“Economic freedom for women means sexual freedom, and sexual freedom means birth control.” – John Reed, Reds.
John Silas “Jack” Reed (October 22, 1887 – October 17, 1920) was an American journalist, poet, and socialist activist, best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. He was married to writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Reed died in Russia in 1920 and is one of only three Americans buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, the others being labor organizer Bill Haywood, and Charles Ruthenburg (the founder of the Communist Party USA).
Reed’s serious interest in social problems was first aroused at about this time by Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and once aroused it quickly led him to a far more radical position than theirs. In 1913 he joined the staff of The Masses, edited by Max Eastman. Reed contributed more than 50 articles, reviews, and shorter pieces to this publication.
The first of Reed’s many arrests came in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913, for attempting to speak on behalf of strikers in the New Jersey silk mills. The harsh treatment meted out by the authorities to the strikers and a short jail term which followed further radicalized him. Reed allied himself with the syndicalist trade union the Industrial Workers of the World at this time. Reed’s account of his experiences appeared in June as an article “War in Paterson.” During the same year, following a suggestion made by IWW leader Bill Haywood, Reed put on “The Pageant of the Paterson Strike” in Madison Square Garden as a benefit for the strikers.
In the autumn of 1913 Reed was sent to Mexico by the Metropolitan Magazine to report the Mexican Revolution. He shared the perils of Pancho Villa’s army for four months, and was with Villa’s Constitutional (Constitutionalist) Army (whose “Primer Jefe” political chief was Venustiano Carranza) when it defeated Federal forces at Torreón, opening the way for its advance on Mexico City. Reed adored Villa, while Carranza left him cold. Reed’s time with the Villistas resulted in a series of outstanding magazine articles that brought Reed a national reputation as a war correspondent. Reed deeply sympathized with the plight of the peons and vehemently opposed American intervention, which came shortly after he left. Reed’s Mexican reports were later republished in book form as Insurgent Mexico, which appeared in 1914.
On April 30, 1914, Reed arrived in Colorado, scene of the recent Ludlow massacre. There he spent a little more than a week and investigated the events, spoke on behalf of the miners, wrote an impassioned article on the subject (“The Colorado War”, published in July), and came to believe much more deeply in class conflict. That summer he spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Mabel Dodge and her son, putting together Insurgent Mexico and interviewing President Wilson on the subject. The resulting report, much watered down at White House insistence, was not a success.
On August 14, 1914, shortly after Germany declared war on France, he set sail for neutral Italy, having been sent by the Metropolitan. He met his lover, Mabel Dodge, in Naples, and the pair made their way to Paris. Reed saw the war as having emerged from imperialist commercial rivalries and showed little sympathy for any of the participants. In an unsigned piece entitled “The Traders’ War,” published in the September 1914 issue of The Masses, Reed passionately wrote:
“The real War, of which this sudden outburst of death and destruction is only an incident, began long ago. It has been raging for tens of years, but its battles have been so little advertised that they have been hardly noted. It is a clash of Traders…
“What has democracy to do in alliance with Nicholas, the Tsar? Is it Liberalism which is marching from the Petersburg of Father Gapon, from the Odessa of the pogroms?…
“No. There is a falling out among commercial rivals….
“We, who are Socialists, must hope — we may even expect — that out of this horror of bloodshed and dire destruction will come far-reaching social changes — and a long step forward towards our goal of Peace among Men.
“But we must not be duped by this editorial buncombe about Liberalism going forth to Holy War against Tyranny.
“This is not Our War.”
In France, he was frustrated by wartime censorship and the difficulty of accessing the front. Reed and Dodge went to London, and Dodge soon left for New York, to the relief of Reed. The rest of 1914 he spent drinking with French prostitutes and pursuing an affair with a German woman. The pair went to Berlin in early December. While there, Reed interviewed Karl Liebknecht, who was one of the few socialists in Germany to vote against war credits. Reed was deeply disappointed by the general collapse in working-class solidarity promised by the Second International, and by its replacement with militarism and nationalism.
