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
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,
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.
Zinn On History