“We were living in times innocent of world war, of fascism, of nazism, sovietism, the Fuehrerprinzip, the totalitarian state. Nothing we were talking about had ever been tried. We thought of political democracy with its basic rights and freedoms as good things permanently secured. Planting ourselves on that firm basis, we proposed to climb higher to industrial or “real” democracy.”
Max Eastman, Love And Revolution (1964)
Thus did Max Eastman describe the climate of the pre-World War I era of The Masses magazine, which he edited in its heyday.
In these bleak times, it is still remarkable how the international revolutionary surge of 1917-1921, right after World War I, can still resonate as a moment of almost apocalyptic hope. 90 years on, this moment—in retrospect the high-water mark to date of the international working-class movement, with revolutions and insurrections and general strikes in 20 countries—retains an ability to inspire like no other. All across the left spectrum, whether Social Democratic, Stalinist, Trotskyist, left communist, anarchist or Third Worldist, militants (whether they know it or not) are still shaped by questions set down in that period and its immediate aftermath. The Russian revolutionaries (more revealingly than they knew) constantly checked course by consulting the history of the (bourgeois) French Revolution, and however much contemporary “new social movement” activists and post-modernists wish to treat the working-class radicalism of the 1910’s and 1920’s as ancient history, we have not yet fully exited, for better or for worse, the magnetic field of those years.
The following article is an attempt to further a discussion of what happened to the best hopes of the “red years” after World War I in the U.S. Examining in particular the transition in America from the IWW and the left wing of the old Socialist Party to the creation of the Communist Party (a transition I once viewed as unilaterally positive) I came upon the largely forgotten and (by those few who remember him) much-maligned figure of Max Eastman. Eastman did indeed end badly, as a Cold Warrior writing for Reader’s Digest. For that reason, his memoirs of the 1910’s and 1920’s largely fell through the cracks, certainly on the left. But in spite of Eastman’s sharp turn to the right, in part in disgust with the groveling before Stalin by 1930’s liberals and radical-liberals and with his treatment at their hands when he (still on the left) told some ugly truths about Russia, he managed in the 1950’s and 1960’s to write two volumes of memoirs that still capture, without cynicism, the great hopes of his youth.
A number of writers have also re-examined the “Bolshevization” of the U.S. left in a less than favorable light. James Weinstein used his analysis of the period (1) 1 to justify and rehabilitate the most abject Social Democracy. But others have used it to radical ends. Dwight Macdonald’s The Root Is Man (2) 2 , although it is his farewell to Marxism, nonetheless points out how World War I, through domestic repression of radicals and what became (by World War II) the relentless militarization of society, basically wiped out a vibrant American socialist movement, one capable of uniting twenty disparate immigrant ethnic groups to win the famous Lawrence textile strike (1912), which had a widely-read local and even national press (the Kansas-based and nationally distributed daily, The Appeal to Reason, had 761,000 subscribers in 1912), with important membership in such (today) seemingly odd places as Oklahoma and Nebraska, whose presidential candidate (Debs) got 5% of the vote in the 1912 election, which elected hundreds of local officials and even convinced important members of the capitalist class of the inevitability of socialism. Macdonald points out that most of the great classics of Marxism (from Marx to Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, by way of Engels) were written in the 70 years prior to World War I, during which militarism was an episodic phenomenon and was never adequately theorized by the revolutionary tradition. The impact of militarist statism in the decline of a mass radical movement in the U.S. has never, to my knowledge, been adequately illuminated.
Macdonald argues that by the 1930’s genuine revolutionaries in America were already living in a world of “as if”, no longer influencing mass movements with a palpable sense of midwifing a higher organization of society but acting, writing and speaking “as if” such a movement existed. If that was already the case in the 1930’s, what can one say about the present?
