In the 1920s, a bunch of different threads that we have been tracing came together and crystallized as the Modern liberal intelligentsia which replaced the Victorian mainstream.
The following excerpt comes from Paul V. Murphy’s book The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s:
“By the 1920s, then, intellectuals had witnessed a society wide crisis of authority and became acutely aware of the bifurcation between themselves and the rest of society. The inevitable pressure of industrial and technological progress compelled these realizations. Progress – what an older generation assumed to be divinely planned – now seemed prosaic in its human origins, relentless in its application, and impervious in the independence of any individual or collective intention. It was a force that ran on its own accord. Intellectuals responded in two ways. First, a large number gravitated toward modernist beliefs that were concerned, above all, with the autonomy and independence of writers and artists. These values reinforced a deepening split with many Americans who preserved traditional faiths and expectations. Second, intellectuals redefined and reconceptualized culture in fundamentally new ways that allowed them to style a new kind of cultural politics that could potentially allow them to shape and direct the American response to change. …”
As we have seen, Modernism arrived in the United States in the 1910s and through the Young Intellectuals and the culture of Greenwich Village was absorbed into the leftwing of the Progressive movement. Progressivism split over World War I and Prohibition and left-progressives started calling themselves “liberals” in the 1920s. This new aesthetic and elitist species of liberalism which was heavily influenced by Modernism valued self-expression and cultural liberation above all else.
“In the space opened by Santayana’s essay, intellectuals championed an insistent, ultimately Romantic imperative for individual autonomy and self-rule. They renounced their older role as moral guardians, one that had given them great influence, in favor of a new role as tribunes of openness, experimentation and tolerance. In self-consciously repudiating their traditional social responsibility, they were embracing modernism.”
Modernists are people who champion self-expression, self-liberation and self-realization as their highest values. They elevate aesthetic self-expression above religion and traditional morality.
“Even while placing themselves at odds with the broader public, however, intellectuals defined a new and potentially vital public role as cultural critics. They did this in part by reimaging the very meaning of culture. In the nineteenth century, culture had been bound up with individual moral self-development and personal refinement; intellectuals now saw it as somewhat broader and all-inclusive, and they gave themselves the role of interpreting it. …”
In the 19th century, the term “culture” meant something you acquired or the process by which you became more moral or refined. A “cultured” lady or gentleman had manners which distinguished them from the masses. In the 20th century, Franz Boas redefined “culture” in the sense that it is still used today, which is to say, all the various habits, customs and beliefs of a people.
“Used loosely and retrospectively, modernism invokes a mélange of intellectual positions and tendencies growing out of conflicting European intellectual traditions. In each instance, modernists responded to new scientific and philosophical claims – evolution, Freudian psychoanalysis, the Higher Criticism, theories of relativity, new principles of uncertainty. However first and foremost, modernism was an internal discussion among artists and writers about their own precarious social status, which resulted from a loss of vital connection between themselves and the masses. Modernists posed key questions about art: Should it represent a recognizable figure? Need it be broadly appealing or recognizably understood? The answers produced the distinctive features of modernism: movements toward abstraction in visual art; atonality in music; and stream of consciousness, free association, and fractured narrative lines in literature. Modernism redefined aesthetic criteria in terms of the values and intentions of the artist. The art object would be judged on its own terms, free and independent of the audience’s response. Individual autonomy and integrity, not tradition or communal responsibility, were the essential values. Modernist intellectuals crafted a highly individualistic credo, one embracing the emerging bifurcation between intellectuals and the public. …”
As an aesthetic, Modernism is about the subjective self-expression of the artist: the audience, nature, the divine, the community, reality itself, anything external or objective disappears. Tradition is rejected in favor of the stimulation of endless novelties. New is automatically better.
“In the 1920s, Edmund Wilson became the model of the new wide-ranging cultural critic. Intellectuals were recognizing that they constituted a new social class defined intellect and not wealth. (In the years between the world wars, New York City became “the home for intellectuals who coalesced in the first significant intelligentsia in the country’s history.”) They were in a position to break free of the obligations of moral uplift that were part and parcel of the nineteenth-century ideology of culture …”
In the 1920s, New York became the cultural capital of the United States and the Modern liberal intelligentsia came to be based there. The New York avant-garde began to redefine American culture in its own image as liberal, modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist.
“After the 1920s, culture became the essential terrain of social and political action. Modernist liberals valued freedom of thought and expression, an open and critical spirit, tolerance and cosmopolitanism. They assumed that a national culture was subject to competition and control. It was worth fighting for: whoever could shape public perceptions could redirect the course of the national mind. The progressive-minded, the partisans of youth, and the experimental and avant-garde fought their conservative opponents for the right to control culture, but, in a larger sense, the battle was over what force would shape change – industrial and technological progress or culture. Would the national be defined by purely industrial and commercial imperatives or humanistic ones? Whether modern culture would keep up with the forces of social, technological and political transformation (with “growth” broadly defined) remained, as it had in Santayana’s lecture, very much an open question.”
