To Russia With Love
1. High spirits — that is what stands out from the Greenwich Village renaissance. Reds captures some of this by showing bohemian leftists yapping energetically at the lunch table and dancing to victrolas in dingy apartments. These scenes get the idea across, but I wish Warren Beatty had also shown the Paterson Pageant of 1913, which he could have recreated for a mere $10 million extra. The Paterson Pageant was a pep rally and benefit for the silk workers of Paterson, New Jersey, who were waging a magnificent strike led by the IWW. John Reed and a committee of radicals rented Madison Square Garden and got 1200 silk workers and an IWW brass band to dramatize the events of this strike. First the 1200 performers marched up the aisle through the audience to demonstrate how they went to work. Next they disappeared behind a huge set of life-sized silk mills and shouted “Strike!” Then they showed how the police killed a picketer, and what the funeral was like. Big Bill Haywood and the IWW leaders orated in favor of the eight-hour day. And all the while everyone belted out militant labor songs to the conducting of John Reed, who knew how to conduct from his days as chief cheerleader at Harvard; among the songs he got the workers to sing was “Harvard, Old Harvard,” with IWW lyrics. The whole performance was so thrilling that the audience of 15,000 stood up for most of the evening, the better to sing along.
As things turned out, the pageant lost money and damaged unity in the strike, since some workers resented being left out of the show. Ultimately the strike went down to calamitous defeat. But the pageant certainly was spirited.
The most spirited Village institution of all, to modern eyes, was The Masses magazine, where Reed, the magazine’s editor Max Eastman, and a list of other lively writers filled the news and literary columns, and John Sloan and the rest of the Ash Can School did the covers and illustrations. The Masses made a great contribution to American humor: it perfected the art of the cartoon with a one-line caption. (“My dear, I’ll be economically independent if I have to borrow every cent!”) Of course it wasn’t really a humor magazine but, like the Paterson Pageant, an organ of serious social protest, championing the cause of radical labor and the working class. Whether the magazine did this cause any more practical good than the pageant was a matter for debate. As some overly cynical person once wrote:
They draw fat women for The Masses,
Denuded, fat, ungainly lasses —
How does that help the working classes?
But hell, Village radicalism wasn’t a worker’s movement, anyway, not really. It was a bohemian movement with working-class sympathies. The Masses propounded Marxism, syndicalism, and other proletarian philosophies, but in truth it had its own ideology, a species of radical bohemianism that ought to be called, after its finest expositor, John Reedism.
John Reedism had three great ideas, which you can see almost leaping from his early book, Insurgent Mexico (1914). Idea Number One was an appreciation that intellectuals could be morally serious, personally rebellious, and wildly adventurous at the same time. That was more or less what Reed had been at Madison Square Garden. In Insurgent Mexico he followed the Jack London example of rebel writer on the road, and pursued adventure to an extreme. The book was about a trip with notebook and camera to the front lines of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexicans were nervous about American intervention, and the front lines were no place for a gringo. Everywhere Reed went, his presence sparked a discussion about American spies and whether the one at hand ought to be shot. A drunken officer stormed up to his hotel room determined to pull the trigger but was too maudlin and confused to go through with it. On another occasion Reed risked getting shot for making contacts with generals in the revolutionary Constitutionalist army. And those were merely the dangers that preceded battle. Having established himself with the Constitutionalists, he accompanied an advance troop into a ghastly massacre and escaped death only by shedding his coat, throwing away the camera, and heading for the hills. Warren Beatty liked this scene so much he stuck what looks like a piece of it at the beginning of Reds.
Idea Number Two was about the proletariat. Walter Lippmann once remarked that in the view of Reed and The Masses, the working class isn’t “composed of miners, plumbers, and working men generally, but is a fine statuesque giant who stands on a high hill facing the sun.” That was a witty description of Masses propaganda, but beneath the propaganda were other images of the working class, one of which was quite exotic. These bohemians had a cult of the primitive. They were appalled by sophistication, by the hypocrisy of the middle class and all those constructs of civilization that obscure the realities of life and death. They wanted to dig down to the profundities of existence, they wanted to touch the natural, and they thought the oppressed toilers had a head start in that direction.
