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The Manichean

Cass R. Sunstein—

Was there ever a writer like John Reed? Swashbuckling, mischievous, exuberant, and vain, he was both insufferable and difficult to resist. Here’s how McCarter introduces him: “John Reed prowls the docks, laughing with the sailors, chatting up the whores.”

Walter Lippmann knew Reed well, and in an affectionate, merciless profile titled “Legendary John Reed,” he ridiculed Reed’s initial attempts to embrace socialism: “He made an effort to believe that the working class is not composed of miners, plumbers, and working men generally, but is a fine, statuesque giant who stands on a high hill facing the sun.” Disdaining one of the most celebrated young journalists of the time, Lippmann proclaimed that “by temperament he is not a professional writer or reporter. He is a person who enjoys himself. Revolution, literature, poetry, they are only things which hold him at times, incidents merely of his living. . . .I can’t think of a form of disaster which John Reed hasn’t tried and enjoyed.” But he also offered a tribute: “Wherever his sympathies marched with the facts, Reed was superb.”

Reed began his career as a poet as well as a journalist, making his reputation with jubilant, silly, memorable verses about Greenwich Village and its bohemians: “O Life is a joy to a broth of a boy / At Forty-Two Washington Square!” He offered his own merciless portrait of Lippmann:

Our all-unchallenged Chief! But were there one
Who builds a world, and leaves out all the fun,—
Who dreams a pageant, gorgeous, infinite,
And then leaves all the color out of it,—
Who wants to make the human race, and me,
March to a geometric Q.E.D.—
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if Walter L. were he?

As McCarter puts it, Reed became, for various radicals and dissidents, “part crown prince, part jester,” and much of McCarter’s book can be read as a tale of the pitched battle between Reed, perpetually young, and that “all-unchallenged Chief,” middle-aged before his time. But Reed also had a serious streak. He was a Manichean, because the struggle between good and evil excited him and gave his life a kind of meaning. Eastman, editor of the socialist magazine The Masses, ran Reed’s stories and made him part of the journal’s small, informal editorial board. Together, they wrote the magazine’s manifesto, which sounds like Reed’s self-understanding: “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 moneymaking 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.”

While writing for The Masses, Reed created scenes, literally and figuratively. With radical friends and workers, he masterminded the performance of a play on Fifth Avenue. Displaying a picket line, the shooting of a striker, and the resulting funeral procession, the play received national publicity. He had an affair with his patron, the wealthy heiress Mabel Dodge, who fell desperately in love with him. He became a war correspondent, pushing his way to the middle of the Mexican Revolution, where he danced, drank, and sang with the rebels who followed Pancho Villa. When war broke out in Europe, he headed straight to Paris, “frantic to reach the front lines.” He returned to Greenwich Village more sincerely radical; he now saw war as a “capitalist swindle.” After Lippmann endorsed Theodore Roosevelt for president, Reed broke savagely with his old friend, accusing him of having betrayed his radical principles and of supporting a monster. He broke up with Dodge and fell in love with Louise Bryant, a married writer. 

When the United States entered World War I, Reed was devastated. He wrote numerous essays for The Masses attacking both the logic and the justice of U.S. engagement. In 1917 he found his way to Russia, having been told that “the new world was being born there.” There he met Leon Trotsky, who dazzled him, explaining that the soviets (councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers) are “the most perfect representatives of the people—perfect in their revolutionary experience, in their ideas and objects.” Reed was entranced. He covered the Russian Revolution, eventually producing his classic, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). He hoped for a revolution in the United States in which “the proletariat will finally lose its temper and rise” and “blood will flow—in rivers.” No longer a dilettante, he became a genuine revolutionary, probably the most important Communist in the United States. As editor of the New York Communist, he got to know Lenin. He was prepared to take orders directly from Moscow, where the Bolsheviks created the Third Communist International, an organization that steered what they hoped would be the global revolution. Reed died of typhus in 1920, with Bryant holding his hand. In Moscow, he received a hero’s funeral. He is buried at the Kremlin. 

From This is Not Normal by Cass R. Sunstein. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. He received the 2018 Holberg Prize from the Government of Norway, often described as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for law and the humanities.

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