Kenneth Rexroth, in his Autobiographical Novel (3) 3 takes a different but complementary tack. Rexroth describes a 1920 meeting of Chicago radicals orienting to the Third International with the infamous Joseph Pepper, the mysterious Hungarian figure who played an (apparently) self-appointed role as Comintern representative in the early American Communist movement of the 1920’s, wreaking havoc throughout. When a veteran Wisconsin radical asked Pepper how he thought the American revolution would happen, Pepper chilled the room by saying that revolution would come to America not by the actions of American workers but on the bayonets of the Soviet Red Army. Certainly no representative of the Second International had ever shown such contempt for American revolutionaries; indeed, as one counter-example, it is little remembered that the Dutch “ultra-left” (Pannekoek, Gorter, Roland-Holst) after 1908 had a significant following in the left wing of the American SP, especially in immigrant groups such as the Latvians, a following that had to be eradicated in bitter factional struggle in the early years of the CP (4) 4 Rexroth shows that damage inflicted by the Comintern on the American radical tradition, which we normally associate mostly with the 1930’s, was present from the outset. While Rexroth was first of all an artist, he also joined the IWW in 1917, and gravitated to the founding efforts of the Communist Party, and broke with the groups that became the CP by…1920, under the influence of encounters of the kind described above and of the selfsame German-Dutch ultra left. Rexroth not only depicts radical Chicago in its heyday, but gives a portrait of the world of American radicalism in the small town in Indiana where he grew up, where people (I paraphrase) had a sense of having won two revolutions (the American Revolution and the Northern victory in the Civil War) and damn well intended to win a third. (5) 5
Max Eastman, in his two-volume memoirs (6) 6 , strikes a similar note about the pre-1914 reality of the American left. “Like all my radical friends,”, he wrote (LR, p. 22), “I had mistaken for final reality the comparative paradise that prevailed in America at the turn of the century. Notwithstanding Ludlow Massacres and bomb warfare in the structural steel industry, it was a protected little historic moment of peace and progress we grew up in. We were children reared in kindergarten, and now the real thing was coming. History was resuming its bloody course.” (Those who, like myself, entered adolescence in the early 1960’s could express a downsized version of the same sentiment, the Cold War and Jim Crow notwithstanding.) This “end of American innocence”, as it has been called, has to be invoked to explain how a movement that produced an IWW, a Big Bill Haywood, a John Reed, a Eugene Debs, the 1913 Paterson Pageant or a magazine of the quality of The Masses could in a few years after 1917 ebb away into besieged sects that quickly became susceptible to the Joseph Peppers and worse. This “end of innocence” involved the massive repression (censorship, jailings, lynchings) of antiwar activists and publications by the Wilson administration, a wave of “anti-Hun” hysteria unleashed against Germany and German-Americans, and then the postwar Red Scare and Palmer Raids in which thousands of foreign-born radicals from eastern and southern Europe were deported, and thousands more militants of all backgrounds jailed. Haywood, Reed, Daniel DeLeon (the only American Marxist who influenced Lenin) and Mother Jones had not needed the Third International to tell them to make a revolution in the U.S., but from the early 1920’s until quite recently it became common coin in most of the “hard left” that the Russian Revolution and the early Third International had provided American radicals with indispensable tools—above all an understanding of the vanguard party—they previously lacked.
Living as we do in the rubble of that view of history, we turn back to the early 20thcentury to re-examine the “winners and losers” of that transition, to better see our way into a future that does not draw an unquestioning “line of continuity” through Lenin and Trotsky, and we quickly encounter the figure of Max Eastman. Eastman (1883-1969) was among the most brilliant Greenwich Village radicals of the teens and 20’s, largely forgotten today, at least in part because, as indicated, he later became something of a right-wing crank and eventually even wrote for Reader’s Digest. Born into a middle-class upstate New York family, with two Congregationalist ministers for parents, Eastman (unlike Rexroth) had to evolve into radicalism. He hardly encountered it while attending Williams College in the Berkshires in the early 1900’s, but after his move to New York City in 1907, (where he was hired as the teaching assistant of philosopher John Dewey at Columbia) he became involved in supporting the women’s suffrage movement. While Dewey in the long run imbued Eastman with the American pragmatist philosophy which Eastman (like so many others) (7) 7 — eventually turned against Marxism, involvement in the suffrage movement quickly brought Eastman into contact with Greenwich Village labor radicalism, and in 1916 he was chosen editor of arguably the most important magazine in American radical history, The Masses.
