The Origins of the Modern Left

What is the “mainstream”?

Where did the modern Left come from?

In The Birth of the Mainstream and The Death of the Victorian Mainstream, I began to pinpoint its emergence in the years around World War I. It was the moment in time when the Romantic or Victorian sensibility that dominated the 19th century – the Genteel tradition – began to be challenged and give way to the Modernist sensibility that dominated the 20th century. Modernism was arriving in the United States and was taking root in enclaves in Chicago and Greenwich Village in New York City.

The modern Left is not synonymous with liberalism. It is not synonymous with Progressivism either. The hallmark of the modern Left which sets it apart from its ancestors is cultural liberalism or social liberalism. In the 19th century, liberalism was natural rights in politics and laissez-faire in economics, but this was combined with a Romantic or Victorian sensibility. The Victorians were notorious for their concern with proper manners and the repression of what they considered to be bad taste. In contrast, the modern Left is an aesthetic form of liberalism which is primarily concerned with self-expression and cultural egalitarianism. It is in perpetual rebellion against the values of a Victorian gentleman.

If you could step into H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and go back to the 19th century, you would be immediately struck by this difference. The government would seem tiny by our standards. The economy would seem anarchic. And yet, the culture would seem unbelievably less relaxed. You would step into an alien world. There would still be liberals everywhere in this world, but a very different type of liberal. You would grasp the difference between the 19th century liberal and the 20th century liberal.

How did their world evolve into our world?

This is how the Modern movement began in Chicago.

The following excerpt comes from Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s book Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930:

“The small literary community of the nineties with its clubs, polite manners, and Anglophile aestheticism (The Chap-Book, published in Chicago in 1894 and Thomas Mosher’s Bibelot, brought the Yellow Book writers to a small reading public of cognoscenti in America) was submerged in the growth of a semi-bohemian literary society drawn to the South Side by the availability of cheap housing thrown up for the Columbian Exposition. In Old Town, and in the South Side near the University, the young novelists just escaped from the village, the popular bards and the sensitive souls trapped in an unfriendly environment, found a congenial, undemanding, milieu. It was a small world, socially uniform, with a few periodicals to encourage their efforts. The ‘Renaissance’ circa 1912 had in retrospect seemed an incomplete gesture rather than an accomplished fact; the writers were not asking enough of themselves. Many turned to writing from other careers: Dreiser and Sandburg were originally journalists, Sherwood Anderson was a businessman, Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer. The contrast with Edwin Arlington Robinson, precariously supporting himself by the patronage of a few friends in New York, is illuminating. Robinson did not turn to poetry – he was simply a poet, and would not make the slightest concession to become anymore more than that. The modern movement in Chicago stood for a new liberation, in manners and morals as well as in thought, as Sherwood Anderson wrote in his memoirs:

“Then the week ends at some little town on the lake shore six or eight of us men and women sleeping perhaps, or at least trying to sleep, under a blanket by a bonfire built on the shore of the lake, even perhaps going off in the darkness to a secluded spot to bathe, all of us in the nude, it all quite innocent enough but such a wonderful feeling in us leading a new free bold life, defying what seemed to us the terrible stodgy life out of which we had all come.”

But the revolt against the gentility of the established quarterlies and reviews soon subsided into a new kind of modern gentility. The best little magazines (the Dial and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review), and some of the writers too, moved to New York. What remained was the most famous of the Chicago magazines, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. …

The following excerpt comes from American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:

“In contrast to Philadelphia, where modernists discovered their work and each other most often within educational institutions, in Chicago they found only the most marginal institutions helpful. Chicago modernism had only three outlets: the Friday Literary Review, Poetry, and the Little Review. The first paid its contributors in books and its staff scarcely a subsistence wage; the second paid nominal sums for contributions and relied chiefly on subsidies for capital; and the third became something of a legend even in bohemia for its fiscal marginality. In Chicago, an artist needed commissions, an outside job, or a rich mate. …

When Ezra Pound became fed up with Monroe, he turned to Margaret Anderson and her Little Review. In doing so, he attached himself to a truly bohemian journal and an editor whose commitment to modernism, from clothes and living circumstances to art and anarchism, was as strong as that of anyone in Chicago. The Review achieved fame later from printing the early chapters of Ulysses, fighting bravely both moralistic and governmental censorship. It deserves this small immortality, an important part of the cultural history of New York after 1917; but it also deserves mention from its earlier pioneering of modernist art in Chicago.

