Discovering John Reed

by Howard Zinn

excerpted from the book

Howard Zinn on History

Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper


The appearance in 1981 of a Hollywood movie, Reds, in which the main character is a Communist, the journalist John Reed, and is sympathetically portrayed, was startling. It was one of many pieces of evidence that the nation had moved a critical distance away from the Communist hysteria of the Fifties. The editors of the Boston Globe asked me, as a historian, to tell their readers about John Reed, and this piece appeared January 5, 1982.


Radicals are doubly exasperating. They not only refuse to conform to ideas of what true American patriots are like; they may not even fit common notions of what radicals are like. So with John Reed and Louise Bryant, who confounded and infuriated the guardians of cultural and political orthodoxy around the time of World War I. They are now being portrayed in Warren Beatty's grand movie, Reds, causing some critics to grumble about "communist chic" and "mod Marxism," in an unwitting replay of the barbs thrust at Reed and Bryant in their time.


It was bad enough that they and their remarkable friends-Max Eastman, Emma Goldman, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger- spoke out for sexual freedom in a country dominated by Christian righteousness, or opposed militarization in a time of jingoism and war, or advocated socialism when business and government were clubbing and shooting strikers, or welcomed what seemed to them the first proletarian revolution in history.

What was worse was that they refused to remain mere writers and intellectuals, assailing the system with words; they walked picket lines, loved freely, defied government committees, went to jail. They declared for revolution in their actions as well as their art, ignoring those cautions against commitment offered, in any generation, by the voyeurs of social movements.

John Reed could not be forgiven by the Establishment (nor even by some of its critics, like Walter Lippmann and Eugene O'Neill) for refusing to separate art and insurgency, for being not only rebellious in his prose but imaginative in his activism. He saw revolt as not mere fulmination, but fun, not just analysis but adventure. This caused some of his liberal friends to take him less seriously (Lippmann spoke of his "inordinate desire to be arrested"), not understanding that, to the power elite of the country, protest joined to imagination was dangerous, courage combined with wit was no joke. Grim rebels can be jailed, but the highest treason, for which there is no adequate punishment, is to make rebellion attractive.

Jack Reed, his friends called him. He was a poet all his life, from his comfortable childhood in Portland, Oregon, through Harvard College, peasant uprisings in Mexico, the strikes of silkworkers in New Jersey and coal miners in Colorado, the war fronts of Europe, the shouting, singing crowds of the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd. But as his fellow editor of the Masses, Max Eastman, wrote: "Poetry to Reed was not only a matter of writing words but of living life." His many poems, in fact, were not memorable, but he rushed into the center of wars and revolutions, strikes and demonstrations, with the eye of a movie camera, before there was one, and the memory of a tape recorder, before that existed. He made history come alive for the readers of popular magazines and impoverished radical monthlies.

At Harvard between 1906 and 1910, Reed was an athlete (swimming and water polo), a prankster, a cheer leader, a writer for the Lampoon, a student of the famous writing teacher they called Copey (Charles Townsend Copeland), at the same time, a protégé of the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. He was a mischievous critic of Harvard snobbery, though not a member of Walter Lippmann's Socialist Club. On graduation, he worked his way aboard a freighter to Europe- London, Paris, Madrid-then returned to join a cluster of Bohemian-radical writers living in Greenwich Village, where Steffens helped him get his first job doing rather routine editorial work for a literary political magazine called the American.

In New York in 1912, for anyone who looked around as sharply as John Reed, the contrasts of wealth and poverty stunned the senses. He began writing for the Masses, a new magazine edited by Max Eastman (brother of the socialist-feminist Crystal Eastman) and penned a manifesto: "Poems, stories, and drawings, rejected by the capitalist press on account of their excellence, will find a welcome in this magazine." The Masses was alive, not a party organ, but a party, with anarchists and socialists, artists and writers, and undefinable rebels of all sorts in its pages: Carl Sandburg and Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Upton Sinclair. And from abroad, Bertrand Russell, Gorky, Picasso.