Reed saw the peons of Mexico in this light. He kept an eye out for barbarism. Going around the Constitutionalist army asking soldiers why they were fighting, he found one who told him, “Why, it is good, fighting. You don’t have to work in the mines,” and who was disturbed to learn there was no war going on in the United States. “No war at all? How do you pass the time, then?” These soldiers were plenty violent, too. They could hardly have a dance or party without fingering their guns and edging up to the brink of a shootout.
And all this was enthralling. Watching the ritualized flirtations of boys and girls in the villages, Reed felt sure their sexuality was spontaneous and open. Attending a medieval miracle play in a poor Durango town, he found an example of art and drama fully integrated into proletarian existence. He was moved above all by the stark simplicity of the peons’ revolutionary ideals. They wanted to get rid of feudal estates, the Church, and the army, and establish Libertad. It seemed so much simpler and better than the ideals of his own countrymen.
Reed asked a soldier:
“ ‘What do you mean by Libertad?’
“ ‘Libertad is when I can do what I want!’ the soldier replied.
“ ‘But suppose it hurts somebody else?’
“He shot back at me Benito Juarez’s great sentence:
“ ‘Peace is the respect for the rights of others!’
“I wasn’t prepared for that. It startled me, this barefooted meztizo’s conception of Liberty. I submit that it is the only correct definition of Liberty — to do what I want to! Americans quote it to me triumphantly as an instance of Mexican irresponsibility. But I think it is a better definition than ours — Liberty is the right to do what the Courts want.”
He loved the peon leaders. Back in Greenwich Village the radical bohemians stood in awe of anyone who could stir the masses. Their own local revolutionary hero was Big Bill Haywood, the one-eyed Western miner who led the Paterson strike and who was once described as Greenwich Village’s football star. But in Mexico Reed found a revolutionary leader who made Big Bill look like white bread: Pancho Villa, the ferocious bandit, whom Reed once saw wandering along the front of a major battle encouraging his men, cigar in one hand, bomb in the other, ready to light the fuse and let go.
Incredibly, Reed managed to befriend Villa, who called Reed “pug-nose” and gave him free run of the revolutionary army. Reed pictured Villa as a kind of perfect primitive king: abysmally, even comically, ignorant, dependent on the suggestions of his educated followers, but able to weigh and choose among these suggestions with the trueness of his emotions and the simplicity of his moral sense. A man with two wives, just and reasonable in his deeds, undeserving of his reputation for wanton murder and rape. A man of physical courage, barely literate, yet a military genius on the scale of a Napoleon.
The portrait laid it on so thick that Reed’s coolness and judgment were called into question. He did seem to have been flamboozled by the brutal bandit leader. Yet the portrait suggested a powerful idea. At the center of revolutionary events, Reed seemed to be saying, stands a heroic figure — in this case a primitive himself and spokesman for a primitive class, a man of will, no bohemian dilettante or trade union piecard corrupted by ties to the middle class, but a violent doer, a bandit, by God, a man so strong he could put his shoulder to history and butt it forward few feet. This was an immensely satisfying image. It was Idea Number Three — bloody-minded hero worship, the complement to left-wing romantic adventure and the cult of the primitive.
— 2 —
All right — maybe John Reedism was less than a brilliant doctrine, maybe it occupied no great place in the history of politics and political thought. But there was so much color and feeling in the doctrine, so much pep, moral passion, rebelliousness — you could write with these ideas, you could paint and draw. Dos Passos said of Reed, “Pancho Villa taught him to write.” The place Reed’s doctrine occupied was in the history of literature — to be specific, right after Stephen Crane and Jack London, right before Lawrence and Hemingway.
And yet five years later, in Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed produced a book that does indeed occupy a place in the history of politics, America’s one great contribution to the classics of international Communism. How was he able to do this? The question was first asked by N.K. Krupskaya, the Bolshevik leader who also happened to be Lenin’s wife, in her preface to the first Russian edition in 1923. The Russians themselves don’t write this way about the October Revolution, she observed. Reed was a foreigner who hardly knew the customs of Russia, could barely speak the language. And yet he had grasped the meaning of the revolution and had written an “epochal” book. He did this, she explained, by being a revolutionary in spirit, a true Communist.
