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The Romance of Max Eastman

Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch

by Max Eastman
Random House, 665 pp., $8.95

American radicalism is a standing puzzle to the European. It is at once more violent and more innocent than its Old World counterpart, more flamboyant in its rhetoric of denunciation, yet at the same time so optimistic as almost to resemble a hymn of praise for life as it is lived. Moreover, it seems from the start to have been infused with a paradoxical certainty that while mankind’s past history has been a mess, the future is certain to be agreeable. The best is yet to come—especially in the United States. Goethe thought the Americans were fortunate in not being weighed down with memories, and monuments, of past failures. Others have been irritated by their habit of taking it for granted that Europe’s past was but an antechamber to America’s present. There have even been subversive hints to the effect that this is an illusion they share with the Russians.

Certainly the Russian Revolution has meant different things to Americans and Europeans. In Europe it was seen as the fulfillment of gloomy forebodings which had haunted the ruling classes since at least the abortive uprisings of 1848, if not since 1789. It was close at hand and dangerous; it was also easy to understand, though even Socialists for the most part disliked the form it took. There was nothing totally strange about it, though much that was repellent. To Americans it came as a surprise for which their experience had not prepared them. The fall of tsarism was indeed welcomed; all the rest—Lenin, Bolshevism, and the talk of world revolution—seemed mere fantasy: a spectacle remote and vaguely terrifying, but not dangerous, since America was happily immune to such infections. Even the handful of American Communists did not really believe they could pull off a revolution: most of them were too busy learning English and integrating into American society to entertain such illusions. At most they thought the distant volcanic eruption might lend some significance to their own burrowings. For the rest, the Bolsheviks and their doings made a splendid subject of conversation. This no doubt explains why Communism at one time was fashionable in Hollywood and in café society generally. It involved no commitment beyond the voicing of advanced opinions on Lenin (a learned bore), and no danger of the Red Army marching in. It was an age of innocence, and the memoirs of Max Eastman are a monument to its vanished glories.

For gone they are. Today one can no longer talk of Communism without having actually read Lenin; just as one cannot in good conscience discuss current topics without some understanding of Russian history, Soviet politics, even—dreariest subject of all—Soviet economics. Happy the age that has no need of such pedantry! Around 1920 one could “take a stand” on the Revolution in total ignorance of what was involved. A great many people did, and the bleached skeletons of their former selves are all around us, in the shape of lengthy confessions of error and elaborate explanations of how it all happened and what it was that misled them.

As a chronicler of his personal journey through this distant age, Mr. Eastman falls somewhere between Frank Harris and Whittaker Chambers. By this I do not mean that he is untruthful: merely that he has been fortunate in being able to combine the Stendhalian temper of the one with the ideological fervor of the other. Radicals—at least in Europe—usually tend to be gloomy and ascetic. Mr. Eastman was born into an ascetic environment (both his parents were Congregational ministers) and has been running away from it ever since. He seems to have dropped Puritanism—what was left of it, i.e., the conviction that pleasure was sinful—at an early age and embarked upon Enjoyment from the moment he could afford it. This happened, notoriously, in Greenwich Village, where he was introduced simultaneously to Love, Poetry, and Socialism. The penultimate chapter of the Memoirs chronicles his gradual disillusionment with Socialism, and his graduation to an editorship on the Reader’s Digest, but there is no suggestion that he has ever been untrue to either Poetry or Love. There is something reassuring about this. After all, there are millions of Socialists, but only a handful of poets, and—if one can believe the psychologists—not too many accomplished lovers. If a choice has to be made, I for one am willing to trade a carload of political prose for a single solitary glimpse of either love or poetry. In this sense it appears to me that Mr. Eastman—for all the staggering banality of his mature political and philosophical views and the insipidity of his poetic tastes—has chosen wisely.

