The Masses

Max Eastman

Two articles related to the The Masses and Censorship

Published: The Masses, September 1916, October 1916 and November 1916
Transcribed:Sally Ryan for in 2000

Are We Indecent?

The opportunity to present the Ward & Gow censorship of THE MASSES before the Thompson Legislative Committee came to us rather as a surprise. August Belmont, director and former president of the subway company, had been questioned by the committee on the terms of subway's contract with Ward & Gow, as a matter of public importance.

It seemed to us that the way Ward & Gow made use of their privilege was no less a matter of public interest; and we were glad to find that the chairman of the committee, Senator Thompson, agreed with us. A hearing was held on June 28.

August Belmont was the first witness, and was given an interesting ten minutes. Max Eastman asked if he could put some questions to Mr. Belmont. The first questions dealt with the terms of the Ward & Gow contract.

"Is there anything in the terms of that contract," asked Mr. Eastman, "which allows Ward & Gow to exercise a censorship as to what magazines they will sell on the subway?"

A. "I don't recall."

Q. "Would you mind giving me your personal opinion as to whether you think they have a right to exclude magazines from the subway stands because they don't like them?"

A. "I wouldn't express an opinion as to that, a personal opinion."

Q. "Mr. Belmont, is Ward & Cow's function there a public service, in your opinion?"

A. "They conduct newsstands under the same privileges as any newsstand, I presume."

Q. "Well, is the function of any newsstand public service?"

A. "I don't quite understand the purport of it. A public service--they are newsstands, they conduct a newsstand like any other newsstand. I don't know what you mean. Do you mean that they have a moral obligation to the public? Is that what you mean? I am more interested in their legal obligations than I am in their moral obligations. I believe if they are of public service, they have some legal obligations that they have not if they are not of public service. I can't help you on that."

Q. "Mr. Belmont, the Interborough Company is of public service, is it not?"

A. "Oh,yes."

Q. "Well, does not the relation between the Interborough Company and Ward & Cow entail the conclusion that they also are a public service?"

A. "I could not express anything but an opinion on that subject."

Q. "That is exactly what I want you to express. It would help a lot if you would express an opinion."

A. "Why?"

Q. "Because your opinion is very important."

A. "I don't see that it is. My private opinion does not seem to be pertinent here on a question of that kind. You are asking me about the actual relations between the two, and so far as Ward & Cow is involved as a public servant, I think it is. As to its contract with the Interborough, I can't give you an opinion."

Q. "May I ask you if you have an opinion about it?"

A. "As to whether an objectionable publication should be sold there or not?"

Q. "Yes."

A. "Yes, I think if there was any legal method of preventing an objectionable publication from being sold on a stand it ought to be done."

Q. "Will you tell me whether you have an opinion as to whether Ward & Cow is a public service?"

A. "I can't give you that either, it would be worthless."

Mr. Eastman: "Don't you think, Senator Thompson, that Mr. Belmont's opinion would be pertinent to the question of whether a law on this subject would be proper or not?"

Senator Thompson: "I should think so, very much so."

Mr. Eastman: "Won't you give us your opinion, Mr. Belmont?"

Mr. Belmont: "I don't think you want my opinion on a subject like that. You would have to make that very specific."

Mr. Eastman: "Senator Thompson, will you please make my question specific? I don't seem to know how."

Senator Thompson: "... He wants to know if in your opinion the sale of these magazines on the newsstands of the Interborough is a public service, that is, a service that they are bound to give to the public; it is in the nature of a monopoly, and he also wants an opinion as to whether, if it is not now under the jurisdiction of the public service, it should be?"

Mr. Belmont: "Yes, it is."

The witness was excused, and Mr. Eastman proceeded to lay a complaint against the firm of Ward & Cow for excluding THE MASSES from the subway newsstands. His statement is printed on page five of this issue. The grounds of exclusion having been the "blasphemous and indecent" character of THE MASSES, he asked a number of representative citizens to testify as to their opinion of the magazine. The first of these witnesses was Professor John Dewey, of Columbia University. Mr. Dewey said:

"I have been a fairly regular reader of THE MASSES, and I have never seen anything which I regarded as either indecent or blasphemous."