The structure of Ten Days suggests that Reed had changed considerably since Insurgent Mexico. He had grown up some (he was 32 when he wrote Ten Days) and no longer doted quite so boyishly on swashbuckles. He had always had a sense of economy in drawing scenes, but now speeded up to the pace of a teletype machine. By no means did he give up on self-conscious literary techniques; he still threw in Whitmanesque flourishes about the “terrible dawn gray-rising over Russia” or the “world, red-tide,” some of which were, in combination with the teletype pace, very effective. But Insurgent Mexico was organized around these techniques, and the new book wasn’t. Stephen Crane lay behind him. Instead he filled Ten Days with facts, dozens of documents, speeches, placards, debates, some times reproduced in full. He included copies of leaflets, Cyrillic letters staring up from the page. The mass of material is confusing, fatiguing, almost too breathless to get through. Reading it is like deciphering one of those walls covered with a thousand posters. Then again, it has extraordinary energy, and a sense of extraordinary fidelity. Insurgent Mexico read like a novel. Ten Days That Shook the World was a report from the front.
Underneath these appearances, though, how different was Ten Days from the earlier book? Wasn’t it just John Reedism in heightened form, the Three Great Ideas raised to the level of what Hegel would call the world-historical? Maybe there was no mystery to Reed’s achievement at all — maybe it was the same old Village sensibility applied to spectacular new circumstances.
Again there was the tale of the author’s own adventures, less prominently boasted about this time, but more remarkable. He arrived in Petrograd with his wife, Louise Bryant, also a journalist, in the summer of 1917, after the Tsar had been overthrown but while the Provisional Government still hung on. He interviewed Kerensky, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik leaders, who welcomed him as the correspondent for The Masses and the New York socialist paper, The Call. He watched while the Bolsheviks began their October seizure of power. He and Bryant and a party of three other Americans more or less helped capture the Winter Palace: “Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into the right hand entrance.…” Inside they were seized by illiterate Red Guards who studied their passes upside-down and might well have shot them as bourgeois agents, except that a literate officer came by and looked at the passes right-side up. Reed went through the streets of Petrograd in a truck distributing a leaflet he hadn’t even read, which turned out to be Lenin’s proclamation that the Provisional Government was overthrown. He witnessed the famous speeches by Lenin and Trotsky, though of course it was largely Reed who made famous the particulars of these speeches.
Ten Days indulged no fantasies of free love among the Petrograd workers, and left undiscussed his concern with art and the proletariat. But in other respects Reed looked at the Russian working class with the same eye that he had looked at the Mexican peons. He was not interested in seeing how sophisticated the Petrograd proletariat was, how capably it organized factory production without the bourgeois managers, for instance. He paid no great attention to the remarkable democratic know-how of the workers, their ability to throw together grass-roots institutions of democratic self-government like the revolutionary factory committees and soviets (workers’ councils). He was not interested in what was advanced about the Petrograd workers. He was interested in their glorious simplicity, their almost primitive zeal, the gruffness of their class consciousness.
He contrasted this gruff simplicity to the convoluted knowledge of the educated class, and found that gruff simplicity was the greater wisdom. Indeed gruff simplicity was the stick that beat history forward, that drove the revolution into the streets and brought the Bolsheviks to power. His description of this was mythic: “The Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was considering the question of insurrection. All night long the 23rd they met. There were present all the party intellectuals, the leaders — and delegates of the Petrograd workers and garrison. Alone of the intellectuals Lenin and Trotsky stood for insurrection. Even the military men opposed it. A vote was taken. Insurrection was defeated!
“Then arose a rough workman, his face convulsed with rage. ‘I speak for the Petrograd proletariat,’ ” he cried, harshly. “We are in favor of insurrection. Have it your own way, but I tell you now that if you allow the Soviets to be destroyed, we’re through with you!’ Some soldiers joined him.… And after that they voted again — insurrection won.”
This scene turns out to have been mythic in both senses of the word. It is true that the Petrograd workers were spoiling for an uprising, and that the party was hesitant. But the Bolsheviks slid into their decision. There was no single meeting where the crucial vote was reversed, no rough workman who stood up and swayed the Central Committee. There was only Lenin, waging a protracted one-man campaign for insurrection. Reed made his story up out of excess enthusiasm, or maybe failed to look closely into some rumor he heard. It was bad journalism, but first-rate John Reedism.