The times trembled with class struggle. Reed went to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where women and children had walked out of the textile mills and were carrying on a heartrending, heroic strike with the help of the IWW (the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World) and the Socialist Party. Reed met Bill Haywood, the IWW leader (in one description, "a great battered hulk of a man, with one eye gone, and an eminent look in the other"). From Haywood he learned of the strike of 25,000 silk workers across the Hudson River in Paterson, asking for an eight-hour day and being clubbed by the police. The press was not reporting any of this, so Reed went to Paterson. It was not in him to stand off and take notes. He walked the picket line, was arrested for refusing to move on, spent four days in jail.

When he wrote about this for the Masses, it was a new writing for him-angry, involved. He attended a mass meeting for the Paterson strikers, heard the young Irish radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speak of the power of folded arms, and Reed himself-never shy-led the crowd in singing the Marseillaise and the Internationale. He and Mabel Dodge, whose Fifth Avenue apartment was a center for art and politics (and who was soon to become his lover) got a wild, brilliant idea-to do a pageant on the strike in Madison Square Garden, with a thousand workers in the cast. Reed worked day and night on the script; the scenery was painted by John Sloan; and 15,000 people came and cheered.

In Mexico in 1914, Pancho Villa was leading a rebellion of peasants, and the Metropolitan asked Reed to go as its correspondent. Reed was soon in the thick of the Mexican Revolution, riding with Villa himself, sending back stories which were acclaimed by Walter Lippmann as "the finest reporting that's ever been done.... The variety of his impressions, the resources and color of his language seemed inexhaustible...and Villa's revolution, till then reported only as a nuisance, began to unfold itself into throngs of moving people in a gorgeous panorama of earth and sky." Reed's collection of articles, Insurgent Mexico, was not what is admired in journalism schools as "objective reporting." It was meant to help a revolution.

Reed had barely returned to New York, acclaimed now as a great journalist, when the shocking news of the Ludlow Massacre spread through the country. In Southern Colorado, striking miners had been machine-gunned and their families burned to death, attacked by National Guardsmen in the pay of the Rockefellers. He was soon on the scene, writing "The Colorado War."

Summer, 1914, he was in Provincetown, which was to become his refuge those next years, for swimming, writing, love-making (until 1916, a stormy affair with Mabel Dodge). That August, the war began in Europe. In an unpublished manuscript, Reed wrote: "And here are the nations, flying at each other's throats like dogs...and art, industry, commerce, individual liberty, life itself taxed to maintain monstrous machines of death."

Reed went home to Portland to see his mother, who never approved of his radical ideas. There, at the local IWW hall, he heard Emma Goldman speak. It was an experience. She was that generation's powerhouse of feminism and anarchism, her life itself proof that one could be a joyful, serious revolutionary.

The big periodicals of New York pressed him to cover the European war for them, and he agreed to go for the Metropolitan. At the same time he wrote an article for the Masses It was a war for profit, he said. On the way to Europe, he was conscious of the rich on the first-class decks, and three thousand Italians kept like animals in the hold. He was soon in England, in Switzerland and Germany, and then, in France, walking through the fields of war: rain, mud, corpses. What depressed him most was the murderous patriotism seizing everyone on both sides, even some Socialists, like H.G. Wells in England.

When he returned to the States after four months, he found the radicals Upton Sinclair and John Dewey among the patriots. And Walter Lippmann too. Lippmann, now editor of the New Republic, wrote in December, 1914 a curious essay: "The Legendary John Reed." It defined the distance between himself and Reed. "By temperament he is not a professional writer or reporter. He is a person who enjoys himself." And then Lippmann, who clearly had pride in himself as "a professional writer," gave the ultimate dismissal: "Reed has no detachment and is proud of it."

It was true. Reed went back to the war in 1915, this time to Russia, to the burned and looted villages, to the mass killings of the Jews by the Tsar's soldiers, to Bucharest, Constantinople, Sofia, then Serbia and Greece. It was clear to him what patriotism meant: death by machine-gun fire or by famine, by smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, typhus. Back in America, he listened to the endless talk about military preparedness against "the enemy," and wrote for the Masses that the enemy for the American working man was the 2 percent of the population which owned 60 percent of the national wealth. "We advocate that the workingman prepare to defend himself against that enemy. This is our Preparedness."

Early in 1916, John Reed met Louise Bryant in Portland and they fell immediately in love. She left her husband and joined Reed in New York. It was the start of a passionate, poetic relationship. She was herself a writer and an anarchist of sorts. That summer Reed sought respite from the sounds of war on Provincetown's quiet beaches, with Bryant. There is a snapshot of her lying on the sands, nude and demure.

