The Masses was a graphically innovative magazine of socialist politics published monthly in the U.S. from 1911 to 1917, when government suppression shut it down. It was succeeded by The Liberator and then later The New Masses. It published reportage, fiction, poetry and art by the leading radicals of the time such as Max Eastman, John Reed and Floyd Dell.
The Masses was to some extent defined by its association with New York’s artistic culture. “The birth of The Masses,” Eastman later wrote, “coincided with the birth of ‘Greenwich Village’ as a self-conscious entity, an American Bohemia or gipsy-minded Latin Quarter, but its relations with that entity were not simple.” The Masses was very much embedded in a specific metropolitan milieu, unlike some other competing socialist periodicals (such as the Appeal to Reason, a populist-inflected 500,000-circulation weekly produced out of Girard, Kansas).
The magazine carved out a unique position for itself within American left print culture. It was more open to Progressive Era reforms, like women's suffrage, than Emma Goldman's anarchist Mother Earth. At the same time it fiercely criticized more mainstream leftist publications like The New Republic for insufficient radicalism.
World War I continually exercised The Masses’ political imagination. Its editors believed the cause of the conflict was transparently clear: imperialist international finance capital. Grotesque caricatures of Europe’s wealthy bankers directing workingmen’s guns populated the magazine’s pages. Even before it began, throughout the various scares of 1912 and 1913, the paper consistently railed against militarism.
After Eastman assumed leadership, and especially after August 1914, the magazine’s denouncements of the war were frequent and fierce. In the September 1914 edition of his column, “Knowledge and Revolution,” Eastman predicted: “Probably no one will actually be the victor in this gambler’s war—for we may as well call it a gambler’s war. Only so can we indicate its underlying commercial causes, its futility, and yet also the tall spirit in which it is carried off.”
Throughout 1916 and early 1917, in a series of ever more desperate editorials and illustrations, Eastman, Reed, and the others urged against American intervention in the war. Worried about newly-enacted sedition laws like the Espionage Act of 1917, once war was declared in April, the paper resorted to indirect attacks on American participation in the war.
In the midst of the First Red Scare, the magazine's critiques of patriotism, and especially of the draft, were enough to have it charged under the stringent anti-sedition laws. The United States Post Office, under Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, first denied the magazine second-class mailing privileges. News dealers refused to sell the magazine. In November 1917, the editors of The Masses were indicted on charges they had obstructed enlistment. Although a split jury acquitted Eastman and his cohorts a year later, the dramatically higher postal rates were enough to kill the paper on their own.
The Masses continued to serve as an example for radicals long after it was suppressed. “The only magazine I know which bears a certain resemblance to (Dwight Macdonald's magazine) Politics and fulfilled a similar function thirty years earlier,” Hannah Arendt claimed in 1968, was “the old Masses (1911-1917).”
The magazine's criticism, edited by Floyd Dell, was cheekily titled (at least for a time) “Books that Are Interesting.” Dell’s perceptive reviews gave accolades to many of the most notable books of the time: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Spoon River Anthology, Theodore Dreiser’s novels, Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious, G. K. Chesterton’s works, Jack London’s memoirs, and many other prominent creations.