Only in the portraits of Lenin and Trotsky did Ten Days depart from Reed’s earlier ideas, and even here the departure was not obvious. Lenin and Trotsky stand at the center of Ten Days just as Villa stood at the center of Insurgent Mexico. Like Villa, they radiate fierceness and strength. Within the party they are relentless against conciliators like Kamenev and Riazanov, who oppose the insurrection. After the insurrection they are just as relentless. The conciliators propose a coalition government of all the popular leftwing parties, instead of a one-party Bolshevik dictatorship. Lenin is outraged: “Shame upon those who are of little faith, who doubt, who allow themselves to be frightened by the bourgeoisie, or who succumb before the cries of that latter’s direct or indirect accomplices!” Lenin is not Mr. Civil Liberties. The question of freedom of the press arises, and several of the Bolsheviks favor a policy of tolerance. Lenin: “To tolerate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist.”
But the difference between Villa and the Bolsheviks is that the Bolsheviks don’t lug bombs to the front, they lug a theory of history, and at each little step in the Petrograd struggle detonate a new assertion about how history is moving along. The Bolsheviks can hardly open their mouths without saying something momentous. Thus Trotsky, in his interview with Reed (during which Reed discovered that it was not necessary to ask questions — Trotsky just talked), announces: “It is the lutte finale.” Proclaiming the Bolshevik victory from the podium of the soviet, he says: “We the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to try an experiment unique in history.” Denouncing those who walk out of the hall in protest against the Bolshevik action, he asserts: “They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!”
Lenin is the same. Addressing his famous first words to the Soviet after the insurrection, he says: “We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order!” — words which, incidentally, Reed was the only person to record, since the official recording secretary of the Soviet was a Menshevik who had just joined the garbage-heap of history by walking out.
Statements like these meant that John Reedism was at an end. Big Bill Haywood had never talked like this. Pancho Villa never said anything this eloquent. The greatest thing Villa ever said in Reed’s hearing was, “The tortillas of the poor are better than the bread of the rich.” These Bolsheviks were intellectuals, more intellectual even than Reed and the bohemian writers. There was nothing romantic about them in Reed’s old sense. He described Lenin as physically “unimpressive,” “colorless,” “without picturesque idiosyncrasies.” But this Lenin had fashioned an altogether new notion of what intellectuals could do. He and the Bolsheviks had shouldered aside the natural leaders of the working class and put themselves at the head of the proletariat, and in doing so they had made the revolution. This was not the same as having wild adventures, Reed-style, or being a writer for The Masses and hoping vaguely that one’s literary labors would help the proletariat. The Bolshevik example was far more serious, far grander, and there was no room in it for the old bohemian gaiety.
— 3 —
Some on the left saw that Bolshevism was going to be a disaster — or rather, some rushed into sympathy for Bolshevism, and rushed right out again. Reds portrays this by showing Emma Goldman’s quarrel with Reed over how Russia was doing in 1920. The only thing wrong with Maureen Stapleton’s performance in these scenes was the characterless accent she used. The real-life Emma Goldman was an immigrant and had to teach herself English; but she taught herself right. She acquired an upper-class accent. She sounded like George Plimpton. Maybe a cultured accent would have bothered film audiences: we like our immigrants to sound humble. But the decision to show Goldman’s quarrel with Reed was a good one, historically as well as dramatically. Goldman was the first distinguished radical in Reed’s world to condemn the Bolsheviks, which is interesting, and it is especially interesting that she made this condemnation on the basis of values she, too, had brought with her from old bohemian days in New York.
Goldman’s bohemia, however, was not exactly the same as Reed’s. She published her own magazine, Mother Earth, in competition with The Masses, and her magazine was duller, more rigid, and more radical. The comrades in her neck of the woods, which was the Lower East Side and East Harlem, tended to be poorer, angrier, more desperate, more violent. Not all of them were professional intellectuals. She herself started out with a sewing machine in the shirtwaist industry; her comrade Alexander Berkman started out as a factory hand. And the tendency in her circle was to know something about the insides of jail. Goldman at 24 did a year in Blackwell’s Island for having advocated a hunger riot at a rally in Union Square. Berkman did 14 years for shooting and stabbing Henry Clay Frick, the anti-labor steel baron.
