“The life of the artist was a life of action”

My 1915 edition of The Cry for Justice by Upton Sinclair is an evocation of a lost America. The anthology is filled with writings, poems and speeches by radicals and socialists who were a potent political force on the eve of World War. They spoke in overtly moral and often religious language condemning capitalist exploitation as a sin, denouncing imperialism as evil and vowing to end the greed, cruelty and hedonism of the rich. The fight for justice for the poor and the worker was a sacred duty. The life of the artist was a life of action. Intellectuals, grounded in historical and cultural traditions, had not yet fragmented into a post-Nietzschean culture of disconnected and atomized disciplines, cutting what the cultural historian Carl Schorske called “the cord of consciousness.” These writers knew where they came from and had a socialist vision for a more humane world. Class warfare was an undisputed fact of life. They spoke in the language of Confucius, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, The Hebrew prophets, Jean Jacques Rousseu, John Milton, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. They were tied to a long intellectual and historical continuum that has now, to our peril, been replaced by a terrifying ahistoricism and collective amnesia.

American culture had not yet turned inward. Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis had not triumphed over the radical Christian and Marxist calls to examine social inequality and human suffering and find tangible solutions. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth had not discredited the Social Gospel’s belief that human beings could link the will of God to campaigns for human progress. Barth’s blast of pessimism in the wake of the suicidal folly of World War I ridiculed the idea that we could envision or create the kingdom of heaven on earth. Barth, like Freud, pushed many of these socialists and Christian radicals after the war towards an inchoate humanism and liberalism. While writers, intellectuals, agitators and artists in this halcyon pre-war period concerned themselves with the public and sociological ills that beset society, those who followed largely abandoned the campaigns for social reform and focused on personal and psychological exploration. American society after World War I retreated into a collective narcissism, a preoccupation with the self, consumption as an inner compulsion and a deadening individualism. It lost hope. Its great radical movements, from the Wobblies to the socialist party led by Eugene V. Debs, were persecuted and destroyed in the Red Scare. The ideas celebrated in this book were driven from the mainstream. We never recovered.

The artist in the wake of World War I became, as Malcolm Crowley wrote, a propagandist rather than a rebel. Political action was divorced from artistic and intellectual pursuit. Self-expression, cynicism and hedonism, including the cult of the body, were embraced in the name of the post-war counterculture. This new ideology dovetailed with the values of corporate capitalism and the advertising age. The post-war period championed what Cowley called “the idea of salvation by the child.” Children would be “encouraged to develop their own personalities, to blossom freely like flowers, then the world will be saved by this new, free generation.” Self-expression and self-actualization was paramount, calling on the individual to “realize his full individuality through creative work and beautiful living in beautiful surroundings.” The body was held up as a temple, “a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love.” One must live in the moment, “even at the cost of future suffering.” Freedom and liberty were to be found in the therapeutic culture which argued that “if our individual repressions can be removed— by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist—then we can adjust ourselves to any situation, and be happy in it.” It was not the world that needed to be altered, but our inner selves. The disease of self-actualization plagues us today.

This post-war consciousness was an anathema to the writers in this book. They looked at these beliefs as heresy. To these writers there were clear rights and wrongs. They lived in a firm moral universe. They did not see, for example, prostitution as “sex work” or a matter of choice, but as another of the evils of capitalism that drove poor girls and women, who should not live in destitution, to sell their bodies. Artistic expression and intellectual inquiry devoid of social purpose was frivolous. Their task was to nurture the civic consciousness of the society. The apolitical and absurdist movements, such as Dada and abstract painting, would have bewildered these writers who believed there were laws and emotions shared by all humankind. Cultural relativism had no place in the struggle for liberation. It was the duty of the artist or the intellectual to lift up the reality of the voiceless and fight for a better world. These were real revolutionaries. They were forged in the bloodiest labor wars in the industrialized world where hundreds of American workers were murdered, thousands were wounded and tens of thousands were blacklisted. Prison and often forced exile, as with Alexander Berkman, William “Big Bill” Haywood and Emma Goldman, colored their lives. Some, like Joe Hill, were put to death on trumped up murder charges. These revolutionaries shunned ostentation and luxury. They believed in the importance of education. They carried within them, even with their embrace of free love, a kind of Puritanism, aestheticism and a determination to dedicate their lives to justice and a new society.