Q. "Do you think that Ward & Gow have a moral right to exclude THE MASSES from the subway stands?"

A. "It is my personal opinion that it is very unfortunate that any private business corporation should have it in its power to determine in any way the trend and set of thought and ideas that should percolate to the community. That is to my mind the most serious feature of the present case --the exercise of a censorship by a business organization."

Senator Thompson: "Is it a power that ought to reside anywhere except in the Legislature?"

A. "My own judgment is that it should reside simply in the Legislature and in the decisions of the courts pursuant to the acts of Legislature. I think otherwise we might find that certain business interests might object to any propaganda and exercise their power to cut it off."

Lincoln Steffens was then called to the stand. He told how he had gone, at the request of THE MASSES, to see an official of the Ward & Gow Company, to see if it were not possible to persuade Ward & Gow not to exercise censorship over THE MASSES, and to put it back on their stands. "The purpose of that move from my point of view," he said, "was to see if we could not get them to see the point about free speech and free press, without making a fight."

"Some of the men on THE MASSES wanted to make a fight and I am against fighting except when it is necessary. However, I went down to see Mr. Atkinson and he received me and asked me curtly what my business was and I said it was to ask him to raise the embargo upon THE MASSES, and he said,'That cannot be done.' I asked him if he would give me a hearing and he said,'Yes.' So I went inside and sat down at his desk with him and I said,'Mr. Atkinson, I used to be what they call a muckraker, had access to magazines which gave me a certain power and I abused it. I used that power to blame men, to express more or less my feelings against men, individuals, and I know now that men are not at fault, and I said,'Now, here comes THE MASSES, a lot of young men. They have talent and their publication amounts to power.' I said,'They abuse their power as they are bound to do, as all men in power abuse power.' I said, 'Then come Ward & Gow and they have a privilege from a privileged concern, which gives them the power to say what publications shall be presented in a certain way to the public and which shall not, so of course Ward & Gow abuse their power. This usually means fighting. Men can't express themselves, can't get together and can't have any understanding among themselves, and so they go to War as they do in Europe.' He said, 'Well, why not make THE MASSES stop publishing what they are publishing all the time!' I said, 'That is not the way to begin. They are young men and they think these things and feel these things, let them express themselves. We don't want them repressed.'...

"Well, the result of the interview was that Mr. Atkinson said that it was a new point of view to him and he said he would take it up with Mr. Ward and would try to persuade Mr. Ward. So he went to see Mr. Ward and he told me a week later that they could not move Mr. Ward. Then I got his permission to make my appeal to Mr. Ward and I went and saw him, and Mr. Ward was hard. He was very explicit. He said that he had excluded THE MASSES from the stands because it had offended his religious sense. 'Now,' he said, 'I have a right on any grounds to exclude anything. I have two hundred applications for publications for space on my stands and I can't receive them all, so I have to exclude some, and I exclude some because there is not space, but in the case of THE MASSES I exclude it because it offends my religious sense.' Then I said, 'Mr. Ward, you are acting as a censor and you are deliberately taking over the responsibility for everything that is on your stands.' He said,'I am willing to do that; THE MASSES shall not go back on my stand. It is mine, it is my private property, I rent and control it, it is mine. Now,' he said,'I won't say it never will go back on the stand, because if they become decent and produce a publication like the Atlantic, then I will let it back upon the stand.'

"The whole point was that he was acting as a censor and that is very clear.

"It seems to me," Mr. Steffens said, "that it is one more entering wedge by which not only Ward & Gow, but all of what we now call the interests, are closing in on the press and all of us who write for the press, to keep us from saying the things that will improve conditions in the United States."