The ideas held by this Anarchist bohemia tended to be different, too. In cultural matters, Goldman and her circle were more sophisticated than The Masses group. They were Europeans themselves, and more in touch with the European avant-garde. Eugene O’Neill learned about Ibsen and Strindberg from Goldman and Mother Earth, not from his pals at The Masses. Naturally, she and her circle also had different views of the working class. They had started out back in the 1890s with a Narodnik-like worship of the mystic People, but by the 1910s they had grown heartily sick of working-class ignoramuses and were less inclined to romanticize the primitive. They were champions of the class struggle; needless to say, they took the hardest line possible. But they tended to sneer, good Nietzscheans that they were, at proletarian backwardness. Nor did they fawn quite so easily over revolutionary leaders. Perhaps that was because in their own view they themselves were hot-shot revolutionary leaders. In any case, the ideas in Insurgent Mexico were not really theirs.
Politically these Anarchists were rigid to the point of immobility. They could not conceive of government doing anything on behalf of the workers, and therefore did their best not to acknowledge government’s existence. They would never vote, not even for Socialists, not even in emergencies. Radical bombings and attentats they could abide, and abided them even when innocent people were accidentally killed; but voting was anathema.
Yet they had their insights, lots of them, and in the case of Russia, insights of great clarity and originality precisely because of these doctrinaire ideas. No surprise in this: Anarchism was largely a Russian invention to begin with, courtesy of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and if it had any value at all it would surely yield truths about Russia. Goldman was deported from the United States at the end of 1919, along with Berkman, and lasted two years in Russia before fleeing to Western Europe. She yielded her truths in My Disillusionment in Russia (1923). This volume had the honor of being the first book-length denunciation of the Bolsheviks by a revolutionary of international renown. Later she reworked most of what she had written into her autobiography, Living My Life. This snooty, contentious, energetic, splendid two-volume fanfare for herself is the great classic of New York’s Anarchist underworld, a story of proletarian radicalism, the artistic avant-garde, and the free womanhood for which Goldman so stalwartly stood. The account of her despair at Bolshevism in Living My Life is doubly interesting because of how naturally it flows from the values she had campaigned for in the United States. But Goldman’s was not the only New York Anarchist portrait of revolutionary Russia — perhaps not even the best or the most convincing. There was also Berkman’s Russian diary of 1920–21, which was published as The Bolshevik Myth.
Berkman grew up in Petrograd and at age 11 saw his schoolroom windows shattered by the force of the Narodnik bomb that killed Tsar Alexander. Berkman’s uncle Nathanson became a revolutionary peasant leader and was instrumental in swinging the peasants behind the October Revolution in 1917; Uncle Nathanson makes a cameo appearance in Ten Days, though Reed seems not to have known of his relation to Berkman. Berkman himself never shed his Narodnik-terrorist roots, even after he emigrated to the United States. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist shows that in preparing to assassinate Frick, his mind was full of Russian revolutionary deeds, even Russian literature. His heart beat at the word Nihilist. Nor did he ever fully change his way of thinking. When he got out of prison he announced that terrorism was behind him, that attentats were an inappropriate means of class struggle in the United States. But he may not have believed this, at least not in moments of intense emotion. Paul Avrich has recently discovered that Berkman was probably leader of a benighted 1914 bomb plot against Rockefeller.
Berkman managed to play a role in the 1917 Petrograd uprising even while still in the United States. He had been accused of participating in a San Francisco bombing and was in considerable danger of extradition from New York and possible execution. Word of this reached the Petrograd proletariat — via an urgent telegram in code from Emma Goldman — and the Petrograd workers added Berkman’s defense to the thousand other global issues they were campaigning for. The Kronstadt sailors and workers held a monster rally for Berkman, among other American political prisoners, and on one occasion a group of revolutionary sailors threatened the life of the American ambassador on Berkman’s behalf. The ambassador cabled Washington; Woodrow Wilson got concerned over the international ramifications; and the case against Berkman was dropped. Meanwhile he had become celebrated all over Russia as a heroic victim of political persecution in the United States.