In chapter six, titled “martyrdom,” the opening page reads: “Messages and records of the heroes of past and present who have sacrificed themselves for the sake of the future.” In this chapter are the prison memoirs of great radicals and social reformers including Peter Kropotkin and Berkman. Martyrdom was the call of the revolutionary life. And, even for anarchists and avowed atheists like Goldman, this call had distinctly religious overtones.

“In every country, out of every class, they gather: men and women vowed to simplicity of life and to social service; possessed by a force mightier than themselves, over which they have no control; aware of the lack of social harmony in our civilization, restless with pain, perplexity, distress, yet filled with deep inward peace as they obey the imperative claim of a widened consciousness,” Vida D. Scudder writes in the book. “By active ministry, and yet more by prayer and fast and vigil, they seek to prepare the way for the spiritual democracy on which their hearts are set.”

These radicals transformed the American landscape. Their union organizing, strikes, protests and militancy gave us the eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, paid vacations, fair wages, safe working conditions and benefits. They pitted power against power to force the ruling capitalist class to respond to their demands. Without them there never would have been a New Deal. The capitalists have relentlessly used the state to crush popular movements and silence or kill its leaders, including those that arose in the 1960s such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But even by the 1960s so much damage had been done that organized labor, purged of radicals, taunted the protestors in the streets and supported Richard Nixon’s war in Indochina. When this book was written radical socialists such as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Debs commanded the respect of the working class. The recovery of this revolutionary tradition is vital if we are to overthrow the corporate state, or what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” Max Weber wrote, “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”

The historian Eric Foner, like Weber, argues that it is the visionaries and utopian reformers such as Debs and the abolitionists who brought about real social change, not the “practical” politicians. The abolitionists destroyed what Foner calls the “conspiracy of silence by which political parties, churches and other institutions sought to exclude slavery from public debate.” He writes:

For much of the 1850s and the first two years of the Civil War, Lincoln—widely considered the model of a pragmatic politician—advocated a plan to end slavery that involved gradual emancipation, monetary compensation for slaver owners, and setting up colonies of freed blacks outside the United States. The harebrained scheme had no possibility of enactment. It was the abolitionists, still viewed by some historians as irresponsible fanatics, who put forward the program—an immediate and uncompensated end to slavery, with black people becoming US citizens—that came to pass (with Lincoln’s eventual help, of course).

This volume focuses on class often to the exclusion of race, although it includes the writings of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Its editor Upton Sinclair was tone deaf to white supremacy and institutional racism. His portraits and descriptions of African-Americans in his novel The Jungle are demeaning and often racist. The fact that the Roman rebel Spartacus and his slave rebellion is lauded in The Cry for Justice and those who led our own slave revolts such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and John Brown, along with Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, are ignored shows how deeply racial blinders penetrated and still penetrates the left. It was only the Communist Party, and radical anarcho-syndicalists such as the Wobblies, who formed integrated organizations. Racism kept the early socialist movement, to its detriment, largely white.

Seismic change and revolution will only come when we rediscover this revolutionary religious fever. To battle radical evil requires discipline, a vision and self-sacrifice that includes martyrdom. It requires solidarity. It requires an understanding of our past, what formed us, and an intimate knowledge of those who struggled before us. It requires that the experience of the poor and the destitute are not an abstraction, but an integral part of our lives. It requires an understanding of the structures of power and capitalism, how they work, and how they must be destroyed. It also requires us to recognize that the pillars of American society are genocide and slavery and that a savage capacity for violence is ingrained in the American character. This political realism is what made these radicals of over a century ago so powerful. They frightened the ruling elites. They understood, as Immanuel Kant wrote, that “if justice perishes, life on earth has lost its meaning.” They led a life of meaning.

The creed of these great radicals, reprinted in the book, is summed up in the preface to Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables.

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

Excerpted from The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of Social Protest edited by Upton Sinclair, with introductions from Jack London (1915) and Chris Hedges (2019), published by Seven Stories Press. © 2020 Seven Stories Press