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A Bunch of Reds

Interviews with Breshkovskaya and Spirodonova, two great women of the revolutionary period, are sketches of vivid personalities who, somewhat unfortunately for Louise Bryant, have political ideas outside her comprehension. Breshkovskaya, the Grandmother of the Revolution as she is called, was heroic and dramatic and old. She was also a right-wing socialist revolutionary and unwelcome after the fall of the Provisional Government. Louise Bryant writes: “History almost invariably proves that those who give wholly of themselves in their youth to some large idea cannot in their old age comprehend the very revolutionary spirit with which they themselves began; they are not only unsympathetic to it, but usually they offer real opposition…. It is a question of age.”

The handsome, learned Spirodonova had in her youth killed the sadistic Lupjenovsky, governor of Tambov. For this act she spent an appalling eleven, brutalizing years in prison in Siberia until she was released when the February Revolution broke out. “Spirodonova as a member of the Left Socialist Revolutionist Party is surrounded by a number of the finest young idealists in Russia. Hers is the only party that in a crisis rises above party for the benefit of the nation. It will have more and more to say as the revolution settles down.”

The folly of this prediction is scarcely credible. When John Reed returned to Russia in 1919 to get recognition for the Communist Labor Party of America, Spirodonova, who opposed what she saw as the Bolshevik betrayal of the peasants, was again a “martyr,” in and out of Soviet prisons. Because of her revolutionary fame she was perhaps the first to be incarcerated under the “nervous breakdown” euphemism. Emma Goldman tells of talking to Reed about the case and hearing his claim that the imprisonment was due to acute neurasthenia and hysteria. On this matter Emma Goldman’s comment was brief and dismissing: “As to Reed, unfamiliar with the language and completely under the sway of the new faith, he took too much for granted.”

Six Red Months in Russia sold fairly well and the author went about the country lecturing to large audiences. “Miss Bryant appears a demure and pretty girl, with a large hat, a stylish suit, and gray stockings…. In a burst of applause, the demure little speaker sits down.” Thus was achieved the professional identity she very naturally wanted.

Her return to Russia to “rescue” Reed is not entirely the epical samaritanism of the film. She did not pass over the icy tundra nor did she go to the prison in Finland where Reed had been held after his second Russian journey. She went to Russia by way of Murmansk and for various reasons, one of which was to be reunited with Reed, even though she was not fully aware, because of the difficulty of communication, of the suffering he had endured in solitary confinement. When she took off she was “bursting with guilt” over an affair she had been having with Andrew Dasburg, formerly Mabel Dodge’s lover. She told Dasburg she wanted to continue her career as a journalist of the revolution, and also to dissuade Reed from coming home lest he go to prison on the indictments handed down for criminal anarchy and other charges during the Palmer Raids.

Her letter to Dasburg is interesting because of the remarkable persistence of her triadic confusions. “If J comes he will only go to prison and that will be horrible. Always to know he is there—more dependent than ever—it would destroy us, you can see that. It would destroy all three.” All three is full of future intention to be worked out somehow. And “more dependent than ever” points to those midnight, untrammeled characterizations of the absent one, very much in tune with her telling Eugene O’Neill that Reed was impotent, which he was not. Reed’s affairs, after he met Louise, are, at least in history, nameless phrases: “Jack romping around the house with a naked female” and “a desultory passion for a young Russian girl kept Jack too busy for sustained writing.”

Three years after Reed’s death, Louise Bryant had a sensational affair with William Bullitt, the rich Philadelphia diplomat who was later ambassador to Russia. He divorced his wife, married Louise, and they had a daughter. Bullitt was thirty-one and Louise was thirty-five, although keeping a bit ahead by being a bit behind she admitted only to being thirty. What seemed to the world a splendid social coup led to, or coincided with, one of those unpredictable, unaccountable swervings of human character. She began to drink heavily, spent time in sanitariums, and drove Bullitt to shame and fury. After seven years he sued for divorce and was awarded custody of the child. She returned to the Village, took up with a slippery younger man, brought him to court for stealing a valuable antique comb, and, oh the old chestnuts, the old songs, giving it to the famous Village restaurant owner, Romany Marie.

She left the Village for Paris and lived there a miserable life of drink and drugs. Janet Flanner’s description: “When she came back to Paris she was in the lowest stage of degradation. One of the last times I saw her was on a rainy night when I was walking along Rue Vavin in Montparnasse. Literally out of the gutter rose a terrifying creature. Her face so warped I didn’t recognize her.”

The sudden meeting, the rainy night, the gutter—how like those endings in French novels of the sweet little tart or music hall singer, done in. Louise Bryant died in 1936 at the age of fortynine, and if she ended in the manner of Balzac or Zola, she was in life, I think, more like Sister Carrie. Even her journalism might remind one of the theatrical success of Carrie, some aspect of performance that is not art and yet a public definition.