His book on the Russian Revolution began with a genuine instance of that persecution. In December 1919, following two years in the Georgia State Prison for antiwar agitation, he was jailed again at Ellis Island and then smuggled out to the U.S. Transport Buford for deportation, along with Goldman and 247 other immigrant radicals, mostly Russian Anarchists. The Buford steamed for Russia under a guard of U.S. soldiers. Almost immediately Berkman’s personality asserted itself. He became a kind of militant labor leader of the deportees, who backed him up in tough negotiations about shipboard conditions with the official in charge. Then the soldiers and sailors began to fall under his sway. When they reached Europe a group of them offered to turn the ship over to him, if he was interested. But he didn’t want a ship.
Berkman kissed the Russian ground when he arrived and declared it to be the “most sublime” day of his life He was still thrilled by the progress of events in Russia and thought the Bolsheviks were splendid. The fact that the Bolsheviks had established a new government with Lenin as head of state, Trotsky (whom he knew from New York) as foreign minister, etc. etc. was an embarrassment to Anarchist ideology. But in his estimation the Bolsheviks were merely presiding over the “real” revolution — the seizure of the land by the peasants, the factories by the workers, and the creation of peasant and worker cooperatives as the basis for the new socialist society.
Gradually he learned that he was wrong. The “real” revolution had certainly taken place, and the workers and peasants had seized control over their own affairs for the first time in history. But the Bolsheviks were not presiding over this; they were dismantling it. They were actively suppressing peasant and worker control in favor of centralizing all affairs in the hands of the state. From the Anarchist perspective, this was a disaster — a disaster for the social ideals of the Revolution, also a disaster for the economy, since the Anarchists were convinced that only a decentralized self-managed system of production could be efficient.
Berkman traveled around Russia with Goldman, collecting information for the new Museum of the Revolution, and everywhere he went left-wing oppositionists told him of political persecutions by the secret police, the Cheka. The harshest suppressions were of the Ukrainian Anarchists, who had been crucial in liberating that region from the counter-revolutionary Whites, and briefly there was the chance that the Ukraine might be allowed to develop along Anarchist lines. But Trotsky put an end to this. In Moscow, the Anarchist club was machine-gunned. Anarchists, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries found themselves in jail. Executions began. Berkman increasingly got the impression of a police state.
Meanwhile his own standing with the Bolsheviks began to decline. At first he was welcomed as a hero. Lenin sent a car to bring him to the Kremlin for a chat. Zinoviev was friendly and stood next to him on a May Day reviewing stand. Then Radek called with an urgent request. Lenin had just written Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, and needed Berkman to translate it into English. Berkman explained that he was too busy. Radek said, working for Lenin takes precedence over everything else. So Berkman examined the pamphlet and announced that he would be happy to translate it, but only if he could add a preface explaining why Lenin was wrong. “This is no joking matter, Berkman,” Radek said. After that the Bolsheviks took a dimmer view of him.
The climax was the Kronstadt uprising, when the revolutionary sailors demanded the right of free elections to the Soviet and freedom of speech for non-Bolshevik leftists. Berkman and Goldman offered to mediate the dispute: they still hoped some sort of reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and the more democratic and libertarian tendencies on the left could be worked out. Instead Trotsky sent the Red Army.
Berkman was a Dostoevskian figure, swept by gusts of depression and outrage, his whole life spent teetering on the line between fanatical idealism and suicide (ultimately he did commit suicide, in 1936). He hated oppression with a physical passion; he was the kind of man whose muscles stiffen at the sight of the police. It might be said that his extreme emotionalism was a psychological problem, peculiar to him, except that he belonged to a movement that itself teetered constantly between vast dreams and bitter calamities. Better to say he was an old-style Romantic, a man with the heightened emotions of 19th century revolutionism. Fortunately he was also possessed of literary talent and could get these emotions down on the page. His finest work was Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, every page of which is drenched with his mixture of idealism and torment. But he was also able to capture his feelings in The Bolshevik Myth, a book that recorded what was, after all, a far huger tragedy than his own failed attentat and long imprisonment.
“Gray are the passing days,” he wrote at the end of The Bolshevik Myth. “One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are foresworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people.” He concluded: “The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed.” That was in 1921.
Berkman didn’t even dent that myth. His book was published in 1925 by Boni and Liveright, the firm which had brought out Ten Days That Shook the World six years earlier. But in Berkman’s book Boni and Liveright did not have another big seller. American radicalism was not going in Berkman’s direction. It was going in Reed’s, toward Communism.