He returned to New York in the middle of that month and occupied himself writing about the war. A return to Central Europe followed in 1915, a journey on which he was accompanied by Canadian artist and frequent Masses contributor Boardman Robinson. Traveling from Thessaloniki, they met scenes of profound devastation in Serbia (including a bombed-out Belgrade), also going through Bulgaria and Romania. They passed through the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Bessarabia, and in Chełm they were arrested, incarcerated for several weeks and liable to be shot for espionage had not the American ambassador shown some interest.
Traveling to Russia, Reed was outraged to learn that the ambassador in Petrograd was inclined to believe they were spies. Reed and Robinson were re-arrested when they tried to slip into Romania. This time it was the British ambassador (Robinson being a British subject) who finally secured permission for them to leave, but not before all their papers were seized in Kiev. In Bucharest the duo spent time piecing together their journey, with Reed at one point traveling to Constantinople in hopes of seeing action at Gallipoli. These experiences led to Reed’s book, The War in Eastern Europe, published in April 1916.
After returning to New York, he paid a visit to his mother in Portland, where he met and fell in love with Louise Bryant, who joined him on the East coast in January 1916. Though happy, both had affairs with others rather freely, in accord with the bohemian sensibilities of sexual liberation in common currency in that day. Early in 1916 Reed met Eugene O’Neill, and beginning that May the three rented a cottage in Provincetown. Not long after, Bryant and O’Neill began a romance.
That summer Reed donned his reporter’s hat and covered the Presidential nominating conventions. Reed himself endorsed Woodrow Wilson, believing that he would make good on his promise to keep America out of the war. In November 1916 he married to Louise Bryant in Peekskill, New York. In the same year he underwent an operation to remove a kidney at Johns Hopkins Hospital and he was hospitalized until mid-December. The operation rendered him ineligible for conscription and saved him from registering as a conscientious objector. During 1916 he also published privately Tamburlaine and Other Poems in an edition of 500 copies.
As the country raced towards war, the radical Reed was marginalized: his relationship with the Metropolitan was over. John pawned his late father’s watch and sold his Cape Cod cottage to birth control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger. When Wilson asked for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, Reed shouted at a hastily convened meeting of the People’s Council in Washington: “This is not my war, and I will not support it. This is not my war, and I will have nothing to do with it.” In July and August Reed continued to write aggressive articles for The Masses, which the United States Postal Service refused to mail, and for Seven Arts, which as a result of an article by Reed and one earlier in the summer by Randolph Bourne, had its financial backing cut off and ceased publication. Reed was stunned by the nation’s pro-war fervor and his career lay in ruins.
Witness to the Russian Revolution
On August 17, 1917, Reed and Bryant set sail from New York to Europe, having first provided the State Department with legally sworn assurances that neither would represent the Socialist Party at a forthcoming conference in Stockholm. The pair were going as working journalists to see for themselves and report upon the sensational developments taking place in the fledgling republic of Russia. Traveling by way of Finland, the pair arrived in the capital city of Petrograd immediately after the failed military coup of monarchist General Lavr Kornilov, an attempt to topple the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky by force of arms. Reed and Bryant found the Russian economy was in shambles and several of the subject nationalities of the old empire, such as Finland and Ukraine, autonomous and seeking to forge a military accommodation with Germany.
Reed and Bryant wound up at ground zero for the October Revolution, in which the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolshevik) headed by Vladimir Lenin toppled the Kerensky government in what they believed to be the first blow struck in a worldwide socialist revolution.
The food situation in the capital was dire. Reed later recalled:
The last month of the Kerensky regime was marked first by the falling off of the bread supply from 2 pounds a day to 1 pound, to half a pound, to a quarter of a pound, and, the final week, no bread at all. Holdups and crime increased to such an extent that you could hardly walk down the streets. The papers were full of it. Not only had the government broken down, but the municipal government had absolutely broken down. The city militia was quite disorganized and up in the air, and the street-cleaning apparatus and all that sort of thing had broken down — milk and everything of that sort.”
