments. It taught him that the enemy of progress is rarely a small band of wicked plutocrats: It is a system that encompasses and draws its sustenance from everyone, even those who think themselves virtuous.
A sinister cabal isn’t the barrier to enacting the socialist policies that would help those poor families, he comes to see: It’s “the unwatered hinterland of the citizens of Schenectady.”7 If they really wanted socialism, if they were ready for it, they’d be getting it. But they’re not.
The gap between hope and reality brings him quickly to a crisis: Can he condone this sham exercise in socialism, let alone continue to be a part of it? For the first time in his overachieving life, he finds himself in a predicament with no clear way out.
What is to be done?
On one hand, he feels that he should stay on the job, make the best of it, and trumpet whatever success they attain, because he is a walking advertisement for socialism’s future. A lot of comrades have banked a lot of hope in him. He is an officer of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. He landed the Schenectady job because Morris Hillquit, one of the founders and leaders of the Socialist Party of America, recommended him to the mayor-elect. To quit would be an admission that he has failed.
On the other hand, the prospects for failure are growing by the day. Lunn was elected as a protest against the corruption of the old administration. Once he starts focusing on reelection, he’ll have to water down his socialism even more. Soon Lippmann’s job will force him to say and do things that are flatly false to his convictions.
In trimming his sails that way, he would be false to something even deeper than his socialism: his vast hope for his time. Everywhere Lippmann looks, he sees untapped resources, latent possibilities, a country with the capacity to leap ahead. He is a socialist because he thinks that central planning, informed by social science, offers American society the quickest possible route to an enlightened future. In an undergraduate magazine, he offered his view of what was unprecedented about the twentieth century: “Its shaping lies in our hands; for the first time in history an enlightened nation may consciously prepare the future to suit its own purposes.” That essay brought an unexpected visitor to his dorm-room door: the great philosopher William James, then in semiretirement, who had crossed Harvard Yard to express his admiration. Lippmann considered James to be the greatest living American, and getting to spend time with him the greatest thing that happened to him in college.8
This crisis in Lippmann’s young life reveals something new in his makeup: resourcefulness. Given a choice between two unpalatable options, he devises a third. It is a two-step plan—as logical and thorough as everything else he puts his mind to.
First, he quits. In early May, he cleans out his desk in city hall. He says his goodbyes. He returns to his parents’ home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, wincing at what must have been a slow, sly paternal smile.
Second, a few weeks later, in the pages of The New York Call, the country’s leading socialist publication, he writes a blistering attack on the failures of Mayor Lunn and his administration.
In “Schenectady the Unripe,” Lippmann explains why the city had betrayed everybody’s radical hopes: The citizens hadn’t been converted to socialism, which meant a socialist mayor would only let down the cause. But Lippmann offers this high-minded theoretical explanation amid a hailstorm of personal judgments: “untrained,” “immature,” “impotent.”9
The rebuttal from comrades is swift and severe. It comes first from Morris Hillquit, who is, after all, doubly implicated in Lippmann’s attack: He is a special adviser to Lunn’s administration, which means that Lippmann is insulting his work, and he is the party elder who vouched for Lippmann in the first place, which means that “Schenectady the Unripe” is a mess of Hillquit’s own making. He chastises his young comrade in the Call for the “singular reticence” he showed while in Schenectady, implying that Lippmann had simply given up.
Lippmann declines to be chastised, not even by a man of Morris Hillquit’s stature. He hits back hard, alluding to their “delightful conversations,” some of which happened in Hillquit’s own home: “I certainly have not forgotten how sympathetic he was, how much he agreed, and how little he did.”10
The essay and the combative exchange boost Lippmann’s profile in radical circles. He seems even more committed to socialism than anybody realized. Or is it the opposite?
America is “bursting with new ideas, new plans and new hopes,” he writes later that year. “The world was never so young as it is today, so impatient of old and crusty things.”11
When he returns from his attempt to kick-start the future, he is twenty-two years old.
