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.”
Because Reed wrote in a powerful, rhythmical, descriptive style he is again and again spoken of as a poet, “the poet of the revolution,” and so on. When he goes about the country agitating against conscription and about the Russian Revolution, he is reminded by his friends that he is, essentially, “a poet” and he thinks of himself as such—at times. The truth is that his uniqueness was precisely fulfilled in his prose and he is in no sense genuine otherwise. His love poems are conventional and quite expendable, along with, except for information, such of his letters as appear in books devoted to his life. His efforts to command the inclusive Whitman style are boasting and predictable in language.
I have shot craps with gangsters in the Gas-House district….
I can tell you where to hire a gun- man to croak a squealer,
And where young girls are bought and sold, and how to get coke on 125th Street….
The generalized experience offers little to this writer who needs the landscape of heroic action in what he sees as a just cause. To describe, feel, and experience is his gift; to heighten observation by a free and lovely fluency of language at a moment when all is given, accepted, beyond reflection. World War I, which he covered in a desultory manner, was not a source for his literary inspiration. The long, slogging, murderous destruction of men and history was lamentable, but, for his talent, it was not dramatic, being too dense and blurred.
The narrative power of Ten Days is astonishing when one considers the amount of information needed for Reed’s audience—not to mention the need of the author himself when he gets down to the page—and the effort to organize the documentation, the decrees, shifting alliances, committee meetings, newspaper accounts, without which the book would be only a dazzle. The esprit is unflagging; the rush through history and chaos is the rush to victory. The pace of the book is the pace of the victorious tide. It is all youthful, highspirited, with none of the disfiguring vehemence of the polemicist because Reed is a mind too newly born for moral carping. And he is a comrade without memories. In truth Reed doesn’t really know a soul there in the “vastness”; he hasn’t a single Russian friend and is not humanly acquainted with a foot of the earth.
For the others it was not so fresh and always blooming. When Angelica Balabanoff, the daughter of a wealthy landowning Russian family and a revolutionary since her youth, is sent by the Party to work in Odessa, “the mention of Odessa made me shudder.” Her relatives, from whom she was long estranged for political difference, had gone to Odessa in order to be able if necessary to escape to Turkey. (Her mother escaped to Turkey and died of starvation there.) Madame Balabanoff dutifully goes to Odessa and while outside her office she can hear the shouts of Long Live Comrade Balabanoff, her anti-Bolshevik sister is ushered in, a sister dressed like a beggar and so miserably altered she is hardly recognizable.
It is no diminishment of his stunning reportage to say that for Reed the October Revolution is pageantry from a moonscape. “In Smolny Institute the Military Revolutionary Committee flashed baleful fire, pounding like an overleaded dynamo.” And, “Vast Russia was in a state of solution…. Old Russia was no more; human society flowed molten in primal heat, and from the tossing sea of flame was emerging the class struggle, stark and pitiless—and the fragile, slowly cooling crust of new planets.” Power, vastness, newness, throbbing, rushing, rising, unrolling are the signifiers of the grand purpose, the necessity, the destiny of history. Petrograd falls, and then the bombardment of the “holy” Kremlin itself, and then the pause for the funeral of the Martyrs of the Beginning of World Revolution, and then: “I suddenly realized that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer and for which it was a glory to die….”
There is revolution and then there is also love. With the leaders in Russia, love stories are not often in the advance guard of experience. Lenin’s mistress, Issa Armand, is not even mentioned in Trotsky’s biography of Lenin or in his history of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky must have known of her death from cholera in 1920 and of Lenin’s stony grief, mentioned by other memoirists, when she is taken to be buried in the Kremlin, near to the grave of John Reed. As for Lenin’s wife and comrade, Krupskaia, she lived on, a survivor sometimes troublesome enough to lead Stalin to say that if she didn’t watch out, he would find someone else to be Lenin’s widow.
Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer spoke of her love for her husband, Leo Jogiches, as one of the “great and tragic love stories of socialism.” And certainly Emma Goldman was a lover. Her account of her life soon after she arrived in America as a young woman is detailed by short headlines at the top of the page. They read in breathless succession: Sasha Makes Love to Me; I Respond to Fedya; and Most [Johann] Confesses Love for Me. Most was an anarchist-terrorist—“propaganda of the deed” whose criticisms of Sasha (Alexander Berkman) after he had shot Henry Clay Frick led to the next Emma Goldman autobiographical headline: I Horsewhip Most. As she did on the stage of one of Most’s lectures, ending the scene in a majorful manner by breaking the whip in two.