Naturally, there was massive resistance to these alien values and beliefs which were radiating out from New York and homogenizing the country through the new mass culture.
The following excerpt comes from Gary Gerstle’s article “The Protean Character of American Liberalism” in the American Historical Review:
“Whenever the character of liberalism changed, so did the composition of the liberal community. The transition from classical to strong-state liberalism brought agrarian reformers such as William Jennings Bryan into the liberal fold and alienated those who still clung to laissez-faire. The trauma of World War I resulted in the exit of many moral reformers from liberal ranks (including Bryan) and the entry of H.L. Mencken and his libertarian legions. These and other changes in constituency make it unwise to treat the liberal community as a stable political entity or to presume that the criteria for identifying liberals in one period can be applied to another. Any effort to define the liberal community must be firmly located in time and space.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the liberal community was strongest in the industrial and commercial centers of the Northeast and Midwest. It had cohered in the 1910s among European immigrants and their children, progressive trade unionists such as those who belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers, settlement house workers, social workers, and others involved with urban reform. These liberals could be found in both the Republican and Democratic parties, although by 1916 the Democratic Party had emerged as their preferred home. In the 1920s, the liberal constellation expanded to include Menckenite libertarians, liberal Protestants, and growing numbers of intellectuals affiliated with universities or with newly established social science foundations such as the Social Science Research Council, the Spelman Fund, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Institute for Government Research.
The intellectuals in this liberal community are of particular interest. They were the ones most imbued with the new liberal faith in science as a tool of reform and in the capacity of a strong state to educate and liberate. Those with the greatest influence were concentrated at a relatively few elite universities: Wisconsin, Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and, above all, Columbia. The number of Columbia academics who shaped American liberalism through their writings or, in the 1930s, as New Deal policy makers exceeded that of any other institution: John Dewey in philosophy, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict in anthropology, Robert Lynd in sociology, Rexford Tugwell and Wesley Chair Mitchell in economics, Adolph Berle and William O. Douglas in law.
Columbia’s distinction arose not simply from the size and academic prestige of its faculty but also from its access to New York’s thriving metropolitan community of independent intellectuals, writers, magazine editors, book publishers, and reformers. Hungry for ideas and eager to turn ideas into print, this urban public encouraged university-based intellectuals to seek influence beyond their academic specialties. They were invited to give public lectures, to join study groups, and to comment in print on major political issues of the day. As Thomas Bender has noted, John Dewey became a “wide-ranging and cosmopolitan intellectual” only after leaving Chicago for New York. Dewey’s graduate student Max Eastman introduced Dewey to Greenwich Village, and his colleague Charles Beard asked him to join the “X” Club, a high-powered group of New York intellectuals, journalists and political activists that met biweekly from 1903 to 1917. In this milieu, “Dewey learned to put his talk on general social, cultural, and political issues into print”; by the 1920s, he had become “America’s great public philosopher.”
New York City’s success in nurturing liberal intellectuals affected the entire country. Much of the nation’s liberal thought reached the public through one of the city’s liberal journals. The country’s premier liberal magazine, The New Republic, operated out of a brownstone on West 21st Street. The Nation also had its offices in New York, as did the Survey Graphic. New York was liberalism’s heart. For this reason, a disproportionate number of liberal intellectuals made New York their home, including several who will receive close examination in this essay – Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Robert and Helen Lynd, and Horace Kallen. To understand the liberalism they constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, we must first consider the liberalism – Progressivism – they cast off. …
The tsar’s fall and the consequent enthusiasm for war had two major effects on the politics of left-leaning Progressives – or liberals, as they increasingly called themselves …
In this climate of disillusionment, some left-leaning Progressives abandoned politics altogether. The flight of intellectuals to Europe reflected widespread despair in artistic circles concerning the possibility of progress or any sort – cultural or economic, liberal or socialist. Political demoralization was equally apparent in the bitter delight aroused by H.L. Mencken’s biting social commentary, especially his savage depictions of average Americans as small-town buffoons and his ridicule of ill-conceived liberal attempts at education and uplift. Walter Lippmann, a central figure in Herbert Croly’s New Republic liberal circle was profoundly shaken by the war’s outcome and taken with Mencken’s iconoclasm, maintained his belief in progress and in the efficacy of rational social action but not in democracy … Only the rule of experts, of men like himself, could render government in the United States effective and just.”
Left-Progressives became “liberals” in the 1920s.
The origins of Modern liberalism which is left-libertarian and values cultural liberation and cultural egalitarianism can be traced back to these people. The “antiracism” came from Franz Boas and his students at Columbia. The Modernism came from the Young Intellectuals. The cosmopolitanism and cultural egalitarianism came from John Dewey, Franz Boas and Horace Kallen.
In the 1920s, modernist liberals were in the political wilderness. Politically speaking, the Republicans dominated both the White House and Congress. The Democrats were badly split between their rural Southern and Western wings which backed Prohibition and the Eastern urbanites. In the long term, the cultural ground that modernist liberals gained in the Roaring Twenties by shaping the values of young Losters was far more significant than temporary Republican political hegemony.