Because of its unique historical role, it is important to dwell for a moment on The Masses. The Masses, until it was shut down by the Postmaster General in 1917 for sedition, was a confluence of cultural and social radicalism that largely disappeared from 1917 until the 1960’s (and then in a far different context). It expressed the moment in which the Fifth Avenue salon of cultural matron Mabel Dodge Luhan (later the lover of D.H. Lawrence in his Taos period) could bring together the denizens of the 1913 Armory Show (which introduced the modernist avant-garde to the U.S.) with the Wobblies of the Paterson strike, culminating in the above-mentioned Paterson Pageant in which labor radicals and artists collaborated on a hugely-successful fund raiser for the strike in Madison Square Garden. (One can measure our distance from such a period trying to imagine today’s Soho web site designers turning out to support e.g. the New York City transit strike of 2005.) One might smile in retrospect at this seeming anticipation of 1960’s radical chic, except that in 1913 both the cultural avant-garde and the IWW truly felt a new world emerging in their respective domains, and to them it was the same world (8) 8 . Few if any of the artists closely associated with The Masses (such as Floyd Dell or Joseph Freeman or Art Young) are remembered today except for their association with this remarkable magazine (9) 9 , and John Reed, its most famous contributor, is remembered for his political writing. But no successor publication, not Eastman’s Liberator (1918-1926) nor the Trotskyist-inspired Partisan Review of the 1930’s nor Dwight Macdonald’s Politics of the late 1940’s, nor Radical America in the 1960’s and 1970’s (not to mention the Stalinist-dominated New Masses of the 1930’s) ever bridged the gulf between cultural and labor radicalism to such an extent, and with such a large readership. The historical reasons for this separation of culture and radical politics are many and complex and far beyond the scope of this article, and certainly (as they are just as real in the rest of the capitalist world) not specific to America, but this confluence was yet one more tentative experiment that was swept away in the post-World War I realities. And riding that whirlwind was Max Eastman.
The Masses died an honorable death: its last issue was November-December 1917, and as Eastman wrote (LR, p. 63)
“Its dying words, however—printed in big type on the back cover of the last issue—remain as true a prophecy as was ever penned:
’John Reed is in Petrograd…His story of the first proletarian Revolution will be an event in the world’s literature.’”
Eastman actually came to the peak of his fame and influence as the star witness in the two sedition trials of The Masses after the U.S. entered World War I and after all such publications were banned from the mails under the Sedition Act. Both trials, as a result of Eastman’s brilliant performance on the witness stand, ended in hung juries. He had toured the country as a key figure at anti-war rallies (he was almost lynched by a mob in Fargo, North Dakota), and was indicted with other prominent contributors, essentially for obstructing the draft. After the trials, Eastman was an editor of a briefly successful but more strictly political magazine, The Liberator, which had 60,000 subscribers at its peak and published the first chapters of Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. It was during this phase that Eastman was first bowled over reading a pamphlet by Lenin, but the seeds of his later pragmatist critique and rejection of Marxism are already evident in his language: ”In Lenin’s Program Address to the Soviets, I felt the living presence of that practical-minded and free-minded engineer of revolution for which I had been waiting” (LR, p. 127). Even when, by the 1950’s, he had gone over to the Cold War right, he had “no patience with those who equate Lenin with Stalin” (LR, pp. 127-128).