Margaret Anderson was a born rebel. She rebelled especially against her neurasthenic mother, who frittered her life and her husband’s money away on inconsequentials, all the while disapproving of Margaret’s reading as likely to cause trouble. Margaret hated bourgeois values, thought Christianity musty, and wanted self-expression above all things. She threw herself into odd jobs, working as clerk in a bookstore or as staff member of the old Dial; and she decided that she preferred a life of extremes to one of sobriety. “I am either profligate – or I can be miserly. I knew if I didn’t rush to extremes my heritage would swamp me.” She lived in poverty yet splurged once a week on quality chocolates: “Of course I could ahve bought more and cheaper candy, but the box was handsome and satisfied my hunger for luxury.” As for the larger attitude toward her life in Chicago, she was clear: “My attitude during this epoch was: Life is just one ecstasy after another.”

Ecstasy came hard. She often rented drab quarters. For the six warmest months of 1915, she lived “a North Shore gypsy life” with her extended family in tents. “We dined together under the evening sky and slept under the stars.” Her entire wardrobe consisted of “one blouse, one hat and one blue tailored suit”; she washed the blouse in the lake every second day, remarking that it was made of a material that did not need ironing. She was so pretty that men had trouble denying her, but even women were impressed. Anderson “was as beautiful as Rupert Brooke and as flaming as Inez Milholland,” Eunice Tietjens recalled. In her one suit and hat, “under which her blond hair swept like a shining bird’s wing, she stood pouring out such a flood of high-spirited enthusiasm that we were all swept after her in some dream of a magazine where Art with a capital A and Beauty with a still bigger B were to reign supreme, where ‘Life Itself’ was to blossom into some fantastic shape of incredibly warmth and vitality.”

These are the inauspicious beginnings around the turn of the 20th century in Chicago of the juggernaut we call the “mainstream.” It begins with John Dewey at the newly founded University of Chicago, Jane Addams at the Hull House settlement and the bohemians around Margaret Anderson – Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg – in the “Chicago Renaissance.” The American epicenter of the Modern movement quickly shifted to New York City.

“The experimental spirit was particularly visible in Greenwich Village, an irregular hatchment of street south of West Fourteenth Street which had been the country estate of an English governor in the eighteenth century. By the 1840s it was being deserted by the wealthy – the process was later described by Henry James in Washington Square (1881) – and began to acquire a shifting bohemian and immigrant population, in the European style, based in stables and studios. ‘Early in the twentieth century,’ notes the recorder of American bohemia, Albert Parry, ‘the stage was set for America to have a huge and definite Montmartre of her own,’ and he notes that between 1910 and 1917, after the appearance of the magazine the Masses, the spirit became very novel, radical, political; its open, various milieu took in a vastly expanded new constituency of those devoted to experimentalism in politics, morals and the arts.”

Montmartre on the Right Bank of the Seine in Paris was the bohemian epicenter of Modernism in France. Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and other famous artists lived there. Montmartre was the cradle of the 1871 Paris Commune.

“The salon of Mable Dodge provided, for a brief period before 1914, a place where radical politics, via John Reed and Big Bill Haywood, the I.W.W. leader, progressive cultural attitudes, and figures like Max Eastman could intermingle. As Hart Crane wrote back in Ohio, New York – especially the Village – was a uniquely auspicious place for a young writer; he was one of many who moved there to write for or edit the vast number of new little and Tendenz magazines that the Village spawned: the Liberator, Smart Set, Others, Globe, Seven Arts, New Republic, the Freeman, Nation, Masses which, with the Little Review and The Dial as émigrés from Chicago, were the base for the literary risorgimento of the 1910s and 1920s. So too were theater groups like the Provincetown (later the Greenwich Village) Players, producing O’Neill, Floyd Dell, Dreiser and Edna St. Vincent Millay, which from 1916 did a winter season in the Village, and the Washington Square Players, involving Robert Edmond Jones, Philip Moeller and others, much influenced by German developments in theater. The rampant individualism of Village life was an apparent alternative, its lifestyle and philosophy, to an acquisitive, increasingly regiments economic order. When the veterans returned in 1919 the old gay life of the Village, with its costume balls, saloons, and bohemia camaraderie, seemed inexcusably frivolous. The Left was crushed by the Palmer raids and deportations; the avant-garde, despairing of America, discovered the meaning of expatriation.”

In the 1910s, the Modernist spirit of the avant-garde entered the liberal wing of the Progressive movement and created a new aesthetic version of liberalism which was focused on elitism, cosmopolitanism, self-expression, cultural liberation, cultural relativism and cultural egalitarianism.