In Reds, the love of John Reed and Louise Bryant is not one of the great stories of socialism. Its landscape for the most part is the America of Oregon, Greenwich Village, Croton-on-the-Hudson outside New York. Much of it is out of the classic film romantic comedy—fighting and making up, husband sent to the sofa, husband in the blazing kitchen, and in this case the historically permissible “free love” infidelities of Louise Bryant.
Louise Bryant met Reed when he was on a visit to his family in Portland. The meeting was brief and thoroughly fateful. She left her husband, went to New York, and married Reed not long after. Louise Bryant is interesting as an American woman who was not so much complicated as murky and given to the improvisations of survival.2
She came from the working class and while this might be a picturesque idea to some of the Greenwich Village intelligentsia, Louise Bryant knew it to be a soot-flecked reality. Her father was born in the mining region of Pennsylvania, worked in the mines, and by self-education became a school teacher and a reporter, finally working on newspapers in San Francisco where the daughter was born, before he vanished completely from the family scene. The destruction of records in the San Francisco fire was a release to the imagination and in Granville Hicks’s biography of Reed Louise gave out the information that she had been “brought up by her grandfather, the younger son of an Anglo-Irish lord.” Instead she was brought up by her mother and stepfather, a railroad conductor, in Wadsworth, Nevada, and made her way out, to the University of Nevada and the University of Oregon. When she married her first husband in Oregon she was twenty-two, but preferred to be thought nineteen. In New York with Reed she was twenty-nine, but chose to be twenty-five.
Louise Bryant’s life is like a traditional realistic novel of which she is the heroine under the domination of an ordained curve of fortune. Unpromising beginnings, sloughed off gradually by charm and by a fierce feminist determination for a worthy self-identification; romantic dishonesties, either profitless or gratuitous, but meant to ensure against something; the upward swing of many successes and no more relative than usual in “success”; and a truly terrible ending, without necessity, without preparation as it seems, except in a Hardy-like fate.
The triangle, supremely interesting in real life and so often the very blood of literature, was a natural mode for this driven coquette from the provinces and at almost every important point in her life with Reed the inclination, with its more or less forgivable deceptions, goes along like a handbag. Her affair with Eugene O’Neill began when the three of them were in Provincetown, continued “heavily” when she invited O’Neill to the house in Croton while Reed was in a hospital in Baltimore for the removal of a diseased kidney. When she returned, two months ahead of Reed, from the first trip to Russia, her immediate action was to get in touch with O’Neill. The way of the world had intervened; O’Neill had taken up with someone else and the affair was not resumed. In Reds, Louise Bryant’s character is given a greater degree of common sense than one can document. Also in certain fluent declamations and in the hintings of moments of “concerned” silence, she is made to appear the possessor of political wisdom, a sort of intuitive feminine guardian against the follies of radical enthusiasm.
In the group of artists and writers in the Village, more was necessary for a woman than attractiveness and compatibility of views, views about love, women’s suffrage, and so on, which Louise had come to before she met Reed. Still it was necessary to be something, if only rich like Mabel Dodge. So, without spectacular talent but with a steady energy she became a political journalist. In Petrograd with Reed she found her subject and Six Red Months in Russia, her book of dispatches based on her four months in Russia, came out in 1918, a year before Ten Days, published in 1919.
The stories, as she calls them in an introduction, “gathered together on the edge of Asia, in that mystic land of white nights in summer and long black days in winter…,” are naïve and written in the style of light feature-journalism, with many exclamation points that serve sometimes as irony or as a clue to excited emotion. “Kerensky again in the limelight! Kerensky visiting the world’s capitals and hobnobbing with the world’s potentates!” An effort is made to sort out the unnerving complexity of the political parties, to explain the Democratic Congress and to “explain away” the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, but it is a rendering finally of the author’s own ignorance and nervous incapacity as a historian. “I was present at the opening of the Constituent; it was a terrific performance from beginning to end. About eight o’clock the delegates assembled and the air fairly crackled with excitement.” In an interview at the recruiting office of the Women’s Battalion, where patriotic women from all classes had enlisted to fight the Germans, she was told that some of them were in the Winter Palace when it fell and were rumored to have been raped. Here Louise Bryant is more sympathetic and her conversational, quick-impression style is more suitable.
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.
March 4, 1982
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. ↩
So Short a Time by Barbara Gelb (Norton, 1973; Berkley Publishers, 1981) is the only biography of Louise Bryant and it is a necessary source for her life. ↩
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. ↩