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John Reed (journalist)
John "Jack" Silas Reed (October 22, 1887 – October 19, 1920) was a journalist and activist, famous for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution called Ten Days that Shook the World . He was the husband of the writer and feminist Louise Bryant and was the subject of a 1981 movie Reds.
Birth and education
Reed was born in 1887 in Portland, Oregon. Despite recent pride by Portlanders in John Reed, he was not fond of the city of his birth. According to his own writings, he left Portland as soon as he could, to attend Harvard University in 1910, and never looked back.
He became well known for his journalism particularly for his sympathetic coverage of workers strikes and his reporting of the Mexican Revolution. Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, were also close friends of Eugene O'Neill's. While in Europe covering the events of World War I, Reed heard about the brewing Bolshevik Revolution, and went to Russia in 1917. His experiences and interviews with Vladimir Lenin became the subject of a book.
At Harvard between 1906 and 1910, Reed was an athlete (swimming and water polo), a prankster, a cheer leader, a writer for the Lampoon, a student of the famous writing teacher they called Copey (Charles Townsend Copeland), at the same time, a protégé of the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. He was a mischievous critic of Harvard snobbery, though not a member of Walter Lippmann's Socialist Club.
On graduation, he worked his way aboard a freighter to Europe- London, Paris, Madrid-then returned to join a cluster of Bohemian-radical writers living in Greenwich Village, where Steffens helped him get his first job doing rather routine editorial work for a literary political magazine called the American.
Reed went to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where women and children had walked out of the textile mills and were carrying on a strike with the help of the IWW (the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World) and the Socialist Party. Reed met Bill Haywood, the IWW leader.
From Haywood he learned of the strike of 25,000 silk workers across the Hudson River in Paterson, asking for an eight-hour day and being clubbed by the police. The press was not reporting any of this, so Reed went to Paterson. He walked the picket line, was arrested for refusing to move on, spent four days in jail. He wrote about this for The Masses
He attended a mass meeting for the Paterson strikers, heard the young Irish radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speak of the power of folded arms, and Reed led the crowd in singing the Marseillaise and the Internationale. He and Mabel Dodge , whose Fifth Avenue apartment was a center for art and politics (and who was soon to become his lover) got a wild, brilliant idea-to do a pageant on the strike in Madison Square Garden, with a thousand workers in the cast. Reed worked day and night on the script; the scenery was painted by John Sloan; and 15,000 people came and cheered.
In Mexico in 1914, Pancho Villa was leading a rebellion of peasants, and the Metropolitan asked Reed to go as its correspondent. Reed was soon in the thick of the Mexican Revolution, riding with Villa himself, sending back stories which were acclaimed by Walter Lippmann as "the finest reporting that's ever been done.... The variety of his impressions, the resources and color of his language seemed inexhaustible...and Villa's revolution, till then reported only as a nuisance, began to unfold itself into throngs of moving people in a gorgeous panorama of earth and sky." Reed's collection of articles, Insurgent Mexico, was not what is admired in journalism schools as "objective reporting." It was meant to help a revolution.
Reed had barely returned to New York, acclaimed now as a great journalist, when the shocking news of the Ludlow Massacre spread through the country. In Southern Colorado, striking miners had been attacked by National Guardsmen in the pay of the Rockefellers. He was soon on the scene, writing "The Colorado War."
Summer, 1914, he was in Provincetown, which was to become his refuge those next years, for swimming, writing, love-making (until 1916, a stormy affair with Mabel Dodge). That August, the war began in Europe. In an unpublished manuscript, Reed wrote: "And here are the nations, flying at each other's throats like dogs...and art, industry, commerce, individual liberty, life itself taxed to maintain monstrous machines of death."
Reed went home to Portland to see his mother, who never approved of his radical ideas. There, at the local IWW hall, he heard Emma Goldman speak. It was an experience. She was that generation's powerhouse of feminism and anarchism.
The big periodicals of New York pressed him to cover the European war for them, and he agreed to go for the magazine The Metropolitan . At the same time he wrote an article for The Masses It was a war for profit, he said. On the way to Europe, he was conscious of the rich on the first-class decks, and three thousand Italians in the hold. He was soon in England, in Switzerland and Germany, and then, in France, walking through the fields of war: rain, mud, corpses. What depressed him most was the patriotism seizing everyone on both sides, even some Socialists, like H.G. Wells in England.
When he returned to the States after four months, he found the radicals Upton Sinclair and John Dewey. And Walter Lippmann too. Lippmann, now editor of the New Republic, wrote in December, 1914 an essay: "The Legendary John Reed." It defined the distance between himself and Reed. "By temperament he is not a professional writer or reporter. He is a person who enjoys himself." And then Lippmann gave the ultimate dismissal: "Reed has no detachment and is proud of it."