I am bound to report, however, that this is not quite how he sees himself. Not that he is reticent on the subject of Love. On the contrary, he relates his experiences with the greatest of candor and in somewhat perturbing detail. For my hypocritical English taste there is a trifle too much stress on the theme of physical enjoyment: understandable perhaps in a refugee from the ministry, but slightly alarming nonetheless: much as Frank Harris’s rather similar celebration of his Gargantuan sexual appetite had the effect of making his readers a bit uneasy about both the subject and the author. With the best will one cannot help feeling a little skeptical (as well as envious) when confronted with such an unflagging record of erotic conquest. It is not this aspect of Mr. Eastman’s memoirs, however, which really troubles me, but rather his naive conviction that the story of his political and philosophical disillusionment with Communism is really worth telling once again (for, after all, we have heard it before) in all this detail. One can see of course that the two topics go together, inasmuch as the Greenwich Village Revolution of 1910 led straight (for its participants) to the October Revolution of 1917. Nonetheless the fact remains that in sordid truth the two events had nothing to do with each other.

It is here that the comparison with Harris imposes itself, at any rate for the reviewer who, as a European temporarily lodged in New York, cannot help viewing these matters with the cold eye of the outsider. There is, I suppose, a sense in which the Social Revolution and the Sexual Revolution can be regarded as two aspects of a global upheaval in progress since the First World War. But this kind of detachment is possible only for Americans. It cannot be shared by Europeans, who have had to endure the catastrophes of two wars and the horrors of totalitarianism. Mr. Eastman’s Stendhalian voyage of discovery through our epoch was marked, inevitably and through no fault of his, by the irresponsibility of the uncommitted outsider. In the end he was a tourist: there was a place to which he could always return. It might be Hollywood or the Reader’s Digest, love affairs or literary friendships, courtroom speeches, or fisticuffs with Hemingway: the life he led was not that of a “professional revolutionary” (not even of an unprofessional conspirator like Chambers), but that of a literary man who could (and did) at any moment disengage himself from politics to pursue his private affairs. That indeed is how civilized people should live. But in our wretched world such a style of life is the mark of the dilettante—even if he happens to be a dilettante who has been to Russia and made the acquaintance of Trotsky. Mr. Eastman is an ex-radical, but not an ex-professional. The Frank Harris of Socialism, he was an inspired amateur from the moment a girlfriend explained Marx to him in three easy lessons. (There is no evidence, despite his professions to the contrary and an enthusiastic endorsement from Edmund Wilson, that he ever went deeper into the subject.)

All this may sound a little patronizing. It is perhaps a mistake to take poets seriously when they stop writing about Love and get on to History. But Mr. Eastman insists on being taken seriously, not only as a Great Lover, but also as a Deep Thinker, and this is where the reviewer is obliged to part company with his subject. I do not grudge Mr. Eastman his mature conviction that the political commonplaces of his boyhood, which he rejected around 1912, are solid truth after all. I merely observe that he might have reached this conclusion by a shorter and less wearisome route. His present reflections on Marx, Lenin, Communism, and so forth, are not merely trite: they are trite in a peculiarly amateurish sort of way. It is regrettably evident that in all the years when he preached the doctrine he later came to renounce, he really had no notion of what he was talking about.

It also has to be recorded that Mr. Eastman shares with other romantic egotists a naive self-worship whose dimensions must have been the awe of his contemporaries, as its manifestations are plainly the pride of its possessor. Here too a national element appears to enter. In hypocritical Europe we are trained to conceal the extent of our narcissism. However much we may be secretly convinced of our superiority, we try to put on a suitably modest air in public. Americans do not seem to suffer from these inhibitions quite to the same degree, and Mr. Eastman certainly is one of the least inhibited specimens of the breed ever to make an appearance between hard covers. It comes as the most natural thing in the world for him to say of one of his writings that it “would have changed the history of the world if the authorities in Washington had read and believed it” (p. 630). I doubt whether this is so, and in any case it seems a little odd (if I may for a moment indulge in a bit of British understatement) to make such claims on one’s behalf. But it is part of Mr. Eastman’s charm that he does not think it in the least odd, and indeed his book is full of such quaint displays of self-admiration. This facet of his character, along with his strikingly handsome appearance, must have been a great help to him in the pursuit of Love, but I cannot help feeling that it has hampered him in the more prosaic business of clearing his mind of political cant. The cant after all had got there in the first place because he was so carried away by the Revolution and by his acquaintance with Trotsky. Its ultimate replacement by a different, and even sillier, sort of cant does not seem to me to have resulted from an increased capacity for taking thought; merely from middle-aged disillusionment and a very natural desire to find an emotional haven among the half-forgotten certitudes of one’s childhood.

