Wednesday, December 1, 2010

JOHN REED: the Writer as Revolutionary

JOHN REED: the Writer as Revolutionary

by John Pietaro

John Silas Reed (October 22, 1887 – October 17,1920), poet, journalist, revolutionary. Archetype of the artist of conscience who never sought out mythic status. Though powerfully portrayed in the 1982 Warren Beatty film ‘Reds’, his imagery has remained scant in the years since , just as it was distorted during the decades before. Deified by some, demonized by many, Reed the man and the fable, remains something of an enigma. Ideologically moved to leave his prestigious family home in Portland Oregon for the heart of the Greenwich Village bohemian Left, Reed refuted a career as a celebrated journalist in the national press for one as a professional revolutionary in the Communist movement he helped to found--leaving behind a winding trail of verse, rousing speeches and fearless reportage to establish the breadth of the revolutionary writer. In the process, Reed begat a radical arts heritage he never could have imagined in the throes of those tumultuous years.

Upon graduation from Harvard---where he’d served as editor of the Ivy League’s monthly magazine, took to hanging out with the campus Socialist Club, and was largely seen as a roustabout---“Jack” Reed came to the attention of some of the nation’s leading periodicals including the American. He embarked on a series of journalistic assignments which would create a furor about him, yet while his class-mates T. S. Elliot, Walter Lippmann and Heywood Broun sought their own path to acclaim, Reed appeared preoccupied with something other. His burning individualism drove him anxiously away from the commercial success so many felt he was destined for. From his residence at 42 Washington Square, he absorbed all of the creativity as well as the working class strife, the immigrant cultures, the night-life and the tension that New York City thrives on. Reed walked the downtown streets for hours on end, exploring the docks, the buildings, the slums, the taverns, the lives of the people around him and he came away, in 1912, with a rather epic poem, ‘The Day in Bohemia’. Here, he found focus.

Granville Hicks, the acclaimed author of proletarian literature, described Reed’s development in his booklet One of Us: The Story of John Reed:

A deep-seated rebelliousness, which often had displayed itself in mere gestures of defiance, was beginning to grow into a conviction of the need for fundamental change. Reed was no theoretician: he could not learn from books. His education came through his eyes, which were the eyes of the poet. (Hicks, Granville. One of Us: The Story of John Reed. NY: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1935, page 6)

Bertram Wolfe, an early Communist who came to be an anti-communist liberal, knew Reed early on and worked with him in the building of the movement. In his writings on the revolutionary author, Wolfe stated that Reed was indeed an integral part of the New York radical artists’ scene—a regular of Mabel Dodge’s salons, deep into the discussion in that parlor of 23 Fifth Avenue, poring over the future of the arts via the specter of social change. He counted Dodge, Max Eastman, Margaret Sanger, Frances Perkins (who would become Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary decades later), Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman among his friends and associates; Dodge would too become a lover before long. The group met with IWW leader Bill Haywood and learned of the dire Paterson New Jersey strike—management’s brutal union-busting had turned into dubious battle and the Wobblies were desperately trying to hold ground in their organizing campaign. Viscerally inspired, Reed conceived of the Paterson Pageant, a large-scale theatrical event commemorating the New Jersey silk workers’ strike.

The official IWW anthology explained the impetus:

John Reed went to Patterson on a rainy April morning. He was arrested as he stood talking to some strikers on the porch of a worker’ s house and thrown into a four by seven foot cell that held eight pickets who had been without food and water for twenty-four hours. His experience made picturesque copy. (Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 201)