By April 1917, Woodrow Wilson was asking Congress to declare war on Germany, and John Reed wrote in the Masses. "War means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists.... It is not our war." He testified before Congress against conscription: "I do not believe in this war...I would not serve in it."

When Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were arrested under the Draft Act for "conspiracy to induce persons not to register," Reed was a witness in their defense. They were convicted and sent to prison. So were a thousand other Americans who opposed the war. Radical newspapers were banned, among them the Masses.

Reed was distressed by the way the working classes in Europe and America were supporting the war and forgetting the class struggle. Yet he continued to hope: "I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world-richer, braver, freer, more beautiful."

From Russia in 1917 came thunderous news. The Tsar, the old regime, were overthrown. A revolution was in progress. Here at last, Reed thought, was an entire population which refused to go on with the slaughter, turned on its own ruling class, and was setting about the creation of a new society, its outlines not yet clear, but its spirit intoxicating.

With Louise Bryant, he set sail for Finland and Petrograd. The revolution was bursting all around them, and they immersed themselves in its excitement: the mass meetings, the workers taking over factories, the soldiers declaring their opposition to the war, the Petrograd Soviet electing a Bolshevik majority. Then, on November 6 and 7, the swift, bloodless take-over of the railroad stations, telegraph, telephone, post office. And finally, workers and soldiers rushing ecstatically into the Winter Palace.

Racing from scene to scene, Reed took notes with incredible speed, gathered up every leaflet, poster and proclamation, and then, in early 1918, went back to the United States to write his story. On arrival, his notes were confiscated. He found himself under indictment with other editors of the Masses for opposing the war, but at the trial, where he and Eastman testified eloquently, boldly, about their beliefs, the jury could not reach a decision and the charges were dropped.

Now Reed was everywhere in the country, lecturing on the war, the Russian Revolution. At Tremont Temple in Boston he was heck led by Harvard students. In Indiana he met Eugene Debs, who would soon be sentenced to ten years for speaking against the war. In Chicago he attended the trial of Bill Haywood and a hundred other IWW leaders, who would get long prison sentences. That September, after he spoke to a rally of four thousand people, Reed was arrested for discouraging recruitment in the armed forces.

He finally got his Russian notes back, and in two months of furious writing produced Ten Days That Shook the World. It became the classic eyewitness account of the Bolkshevik Revolution, its words swarming over the pages with the sounds, as it seemed then, of a new world being born: "Up the Nevsky, in the sour twilight, crowds were battling for the latest papers.... On every corner, in every open space, thick groups were clustered; arguing soldiers and students...The Petrograd Soviet was meeting continuously at Smolny, a centre of storm, delegates falling down asleep on the floor and rising again to take part in the debate, Trotsky, Kamenev, Volodarsky speaking six, eight, twelve hours a day..."

In 1919, the war was over, but Allied armies had invaded Russia, and the hysteria continued in the United States. The country that had made the word "revolution" glorious throughout the world now was frightened of it. Non-citizens were rounded up by the thousands, arrested, deported without trial. There were strikes all over the country, and clashes with police. Reed became involved in the formation of the Communist Workers Party, went to Russia as a delegate to the meetings of the Communist International. There he argued with party bureaucrats, wondered what was happening with the revolution, met Emma Goldman in Moscow, and listened to her cry out her disillusionment.

He continued to hope. He rushed from meeting to meeting, from a conference in Moscow to a mass meeting of Asians on the Black Sea. He was wearing himself out, and he fell sick, feverish, delirious. It was typhus. At thirty-three, in a Moscow hospital, at the height of his love affair with his wife and comrade Louise Bryant, and with the idea of revolution, he died.

John Reed's body was buried near the Kremlin wall as a hero. But in truth, his soul does not belong to any Establishment, there or here or anywhere. Strangely, in the year 1981, sixty years after his death, millions of Americans will learn of John Reed because of a motion picture. If even a tiny fraction of these are led thereby to think about war and injustice, art and commitment, about enlarging friendship beyond national boundaries for the possibility of a better world, that is a huge accomplishment for one brief, intensely-lived life.

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