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A Bunch of Reds


produced and directed by Warren Beatty, written by Warren Beatty, by Trevor Griffiths

Are you an American American? Lenin asked John Reed. The revolution would not be unmindful of the “human interest” attaching to the spirited and sunny Bolshevik from the United States. Clearly Reed was something apart from Lenin’s Russian and European experience bitterly acquired in prison and exile and recorded in his florid, vitriolic disputes in the old Iskra and elsewhere. John Reed was not a Pole, not an Italian anarchist, not a Jew, not a Menshevik, not a socialist revolutionary. In truth he was what he appeared to be, a charming enthusiast of the revolution, a genuine American with no jarring memories of Zimmerwald debates, of Kautsky polemics, of Rosa Luxemburg.

Could he even be called a Marxist since he was not attracted to exegesis or to study in some American equivalent of the British Museum or the libraries of Zurich? Nevertheless he was a revolutionary, not just a leftist, and certainly not an “infantile leftist” with their accusing utopianism. And, of course, like so many others, he was a world revolutionary, believing in the overthrow of capitalism, first here and then there, by way of strikes and insurrections. The gradualism of the Socialist Party was not agreeable to Reed’s temperament and he was, after the victory in Russia, determined upon its replacement in America by some form of the Communist Party, recognized and unified, as it were, by the Comintern.

Reed is a curiosity and his political biography is held together by theatricalism and by his seizing upon, as a journalist, the dramatic moments of the class struggle; that is the moment when the stage is lit by a strike, by Pancho Villa and his horsemen in northern Mexico, and by the Bolshevik seizure of the government in November, 1917. Certainly these are natural landscapes for the reporter-participant, the brilliant, early master of radical “new journalism.”

And circumstances made Reed what is called a legend. Even so striking a book as Ten Days That Shook the World could only make the author famous, celebrated, widely known, still one among others. It was early death that made him legendary, always bright and free of the ruins of time. At thirty-three he died in Soviet Russia of typhus and was buried in the Kremlin. So here is a radical American idealist, an activist with youthful, beguiling impetuosity; and all somehow illuminated, charmingly colored by his having been a treasured child of the American bourgeoisie, a westerner from Oregon, a graduate of Harvard, tall and good-looking in the old Greenwich Village gifted days.

Reed died in 1920, his book and his persona lived on, but there would inevitably be sixty years later some sketchiness in public memory. And now, in 1981, he has been revivified in Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, an expensive, ambitious, romantic celebration of American radicalism, a celebration of love, vitality, and bohemianism. “Who were they? Were they socialists?” Adela Rogers St. John asks about Reed and his wife Louise Bryant. She does not remember them and yet she is, we must say, on the right track. Had the film been made in her earlier days Mrs. St. John, a Hearst reporter very knowledgeable about Hollywood, would indeed have remembered. Pictorial, synoptic, imagistic history, united with the extraordinary grip of the visage of screen actors on the memory, last a generation at least, and often longer.

Reds—the candid title, connected in the mind with “a bunch of”—sets the good-natured tone of this representation of a bloody, suffering, unbearably complex historical period, the period that ended for Reed with the Russian Revolution. For radical Americans in love like John Reed and Louise Bryant the catastrophic time of war and devastation of the past of Europe was washed in a silvery light, the light of “when we were young and believed in something.”

Warren Beatty, in so far as the mind can concentrate a film personage, does not appear to be in reality a violation of the historical John Reed. Indeed they are both “making history” in accordance with the useful and possible media at hand, and the sixty years intervening are interestingly foreshortened by the persistence of type. It is no wonder Beatty took upon himself so many of the professional duties of the enterprise; it is as if he feared the intrusiveness of alien spirits born, as it were, under the wrong sign. A like sense of osmotic recognition perhaps directed his most successful invention, the inclusion of persons, some of whom had known Reed and some not, who were alive at the time of World War I and who in their stray, broken, lifelike remarks attest to the past in the present, to the fading but not yet extinct silvery world—the way we were.

The witnesses do not reveal so much about Reed as about the endurance of the mask and its meeting with opinion which are finally personality—the quintessential union achieved by John Reed in his youth. Henry “Fucking” Miller, working-man Heaton Vorse, the old swaggart Hamilton Fish, the refined, liberal Roger Baldwin, and above all the restless individuality of two distinguished Englishwomen, Dora Russell and Rebecca West: these persons act in the place of the conventional newsreel, banner, and headline to establish the mood of history and the claim of a certain root of factuality.

Trotsky at the end of The History of the Russian Revolution writes: “Parliamentarianism illumined only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October Revolution was the first to lay its hand.”