Four days later, upon release from jail, he, Mabel Dodge and a small cadre began to map out the Pageant. With the aid of the Greenwich Village painters, John Sloan among them, the scenery was designed and completed rapidly. In the course of three weeks, Reed finished the text and taught it—and a series of Wobbly songs---to the hundreds of strikers who were called on to perform the piece at Madison Square Garden. While the event was a financial loss, it served a great purpose as a means to alert the general public to the horrible conditions of the workers and the bloody battle waged against them by local police and hired thugs. Ultimately, the Patterson Pageant was the realization of a protest art for the masses. Reed was moved not only by the particular struggle the Wobblies were engaged in, but their very core mission and their comprehension of the need for a cultural component in organizing. Several years later, Reed wrote in the Liberator magazine of how the IWW was able to touch so many, so deeply. Here he offers perhaps the best possible description of the power of song within the Wobblies’ actions:

Let there be a “free speech fight” on in some town, and the “wobblies” converge upon it, across a thousand miles, and fill the jails with champions.

And singing. Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten...They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW. All over the country workers are singing Joe Hill’s songs, “The Rebel Girl”, “Don’t Take My Papa Away From Me”, Workers of the World, Awaken”. Thousands can repeat his “Last Will”, the three simple verses written in his cell the night before execution. I have met working men carrying next their hearts, in the pockets of their working clothes, little boxes with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them. Over Bill Haywood’s desk in national headquarters is a painted portrait of Joe Hill, very moving, done with love…I know no other group of Americans which so honors its singers…(Reed, John, “The IWW In Court”, The Education of John Reed. NY: International Publishers, 1955, pp 179-181. Originally entitled “The Social Revolution in Court”, The Liberator, September 1918)


Reed’s interactions with the industrial radicalism of the Wobblies in the company of the Marxists and anarchists of his Manhattan circle pushed him much deeper into the eye of the storm; his reportage broke new ground and developed a marked partisanship. Reed, by 1913, went further and began to all but refute his polite society employers. He turned instead to the much freer terrain of the Masses, which he would soon come to edit and draft its mission statement:

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 wherever it is found; Printing what is too Naked or True for a Money-making Press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it Pleases and Conciliate Nobody, not even its Readers—There is a Field for this Publication in America. Help us to find it (the Masses 8, June 1916, inside cover; source: Zurier, Rebecca, Art for the Masses, Foreword, Philadelphia: Temple University, 1988, page xvi)

At the behest of his friend and mentor Lincoln Steffens, Reed next traveled to Mexico to cover that nation’s revolution, writing of Pancho Villa’s battles against colonialism, drinking in the smell of gun-powder and mortal danger, thriving on the cause itself. His reportage was quite masterful and would culminate in a book, Insurgent Mexico. Bertram Wolfe wrote of Reed in Mexico:

His reports overflow with life and movement: simple, savage men capricious cruelty, warm comradeship, splashes of color, bits of song, fragments of social and political dreams, personal peril, gay humor, reckless daring…Reed’s mingling of personal adventure with camera-eye close-ups lighted by a poet’s vision made superb reporting. (Wolfe, Bertram D., Strange Communists I have Known. NY: Stein and Day, 1965, page38)

Granville Hicks explained that Reed soon became not only a reporter of the war but fraternally enmeshed within the struggle:

He was an eye-witness of the battle of Torreon, risking his life to see the successive stages of the attack. He lived with Villa’s soldiers, drank with them, rode with them, gambled with them, danced with their women. He made friends and saw them killed in battle…So completely did he identify with the landless Mexicans that Villa was leading that he told his friends he would join Villa’s army if the United States invaded Mexico. (Hicks, Granville. One of Us: The Story of John Reed. NY: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1935, page 9)

Reed, in the company of New York radicals and artists, endeavored into drama and in 1915 became an integral part of early radical theatre. Ultimately moving beyond the city limits with the group, Reed helped to found the Provincetown Players, so named for the artists’ community they established in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Others involved in this groundbreaking troupe included Masses editor Max Eastman, journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, Reed’s soon-to-be wife the journalist Louise Bryant, and noted playwright Eugene O’Neill, among others. Reed and Bryant were also among the first of the Manhattan radicals to set up a base for a time in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. The Mt. Airy section of this Hudson River town quickly became known as “Red Hill” to the scornful locals, as Reed encouraged numerous other radicals to join him there. And they did—over the course of decades the area came to house many communists, socialists and other forward-looking progressives. And while the more creative projects would continue to interest him, Reed heard the call of the people’s movement as it engaged not only in the struggle for workers and socialism, but in loud opposition to the imperialistic war which had already broken out over seas.

