All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others, so that I eat because others go hungry, that I am clothed when other people go almost naked through the frozen cities in winter; and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play... John Reed
John Silas Reed; Harvard-educated poet, writer, journalist, social reformer, political activist, communist organizer, socialite, close friend to Vladimir Lenin and one of only three Americans buried in the Kremlin1. Some consider him a hero to working men and women around the world, others consider him an American traitor.
Reed was born in Portland, Oregon into a society family. The family was "downwardly mobile" and moved within the city several times while he was growing up. Still, he had an entrance into the city's society circle and was sent off to finish his education at Harvard. There he distinguished himself with his writing and was named class orator and poet. He also developed an interest in socialism and the politics of the left.
Despite his upper-class background, Reed was a champion of the workingman. His bohemian sensibilities and writing skills soon had him at the forefront of the country's burgeoning labor movement. His colleagues included muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. He spent a lot of time in New York City's Greenwich Village, hanging out with artists , philosophers and other writers. Under Steffens' influence, though, Reed became increasingly aware of America's social problems. He began writing for a variety of left-wing magazines, most notably The Masses and New Review. He covered the IWW's Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, led by Big Bill Haywood, in which the strikers won.
Then, in 1913, Reed was arrested and sentenced to twenty days in jail while covering the IWW's Paterson Silk Strike. After which he directed and co-produced The Paterson Silk Strike Pageant in Madison Square Garden to raise money for the striking workers. It was a theatrical success, but financially a failure. The strikers were starved into submission and slowly drifted back into the shops. The IWW suffered a huge setback in Paterson, NJ and never completely recovered.
In 1914, having started to make a name for himself as a journalist, Reed gained national attention for his reports in Metropolitan Magazine of the revolt led by Pancho Villa in Mexico. In Mexico he met Villa and the leaders of the rebel army. These experiences south of the border would lead to a well-received book, Insurgent Mexico (1914). Reed also had a profound impact on Villa; years later Villa would recall that he had never heard of socialism before he met John Reed.
From Mexico it was on to Europe and another war - World War I. He spent the rest of 1914 and most of 1915 writing his war dispatches from the Eastern Front. This too would lead to a book - War in Western Europe (1916). Combined with Insurgent Mexico, War in Western Europe would exert a great influence on a young John Dos Passos, and Reed's journalistic style established a blueprint that, 50 years later, became known as the "New Journalism" from the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote.
On one of his trips home to Oregon in 1917, Reed was introduced to Louise Bryant - a local journalist and wife to one of Portland's leading dentists. But when he returned to New York she scandalized Portland society by accompanying him. They married and decided to set out for the next world hotspot - Russia and the Oktober Revolution.
At this point Reed was one of the best paid reporters in the U.S., but his idea to travel to Russia was received lukewarmly. With the help of Max Eastman and some other friends he managed to gather enough money to set out. In the autumn he started his journey with Bryant to St. Petersburg to witness and report on the revolution for The Masses. Reed was not an impartial observer. He identified himself with the Bolsheviks and his pro-Communist and anti-war articles were partly responsible for that journal's indictment and trial on the grounds of sedition. These writings would be expanded and published as Ten Days That Shook the World in March 1919, now a classic and a best-seller even then.
Ten Days That Shook the World focused on the crucial moment of history, when Lenin pressed the Bolsheviks to seize power. Workers, soldiers, peasants, and sailors stormed the Winter Palace. Trotsky announced the overthrow of the provisional government, and counterrevolutionary forces threatened Moscow. Reed recounts conversations and arguments, details political machinations, and speculates on personal motives. Reed's first-hand portrayal revealed him to be among the first Americans to grasp the true significance of the Revolution and to make the U.S. public aware of it.
Upon returning to the United States, Reed attempted to gain support for Lenin via the Socialist Party of America. He started to write in 1919 for The New Communist and edited the Voice of Labour . In the summer he participated in the national meeting of the Socialist Party of America. It ended in chaos, and as a result, two Communist parties were born. Reed himself became the leader of Communist Labor Party. During the "Red Scare" of 1919-1920, Reed, Emma Goldman, Marcus Garney, the ACLU, and IWW all became targets of the government in the grounds of "sedition" according to the Sedition Act of 1918. The only thing Reed did "wrong" was praise a different style of government with his pen. That was enough for the United States government to charge him with treason.
Acquitted once, but with more charges looming, he illegally left the United States for Russia to organize support from the Central Committee. While attempting to return to the U.S., he was captured in Finland -- carrying 102 diamonds, a large sum of money, and letters written by Trotsky and Lenin. He was found guilty of smuggling and imprisoned. After three months he was returned to Moscow during a prisoner exchange.
Bryant made her way to Moscow to rejoin him, but his prison months had exhausted him. A few weeks after she arrived he caught typhus. He died on October 19, 1920. He was given a state funeral and buried in the Kremlin -- one of only three Americans to be so honored. In 1981 Warren Beatty directed and starred in the Academy Award-winning film Reds, on the life of John Silas Reed.
John Reed is many men at once, and those who have tried to bank on some phase of him, to regard him as a writer, a correspondent, a poet, a revolutionist, or a lover, lose him. There is no line between the play of his fancy and his responsibility to fact; he is for the time the person he imagines himself to be... -- Walter Lippmann
Reed and Charles Ruthenberg
are buried in the Kremlin. Half of Bill Haywood
's ashes lie there as well - the other half in Chicago.