The Rev. Percy Stickney Grant, pastor of the Church of the Ascension, took the stand, and said:

"I do not think THE MASSES should be excluded from the subway stands. I do not think it is indecent or blasphemous." He had felt that the publication of the "Ballad," which was the cause of its exclusion, was a matter of bad taste or of editorial inattention, "or it might have been carrying out the theory of THE MASSES, which after all is the theory of giving to the proletariat the widest expression of their beliefs, carrying that expression to an extreme. And yet," he said, "I think that theory cannot be carried to such an extreme as to make it wise to put that publication under the ban on any stand.... I am too accustomed," he said, "to free expression by workingmen and their sympathizers on religious subjects, to be personally disturbed."

Asked if he read THE MASSES regularly, he replied :

"It is one of the papers that I look forward to with great pleasure. I feel that the sympathy and intelligence of the writers of THE MASSES, and their expert knowledge of social and industrial conditions, make a reader confident of the reality of what he gets in THE MASSES. That is a great relief today, to a reader of periodicals."

Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, being put on the stand, said that he had been brought up in Russia, and was used to the idea of magazines being suppressed because they were good, because they told the truth. "To me," he said, "it is a Russian affair all the way through. It almost makes me homesick."

Rose Pastor Stokes testified that she had been familiar with the story of Jesus as related in the "Ballad" printed in THE MASSES. It was an old Jewish legend, which she had never regarded as irreverent.

The Rev. Edward A. Saunderson, formerly pastor of the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, and now connected with the Good Will industries in the same city, testified that he did not regard THE MASSES as blasphemous. "I am too familiar," he said, "with the Bible itself, to feel at all shocked by any of the conceptions either of God or Christ that have been published there. I feel that as far as blasphemy is concerned, conceptions of God which you can take out of the Old and New Testaments are far more of a calumny against God than anything I have ever seen in THE MASSES."

Amos Pinchot testified to his belief that the exclusion of THE MASSES was an infringement of the right of free expression. He said: "History has shown pretty plainly that all of these movements to guard people from ideas are unsound; and that the only safe, conservative thing to do is to let the ideas loose in the community. If they are bad ideas, they will be destroyed by the good ideas that are in the world; if they are sound ideas, they will maintain their position in the world, and grow in strength.

"Now," he Said, "I have seen THE MASSES on tables of girls' boarding schools. It is on my table. I never miss a copy; my children read it. I give it to my little girl, because the art features of it are very, very fine, I think. I like to have them read it; I like to have them get away from the idea of prudery and secret things, and come right out in the open. I like to have my children talk to me; I hope they always will, as frankly as THE MASSES talks to the public, and I regard it as a very, very valuable publication.

"I agree with Senator Thompson and Mr. Moss, that the great danger to this country is in the control of ideas, for ideas are the source of everything. Any man that controls ideas, controls the world, and if there is one single principle that is absolutely vital to society, more vital than any kind of physical freedom, it is mental freedom, for that is the basis of all freedom."

Senator Thompson: "The question of what is decent and what is indecent is one that is very hard to pass upon."

A. "Personally, I have never seen anything that I considered indecent in THE MASSES."

Some Recent Workings of the Censorship

In the past six months six radical periodicals have been suppressed by the Post Office Department without the formality of a trial and without possibility of redress: Revolt, of New York; Alarm, of Chicago; The Blast, of San Francisco; Voluntad (Spanish); Volni Listy (Bohemian); and Regeneracion (English-Spanish). All of these papers, except the last one, were denied the privileges of the mails on the grounds that the Post Office Department "did not like the tone of the paper." Regeneracion, as will be remembered, was handled more crudely: the Federal Department of Justice confiscated its presses on the ground that an article which it published, advising the Mexican people not to trust the Carranza government, was "treason." And at the same time two of its editors, the Magon brothers, were beaten into insensibility by detectives, and the entire editorial board was indicted.