In that same year of 1915, as it became evident that the blood bath would only escalate, Reed requested a European assignment, covering the First World War from the perspective of the German Army---telling his confused editor that the war was all about empire and profit so there was no cheering for “our side”. First from the western and then the eastern fronts he reported on the tragedy, the lost lives and the broken populace attempting to carry on through the carnage. The socialist parties of Europe had lost sight of the need for solidarity and became instead cheering squads for their nation’s troops. The world had not known that war could be so cold, so vicious, so ever-lasting; eventual peace seemed less and less possible through the smoke and cries amidst the trenches. Ultimately his reportage brought him into pre-revolutionary Russia, where the writer developed an early understanding of the culture and needs for social and political change. His return home in 1916 brought the realization that the United States was heading toward entering the war and that the Socialist Party had fallen into disarray. He, in the company of socialist writers Irving Howe, Henrietta Rodman, Franklin Giddings, Carlton Hayes, John Dewey, George Creel, Lincoln Steffens, and others became part of the movement to re-elect Woodrow Wilson, echoing the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”. The Greenwich Village radicals were torn asunder when the country engaged in battle in the weeks between the election and the inaugural ceremony (Wolfe, page 39-40).


From the mid-teens, Reed had become a strong voice in the Left-wing caucus of the Socialist Party, and within a few years his conviction toward revolutionary change became ingrained when he traveled again to Russia, this time in the company of Bryant, during the Revolution and wrote extensive notes which became the basis of his celebrated book Ten Days That Shook the World .

As Granville Hicks recalled it:

The poet in him, the journalist, the student and the Socialist fused in one dynamic, indefatigable person…On the afternoon of November 7 he talked with the defenders of the Winter Palace; that night he entered it with the first soldiers of the victorious Red Guard. (Hicks, Granville. One of Us: The Story of John Reed. NY: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1935, pp 19-20)

By 1919 he, along with activist Benjamin Gitlow, led a portion of the Socialist Party’s Left-wing into the formation of the Communist Labor Party, one of the two early communist organizations in this nation which would lead to the founding of the Communist Party of the USA. He also served as a contributing editor of its initial organ, the Revolutionary Age and then became editor of the Communist (today, known as Political Affairs) and a noted public speaker for the cause of the workers’ uprising---this in a time of the Palmer Raids, mass arrests of radicals and the constant threat of the war-time Espionage Act hanging overhead.

In this still infantile stage of the movement, Reed would become designated as a cultural emissary by the Comintern during the tumultuous post-war period in which the fledgling Soviet Union came under attack by the western Allies, all attempting to defeat the world’s first Communist government.

According to John Stuart, in his Introduction to the book The Education of John Reed, this final trip to Moscow for Reed was productive and allowed him to see the great progress made in the young socialist state, even as it experienced severe turmoil. He traveled to different areas within and beyond the city, noting the changes from his prior trip and meeting intermittently with Lenin: …he was struck by the genius of the man, his viselike logic, the brilliance of his insight, and his great intellectual audacity (Stuart, John, Introduction, The Education of John Reed: Selected Writings with a Critical Essay by John Stuart, NY: International Publishers, 1955, page 37)

Reed attempted to head for home once he’d learned that the first Red Scare was now heating up and he was deeply concerned about Louise Bryant and his friends. Five thousand radicals had already been detained and he heard that he’d been indicted in absentia for his work on the flagrantly anti-war Masses. However, in his trip west he encountered the blockade around the Soviet Union, becoming arrested in Finland. He spent two awful months in a Finnish prison, ultimately being deported back to Moscow, ill with scurvy and suffering from grave malnutrition.