Reed called Ten Days “intensive history,” and perhaps he meant history intensified by his feeling. Bolshevism came to be thought of as a magical phenomenon which not only consumed radical parties but embraced and erased all other radical political ideals. Power was a great part of this mystical inclusiveness and the mere fact of embodiment was an overwhelming, if irrational, magnification of value. The messianic mode and profound inexperience separated Reed from those who made the revolution, those whom Hannah Arendt in On Revolution called professional revolutionists who arrive on the scene from the “jail, the coffee house or the library.”

But no matter what his “innocence” he is led as if he were merely another seeker of power into the simplifications of propaganda. The intellectuals of the Menshevik Party, he asserts, by virtue of their education “instinctively reacted of their training, and took the side of the propertied classes.” And “the only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people.” It is unthinkable that he could feel or write after a stirring speech by Trotsky anything close to what was written by the great diarist of the period, Sukhanov: “With an unusual feeling of oppression I looked on at this really magnificent show.”

The revolution, the scene, drew Reed slowly into a degree of participation unusual for a foreign journalist, even a radical one. Waiting for his transit visas at the end of the first trip Reed attended the meeting of the Constituent Assembly and easily accepted the Bolsheviks’ decision on dissolution after they failed to win a majority. The Constituent Assembly, providing for elected, representational government, was a sacred item on the agenda of the future and the Bolsheviks had bitterly condemned the Provisional Government set up after the overthrow of the Tsar for failing to honor this hope. The Bolsheviks in electoral defeat decided the Assembly was a bit of “bourgeois counterrevolution,” and Reed, according to Rosenstone’s research, was “not disturbed.”

In addition he spoke at the Congress of the Soviets to great applause and joined the Red Guards in patrolling the streets and worked for the Bureau of International Propaganda. In his efforts to get back to America with his notes intact, Reed thought of having himself appointed a Soviet courier and for a time Trotsky actually proposed that Reed be appointed Soviet consul to the United States. Fortunately that did not happen and he returned to write Ten Days, to become famous, and to enter radical political life as an exalté representative of his ideas, or rather of his experience there, at the very moment. A new vocabulary, pulled out of the sludge of militarism, would need to direct his actions: tactics, strategy, maneuver.

He joined the Socialist Party in bad faith and participated with Louis Fraina in a left-wing split whose aim was to Bolshevize the party.3 There was a further split between Reed and Fraina and both went to Moscow in 1919 for the meeting of the Comintern, with Reed representing the Communist Labor Party and Fraina the Communist Party, composed mainly of many foreign-language radical groups. Reed’s return seems to have rested upon his acknowledging himself as the American most known to the Soviet leaders and most likely to achieve recognition for his branch of the party. When he arrived the revolution had hardened like a footprint in cement and there was no way to avoid knowledge of the evident suppression of political opposition, the rule of the Communist Party bureaucracy, the consolidation of the power of the secret police, the Cheka. The knowledge could not be avoided, but there was—as always—interpretation.

Reed traveled about the demoralized, starving country, seeing and partly seeing. He brought hyperbolic greetings from the American workers and was received with great enthusiasm which seemed to testify to the endurance of the heroic phase. According to Rosenstone’s research, he was prepared to see the repressions as necessity and to find the opposition of the peasants rooted in their petty-bourgeois mentality. He welcomed the threat of the hated conscription for the peasants to bring them out of isolation, into education so that each peasant “will return to his village a revolutionist and a propagandist.” The Cheka was not alarming since it was only acting against traitors and the shooting in one short period of 6,000 men was justified since “this is war.” Coarseness enters the mind of the enthusiast as quietly as a faint, hardly noticeable cerebral accident.

It is necessary, it is necessary. Even the church bells are imagined to be ringing out this terrible refrain at the end of Victor Serge’s great, tragic novel about the betrayal of the revolution, Conquered City—his Petersburg where perhaps he brushed by Reed and Louise Bryant as they were rushing to the “great Smolny ablaze with light.” And when Reed is going about the Russian countryside, the poet Tsvetayeva is writing about the soldiers:

He was white and now he’s red=
The blood reddened him.
He was red and now he’s white=
Death whitened him.

After the meetings with the executive committee of the Comintern the dispute about the American Party was settled by the decision to unite them and Reed was chosen for the committee. He prepares to leave for home, taking with him $14,000 in diamonds and $1,500 in currencies, “Moscow gold,” to assist the Communist Party of the US. He was captured in White Finland, put in prison as a spy, where he stayed for almost three months in solitary confinement, before being returned to Petrograd and Moscow. In Moscow he waited for the summer meeting of the Comintern, made speeches, and was always a striking, admired, if singular, figure.