A mood for radical change was in the air. The Bolsheviks, seeking an all-socialist government and immediate end to Russian participation in the war, sought the transfer of power from Kerensky to a Congress of Soviets, a gathering of elected workers’ and soldiers’ deputies to be convened in October. The Kerensky government saw this as a clear effort to replace its own regime with another and moved to shut down the Bolshevik press, issuing warrants of arrest for the Soviet leaders and preparing to transfer the troops of the Petrograd garrison, believed to be unreliable, back to the front. A Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviets, dominated by the Bolshevik Party, determined to seize power on behalf of the future Congress of Soviets and at 11 pm on the evening of November 7, 1917, it captured the Winter Palace, seat of Kerensky’s government. Reed and Bryant were present during the fall of the Winter Palace, the symbolic event which initiated the Bolshevik Revolution.
Reed was an enthusiastic supporter of the new revolutionary socialist government and he went to work for the new People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, translating decrees and news of the actions of the new government into English. “I also collaborated in the gathering of material and data and distributing of papers to go into the German trenches,” Reed later recalled.
Reed was close to the inner circle of the new government. He met Leon Trotsky and was introduced to Lenin during a break of the Constituent Assembly on January 18, 1918. By December, his funds were nearly exhausted and he took employment with an American, Raymond Robins of the Red Cross. Robins wished to set up a newspaper promoting American interests; Reed complied, but in the dummy issue he prepared he included a warning beneath the masthead: “This paper is devoted to promoting the interests of American capital.”
The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly left Reed unmoved, and two days later, armed with a rifle, he joined a patrol of Red Guards prepared to defend the Foreign Office from counter-revolutionary attack. Reed then attended the opening of the Third Congress of Soviets, where he gave a short speech promising to bring the news of the revolution to America, where he hoped it would “call forth an answer from America’s oppressed and exploited masses.” American journalist Edgar Sisson told Reed that he was being used by the Bolsheviks for their propaganda, a rebuke he accepted. In January, Trotsky, responding to Reed’s concern about the safety of his substantial archive, offered Reed the post of Soviet Consul in New York; as the United States did not recognize the Bolshevik government, his credentials would almost certainly have been rejected and he faced prison (which would have given the Bolsheviks some propaganda material). The appointment was viewed as a massive blunder by most Americans in Petrograd, and the businessman Alex Gumberg directly approached Lenin, showing him a prospectus in which Reed called for massive American capital support for Russia and for the setting up of a newspaper to express the American viewpoint on the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Lenin found the proposal unsavory and withdrew the nomination; thereafter, Reed only mentioned Gumberg’s name with a string of epithets attached.
Both Reed and Bryant netted books from their Russian experiences, with Bryant’s Six Red Months in Russia appearing first and Reed’s 10 Days That Shook the World, published early in 1919, garnering the most notice.
While Bryant had made her way home to the United States in January 1918, Reed did not reach New York City until April 28, 1918. On his way back to the USA, Reed traveled from Russia to Finland; he did not have a visa or passport while crossing to Finland. In Turku harbor, when Reed was boarding a ship on his way to Stockholm, Finnish police arrested Reed and took him to Kakola prison in Turku until he was released. From Finland, Reed traveled to Kristiania, Norway via Stockholm. Because he remained under indictment in the Masses case, Reed was immediately met by federal authorities, who held him on board his ship for more than eight hours while they searched his belongings. Reed’s irreplaceable papers were seized, the raw material from which he intended to write his book, and he was released upon his own recognizance after his attorney, Morris Hillquit, promised to make him available at the Federal Building the next day. His papers were not returned to him until seven months later, in November 1918.
Radical political activist
Back in America, Reed and Bryant took pains to defend the Bolsheviks and oppose American intervention, but a hyper-patriotic public incensed at Russia’s departure from the war against Germany, gave him a generally cold reception. While he was in Russia, his articles in The Masses and particularly a headline, “Knit a straight-jacket for your soldier boy”, had been largely instrumental in bringing an indictment against that magazine for sedition. The first Masses trial ended in a hung jury the day before he arrived; the defendants, including himself, were to be retried, so after returning, he immediately posted $2,000 bail on April 29.
