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 …
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Fraina and ‘Reds’ June 10, 1982