The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:

“These young men had been deeply affected by pragmatism, and often combined James’ wide-openness to emotion and innovation with Dewey’s bold belief in social and intellectual reconstruction. They welcomed the more biting dicta of the social scientists; some of them had encountered Veblen’s astringent skepticism. Yet Wells, with his optimism and his recent semimysticism was for many of them the most important social prophet. Bergson had given new and welcome support to their confidence in their own intuitions. From Nietzsche and Ibsen and Shaw – for that matter from nearly all the literature they read – they had learned a fierce contempt for nineteenth-century bourgeois morality. Dostoevsky had revived their religious instincts, and Freud had convinced them of the necessity of sexual self-expression. All these influences had combined to produce a new kind of radicalism, passionate yet somewhat imprecise. The Young Intellectuals agreed on at least one point: they were uninterested in any plan for social improvement which was not also a program for spiritual and artistic liberation. …”

About Hunter Wallace 12371 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. “The modern left” is irrelevant.

    We are witnessing a race war wage by Jews and their proxies (easily manipulated Blacks, and White social climbers who do what the media and academia tell them to do) against normal real Americans.

    The only topic that interests me is non-violent tactics to fight back against the Jews.

    • There is no non violent tactic.

      Normie does not think. Normie is only afraid and want to feel good. So there is only question, who is the force who has power to punish and reward. They or us.

      Normie does not understand, what is better, witches marriage or burning homosexuals at the stake or does mass immigration causes climate warming or other way around or whatever.

      Today racism is bad, you will be repressed. But when nationalists win like in Ukraine, anti racism may be also bad. You will lose your job because of anti racism. Because 20 years ago you wrote in your personal email that I know one guy in Africa and he is completely normal.

      Understanding such basic facts is the real social science. Normie does not think, Normie only reacts to loud voice commands given by people with opportunity to reward or punish.

      Eastern Europe does not have great thinkers or white nationalists. Eastern Europe has only Polish football fans who declare that for a treason is there is punishment.

      Normie never read the constitution or any other law and never will. But Normie understand that when tough guys say rude harsh sounding word, then it is better to obey before it is too late.

      Entire democracy was and still is one big hoax from the beginning. Rat trap works only because of most rats think this is harmless good food device. And by the coincidence, scientists using white rats not black rats for their experiments. Black rats would revolt when they would use for social engineering like include white cats into their holes in the name if diversity

  2. It’s pretty clear in hindsight, that the main stream liberals, accepted the values of communism, and pushed them along through society. They may not have been actual members of the communist party in the United States, or Soviet spies, but they still accepted most of communism. They may have argued with some of the excesses of Stalin, but were on board with most of it. The McCarthy crowd and the House Unamerican Activities Committee was some opposition to them for awhile, Joe McCarthy didn’t last long as a national figure. I think the mistake McCarthy and company made was focusing on who was an actual card carrying member of the communist party, rather than trying to stop the constant erosion of western culture which is what the left worked at and have more or less accomplished.

    Conservatives in the modern world never seem to be any opposition to the commie left either, they spend way to much of their time defending rich fools who seem to be the same type of petty self absorbed assholes. If most of these jerks can ever see the big picture, it never seems obvious to me.

  3. In my classrooms – and in most of my nine books – I correlate the start of the political left (communist, socialist, American liberal) as a continuation of the French Revolution….Where the unlearned, uneducated, and predominated unemployed (or very greatly underemployed) decided that they no longer wanted / needed the smart / educated people of the [population telling them the “right / proper” way to do things and or how to succeed in life…Today – these are the very same people filling the ranks and mobs of the Nazi Antifa group, and the free-loading entitlement BLM group!!!

  4. As Alex Linder says, the struggle is between Team White and Team Jew. When you see things that way, it’s like waking up, and when you’re Jew wise, you really can’t go back.

    As for conservatives, how did George Lincoln Rockwell put it? ‘A National Socialist will defend his race. A conservative will defend his money.’

    Funny, because I watching a 1940 German (‘Nazi’) film, Das Rothschilds, about the Rothschilds and how they gained a financial edge in England, and although considered Nazi propaganda, it actually depicted high finance very well, especially how the Rothschilds seeped in and gained control.

    As Heinrich Heine said, ‘mammon is the God of our time, and Rothschild is his prophet.’

  5. If you study the history of the black migration to Northern cities from the end of the Civil War to WWI, you will see the usual suspects — wealthy patrician type liberals associated with the Puritan, Quaker and Methodist sects — were the biggest advocates of blacks being allowed to settle in these cities and opponents of segregation. Through control of state and county level governments and the courts, they were able to force this black settlement against the wishes of Catholic and German dominated city governments. Such people were also the primary employers of blacks for large industrial enterprises they owned and domestic help. The first black ghettos in the North formed along the back lanes of the oldest parts of the city where the servants and carriage houses of the patricians’ mansions were located. Carriage houses of the wealthy being converted to negro housing is frequently mentioned in accounts of the early black migration. I never saw evidence of modernist intellectuals being involved in any efforts on behalf of negro migrants in this era in the many books and scholarly and popular articles I read on the subject. The advocates of negro settlement were entirely as described above.

Comments are closed.