After the demise of The Masses, Eastman threw himself from 1918 to 1921 into editing the The Liberator, which became the American radical magazine of record for the immediate postwar international “red years” (10) 10 . The Liberator not only published John Reed but also Lenin, Haywood, Alexander Berkman and Bela Kun (10)) 11 . This was, as Eastman later wrote, “a period of rebel hope and revolutionary upsurge throughout the world” (12) 12 (LR, p 190), and Eastman was never so influential before or after. The Liberator also attempted to convey the wave of cultural freedom and creativity of Russia in the early 20’s. Eastman quotes Daniel Aaron:
“What distinguished men like Lenin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky from Stalin and his intellectual praetorians was their belief that the revolutionary government ought to condone all artistic groups not actively counterrevolutionary.” (13) 13
In 1920, however, Eastman was already echoing the reservations of figures such as Rexroth about the relevance to America of the vanguard party model:
”The Communist Parties have been stressing the idea of party discipline to a degree that would seem sensible to a matter-of-fact person only on the eve of a battle…They have formed an elaborate conspiratorial organization excellently adapted to promote treasonable and seditious enterprises, although they have no such enterprises on foot…” (14) 14
He might have found an ally for such criticism in John Reed, who had died in Moscow in the same year, and about whose attitude toward the Comintern at the time of his death there are varying accounts. Reed “made no secret of his contempt and hatred for Zinoviev and Radek, whose authority in the Comintern was then pre-eminent” (15) 15 , and offered, then retracted his resignation from the Comintern’s Executive Committee. But we shall never know. (16) 16
In 1921 Eastman was ousted as editor of The Liberator in a revolt led by Mike Gold, a Lower East Side proletarian writer who became the leading literary hack for American Stalinism in the 1930’s after, in 1926, he (in classic CP fashion) opportunistically renamed the magazine The New Masses (though no one of discernment ever confused it with its earlier namesake). From this point onward, Eastman’s star was waning, and his fame turned into notoriety as he was forever after out of step with the increasingly Stalinized American left. But impressive as his life and contribution had already been, it was exactly the post-1921 period of his eclipse that made Eastman unique among the first generation of American radicals whose life trajectory was determined by the Russian Revolution and its international reach.
This unique trajectory can be described succinctly: Eastman went to the Soviet Union in 1922, stayed there for two years, became fluent in Russian (he actually wrote poetry in Russian that Russians admired), and knew intimately many of the top Bolshevik figures prior to the final triumph of Stalinism in 1925-1927. This was followed by three years in France, during which he (somewhat inadvertently) became the most important Western defender of Trotsky. This experience, and the insight it afforded, was the decisive period of Eastman’s life, and made him, until his death in 1969, a more pertinent critic of the Soviet experience than any other Cold Warrior-to-be. When the leading Bolsheviks were paraded before the world, and then executed, in the Moscow Trials of 1937-38, to the hearty applause of the mainstream left in the West, from The Nation magazine in the U.S. to the illustrious League for the Rights of Man in France, the Old Bolsheviks being exterminated were not merely Eastman’s former political collaborators, but in many cases personal friends. Only a tiny handful of Western leftists (Alfred Rosmer and Boris Souvarine in France, and the Belgian-born Victor Serge come to mind) had anything remotely approaching Eastman’s first-hand experience of the Russian Revolution and of the Russian revolutionaries before the consolidation of Stalinism.
Eastman first encountered the Bolsheviks at the 1922 Genoa Conference, where he watched figures such as Rakovsky, Chicherin and Joffe tower intellectually and culturally over the grey eminences of the Western democracies, led by Lloyd George, who were pressuring them to honor the debts of the Tsar (Western bankers were still pestering Russia about those debts 60 years later), and then saw the Russians being mobbed enthusiastically by the Genoese working class as the conference broke up, while the bourgeois politicians posed for photo-ops.
