Air University Review, July-August 1982
First Lieutenant Marvin R. Franklin
For historians, students of the Russian Revolution, and the American left, and for those of us who are concerned with the role of history in making the Soviet Union what it is, Reds is an important motion picture. Like Dr. Zhivago, the picture is set against one of the great upheavals of modern history: the Russian Revolution. But Reds is as much about the American radical left in the early part of this century as it is about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It is especially about John Reed, the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, who was a member of the radical left, a superb journalist, and the only American buried in the Kremlin wall. Finally, one cannot help believing that Reds is an exploration of the experiences of the American left with its star, director, producer, and principal writer, Warren Beatty.
Beatty has put together an extraordinary cast for Reds: Diane Keaton plays feminist political activist Louise Bryant; Jack Nicholson portrays playwright Eugene ONeill; Gene Hackman is Reeds drunken editor; and Maureen Stapleton won an Academy Award for her characterization of Emma Goldman. As an added stroke, the movie, three years in the making, is interspersed with interviews of Reeds still-living contemporaries: among them novelist Henry Miller, historian Will Durant, political activist Roger Baldwin, entertainer George Jessel, confidantes Dora Russell and writer Rebecca West, and journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. Miller, Durant, and Jessel have since died.
How true a picture of reality does Reds portray? We must begin with John Reed the man. Reed was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1887, and earned a degree in journalism at Harvard. He was an energetic journalist who, during the Mexican Revolution, won acclaim for his coverage of Pancho Villas escapades. Reed was, however, more than a newspaperman; he was a dissident, a middle-class radical opposed to the establishment into which he was born. In 1915 Reed met Louise Bryant, a spirited woman of leftist political persuasion who left her husband to follow Reed to New Yorks Greenwich Village, a gathering place for the avant-garde. There Reed became involved with Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), better known as "Wobblies." The Wobblies wanted a single, large union as opposed to numerous craft unions that constituted Samuel Gompers s more conservative American Federation of Labor (A.F.ofL.). Reed believed in direct action to secure social justice through strikes and boycotts with the overthrow of capitalism as the ultimate end. The IWW was met with police repression, and Reed ended up in jail, charged with fomenting subversive labor activity. Reed did not break with the establishment until after the Presidential election of 1916. In that election he supported President Woodrow Wilson because of his opposition to American entry into the European war, a war Reed felt was enriching capitalist arms makers.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Reeds radicalism accelerated as he and Bryant went to, Europe as correspondents. The war, though bloody, proved mechanical and dull, lacking the excitement Reed craved. When Reed and Bryant moved on to cover the Russian Revolution, they found excitement aplenty, as they were caught up in events that brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. Reed went beyond being a sympathetic observer to become an active participant in the Communist takeover. Here Reds captures the excitement of the old empire falling before the force of a new order establishing its place in history. At last Reed had found the revolution he sought; his dream of workers supplanting the capitalist order seemed on the verge of realization.
Reed returned home to write about events in Russia and to work for a revolution in America. But the country was in the grips of a "Red scare," a hysteria resulting in part from the rise of communism in Russia, in part from the activities of the Wobblies and other leftist groups, and in part from postwar demographic changes. This was the time of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmers crusade against left-wing groups. Leftists of all stripes were harassed, and radical aliens like Emma Goldman were deported. Ironically, the communists in America were too few in number to be a threat. Furthermore, the Communist Party, like the party in Russia, was split over methods for bringing about the workers revolution.
In 1919, amidst the internal controversy among American communists, Reed founded the radical Communist Labor Party. Shortly thereafter, under federal indictment for subversion, Reed sneaked out of the country on a forged passport and made his way back to Russia to seek recognition for his more radical faction of the U.S. party from the Communist International (Comintern). But the excitement of the Revolution had passed, and Reed found the already-large bureaucracy, complete with a secret police to impose its will on Party and people, obdurate.
The Soviets not only refused to support Reeds radicalism, they suggested that the American communists patch up their differences and press ahead. Arguments with party ideologue Grigori Zinoviev over the role of the A.F.ofL. proved more disheartening when the Russian insisted that the bourgeois union be incorporated into a reunited Communist Party in America. Reedat least in Warren Beattys versionthreatened to resign from the Party but decided that a trip to Baku in the south of Russia for a Comintern conference might give him time to reflect before making a final decision. But the effort to rekindle his spirit went afoul when Zinoviev distorted Reeds speeches, substituting for the word revolution the Islamic term for holy war, thus cynically reducing the implied level of commitment that the American felt revolutionaries must have. Who knows what might have happened to Reed had his life not been claimed in 1920 by typhus ironically a disease generated by the ravishes of revolution and civil war.
Redsdepicts these events with considerable, though hardly total, accuracy. The affair between Reed and Louise Bryant has been given disproportionate attention for dramatic effect. Louise Bryant was an interesting character. Diane Keaton brought a depth to the character that may not have been present in the real person. Certainly Keaton did not portray Bryant as one of the bright-eyed naifs she has played in numerous Woody Allen pictures.
Reed was not a student of Russian history, political philosophy, or social economics; indeed, he spoke little Russian. He was a dilettante driven by idealism. Had he survived to the late twenties or thirties and remained in Soviet Russia, it is very likely he would have been stood ignominiously against the wall in the Lubyanka Prison rather than buried with honors in the wall of the Kremlin. While Reeds idealism is of the sort that is indispensable for making a revolution, it is, ironically, the kind of idealism that is intolerable to the postrevolutionary communist society.
Redsis a good complement to Reeds book, Ten Days That Shook the World. Both display Reeds prejudices and temperament. The two complement each other in giving us the feel of revolution. For those ready to investigate the fascinating events surrounding the Russian Revolution, however, another eyewitness account is recommended: Nikolai N. Sukhanovs The Russian Revolution 1917 offers a more complete perspective on the upheaval.*
*For additional reading see: Edward H. Carr's The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923 (1950) and William H. Chamberlin's The Russian Revolution (1953) are standard works. No study of the Bolshevik rise to power can be complete without reading Leon Trotsky's monumental work, The History of the Russian Revolution (1932).
Most of us will disagree with John Reeds political convictions. Nevertheless, we can admire his commitment, which is in reality the point Warren Beatty is trying to make about Reedand by extension, in all probability, about himself and his political experiences. Since 1776, the world had experienced many revolutions, and they are sure to continue. Perhaps those who find ideals worth living and dying for, as did Reed, Trotsky, Zinoviev along with many others, are among this planets most fortunate.
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
First Lieutenant Marvin K. Franklin(B.A., Arkansas Technical University; M.A., Ph.A., University of Arkansas) is Military History Course Director for Hq AFROTC, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He is coauthor of The Old State House: Its Survival and Contributions, 1911-1947,an architectural history of the former state capitol of Arkansas. Lieutenant Franklin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas.
DisclaimerThe conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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