Reed went back to the war in 1915, this time to Russia, to the burned and looted villages, to the mass killings of the Jews by the Tsar's soldiers, to Bucharest, Constantinople, Sofia, then Serbia and Greece. Back in America, he listened to the endless talk about military preparedness against "the enemy," and wrote for The Masses that the enemy for the American working man was the 2 percent of the population which owned 60 percent of the national wealth. "We advocate that the workingman prepare to defend himself against that enemy. This is our Preparedness."
Early in 1916, John Reed met Louise Bryant in Portland and they fell immediately in love. She left her husband and joined Reed in New York. She was herself a writer and an anarchist of sorts. That summer Reed sought respite from the sounds of war on Provincetown's quiet beaches, with Bryant. There is a snapshot of her lying on the sands, nude and demure.
By April 1917, Woodrow Wilson was asking Congress to declare war on Germany, and John Reed wrote in The Masses. "War means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists.... It is not our war." He testified before Congress against conscription: "I do not believe in this war...I would not serve in it."
When Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were arrested under the Draft Act for "conspiracy to induce persons not to register," Reed was a witness in their defense. They were convicted and sent to prison. So were a thousand other Americans who opposed the war. Radical newspapers were banned, among them The Masses.
Reed was distressed by the way the working classes in Europe and America were supporting the war. Yet he continued to hope: "I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world-richer, braver, freer, more beautiful."
Reed was a leading figure in the Socialist Party left wing in America. As such he was instrumental in the foundation of the Communist Labor Party. This party was illegal and only one of two parties vying for the support of the newly founded Communist International (Comintern).
From Russia in 1917 came news that the Tsar was overthrown. A revolution was in progress. Here at last, Reed thought, was an entire population which refused to go on with the slaughter, turned on its own ruling class. As a delegate of Comintern Reed returned to Russia.
With Louise Bryant, he set sail for Finland and Petrograd. The revolution was bursting all around them, and they were invovled in the mass meetings, the workers taking over factories, the soldiers declaring their opposition to the war, the Petrograd Soviet electing a Bolshevik majority. Then, on November 6 and 7, the swift, take-over of the railroad stations, telegraph, telephone, post office. And finally, workers and soldiers rushing ecstatically into the Winter Palace.
Racing from scene to scene, Reed took notes with incredible speed, gathered up every leaflet, poster and proclamation, and then, in early 1918, went back to the United States to write his story. On arrival, his notes were confiscated. He found himself under indictment with other editors of The Masses for opposing the war, but at the trial, where he and Eastman testified about their beliefs, the jury could not reach a decision and the charges were dropped.
Now Reed was everywhere in the country, lecturing on the war, the Russian Revolution. At Tremont Temple in Boston he was heckled by Harvard students. In Indiana he met Eugene Debs, who would soon be sentenced to ten years for speaking against the war. In Chicago he attended the trial of Bill Haywood and a hundred other IWW leaders, who would get long prison sentences. That September, after he spoke to a rally of four thousand people, Reed was arrested for discouraging recruitment in the armed forces.
He finally got his Russian notes back, and in two months of furious writing produced Ten Days That Shook the World . It became the classic eyewitness account of the Bolkshevik Revolution: "Up the Nevsky, in the sour twilight, crowds were battling for the latest papers.... On every corner, in every open space, thick groups were clustered; arguing soldiers and students...The Petrograd Soviet was meeting continuously at Smolny, a centre of storm, delegates falling down asleep on the floor and rising again to take part in the debate, Trotsky, Kamenev, Volodarsky speaking six, eight, twelve hours a day..."
In 1919, the war was over, but Allied armies had invaded Russia, and the hysteria continued in the United States. The country that had made the word "revolution" glorious throughout the world now was frightened of it. Non-citizens were rounded up by the thousands, arrested, deported without trial. There were strikes all over the country, and clashes with police. Reed became involved in the formation of the Communist Workers Party, went to Russia as a delegate to the meetings of the Communist International. There he argued with party bureaucrats, wondered what was happening with the revolution, met Emma Goldman in Moscow, and listened to her cry out her disillusionment.
He rushed from meeting to meeting, from a conference in Moscow to a mass meeting of Asians on the Black Sea. He was wearing himself out, and he fell sick, feverish, delirious. It was typhus. At thirty-three, in a Moscow hospital, he died.
A perennial urban legend in Reed's home town is that Reed College was named for this journalist. Although Reed College's unofficial and tongue-in-cheek motto is "Atheism, Communism, and Free Love", there is no truth to this rumor.
- The John Reed Internet Archive on Marxists.org
- Project Gutenberg e-text of Ten Days That Shook The World
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