Eastman’s testimony is valuable not because, either in 1922 or over the rest of his life, he was offering an original analysis of the course of the revolution. His later attempts to theorize “what went wrong”, leading to a repudiation of Marxism and an embrace of anti-communism, had nothing original about them per se, and were merely a time-worn defense of American pragmatism versus “German metaphysics”. By his own admission, during the Kronstadt rebellion of March 1921, he was in Hollywood, on leave from The Liberator, trying, and failing, to rescue his love affair with a beautiful actress. Kronstadt, whatever one thinks of it (and the debate continues to this day) did indeed demonstrate “the crucial fact that the ‘Soviet Government’ was not a government of soviets, but a government of the Communist Party” (LR, p. 226) and Lenin himself, after presiding over the crushing of the revolt, acknowledged that it had “lit up the horizon like nothing else” and had opted for de-compression with the market-oriented New Economic Policy. Eastman offers no theory of “state capitalism” or “degenerated workers’ state” or “bureaucratic collectivism” to rival the 10 or 15 such theories developed in the Marxist debate over subsequent decades. What he does offer, again, is a writer’s feel for detail and for personal character, above all the character of Leon Trotsky, whom he came to know well. Marxian theory (this Marxist writer included) has never put much stock in the historical importance of character. But Eastman, while lacking any original theory of his own, provides plenty of material for any theory that seeks to locate the defeat in the 1920’s.
His first glimmer of a problem came at the opening of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, when he found Red Square and the whole surrounding area of the city, like a scene from Giuliani’s New York, blocked off to ordinary people by “guards mounted on horses and armed to the teeth with weapons of war”. But such momentary thoughts (echoing observations made as early by 1920 by Alexander Berkman) were swept away in Eastman’s meeting with the top Bolsheviks. Karl Radek gave him a bear hug when he addressed the Congress in his newly-mastered Russian. He saw Dzherzhinsky, “the revolution’s Lord High Executioner”, but 40 years later the then-Cold Warrior Eastman could still write that the
“notion that Dzherzhinski was ‘bloodthirsty’ is, however, entirely erroneous. He was chosen to head the Cheka for the opposite reason. He had been a poet in his youth, and his tenderness toward subordinates was notorious…a different life story (might have) led him to martyrdom instead of murder” (LR, p. 331)
Bukharin, Eastman wrote later, “was a very small, young and inconspicuous-looking man who carried with him an enormous Marxian pile driver…you would guess that he must be very talented in a polite and lovable way. But that would never prepare you for the sparkling torrent of witty argument that flowed out of him when he got on a platform…Lenin called him ‘scholastic’…A simpler way of stating the facts would be to say that his exquisite head was so full of all kinds and varieties of ideas, learned by heart and never critically assimilated…He was not the theoretician, but the saint, the one they all loved, the “favorite of the party”, as Lenin called him.” (LR, p. 354)
Kamenev came across as a “mild-eyed, soft-bearded gentlemanly humanitarian” who in America “would probably have become the head of a settlement house” and was, in Eastman’s words, “as little designed to lead a revolution as I was”. Zinoviev, who, like Kamenev had already blinked on the eve of the October Revolution, and whose strident demagogy had already inspired the loathing of John Reed, had a “sorrowful languor” and “his handshake was like receiving the gift of a flattened-out banana” (ibid.). Stalin (of whom Eastman, like almost all Western Communists, never heard of until 1924) may have been present, but he
“knew no foreign language, and suffered from a sense of inferiority among his highly educated colleagues. They, on the other hand, in part for the same reason, had no notion of his extraordinary acuity and force of character” (ibid.)
Lenin, by contrast, was everything Eastman had hoped. Present at Lenin’s last speech to the Comintern, Eastman described him as
“…the most powerful man I ever saw on the platform…a granite mountain of sincerity…It was as though a selfless intellectual had at last been found, the only one perhaps in history,..”
One need not share Eastman’s (then) state of “Pindaric rapture” to recognize a recurring impression of Lenin, articulated by many who saw him speak, as someone utterly without demagogy. With Lenin,
“very commas and semicolons seem to be chosen with a sole view to the race for the revolution and the state. I spent a great many hours while in Russia reading Lenin, deriving a kind of rapture that I only call poetic from the pure and almost ecstatical practicality—the total absence, that is, of poetic divarications—in every word and sentence he put down. He had imagination, he had figures of speech, but he used them for one sole ever-present purpose, to clarify the road to socialism—never for fun.