The “deeper sphere of the unconscious” laid its hand on revolutionaries, on individuals, rather than upon the state, the embodiment, which had no relief from a conscious, wary, cunning, and unending struggle for power. As the Russian poet Alexander Blok wrote, in a revolution “everything is confused as in a tavern, a fog.” But the enthusiast, whether of the right or of the left, is frightened of the fog and naturally sees it as an impediment to forward, march.

Reed, the enthusiast, seems to have discovered his political self when he met Big Bill Haywood in 1913. Haywood, the leader of the IWW, was at the time of the meeting leading a strike of 25,000 textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey. Haywood himself had outstanding courage and revolutionary political ideas; he also had a useful working-class charisma that riveted the attention—a “massive, rugged face, seamed and scarred like a mountain.” In Paterson, where police and company brutality was extreme, Reed went to report on the plight of the mostly foreign-born workers who had been organized under the banner of the IWW. “Immediately Reed fell in love with these Italians, Lithuanians, Poles and Jews, small, dark, tough, boisterous men who cheered the IWW, incessantly sang union songs and fearlessly denounced their jailors.”1

He was arrested for some minor interference and jailed for four days in the same cell with the noted Italian radical, Carlo Tresca. (Tresca was assassinated—some said by the Comintern, some by the “mob,” acting for fascists—in front of his office on lower Fifth Avenue in the 1940s, and one of my own New York memories is of the twilight gathering of a small group, always including Norman Thomas and Dorothy Kenyon, on the spot of his death for an anniversary memorial service.) From the IWW and the experience at Paterson Reed received what appears to be his only cluster of political principles: syndicalism. This lasted throughout his life, even after he and a good many of the Wobblies were consumed by the Communist Party after 1917.

The principles were One Big Union and open war against the excluding craft unions of the conservative AF of L under Samuel Gompers; direct action by way of strikes and boycotts for the overthrow of capitalism; opposition to mediation, parliamentarianism, running for office as a minority political party; antimilitarism and opposition to America’s entrance in World War I, the war of “profits.” These principles dominated Reed’s distaste for the Socialist Party, even though as early as 1912 Debs had received 900,000 votes as a candidate for president and was to receive 914,000 when he ran from his jail cell in 1920. And most importantly the principles and his experience of them in America informed what seems to have been Reed’s only serious dispute with the direction taken by the Bolsheviks after the victory of 1917: that is the decision that the radical American workers, whom Reed emotionally and ideologically saw himself to represent, should “bore from within” the more powerful AF of L, which Reed detested, with the aim of achieving thereby a mass following.

Also at Paterson what might be called the popularity of Reed’s personality, the noblesse of it, was immediately manifest. He was noticeable, vivid, under a sort of enchantment with his princely dash and large sympathies. Perhaps because he held whatever political ideas he had in a haphazard and personalized manner, Reed was not attracted to the urge for organizational power, an almost inevitable handmaiden to the theorist in action. In political activity what are abstractions good for except to be imposed upon groups, opponents, the flow of events? Or to provide substance to the critique, a mental activity, souring enthusiasm, and uncongenial to the expressive sans-culottism of Reed’s nature.

His moment as a radical journalist is the showdown, the possibility of a reversal of power and the appearance out of the darkness of the forest of powerful men, with the object always of redeeming, revenging the sufferings of the powerless. Reed enters the showdown with a happy receptivity, always, even at Paterson, under the star of his own engagé foreignness. He is a striker at Paterson, one of los hombres with Pancho Villa in Chihuahua, and an instant Bolshevik in Russia. He is trusted because he is not disputatious and indeed he has brought with him to the scene only the wish that the revolt, the insurrection might succeed. He is the troubadour of the main event and it would be withholding to stifle the spirit with too great a pause for “details” that trouble. The torrent révolutionnaire, the mob, les malheureux in the streets, at the barricades, ragged armies, strong leaders—for these his gift is ready. Reed does not seem to know much about past history and the only historical reference in Ten Days is to Carlyle, very briefly.

When he meets Pancho Villa he is impressed with “the most natural human being I ever saw—natural in the sense of being a wild animal.” In turn Villa is impressed and soon Reed is riding with la tropa, sleeping with the compañeros, and writing: “I made good with these wild fighting men and with myself.” There is banditry, expropriation, revolutionary justice by execution; and there is Justice, the turnover, the awakened peasantry, the blaze of a new dawn. Reed’s account of the Mexican Revolution is brilliantly alive and moving. Walter Lippmann wrote about it: “The variety of his impressions, the resources and color of his language seemed inexhaustible…throngs of moving people in a gorgeous panaroma of earth and sky.”

  1. 1

    Much of the information about John Reed in this article comes from Romantic Revolutionary by Robert A. Rosenstone (Knopf, 1975; Vintage, 1981). Rosenstone’s research in articles, manuscripts, foreign sources, and Reed bibliography is exhaustive. His biography is an exemplary source of interest and fact for anyone who wishes to reflect upon Reed’s career.

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