— 4 —
Was Reed himself going in Reed’s direction at the time of his death? Or was he coming to agree with Berkman and Goldman — not with their Anarchist philosophy, but with their left-wing condemnation of the Bolsheviks? This became an urgent question 10 or 15 years after his death.
Certainly Reed’s last years were devoted to Bolshevism. He organized a Bolshevik faction in the United States, the Communist Labor Party. He edited an agitational paper, The Communist. Then he returned to Russia and became intimate with Lenin, who would have him over for late-night talks and pull up his chair so close their knees touched. He was appointed a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International — but some time in the summer of 1920 he resigned the position. Possibly he was upset at the Executive Committee’s labor stance. Possibly it was because the committee refused to dump his political rival, Louis Fraina, from leadership. Either way, he soon withdrew the resignation — only to fall out with Zinoviev in August at a conference of “Toiling Peoples of the East” at Baku.
Soon afterwards, he died of typhus. Berkman and Goldman happened to be in Moscow and were the only friends of Louise Bryant’s to attend the funeral. And in a talk with Bryant, Goldman got the first wind that Reed’s upset at the Bolsheviks may have been substantial, indeed may have begun to resemble her own. There was not a great deal of evidence for this — only a few ambiguous words from Bryant, whose reliability could be questioned. At the funeral she was hysterical. When the coffin was lowered, she clutched at it, threw herself on the rain-covered ground, and stayed there through six speeches by Communist worthies, until Berkman picked her up and took her to the car. The hysteria was no passing thing, either, but may well have been the beginning of her long decline, which ended with her death many years later as an alcoholic in Paris. She certainly wasn’t held in high regard by Goldman, who wrote to Berkman:
“The last time I saw her was at the Sélect when two drunken Corsican soldiers carried her out of the café. What a horrible end. More and more I come to think it is criminal for young middle-class American or English girls to enter radical ranks. They go to pieces. And even when they do not reach the gutter, as Louise did, their lives are empty.… Of course Lincoln Steffens was right when he said about Louise [that] she was never a communist, she only slept with a communist.”
Nevertheless Goldman felt confident enough of what Bryant had told her about Reed’s questioning of the Bolsheviks to write it up. Over the years Bryant talked to a number of people about the final state of Reed’s soul, and they all felt confident about what she said — but each person seemed to get a different story: that Reed was beginning to be disappointed in the Bolsheviks; that he was indignant and through with them; that he was a stalwart Communist to the end; that he was a United States agent (this last no one has taken seriously). These various remarks of Bryant’s, plus some chatter from other people who remembered Reed in Russia, provided the only basis for the debate that arose over Reed’s final position. It wasn’t a very good debate — not enough hard facts. But then, this debate wasn’t really about facts. It was about something bigger — myths.
The John Reed myth began while he was still alive. Reed’s death made him seem more mythic still. In the 1930s, when the debate began in earnest, the John Reed myth took on yet another aspect. The ’30s was the “Red Decade”; yet even then it was obvious that the golden age of radicalism in America was the 1910s, certainly for the bohemian left — a great age because of its gaiety, romance, humor, above all because of the optimism that allowed these things to clasp hands with the cause of socialism and the working class.
Reed was the symbol of this. He represented the grand bohemian possibility, the possibility that art and revolution might come together, that the adventurousness of the individual rebel and the cause of social progress might cohere, that the work of The Masses might help the working classes after all. The debate over his last days, then, was a debate over who was the true heir of the 1910s bohemian left.
Naturally the Communists nominated themselves. They bedecked themselves with signs of their legitimacy. They called their magazine New Masses, indicating direct descent. They called their literary organizations in the early ’30s the John Reed Clubs. And they had grounds for their claim. A Communist writer like Mike Gold could hardly have existed without the example of Reed before him. Gold wrote articles in New Masses with such titles as “John Reed: He Loved the People,” proving what a true heroic Communist Reed was, and surely felt no worry about distorting Reed’s legacy. For Gold had Reed in his bones; he himself was Reed’s legacy; and he knew from his own emotions that he had the right to claim Reed for the Communist Party. So of course Gold and the Communists argued that Reed had never wavered, not even during his typhoid delirium.