In that, I think, lay much of his power, sometimes described as hynotic, to subdue both hearts and minds and compel strong men to accept his leadership.” (LR, pp. 334-335)
Unfortunately for Eastman, Lenin’s failing health (from a stroke) made him inaccessible, and he got no further chance to see Lenin in action.
Eastman attended 12thParty Congress in 1923 (the first one from which Lenin was absent, and the last one not dominated by Stalin). He was enthralled:
“entire constellation of ‘big Bolsheviks’ sat around him…Bukharin, Radek, Litvinov, Krylenko, Chicherin, Piatakov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krassin, Dzerzhinski, Antonov-Avsenko, Rykov, Stalin, Preobrazhensky…There was still a hope that Lenin would be back, and Stalin had not yet shown his hand. They looked, to my admiring eyes, like a good-natured family.”
But all was, behind such appearances of concord, not well: “I was unaware”, Eastman writes, “of the beastlike struggle for power that was in progress behind the scenes of this high-minded discussion. I was unaware of the existence of Stalin.” (LR p. 356)
Less than a year later, Lenin was dead, and Eastman’s “opaque cloud of optimistic emotion” began to dissipate.
At the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Eastman had met Trotsky, “certainly the neatest man who ever led an insurrection”, and it is his personal portrait of Trotsky, based on years of collaboration, that is most striking and most jarring to some received ideas about Trotsky’s prowess . The situation comes more clearly into focus after Lenin’s death. Trotsky had already in 1922 agreed to allow Eastman to write his biography, introducing him to relevant people and giving him interviews when time permitted.
Eastman, interestingly, denies that there was a struggle for power between Trotsky and Stalin after Lenin’s death:
“The truth is that Trotsky had side-stepped the power long before that. When Lenin first fell sick he suggested that Trotsky take his place as vice-chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, a move which would have published to the world his choice of a successor.”
Trotsky told Eastman he had declined because he was already checkmated in the party power struggle. But Eastman felt this was secondary. Trotsky, he felt,
“could command men; he could inspire them to action with great oratory; he could expound the grounds and principles of their action; but he could not manage them. He could not lead them. Leadership requires tact and adroit personal understanding as well as magnetism. It requires a certain craftiness which Trotsky lacked altogether.” (LR, p. 409)
These lacks “had more than a little to do with those fevers—and even fainting spells—to which he was subject”. Eastman, who had his own long (and continuing) history of psychosomatic problems, sees the timing of Trotsky’s illnesses—such as his fatal failure to return to Moscow for Lenin’s funeral, where, in Eastman’s estimation, he could have made an historic speech. These ailments were
“more psychic than somatic. He never fell sick when required to command an army or organize an insurrection. :It was this intra-party sniping and conniving, this crafty, scheming, dizzying, and dreadfully important business of backstage politics that sickened him. He loathed and recoiled from it. He knew besides—he could not have failed to know—how miserably unfit for it he was.” (LR p. 409)
Eastman claims to have already recognized this at the time of Lenin’s death, but
“I hadn’t a notion then, however, of the fact that Stalin as general secretary of the party had already gathered the principal reins of power in his hands. I did not know who Stalin was. With all my reading and study I had never seen his name in print; I had barely heard it spoken.” (LR p. 410)
Neither John Reed’s nor Alfred Rosmer’s (17) 17 outstanding books on the early revolution so much as mention Stalin.
This dynamic brought Eastman into the story of Lenin’s “Testament”, or last letter to the party, which Eastman almost single-handedly brought to the world’s attention, thereby irreparably damaging his own standing with the American and world left. Written in December 1922, Lenin had called for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary. Lenin’s wife Krupskaia, however, withheld the letter in the hope that Lenin would recover and carry out its writ himself.