The second Masses trial also ended in a hung jury. In Philadelphia, he stood outside a closed hall on May 31, harangued a crowd of 1,000 until police dragged him away, was charged with inciting a riot, and posted $5,000 bail. He was now more aggressively political, intolerant, and self-destructive; his third arrest since his return from Russia came on September 14, when he was charged with violating the Sedition Act and freed on $5,000 bail. This was a day after possibly the largest demonstration for Bolshevik Russia held in the United States (in The Bronx), when Reed passionately defended the revolution, which he seemed to think was coming to America as well. He tried to prevent Allied intervention, arguing that the Russians were contributing to the war effort by checking German ambitions in the Ukraine and Japanese designs on Siberia, but this came to naught.
On February 21–22, 1919, Bryant was fiercely grilled before a Senate committee exploring Bolshevik propaganda activities in the US, but emerged resilient; Reed followed on the 22nd, delivering quick, subtle testimony which was, however, savagely distorted by the press. Later that day he went to Philadelphia to stand trial for his May speech; despite a hostile judge, press, and patriotic speech by the prosecutor, Reed’s lawyer convinced the jury the case was about free speech, and he was acquitted. Returning to New York, Reed continued speaking widely and participating in the various twists of socialist politics that year. He served as editor of The New York Communist, the weekly newspaper issued by the Left Wing Section of Greater New York.
Affiliated with the Left Wing of the Socialist Party, Reed with the other radicals was expelled from the National Socialist Convention in Chicago on August 30, 1919. The radicals then split into two bitterly hostile groups, forming the Communist Labor Party of America (Reed’s, in the creation of which he had been indispensable) and, the next day, the Communist Party of America. Reed was the international delegate of the former, wrote its manifesto and platform, edited its paper, The Voice of Labor, and was denounced as “Jack the Liar” in the Communist Party organ, The Communist. Reed’s writings of 1919 displayed doubts about Western-style democracy and defended the dictatorship of the proletariat, which he saw as a necessary step that would prefigure the true democracy “based upon equality and the liberty of the individual.”
Indicted for sedition and hoping to secure Comintern backing for the CLP, Reed fled from America in early October 1919 on a Scandinavian frigate by means of a forged passport, working his way to Bergen as a stoker. Given shore leave, he disappeared to Kristiania, crossed into Sweden on October 22, passed through Finland and made his way to Moscow by train. In the cold winter of 1919–1920, he traveled in the region around Moscow, observing factories, communes, and villages; filling notebooks; and carrying on an affair with a Russian woman. His feelings about the revolution were now ambiguous: on the one hand, he told Emma Goldman, who had recently arrived aboard Buford and especially complained about the Cheka, that the enemies of the revolution deserved their fate. However, he suggested that she see Angelica Balabanoff, a critic of the current situation, indicating he wanted Goldman to hear the other side.
Reed, although facing the threat of arrest in Illinois, tried to return home in February 1920. At that time, the Soviets organized a convention to establish a United Communist Party of America. Reed attempted to leave Russia through Latvia, but his train never arrived, forcing him to hitch a ride in the boxcar of an eastbound military train to Petrograd. In March, he crossed into Helsinki, where he had radical friends, including a future politician and SDKL member of parliament Hella Wuolijoki. With their help he was hidden in the hold of a freighter. On the 13th, customs officials found him in a coal bunker on the ship. He was taken to the police station, where he maintained that he was the seaman “Jim Gormley”.
Eventually, the jewels, photographs, letters, and fake documents he had in his possession forced him to reveal his true identity. Although beaten several times and threatened with torture, he refused to surrender the names of his local contacts. As a result of his silence, he was not able to be tried for treason, and was instead convicted of smuggling and having jewels in his possession (102 small diamonds worth $14,000, which were confiscated).