Almost immediately, however, Reed began to assist with the planning for the Second Congress of the Communist International (July 1920). Reed was now a member of the Comintern Executive Committee and he offered a strong case for a revolutionary vision for American labor unions. Reed expected the Comintern to back his idea that the IWW should be the union of choice for Communists. However in light of failed revolution in Germany and the powerful reactionary force against communism world-wide, Lenin re-thought his initial plan for global revolution. With it, his idea of dual-unionism in industrialized nations; instead, Lenin and the Comintern now produced a policy of ‘boring from within’ existing American Federation of Labor unions. Reed was angered by this turn of events, particularly as he’d had the chance to become ingrained in Wobbly actions since 1913.

Wolfe states that Reed, ever the rebel, launched a counter-offensive and made strong attempts to have his argument heard, but he was unsuccessful (the Comintern saw the hub of capitalism as an impossible place to create immediate revolutionary change). Through the combination of physical and emotional stress, Reed indicated signs of clinical depression, according to reports by Reed’s English translator Angelica Balabanoff. (Wolfe, page 45)

However, Reed agreed to become part of a delegation to the Congress of Oriental Nations in Baku, including Comintern leaders Zinoviev and Radek, further exhausting him; unbeknownst to the writer, his condition was far worse than anyone realized---he had contracted typhus. Louise Bryant, against all conceivable odds, made her way from New York to Moscow to seek out Reed, fearful for his life in the heat of battle. After her harrowing journey, in which she traveled along a sort of underground railroad of the Left, she was able to experience powerfully bonding moments with her husband before he fell into a terminal state.

John Stuart reports:

“They spent several days together, visiting Lenin and other Soviet leaders, roaming through the art galleries and attending the ballet. He talked of writing another book, of getting back home to stand trial, and of his future work in the American Communist movement. And then he fell ill. At first it seemed as though he only had influenza, but later the disease was diagnosed as typhus. The doctors in attendance tried to save him. But their skill was of no avail, handicapped as they were by the lack of drugs in a blockaded country”. (Stuart, page 37-38).

Reed died on October 17, 1920. It was a Sunday, just days before his thirty-third birthday. Photographs of the funeral depict Bryant, emotionally broken, apart from the rest who’d come to pay tribute. Granville Hicks wrote:

For seven days the body lay in state in the Trades Union Hall, guarded by fourteen soldiers of the Red Army…On October 24, thousands of Moscow’s proletariat marched behind John Reed’s body as it was carried to the Kremlin. Snow and sleet fell. A military band played the funeral march of the revolution. At the wall, beside the Kremlin wall, comrades spoke… (Hicks, Granville. One of Us: The Story of John Reed. NY: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1935, page 30)

Reed became the first American to be buried at the Kremlin wall. He was mourned by countless Russians—and many, many in the US as well. Stuart added: “And back home in a dozen cities in a time of terror and oppression there were tears of grief poured deep out of the heart for the young leader who had fought so magnificently for the class that had adopted him”. (Stuart, page 38).

Ironically, Reed’s legend today contends with right-wing accusations of treason as much as it does doctrinaire Communists’ discontent with his rebellion against the Bolsheviks. With a life far too brief and a story both worn with time and disappeared by a vengeful bourgeoisie, John Reed’s scope remains a conundrum to much of society at large. Still, earlier documentation confirms much adulation by the radicals who stood with him in the struggle. Some sixteen years after his death, Communist Party cultural leader Joseph Freeman, who would later be purged out of the Party’s ranks, sang the praises of Reed:

“His life seemed to us as a model for middle-class intellectuals who went over to the proletariat. When John Reed came out of Harvard he was acclaimed everywhere as a young genius; he marched straight from the campus to success. America’s newspapers and magazines threw their pages open to him; they published whatever he wrote…But during all this phenomenal success he was oppressed by the corruption first of bourgeois literature, then of bourgeois society…Reed then revolted against bourgeois literature because it apologized for the capitalist system of exploitation. But he went further”. (Freeman, Joseph. An American Testament, NY: Farrar and Reinhardt, 1936,pp 302-303 ).