In the nature of the case, the more interesting chapters are those dealing with the author’s stay in Russia in the early Twenties and his impressions of the Bolshevik leaders. But before he reaches this point, the conscientious reader has to work his way through a fairly lengthy account of how Mr. Eastman in 1917 almost singlehandedly tried to stop the United States from getting into the First World War. He still thinks this was worth doing, and devotes a good deal of space to the resultant court cases involving the Masses and Liberator magazines of which he was editor. His courtroom triumphs are described at considerable length, and with somewhat humorless insistence upon the pathos of the occasion, the brilliance of counsel for the defense, and the impact produced by the chief accused himself, who on at least one occasion managed the not inconsiderable feat of appearing in the dual role of pacifist and indignant patriot. There was some legal fencing, which inter alia involved Judge Learned Hand and other judicial luminaries, and Mr. Eastman seems on all occasions to have been treated with perfect courtesy. This of course is a credit to the American judicial system, but it rather detracts from the notion that he was carrying on a heroic battle against a brutal tyranny. My own impression from his account is that he was having a splendid time and getting a lot of free publicity. He also managed to offer some unsolicited advice to President Wilson, and in return received a very polite letter acknowledging that civil liberties had been a little strained, and that it was difficult in wartime to draw a line between legitimate restraint and improper censorship. In a subsequent account of the 1920 “red scare” the author notes that he and his friends were left alone. “Why our Liberator office was not raided we never could guess, unless it was that Wilson failed so miserably in his two previous efforts to put us in jail,” he says severely. This seems questionable. Is it not more likely that Mr. Eastman was not really regarded by those in authority as such an important person?

The Bolsheviks of course were a different breed of men altogether. They had no compunction about jailing their opponents without trial, or indeed shooting them out of hand. But then they were running a victorious revolution and moreover had been involved in a savage civil war. Mr. Eastman, with out becoming one of them, was prepared to make allowances. He was profoundly impressed by Lenin and struck up an intimate acquaintance with Trotsky, not to mention Krylenko (then in charge of Justice, i.e., repression) whose sister he married. His feeling about the Bolsheviks on the whole was that, given the situation they were in they really had no choice, and that the Terror was inevitable. This was perhaps a reasonable view to take, but it led to some serious ideological entanglements, since it put him in the position of having to apologize for Bolshevism without being a Marxist. That of course was a familiar phenomenon at the time, but not all fellow-travelers were as prominent as Max Eastman nor were they all as muddled as he about the philosophy of the whole thing. For it has to be said regretfully that he was very muddled indeed. While nursing an obscure grudge against Marx, on account of his literary manners (which were actually no worse than those of other ninetenth-century polemicists), Mr. Eastman was quite willing—for some years at least—to put up with the political behavior of Lenin and Trotsky. He was of course strictly an indoor Marxman—not required to shoot anyone or even to denounce people for failing to be wholehearted about the Revolution. Yet the whole business somehow leaves one with the impression that, as on previous occasions, Mr. Eastman was wholly carried away by a Great Idea he had failed to understand.