The US Secretary of State was satisfied with Reed’s arrest and pressured the Finns for his papers. American authorities, however, remained indifferent to Reed’s fate. Although Reed paid the fine for smuggling, he was still detained illegally, and his physical condition and state of mind deteriorated rapidly. He suffered from depression and insomnia, wrote alarming letters to Bryant, and on May 18 threatened a hunger strike. He was finally released in early June, and sailed for Tallinn, Estonia, on the 5th. Two days later, he traveled to Petrograd, recuperating from malnutrition and scurvy caused by having been fed dried fish almost exclusively, but his spirits were high.
At the end of June, Reed traveled to Moscow and, after discussing with Bryant the possibility of her joining him, she gained passage on a Swedish tramp steamer and arrived in Gothenburg on August 10. At the same time, Reed attended the second Comintern congress. Although his mood was as jovial and boisterous as ever, his physical appearance had deteriorated; he was quite thin, seemed weak and was sallow and his face lined.
During this congress, Reed bitterly objected to the deference other revolutionaries showed to the Russians, who assumed the tide of revolutionary fervor was ebbing, making it necessary for the Communist party to work within the existing institutions – a policy Reed felt would be disastrous. He was contemptuous of the bullying tactics displayed during the congress by Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev, who ordered Reed to attend the Congress of the Peoples of the East to be held at Baku on August 15.
The journey to Baku was a long one, five days by train through countryside devastated by civil war and infected by typhus. Reed was reluctant to go and asked to arrive later, as he had planned to go first to Petrograd, where Bryant was arriving from Murmansk. Zinoviev insisted Reed take the official train: “the Comintern has made a decision. Obey.” Reed would normally have rebelled at being spoken to with such contempt, but he needed Soviet good-will at the moment and was not prepared for a final break with the Comintern, so he made the trip with great reluctance. Reed’s actions and feelings during this time are a matter of speculation, but years after abandoning Communism, his friend Benjamin Gitlow asserted that the treatment Reed received from Zinoviev filled Reed with bitter disillusionment for the Communist movement.
During his time in Baku, Reed received a telegram announcing Bryant’s arrival in Moscow. He followed her there, arriving on September 15, and was able to tell her of the events of the preceding eight months. He appeared older and his clothes were in tatters. While in Moscow, he took her to meet Lenin, Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and other leading Bolsheviks, and also to visit Moscow’s ballet and art galleries.
Reed was determined to return home, but fell ill on September 25. At first thought, mistakenly, to have influenza, he was hospitalized five days later and was found to have spotted typhus. Bryant spent all her time with him, but there were no medicines to be obtained because of the Allied blockade. His mind started to wander, and then he lost the use of the right side of his body and could no longer speak. His wife was holding his hand when he died in Moscow on October 17, 1920. After a hero’s funeral, his body was buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
Reed has also been an influence upon the cinema. Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s influential 1927 silent film October: Ten Days That Shook the World was based on Reed’s book. John Dos Passos included a highly stylized, brief biography of Reed in his 1932 novel/history work titled 1919 that was the second part of his U.S.A. trilogy.
Half a century later, Warren Beatty made the 1981 film Reds, based on the life of Reed. Beatty starred as Reed, while Diane Keaton played the part of Louise Bryant and Jack Nicholson that of Eugene O’Neill. The movie won three Academy Awards, and was nominated for nine others.
The 1958 Soviet film In October Days (Russian: В дни Октября), directed by the highly regarded Sergei Vasilyev, also featured roles for Reed and Bryant. Two films are based on Reed’s accounts of the Mexican Revolution: the 1973 film Reed: Insurgent Mexico, by Mexican director Paul Leduc, and the two-part Mexican–Soviet-Italian co-production consisting of Red Bells (1982) and Red Bells II (1983), both directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, with Franco Nero as Reed.
Reds is a 1981 American epic drama film co-written, produced and directed by Warren Beatty. The picture centers on the life and career of John Reed, the journalist and writer who chronicled the Russian Revolution in his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Beatty stars in the lead role alongside Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. Trailer.