“The delay only gave Stalin another year in which to perfect his control of the party machinery, appointing men of his gang to key positions throughout the country…it is here that the distinction between the idealistic Bolsheviks and the place-hunting roughnecks, often criminal and not rarely psychotic, who so eagerly stepped into their places, becomes important. Stalin’s cultivation of these gangsters was positively frightening to his higher-minded colleagues, though their philosophy prevented them from ultimately judging any political change in moral or psychological terms.” (LR, p. 411).
Lenin’s “last struggle” (18) 18 however belated, inadequate and compromised by his failing health, was against this bureaucratization of the party and the state. The Central Committee passed a resolution stating that “the bureaucratization of the party was threatening to cut it off from the masses” and convert it into “a body of self-appointed officials”.
Here again, Trotsky fell sick, and instead of attending the conference set up to implement the resolution, sent the text of The New Course as a letter to the party, arguing for a return to worker democracy. Stalin brilliantly used Trotsky’s absence and the letter, whose content violated the secret agreement on a permissible congress agenda, to turn the tables and accuse Trotsky and his supporters of founding a faction (factions had been banned in 1921) and “playing a trick on the party”.
Eastman, as he wrote 40 years later,
”began to find out…what a desperate war had been going on between the idealists (19) 19 and the machine politicians in the party. The idealists, with their inept, unskilled and intermittently sick leader, were already beaten—that was obvious…The dishonesty of the attack was so flagrant…that Trotsky was urged by some of the best of the old Bolsheviks to send a detachment of soldiers into the Kremlin, arrest his opponents, and restore elective life to the party by armed force…But Trotsky declined to use either his power of his eloquence. He made no answer to the vilifications against him in the press. He made no public appearances, no speeches, no motion whatever against the fire-hose stream of slander that was poured against him.” (LR, p. 415)
This knowledge, available in 1924 to a tiny handful of communists outside Russia, pulled Eastman willy-nilly, despite his great reservations about Trotsky as a leader, into becoming “more widely known as a Trotskyist than I have ever been known as anything else”.
At the 13thCongress of the Russian party—no longer really a congress but the first in a series of “bureaucratic parades”, as Trotsky put it—Eastman watched Trotsky squander yet another chance as he went along, under party discipline, with the decision of the inner circles not to divulge Lenin’s testament publicly. Trotsky
“guided his conduct, as always, by a conscientiously thought-out plan of duty to the revolution. And as always, in matters calling for finesse in the management of men, his plan was wrong…” (LR, p. 422)
Trotsky bowed to party discipline, deciding he must not “take the offensive”:
“every man possessing a twelve-year old IQ knew that a faction had been formed against him, with an explicit program to isolate him, destroy his prestige, suppress his books, silence his oratory, revile his name, and forestall his possible inheritance of the authority of Lenin…but such a bold free simple human action would look sinful, uncanonical, anti-Bolshevik, “against party discipline”…He was trying to be conciliatory—a thing for which he had no gift whatever.” (LR, pp. 423-424)
In was in this speech that Trotsky uttered his formulation of party patriotism: “The English have a saying: ‘Right or wrong, my country.’ With greater historic truth we can say: Right or wrong in certain separate, particular, concrete problems, it is my party.” (LR, p. 424)
Eastman pleaded with Trotsky to use his “last chance” to reveal the testament. But the latter’s
“…half-sick and fitful leadership…was disheartening to the Opposition. All the best minds knew his policies were right, but they also knew he could not cope with the party machinery. He could not run the country…And that speech was only the first of a series of personal maneuvers every one of which was as gauche, inept, tactless and calamitous as his political judgements and outlines of policy were correct and far-seeing.” (LR, p. 426)
”Trotsky’s favorite epithet for Stalin was ‘mediocre’, and Stalin was indeed undistinguished by any grace or brightness of thought, speech, presence or address. But if Trotsky had deigned to listen to the skillfully marshaled, deadly aimed and from the standpoint of lethal administrations, superlatively concocted extemporaneous discourse with which Stalin finished him off, he might not have been so glib about mediocrity. It was a masterly display not only of ruthless force and Olympian dishonesty, but of skill in the ex parte manipulation of facts and ideas. Stalin was a genius—a genius of ‘patience, continuity, cruelty and fraud,’” (LR, pp. 426-427)