The anti-Stalinist left claimed Reed and the bohemian legacy just as vehemently, and no one felt this more strongly than Max Eastman, the old Masses editor. The character of Max Eastman, incidentally, is another place where historical accuracy in Reds falls short. The real-life Eastman was not merely an attractive fellow, as in the movie, but stupendously beautiful. And not only that, a nudist. The real-life John Reed, on the other hand, had a face like a potato, according to Eastman. Even Pancho Villa, it will be recalled, was not impressed by Reed’s good looks. I hate to make this objection since by and large the historical sense in Reds is magnificent, down to the tiniest details, and ought to prompt Hollywood to give Beatty and his researchers an Academy Award for scholarship. And I’m sure that if Beatty had only received accurate information on Reed’s looks, he would have happily gotten himself up like a potato.
Eastman’s claim to the legacy of Reed was based on their years of work together. The two men hadn’t always agreed, but they respected, even loved, each other’s idealism. Reed wrote a poem about Max’s nobility of soul and used it to dedicate a volume of poetry. (“A vision of new splendor in the human scheme— /A god-like dream—”). Eastman wrote a novel called Venture, based in part on Reed and the Paterson strike. Eastman threw himself into Bolshevism just as Reed did, only while Reed turned into an agitator and politico, Eastman remained an editor and publisher. The Masses was suppressed by the government in 1917, but Eastman founded a new magazine, The Liberator. Lenin’s “Letter to the American Workers” was smuggled from Scandinavia by Carl Sandburg and appeared in the magazine. It was in the pages of Eastman’s magazine that Antonio Gramsci, in Italy, first read the writings of Lenin. And like Reed, Eastman also took the bold step of going to Russia.
Eastman’s two-and-a-half-year experience in Russia, however, was not encouraging. He attached himself to Trotsky, no doubt as Reed would have done after Lenin died, and began to work with Trotsky on an authorized biography. And from this vantage point he watched Stalin’s consolidation of power — in fact, tried to stop the dreadful event from occurring. It was Eastman who published the sensational Testament, in which Lenin stated that he didn’t like Stalin and wanted Trotsky to become head of state. Then Stalin completed his victory and Eastman was plunged into utter political isolation.
Eastman’s position in the American Left in the 1930s was not a happy one. To the bulk of the left and a good many liberals, he looked like a man who had lost his bearings — he had nothing but accusations against the Soviet Union, he seemed to have lent himself to the capitalist campaign of anti-Communist vilification. But this was not how it seemed to Eastman. Like the Anarchists before him, he did not feel that his objections to the Russian Revolution were made on the basis of picayune political purism. He knew for a fact that things were horrendous over there. All his old acquaintances were executed. He knew that thousands, and more than thousands, were going off to the terrible prison labor camps.
Imagine, then, how he felt seeing John Reed’s name waving as a banner over the Stalinist enterprise in America. It was galling. It was galling enough to see New Masses claim to be the heir of the old Masses. So Eastman issued his own counterclaims about Reed. Reed at his death had turned against communism, he announced. Louise Bryant had more or less told him so! Reed would never have become a Stalinist. He would have been a left-wing anti-Stalinist — just like Max Eastman. And Eastman knew this, just as Gold knew his own interpretation, in his bones.
The tragedy of Max Eastman is that he drifted further and further from the values of his brilliant youth. The personal situation he faced as a result of his denunciations of Stalin was too difficult. It was hard to call oneself a revolutionary leftist, and find that all one’s energy went into denouncing the rest of the revolutionary leftists, who in turn denounced him in the vilest language. Eventually his strength for this sort of thing gave out, and he defected to the extreme right — militarism, capitalism, nationalism, the whole bit, minus religion, which he still couldn’t abide. He wasn’t even a first-rate right-winger: he had nothing to say in his capacity as conservative dinosaur. Fortunately he found a magazine that specialized in this — the Reader’s Digest. That was where the editor of The Masses wound up.
Would Reed, if he had lived, have followed Eastman to an equally dreary end? Would he have followed Mike Gold into the dead end of American Stalinism, finishing his days writing ridiculous copy for The Daily Worker? Would he have found a better alternative?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 1, 1982