At this time he has the dispute with Zinoviev and Radek over the Party line about the AF of L. Reed felt strongly that the Soviets did not understand the labor situation in America and indeed it would be sticky for him, with his Wobbly history and convictions, to carry this autocratic, “united front” decision on his shoulders. He agitated, he resigned from the executive committee, and he gave in, withdrew his resignation, and the domination by the Soviets of the Communist Parties of the world because another necessity.

In the film, Zinoviev is the enemy, the symbol of autocratic rule and cynicism, and Reed is cast as a “dissident.” In the role Jerzy Kosinski is in a sense an idealization of Zinoviev. His dramatic hawk nose, thin-lipped whine, and lemon-chewing precision are what Zinoviev might better have been for dramatic purposes, for style. In reality Zinoviev, who was executed in the first of the Old Bolshevik purges of 1936, was a pudgy, jowly, irritating agitator, one of the original mesomorphs of the Politburo, a physiognomy of enduring replication. At Baku, the mad gathering of Turks, Persians, Arabs, and others, to which Zinoviev took him, Reed was dismayed by the distorted translation of his speech and by the use of Islamic “holy war” rhetoric from Moscow.

From these last months before his death arise the question of Reed’s final attitudes toward the Soviet Union. To find this attractive person sunk at the end in the airless Communist Party provokes the salvaging instinct on the part of some such as Max Eastman, now on the other side and unwilling to surrender the corpse of this glorious friend of his youth. Late conversations described by Angelica Balabanoff indicate Reed’s resentment of Zinoviev and a general sadness and depression about the Soviet scene. Louise Bryant gives testimony of a bitter disillusionment to Balabanoff and says that Reed died because he had lost the will to live. However, just after his death she had written Eastman that “he would have died days before but for the fight he made.” Her testimony is erratic in the extreme, moving from disillusionment to some auditors, complete denial to others, and the record even includes an accusation that Reed was a secret agent of the United States. Louise Bryant returned to Russia after Reed’s death and wrote the dispatches that appear in Mirrors of Moscow published in 1923. At this time she, who had never been content to be The Wife, was The Widow, legendary. Her book shows no diminution of her passion for the revolution, which had become her specialité. The secret police “were back again protecting now a revolutionary government as energetically as they once protected the Tsar!”

Emma Goldman believed that Reed had maintained belief in the revolution until the end. Louis Fraina, who was at the death scene, wrote, “As one of the two or three Americans who saw him before his death, I can affirm that Jack Reed kept all his loyalty to the Soviet Union and communism.” There is a sympathetic and very interesting account of Reed’s life and his relation to Soviet communism in Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism. Draper, a brilliant, fair-minded historian, does not give up Reed’s possible disillusionment easily and he feels in the end that “Reed was probably as disillusioned as it was possible to be and still remain in the movement.” Rosenstone disagrees with this more or less on the grounds of Reed’s nature and temperament and while he sees distress he does not find that it would be sufficient cause, for Reed, to be rightly considered disillusioned at the time of his death.

John Reed was a morally attractive man marked by generosity and openness and for the most part unacquainted with the torments of ambivalence. Still he is not deep enough or reflective enough to be a moral hero and his life at the end shows the damage of a too-eager receptiveness. The curious last lines of Granville Hicks’s biography tell of the funeral and the speeches by Party leaders. “For Bukharin and Radek and the others the death of John Reed was only an incident in the struggle for world revolution. He would have approved.” A peculiar epitaph for one who was only thirty-three and whatever he may have been was never content to be only an incident.

Letters

Fraina and ‘Reds’ June 10, 1982

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    Louis Fraina: a life of one miserable opaque drama after another, all wonderfully told in Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism. Fraina cannot be summarized because his is a story of circular details, plots everreturning to haunt as in nineteenth-century fiction. Under the shadow of a strange spy charge by a perjurer when he went to Russia with Reed, but exonerated after a “trial” by the Comintern. The Party felt he was, nevertheless, cloudy and chose Reed to be the member from America of the Executive Committee. Fraina was exiled to Mexico, given $50,000 for Party work, of which the sum of $4,200 would bring him in Party disrepute as an “embezzler.” Returned to Europe, back once more in New York under the name of Charles Skala; went to work in a dry goods store for $12 a week, finally employed as a proofreader.

    In his evenings he decided to write a review on corporate ownership which was published in The New Republic, under a new name which he gradually made distinguished, Lewis Corey. Corey wrote analytical books on capitalism, taking a Marxist view, became a professor of political economy at Antioch College even though he had never been to high school. His past, in and out of the graces of the Communist Party, caused him fantastical difficulties and, notwithstanding his anticommunist position, he was subjected to threats of deportation by the American government. As Draper writes, “The man who began as Louis C. Fraina and ended as Lewis Corey provided the complete symbol of the American radical in the first half of the twentieth century.” (In the film Fraina speaks with an Italian accent, which perhaps serves a useful purpose for dramatic variety. The fact is that he came to the United States at the age of three.)

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