Freeman then offered a 1920 quote from Max Eastman about Reed’s epiphany: “There was growing in his breast a sense of the identity of his struggle toward a great poetry and literature for America, with the struggle of the working people to gain possession of America and make it human and make it free”.

Freeman continued, emphasizing Reed’s ultimate melding of poet and revolutionary:

“There could hardly be a simpler statement of the idea, developed before the Bolshevik revolution by Americans on American soil, great art and poetry in our age were inseparable from the struggle of the proletariat for a classless society. John Reed’s first reaction to his discovery was bipolar. He continued to pursue success in the bourgeois journals and drawing rooms which paid him rich fees, and he wrote faithfully for the Masses, later the Liberator, which paid him nothing. He thus kept one foot in each camp. But the World War, and soon after the Russian Revolution, impelled him to make a fundamental choice between the two camps. He identified himself with the working class of America and of the world. At first he did this only as a journalist. He became a revolutionary writer. But direct contact with and participation in the ten days that shook the world roused in him the man of action. He returned to America as an organizer…he was first and foremost an active Bolshevik to whom journalism, public speaking, drafting resolutions, organization were all instruments toward the same end”. (Freeman, pp 302-303 ).

The loss of John Reed would have been even more profoundly painful had the revolutionaries at his shoulder the time to grieve, but in the heat of battle bereavement was a luxury. However nearly a decade later, the communist movement in his home nation would create a fitting honor.


By 1929, the Communist Party’s cultural arm had grown in proportions Reed could never have imagined---Party cultural workers were already organizing events and publications as part of a revolutionary front. More so, the CP cultural brain trust led by VJ Jerome, Joseph Freeman, Michael Gold and others set plans for a nation-wide radical artists’ collective in Reed’s name, focusing on writers but encompassing cultural workers from every fold. Once proven in New York City, the John Reed Clubs took the lead in the push for a proletarian literary drive while hosting events by musicians, actors, dancers, painters and others. The Reed Clubs produced classes, lectures, concerts and exhibits; it published a series of magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and books and offered tutelage to fledgling cultural workers that combined lessons in social change with the arts. Membership included both the celebrated and the up-and-coming, largely all Communists, who sought to create works of social revolution. The Clubs spawned a series of off-shoot gatherings specific to different genres such as the Pierre DeGeyter Club of modernist concert musicians and the Red Dancers which served to develop modern dance of social conscience.

In January of 1930, Mike Gold, perhaps the best known of the proletarian journalists and a high priest, so to speak, of Communist cultural workers in the US, wrote of the origins of the John Reed Club, its multi-disciplinary nature, and his intent to guide it in a manner which would secure the artist’s relationship with the worker:

The John Reed Club was organized about two months ago here in New York. It is a small group of writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and dancers of revolutionary tendencies…Several activities have begun. The artists arranged an exhibition at the Workers Co-Operative House in the Bronx. About 35 pictures were hung. The exhibit will be shown for about four weeks. Over 300 workers came to the opening. There was a furious discussion led by Lozowick, Basshe, Gropper, Klein and others…At the next meeting I shall propose the following:

“That every writer in the group attach himself to one of the industries. That he spend the next few years in and out of this industry, studying it from every angle, making himself an expert in it, so that when he writes of it, he will write with like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer. He will help on the publicity in strikes, etc. He will have his roots in something real. The old Fabians used to get together and write essays based on the books they had read. We will get close to the realities” (Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930; source: Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934, page 180)

The John Reed Clubs devised a mission statement which identified core values, including the support of labor and the fight against imperialism, white chauvinism, fascism, oppression of immigrants, and something unique to cultural workers: the Clubs pledged to “Fight against the influence of middle-class ideas in the work of revolutionary writers and artists” and to “Fight against the imprisonment of revolutionary writers and artists”. The Clubs principal goal was “forging a new art that shall be a weapon in the battle for a new and superior world” (Draft Manifesto, John Reed Clubs, 1932).

