Writer and editor of the radical journals The Masses and The Liberator, Max Eastman was a journalist's journalist, with a critical mind unmatched by many of his contemporaries.
Intellectual, Liberal, Protestant
Eastman was the son of Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford (both church ministers, each having studied theology at Oberlin College), and the brother of Crystal Eastman, feminist, suffragist, birth control advocate and peace activist. The Eastman children "grew up in an idealistic milieu of liberal Protestantism, summer chatauquas, women's rights, vegetarianism, and literary discussion," wrote historian Christine Stansell.
"Having come to [New York City's Greenwich] Village in 1907," Stansell wrote, "Eastman was already an established figure, known in liberal circles as a mesmerizing orator." A supporter of women's suffrage, he was "elected" editor of The Masses by an ad-hoc editorial board of writers and artists in 1912, with the enticement of publishing the magazine as a cooperative, without pay -- "something nobody but artists would think of doing," quipped cartoonist Art Young. Eastman accepted. His charm in soliciting funds from the radical rich kept the magazine in the black, and circulation increased from ten thousand to nearly forty thousand under his tenure.
A Socialist Forum
The fringe magazine with such a broad reach was conceived as "a magazine of free expression" and a proponent of the "livelier forms of propaganda." Art historian Rebecca Zurier described The Masses as a "forum for left-wing socialism, allied in practice with the I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World] and in theory with Marxism."
The Masses Manifesto
The publication's grand opening statement read, "This Magazine is Owned and Published Co-operatively by Its Editors. It has no Dividends to Pay, and nobody is trying to make Money out of it. A Revolutionary and not a Reform Magazine; a Magazine with a Sense of Humor and no Respect for the Respectable; Frank; Arrogant; Impertinent; searching for the True Causes, a Magazine directed against Rigidity and Dogma where it is found, Printing what is too Naked or True for a Money-making Press; a Magazine whose final Policy is do to as it Pleases and Conciliate Nobody, not even its Readers."
Freedom and Justice
The Masses attracted impressive editorial talent. Among the contributors of political commentary were Walter Lippmann, Bill Haywood, and John Reed. Literary pieces by Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell and Louis Untermeyer also graced its pages. Articles on labor struggles, women's emancipation, freedom of the press, pacifism, class war, and revolution appeared in virtually every issue.
Humor and Wit
Some of the most striking and enduring elements of the The Masses were the hilarious and shocking political cartoons by such artists as Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson, Art Young, Arthur B. Davies, Abraham Walkowitz and Pablo Picasso. Works of well-known painters, many from the Ashcan School -- including John Sloan, George Bellows, Glenn Coleman, Robert Henri and Stuart Davis -- appeared in its pages. Cheeky advertisements inside the front covers celebrated the humor and wit of the magazine's artists, peddling everything from pamphlets on birth control to the Karl Marx Five Cent Cigar.
Forced Off the Newsstands
The magazine strongly opposed America's entry into World War I. Along with Emma Goldman's magazine, Mother Earth, The Masses became a casualty of American's first "red scare" when the U.S. government determined that its cartoons and editorials violated the Espionage Act. In 1918, federal authorities forced the magazine to cease publication. Soon though, Eastman joined forces with artist Art Young, writer Floyd Dell and his sister, Crystal Eastman, to launch another radical publication, The Liberator.
Assessing the Revolution
In 1922 Max Eastman left the helm of The Liberator and traveled to the Soviet Union, where he remained for two years. There, he observed the aftermath of the revolution first-hand and, like exiled anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, quickly became disillusioned. He next moved to France, where he wrote Since Lenin Died (1925) and Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1926), both books warning of a new totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, and the dangers posed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. He returned to the United States in 1927.
Eastman later became a translator and unofficial literary agent for Leon Trotsky, who Stalin had ousted from the Soviet Union in 1929. For Eastman, indeed for many Marxists, supporting Trotsky was a way to register protest against the authoritarian turn that Bolshevik politics had taken. Trotsky continued in exile to be a threat to Stalin; he was assassinated by Stalin's agents in 1940 in Mexico.
Anti-Communist in the Cold War
During World War II, Eastman began to question his allegiance to Socialism. In an atmosphere of Cold War hysteria in the 1950s, his introspection led him to support Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His anti-Communist articles appeared in Reader's Digest and the National Review. In 1955 he published Reflections on the Failure of Socialism.
Views Became Mainstream
Max Eastman lived through many more years of American social and political tumult, dying in 1969 of a stroke. At the time of his death, he was considered a political moderate -- an ironic epithet for a man remembered for his passionate, even licentious, political extremism as editor of The Masses, one of the most storied radical magazines in American history.