John Reed prowls the docks, laughing with the sailors, chatting up the whores. The big Irish cops know him there, as do the Chinese in Chinatown and the Jews on the Lower East Side. He rides the elevated trains up and down the avenues, hitching up his pants, shouldering into places he doesn’t belong. For a snack, he’ll sometimes eat a grapefruit—tearing it in half, wolfing down the insides, then wringing the rind like a rag, tilting his chin back so the juice runs down his throat.1 Overtaken at last by fatigue, or morning light, he romps home to ramshackle Greenwich Village, the air around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s stables sweet with horse manure.
In the grungy apartment that he shares with three friends, he writes down what he has seen and heard on his adventures. Then he tries to sell it.
Reed is a writer, or would like to be. A full year of scratching away in the depths of New York journalism has yielded a couple of bylines and a fat stack of rejections. Lincoln Steffens, a friend of his father, helped him get a low-level editorial job at The American Magazine. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s enough to keep afloat in the Village. When the city’s leaders stretched a grid of numbered streets and avenues across Manhattan in 1811, they decided that the little roads in that odd angle of the island were already too crooked and unreasonable to bother straightening out. There’s no cachet to the place when Reed moves in: It’s just cheap. But that’s attraction enough for poor immigrants, painters, poets, agitators, and cranks of all kinds.
They are all waiting for inspiration to strike. For Reed, it strikes in the spring of 1912.
He comes up with “one of the biggest stories that has been sprung around these parts in half a century,” as he tells a friend.2
But before any editor can accept it, he has to write it. And in order to do that, he needs to marshal an array of qualities that his twenty-four years on the planet haven’t heretofore revealed: discipline, focus, a capacity to sit still.
Reed knows that he is the wrong guy for in-depth analysis. So he’s lucky that the right guy is not only a friend, but a friend with time to pitch in, for he has just quit his job in Schenectady and come home to New York.
Reed asks for Walter Lippmann’s help, and Lippmann gives it.3 Probably it’s in both their interests. Walter is a big part of the story that Jack wants to tell.
Jack is tall and muscular, disheveled and floppy haired—“nothing but a bundle of fine nerves, bulging energy, overweening vanity, and trembling curiosity, with an egotistical ambition to distinguish himself as a poet,” according to Steffens.4 These are the qualities that alerted him to his big story in the first place.
He has learned that his alma mater, Harvard, is trying to tamp down political activity on campus and restrain the unruly tendencies of the student body. Jack doesn’t like that one bit. As he looks back on his years in Cambridge, and looks around at his life in Manhattan, he sees the same restless spirit at work: “an influx of revolutionary ideas, discontent, criticism and revolt.”5 He wants to grab that spirit, pin it down, and describe it at length, preferably in the pages of a high-paying national magazine.
Reed gives his classmate a lot of the credit for letting that spirit rush through the college. When Lippmann co-founded the Socialist Club during their sophomore year, he made politics a burning issue on campus for the first time. “The meetings of the club were more alive than anything that had been seen around Harvard for years,” Reed recalls.6 The club’s members didn’t just sit around sifting doctrines. They worked to see their ideals made real in the world, “to see their theories applied—not merely academically discussed—applied to the world, to themselves, to Harvard.”
In other words, they were troublemakers. Reed loves troublemakers. It’s one reason why, when Lippmann paid a visit to the Western Club, Reed stood, bowed, and half-satirically declared, “Gentlemen, the future president of the United States!”7
Now, in a shabby walk-up in Greenwich Village, Lippmann explains to Reed what he has done and why. He sits for interviews, recommends sources, reads drafts. The project is a chance to talk about the experiences they have shared, such as writing for the literary magazine and studying with the much-loved English instructor Charles T. Copeland, known to all as “Copey.”
They shared one other experience at college, but they probably don’t talk about it: the sensation of being an outcast, of feeling terribly alone.