The author’s progressive disillusionment with the Revolution forms the subject of the concluding chapters. As usually happens with literary men, it all began with a quarrel over authorship. Trotsky, after Lenin’s death in 1924, had dropped some indiscreet remarks to Mr. Eastman, and in the following year there occurred a celebrated literary row, in the course of which Trotsky disclaimed all responsibility for some statements attributed to him by Mr. Eastman in a book which alluded to Lenin’s famous “testament.” Trotsky of course knew better; in plain terms, he was lying. Mr. Eastman was and is indignant about this. I must confess that my sympathies in the matter are wholly with Trotsky. He was fighting for his political life and could not afford to have Mr. Eastman buzzing around and adding to his troubles. But literary men are notoriously touchy about such matters, and Mr. Eastman took the incident in bad part. It shook his faith in Trotsky’s integrity, and even implanted the seed of doubt about Lenin. Later he published another book (called Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution) which completed his disgrace in Moscow. Among others it contained some reflections on Hegel—a remarkable feat considering his ignorance of the subject. “My criticism of Marx’s Hegelian philosophy was, I think, cogent and scholarly,” he now says modestly. “But my proposal that, following the line of Lenin’s instinctive heresies, we convert the whole thing into an applied science of social transformation, had the serious defect I have mentioned: it ignored the question who is to be the scientist and whence comes his authority.” One could name a few other defects, but there is no need to be pedantic. Indeed, if Mr. Eastman did not take himself so seriously as a thinker, there would be no point in mentioning the subject at all.

I hope I have not given the impression that Mr. Eastman’s memoirs are not worth reading. They are full of splendid anecdotes, many of them doubtless true, and there are some excellent character sketches of John Reed, H. G. Wells, and other literary figures. Moreover, Mr. Eastman is an engaging writer even at his silliest, and when he forgets about Hegel and comes down to matters within the range of his mental comprehension, he is both lively and informative. He has an eye for personalities though unfortunately no head for abstractions. He cannot grasp the simplest philosophical notion, but he can paint a scene and bring to life the passions aroused in a country such as Russia by the turmoil of civil war. His vanity does no harm to his descriptive and biographical passages; it becomes tiresome only when he tries to sound solemn and important. Besides, he was an ardent traveler, always off to some new destination, and his later chapters afford glimpses of Spain and the Middle East. Only towards the end, when the final break with Trotsky has to be chronicled, does he once more become solemn and tedious. His warrant this time is a letter Trotsky addressed to his American followers, warning them against Mr. Eastman’s philosophical heresies. Trotsky by then was in exile and while grateful to Mr. Eastman for having translated his History of the Russian Revolution, he felt obliged to caution his American disciples against what he called Mr. Eastman’s attempt “to translate Marxian dialectics into the language of vulgar empiricism.”

He need not have worried. Mr. Eastman’s empiricism is not of the kind that has a seductive effect upon the followers of rival philosophies—but that is beside the point. The point for Mr. Eastman was that, just as Wilson in 1917 had refused to take his advice about the war, so now Trotsky had failed to accept his views on the revolution. It was the end, in every sense. A few years later he had the satisfaction of being denounced in the Daily Worker as a “British agent,” having been named as such in the Moscow “trials.” By then most of his wife’s Russian relatives had been swept away in the Purge, and Mr. Eastman himself, though resident in New York, was a trifle worried about his own safety—unnecessarily. It was a grim finale to a great infatuation, though I am not sure I understand the logic of his “convalescing from socialism” as he calls it in his penultimate chapter. Where does socialism come in? (Or Marxism for that matter?) But logic was never Mr. Eastman’s strong point, and now that he is in his anecdotage (as the Reader’s Digest would say), it would be pedantic to split hairs. As the record of a personal journey through a turbulent epoch, this self-portrayal, though often vulgar and silly, has a permanent value. Moreover, the book itself is splendidly produced and the period charm it exudes is well sustained by the photographs. Thus when all is said and done the reader need not feel cheated. I have indeed heard it said that “it is all the fault of people like Max Eastman that there is no Socialist movement in America.” But though constitutionally skeptical of literary men, I find this difficult to take. How can it be the fault of a poet if in prosaic fact there was nothing for him to do but to go abroad and fall in love with a woman, and a revolution, in a strange land where people were killing each other for the sake of an idea they had misunderstood? Let us not grudge Mr. Eastman his tranquil old age, his Reader’s Digest philosophy, or his conviction that he has disproved Marx and Hegel. He has earned his repose, and I for one am able to enjoy even his absurdities.

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