Eric Homberger, in the pages of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, stated that the clubs were, “educational and agitational in purpose. They were modeled on literary studios for worker-correspondents created by the Proletcult in the Soviet Union, which Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman had seen during visits in the decade. (Homberger, Eric, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. Chi: St James Press, 1990, page 649)

Homberger also clarified that the formation of the Club owed more to the Comintern’s Third Period policy—strongly revolutionary and with a focus on class warfare—than anything else. The Club’s slogan was the now much-paraphrased (but rarely credited to the source) line, “Art is a Class Weapon” and the structure was one which strongly and loudly emphasized this aspect. The Club made it a point to clarify that art should NOT be for art’s sake, and while many of its members may have been fans of Fitzgerald, they created a culturally aware answer to his Jazz age “Lost Generation”. This Club, and its wide array of national branches, was not intended for the entertainment of a bored, moneyed populace. Not by far (Homberger, page 649).

The John Reed Clubs national board consisted of Communist Party writers Joseph Freeman and Whittaker Chambers, and artists Louis Lozowick and William Gropper, while Mike Gold, seemingly the heir apparent to Reed, acted as a traveling organizer, guest speaker at JRC gatherings and general inspiration. The Club’s New York branch, the flagship which really guided the rest, could count such Left luminaries as John Howard Lawson, Granville Hicks, Kenneth Burke, Edward Dahlberg, Horace Gregory, Gold and others among its members. The Chicago branch included such radical literary giants as Richard Wright and Frank Marshall Davis.

Homberger notes that, “The full range of club activities constitutes a legacy of radical practices that the American Left, or the CP, has rarely approached since”, and adds that the Chicago branch in 1931 engaged in numerous relevant activities including the creation of,

…posters for demonstrations and parades…Murals in the People’s Auditorium; dramatic material and scenery was provided for the Blue Blouses, a youth drama group; demonstrations were organized on high school and university campuses to win support for the International War Day on August 1; the program for the John Reed Memorial Day held at the People’s Auditorium was written by members, and consisted of songs, dances, music, a mass chant of an anti-war poem, and a talk on Reed by the former Wobbly Ralph Chaplin. A proletarian art exhibit…and photographs from the JRC Film and Photo Group, was held in summer. In December, a JRC Ball was held in Chicago to raise money for activities in 1932 (Homberger, page 649).

Oddly enough, poet and New Masses contributor Norman MacLeod reported that the Reed Club was not formed by Party leadership at all. MacLeod later claimed that the Club was founded when a group of young poets were thrown out of the New Masses office by its editor, Walt Carmon. Apparently Carmon had tired of their continual presence and as he escorted the young revolutionaries out he suggested they “go form a club—I even have a name for you: the John Reed Club”. (MacLeod interview with William Ruben, April 9, 1969, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan; source: Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. 2002, NC: University of North Carolina, page 105).

Sadly, the 1935 change in policy of the Comintern toward its cultural organizations saw the replacement of the John Reed Clubs with a series of less revolutionary mass organizations that would become part of the Popular Front. But the powerful model inspired by Reed as cultural warrior was never replicated; many would argue that the resurgence of such a body is well past due. It was the fiery inspiration of writer John Reed, he of poet’s heart and revolutionary conscience, that stood as the guiding force of the organization that bore his name. Reed’s brief, contentious place in history inadvertently laid the groundwork for all protest artists in his wake.

-John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York City --

--Published in POLITICAL AFFAIRS, November 2010--

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