Even as an undergraduate he betrayed what many people believe to be the central passion of his life, an inordinate desire to be arrested.
-- Walter Lippman, 1914
John Reed -- writer, reporter, activist and playboy -- was a legend even to his contemporaries. Born to a well-to-do Oregon family, a graduate of Harvard, and a steadfast socialist, Reed lived what many would call a terrifying life of his own making and desire.
In the innocent, hopeful years before World War I, and scarcely out of Harvard, Reed embarked on a rebellious course that led him to befriend the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), to write for Max Eastman's The Masses, to ride with the guerrilla forces of Pancho Villa, and to rush into the maw of the Russian Revolution just as the Bolsheviks brought an end to Czarist rule.
He was a knight of American Bohemia, and a habitué of its capital, New York City's Greenwich Village. There he communed with an eclectic array of intellectuals, writers, and artists -- including Emma Goldman. His acquaintances advocated free speech and free love, and were committed to the cause of anarchism. One of them, the journalist Louise Bryant, became his wife and followed him to Russia twice -- once to write about the revolution as it continued to unfold, and once more to join her husband after his arrest and imprisonment. Reed and Bryant were determined "to smash through the hull of custom and tradition," the editor Max Eastman observed, "and touch at all times and over the earth the raw current of life."
When World War I broke out in Europe, it cast a pall over the generally pacifist "lyrical Left." Reed wrote an article for The Masses entitled "The Trader's War," criticizing the hypocritical mincing-machine of a war whose aim was profits through the sale of armaments. Three years later, at Emma Goldman's trial in June 1917 for obstructing the draft, Reed said the war was an "overture to the blackest month for free men our generation has known. With hideous apathy the country has acquiesced in a regime of judicial tyranny, bureaucratic suppression and industrial barbarism. In America, law is merely the instrument for good or evil of the most powerful interest, and there are no Constitutional safeguards worth the powder to blow them to hell."
Witness to Revolution
Reed's reporting of the Russian Revolution in 1917 brought him lasting fame. He arrived in Petrograd in time to witness the Bolshevik seizure of power in October. His now famous book, Ten Days That Shook the World was the first major account of the revolution to appear in America. "From his typewriter," the historian Robert Rosenstone wrote, "would flow hundreds of thousands of words about the origins and workings of Soviets, Kerensky and the Provisional Government, workers' control of factories, the state of the army, the character of the Russian people, Bolshevism, the personalities of Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and other leaders, the tangled web of foreign affairs, the meaning of counterrevolution, the implications of the revolution for the rest of the world." Reed's politics had always been passionately left-wing. They were now socialist in spirit, and communist in practice, meaning that his socialism responded to the Kremlin's dictates. From 1917 on, Reed's positions -- and those of other American left-wingers -- were always formed in dialogue, either for or against, with Moscow's Comintern (Communist International).
Theory and Practice
In the fall of 1919, Reed made his last trip to Russia. After several months of observing how unstable Russia had become -- the government was now suppressing its citizens with summary executions -- Reed made plans to leave. The first leg of Reed's long journey home took him to the Astoria Hotel in Petrograd. Learning that Emma Goldman had just arrived in Russia after her deportation from the U.S., wrote Rosenstone, "Jack burst into her room 'like a sudden ray of light.' Over a steaming cup of coffee, they celebrated a reunion." Almost immediately, Goldman brought up the uncomfortable topic of state power and demanded to know about the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police). "Reminded of all the old Russian revolutionists who had broken with the Bolsheviks, Jack blurted, 'You are a little confused by the Revolution in action because you have dealt with it only in theory.'"
Up Against the Revolution
Reed's causes often put him at mortal risk. Such was the case in Russia in 1919, as he passed through regions torn by civil war as he traveled home. He was arrested and imprisoned in Finland, just before the ship on which he stowed away was to sail to America. After his release, Reed returned to Petrograd to recover. In July 1919, he attended Comintern's Second Congress in Moscow. His militancy on the question of trade unionism alienated him from Russian leaders who had in mind consolidating their power over a populace that had to learn "compromise" and subjugation of individualist concerns.
Hero in Russia
In September 1919, at Reed's request, Louise Bryant traveled to Moscow to join her husband. She found him "older and sadder." Their reunion was short-lived. Weak from prison and suffering from a long battle with kidney disease, Reed succumbed to typhus. He died on October 17, 1920, in a Moscow hospital with his Bryant by his side. He was thirty-three years old. John Reed was buried at the base of the Kremlin Wall, a Hero of the Revolution.
Immortalized On Film
In 1981 actor and director Warren Beatty made a three-and-a-half-hour film based on Ten Days That Shook the World, using documentary interviews with Reed's surviving contemporaries as interludes in the film. Beatty himself played the character of John Reed, and Diane Keaton played Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton played Emma Goldman, winning an Oscar for her performance.