The Post Office examination and censorship of mail is strictly illegal. Several times the Post Office has asked Congress to grant it definite rights in this matter, and Congress has refused. Cases which have been carried up to the United States Supreme Court have been decided on the legal merits of the particular case--the Supreme Court has refused to pass on the principle of the Post Office censorship.

This method of suppressing publications without trial was begun during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, when La Questione Soziale, of Paterson, N. J., was so forbidden to publish or circulate.

We bring these instances of lawless tyranny to the attention of our readers, to further prove that the governing class of the United States has not the slightest respect for that "law and order" which it professes to uphold against "dangerous revolutionists" like us.

Passing from philosophy and economics to art and literature, we catch a glimpse of the reason why America is so hopelessly inferior in artistic and philosophical expression to the rest of the world.

We find in the literary section of the Boston Transcript a notice to the effect that "the Committee on Suppression of Cincinnati and New York" has instituted proceedings to suppress Theodore Dreiser's great novel, "The Genius," on the grounds of "immorality."

We also happen to know that "The Rainbow," by D. H. Lawrence, one of the finest novels ever written in the English language, has been barred from publication here--after appearing in England--by the threat of the Society for the Suppression of Vice--on the grounds of "obscenity."

Then there are "Hagar Revelly" and "Home Sapiens" and an infinite number of other books. Likewise the publishers of translations of Russian literature have been warned against introducing here some of the greatest books of all time--which are freely available to the public of every other country of the world, including China.

In the theatre we have a recent example in the outrageous censorship of the Russian Ballet in New York, and the stupid suppression of serious plays in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago; while undisturbed, the silly and lascivious burlesque show, musical comedy and vaudeville act go on. The moral is, of course: "As long as you are vulgar you are safe."

And we have with us always what the Little Review calls "the most perfect system of Birth Control for genius and art ever devised--The National Board of Censorship."

But the latest activity of our national pruriency is in the realm of painting. Jerome Blum, a painter of reputation, returned from China this spring, bringing with him a little collection of Chinese and Japanese paintings. Among them was a book containing eight original paintings on silk by one of the ancient Chinese masters, and a Japanese scroll of exquisite workmanship.

The Customs Appraiser of the Port of Chicago declared these two works obscene, saying "they would arouse the passions of an ordinary man."

Upon this evidence the Collector of the Port ordered them to be destroyed, informing Mr. Blum that he had laid himself open to thousands of dollars in fines and five years imprisonment. Mr. Blum offered to paint out the objectionable parts, to return them to China, or to present them to some museum. But the Customs official's decree was: "Art or no Art, all paintings of the kind are to be burned." So the two paintings were destroyed!

No one of the slightest education need be told that all Art--and all religion--arose from the desire of humanity to recreate for the hearts of men the mystery of the creation and reproduction of life. The Art of the Orient is almost solely concerned with these subjects. And not only that; the steeple of every village church in the United States, the form of the cross on its altar, the shape of a bishop's hat--are all "obscene" phallic symbols.

We wonder how the Customs officials of the Port of Chicago can bear to go around carrying the shameful male organs of generation. But perhaps, after all, they haven't any.

Sumner vs. Forel

You may have heard that John S. Sumner, the successor of Anthony Comstock, paid a visit to our office recently, confiscated all the September numbers of THE MASSES on hand, and arrested our circulation manager, Merrill Rogers. The reason was that we had advertised and sold "The Sexual Question," by August Forel--a book recognized as one of the great authoritative works on the subject of sex. The case will be fought to a finish in the courts. In the meantime it is interesting to have a personal statement from John S. Sumner, made to one of our editors, explaining his animus against the Forelbook. He says: "It advocates sodomy"! Our readers have our word for it that it does, of course, nothing of the sort. If our recommendations had any weight with the authorities, we should suggest that some of our prominent vice experts be detained for observation in Bellevue; their minds really do not seem to us to be normal. For the time being, however, they dictate what you shall buy and read.