The Masses was founded in New York in 1911 by Piet Vlag. Another important financial backer was Amos Pinchot, a wealthy lawyer who supported a wide variety of progressive causes. Early members of the team included Art Young, Louis Untermeyer and John Sloan.
Organised like a co-operative, artists and writers who contributed to the journal shared in its management. According to Barbara Gelb: "After about a year and a half the Masses floundered and its tiny staff of contributors, which included the artist, John Sloan, the cartoonist, Art Young, and the poet, Louis Untermeyer, held an emergency session to rescue it. It was Young's idea to ask Max Eastman, a twenty-nine-year-old Columbia professor who had recently been dismissed for his radical views, to take over the editorship of the Masses." In 1912 Max Eastman, a Marxist, agreed to become editor of the journal.
In his first editorial, Eastman argued: "This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine: a magazine with a sense of humour and no respect for the respectable: frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for true causes: a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found: printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press: a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers."
Art Young later recalled: "I think we have the true religion. If only the crusade would take on more converts. But faith, like the faith they talk about in the churches, is ours and the goal is not unlike theirs, in that we want the same objectives but want it here on earth and not in the sky when we die."
Floyd Dell was appointed as Eastman's assistant: "Max Eastman was a tall, handsome, poetic, lazy-looking fellow... I was paid twenty-five dollars a week for helping Max Eastman get out the magazine.... At the monthly editorial meetings, where the literary editors were usually ranged on one side of all questions and the artists on the other. The squabbles between literary and art editors were usually over the question of intelligibility and propaganda versus artistic freedom; some of the artists held a smouldering grudge against the literary editors, and believed that Max Eastman and I were infringing the true freedom of art by putting jokes or titles under their pictures. John Sloan and Art Young were the only ones of the artists who were verbally quite articulate; but fat, genial Art Young sided with the literary editors usually; and John Sloan, a very vigorous and combative personality, spoke up strongly for the artists."
Over the next few years The Masses published articles and poems written by people such as John Reed, Sherwood Anderson, Crystal Eastman, Hubert Harrison, Inez Milholland, Mary Heaton Vorse, Louis Untermeyer, Randolf Bourne, Dorothy Day, Arturo Giovannitti, Michael Gold, Helen Keller, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Amy Lowell, Mabel Dodge, Floyd Dell and Louise Bryant.
The Masses also published the work of important artists including John Sloan, Robert Henri, Alice Beach Winter, Mary Ellen Sigsbee, Cornelia Barns, Reginald Marsh, Rockwell Kent, Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, Lydia Gibson, K. R. Chamberlain, Stuart Davis, Hugo Gellert, George Bellows and Maurice Becker.
Albert Parry has argued in his book, Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America (1933): "But then, was the magazine really for the masses? It was not. It was by the radical petit bourgeois for the liberal petit bourgeois. Yet, though the working classes almost never read the Masses, the magazine did, in the long run, help the working classes."
In 1913 Art Young and Max Eastman were charged with criminal libel after the publication of a cartoon, Poisoned at the Source. Floyd Dell later explained what happened: "The Masses decided to look into the case (a strike in West Virginia). It decided that if this thing were true, it ought to be stated without delicacy. The result was a paragraph warmly charging the Associated Press with having suppressed and colored the news of the strike in favour of the employers. Accompanying the paragraph was a cartoon presenting the same charge in a graphic form. Upon the basis of this cartoon and paragraph, William Rand, an attorney for the Associated Press, brought John Doe proceedings against the Masses." After the case was dismissed in the Municipal Court of New York City, Rand successfully approached the District Attorney and both men were arrested. Associated Press eventually dropped the case. However, after a year, the company decided to drop the law suit.
William L. O'Neill, the author of Echoes of Revolt: The Masses 1911-1917 (1966) has pointed out: "Art Young had that singular contempt for the pretensions of the press which only long and intimate associations produces. As a professional cartoonist he knew whereof he drew, and the scorn he lavished on the Associated Press was only part, as this drawing indicated, of the utter distaste he felt for the brothel economics of the industry as a whole."
Max Eastman believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. Eastman and journalists such as John Reed who reported the conflict for The Masses, argued that the USA should remain neutral. Most of those involved with the journal agreed with this view but there was a small minority, including William Walling and Upton Sinclair, who wanted the USA to join the Allies against the Central Powers. When Sinclair failed to convince his fellow members he resigned from the Socialist Party and ceased to contribute to The Masses .
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges. In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that articles by Floyd Dell and Max Eastman and cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and Henry J. Glintenkamp had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. One of the journals main writers, Randolph Bourne, commented: "I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times. The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable."
Henry J. Glintenkamp fled the country for Mexico but the others stood trial in April, 1918. Floyd Dell argued in court: "There are some laws that the individual feels he cannot obey, and he will suffer any punishment, even that of death, rather than recognize them as having authority over him. This fundamental stubbornness of the free soul, against which all the powers of the state are helpless, constitutes a conscious objection, whatever its sources may be in political or social opinion." The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication. After three days of deliberation, the jury failed to agree on the guilt of Dell and his fellow defendants.
The second trial was held in January 1919. John Reed, who had recently returned from Russia, was also arrested and charged with the original defendants. Dell wrote in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "While we waited, I began to ponder for myself the question which the jury had retired to decide. Were we innocent or guilty? We certainly hadn't conspired to do anything. But what had we tried to do? Defiantly tell the truth. For what purpose? To keep some truth alive in a world full of lies. And what was the good of that? I don't know. But I was glad I had taken part in that act of defiant truth-telling." This time eight of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal. As the First World War was now over, it was decided not to take them to court for a third time.
John Reed argued that Max Eastman was the most important factor in the acquittal: "The one great factor in our victory was Max Eastman's three-hour summing up. Standing there, with the attitude and attributes of intellectual eminence, young, good-looking, he was the typical champion of ideals - ideals which he made to seem the ideals of every real American.... Max boldly took up the Russian question, and made it part of our defense. The jury was held tense by his eloquence; the Judge listened with all his energy. In the courtroom there was utter silence. After it was all over the District Attorney himself congratulated Max."