One of the strange and wonderful things about history is how the same basic facts can take on an entirely different meaning depending on when you happen to be examining them. As a case in point, Jeremy McCarter began writing his new book Young Radicals, the story of five activists who spent most of the 1910s advocating and often agitating for dramatic social change, back in 2011, in the middle of the hope-and-change Obama era. He finished last fall. On the morning of November 9, he realized that he would have to rewrite his entire introduction to reflect the outcome of the presidential election.
“Had Hillary won,” he says, “this book would be an account of a moment of great promise in American life. It would be a way to recapture some of the optimism of those exciting years right before World War I. It certainly looks different now, even though the core narrative of the book didn’t change.”
McCarter dutifully rewrote his introduction. The current version describes how the optimism and hope of the 1910s, which came crashing down with the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, had a strange parallel with the 2010s—though he ends with the somewhat comforting rationalization that America wouldn’t be America if Americans weren’t arguing about something.
But going over the main text of the book, he rediscovered a passage one of his five main subjects, the essayist and critic Randolph Bourne, had written in 1918. Bourne had previously, and at a considerable cost to his career, advocated passionately for the U.S. to avoid the war. Now in the midst of it, he wrote:
Let us compel the war to break in on us, if it must, not go hospitably to meet it. Let us force it perceptibly to batter in our spiritual walls. This attitude need not be a fatuous hiding in the sand, denying realities. When we are broken in on, we can yield to the inexorable. Those who are conscripted will have been broken in on. If they do not want to be martyrs, they will have to be victims. They are entitled to whatever alleviations are possible in an inexorable world. But the others can certainly resist the attitude that blackens the whole conscious sky with war. They can resist the poison which makes art and all the desires for more impassioned living seem idle and even shameful. For many of us, resentment against the war has meant a vivider consciousness of what we are seeking in American life.
And then, back in 2017, a strange thing happened. The day after Trump was inaugurated, millions of people joined in women’s marches all over the world. (This drew comparisons to the 1913 women’s march on Washington organized by Alice Paul, another of McCarter’s young radicals.) A week later, thousands of Americans went to their local airports to protest the travel ban. For McCarter, it seemed like Bourne, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic at the young age of 32, was reaching across the century and tapping us all on the shoulder to let us know how to resist.
“What I take to be his message,” he says, “is that it is necessary to resist, but if we’re only thinking about stopping the unpleasant things that are happening, then even if the resistance gets what it wants, then we still lose because we’re not ready for tomorrow. It’s time to start building again. We have to continue to build and to dream and imagine the future.”
Resistance was not the main question McCarter had intended to probe in the book, though. The big questions that runs through his narrative are, “What do you do with your freedom when you get it?” and, “How far will you go?” He tried out many combinations of young radicals before he settled on the five that would assemble his “constellation,” mostly because their lives, taken together, would form the most pleasing narrative arc.
Journalist John Reed went to Russia—and spent three months in a Finnish prison—to pursue his dream of revolution. Max Eastman, editor of the radical magazine The Masses, was nearly lynched in Fargo in 1917 for speaking in support of the “no annexations, no indemnities” peace treaty to end World War I. Women’s suffrage leader Alice Paul was beaten and jailed repeatedly for her ongoing protest outside the White House for the vote. The newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann appeared to sacrifice the least of all, but he still gave up his dreams of political power and influence in order to protest a peace treaty that would rob Germany of all its territory (and, in doing so, lay the tinder for World War II).
McCarter was initially not interested, however, in extracting lessons from these people’s lives.
“It was important to me that the complexity of their lives will resonate with people in different ways,” he says. “I’m interested to see, as the country gets more volatile, what aspects of their lives are going to seem more relevant. It feels more and more like 1917 by the day. In 1917, an era of great hope and progress ended abruptly when the U.S. went to war, and the costs of dissent and idealism skyrocketed. There was government propaganda, censorship, semiofficial law enforcement locking people up, the  red scare. There is a latent repressive capacity in the American public. Given a chance, it will express itself.”
McCarter maintains that the fact that the country was at war in 1917 exacerbated that repressive capacity. So far in 2017, we’ve been luckier. But he believes that the U.S. will only be able to move forward if it embraces what Bourne called transnationalism. His 1916 essay of the same title was largely ignored, but of all the young radicals in the book, McCarter believes his philosophy was the most enduring.
“The meaning of American democracy is participation,” McCarter explains. “All of us collectively are drawing on each other’s traditions and building something together. Democracy is only something that lies in the future. It’s the direct opposite of someone trying to make America great again. I wish Bourne were still here. We could use him.”
Young Radicals by Jeremy McCarter (Random House)