Eastman’s suggestion that the battle between Trotsky and Stalin was all over by the time of Lenin’s death is certainly well argued; he is less convincing in his assertion that there was, contrary to what the world believed then and since, no real disagreement between them on policy. He believed they fundamentally agreed to “build all the socialism you can in Russia while promoting to the extent you can the world revolution” (LR, p. 429). This is not the place to unpack that thorny question (and in my opinion there is no unambiguous resolution). But here Eastman shows clearly, as he himself says, that he became known as a Trotskyist virtually by the accident of his years in Soviet Russia and his personal honesty and integrity, and not by any deeper political commitment. Eastman’s book says nothing about either the final failure of the German revolution by 1923 or the growing crisis of the New Economic Policy which, however much the game was up and however much it was a rear-guard action, was fought out between Stalin and the Left Opposition up to 1927. Nor does he mention the battles occasioned by the British General Strike of 1926 or over China policy from 1924 to 1927. For Eastman, the real issue was “the antibureaucratic program called Workers’ Democracy, as against Stalin’s regimentation of the party. No other question was raised until after the battle was over and Trotsky defeated.” (LR, p. 429) This, too, is an ambiguous claim for the man who in 1920 had advocated the militarization of labor, who oversaw the crushing of Kronstadt, who (as quoted by Eastman himself) articulated the doctrine of “party patriotism” (which still afflicts many of his followers today with a notion of discipline quite out of sync with the pre-1921 history of Bolshevism), and whom Lenin’s testament, while praising Trotsky as the most capable man in the party, also characterized him as “having an overly administrative approach” to political questions (another legacy to which the contemporary remnants of Trotskyism, with their excessive faith in “party building”, have never faced up).
As I have tried to emphasize throughout, the power of Eastman’s memoirs of the Russian Revolution and their ongoing appeal today lie not in any exceptional political acuity, but in his portraits of the revolutionaries, and above all of Trotsky, which (in my opinion) go beyond any writing on the subject I know, whether Serge, or C.L.R. James, not to mention his problematic biographers Deutscher and Broue. Taken as a whole, Eastman’s portrait of Trotsky gives an important clue, not available elsewhere. to the sad history of Trotskyism, before and after Trotsky’s defeat, not to mention after his death.(20) 20
In arguing for the importance of Eastman’s personal memoir of Trotsky, I think that not enough attention has been paid to this “overly administrative approach” and its influence on the kind of organizational formalism (“party building”) which pervades the Trotskyist movement to this day.
Lenin, too, comes in for some hard knocks from Eastman. While Lenin rejected as “infantile ultra-leftists” those who thought that it was possible to build the dictatorship of the proletariat without a disciplined, centralized party,
“…he never planned or proposed any means by which the power might be transferred from such a party to the Soviets—to say nothing of transferring it to the proletariat as a whole. He watched without protest the transformation of the Soviet congress into a mere false front or passive instrument of his party. He acquiesced in the gradual replacement of the once-celebrated Council of People’s Commissars by the Politburo of this doctrinal organization. Alarmed by the Kronstadt revolt, he even suppressed the opposition and tightened the hold of a small knot of official officeholders within the organization. This is the basic tragedy of Lenin’s life and work, the seed and source of our modern monster, the totalitarian state.” (LR, pp. 429-430)
Eastman left Russia in 1924 in a diplomatic car with a box of explosive documents on the real situation there. He settled in southern France to work on his evolving critique of Marx and Lenin, based on his two years of study of Russian-language texts on the history of the revolutionary movement and his unique, unparalleled experience. But Rosmer and Souvarine persuaded him to set that aside to write his little book Since Lenin Died (22) 21 making known to the world all the factional truth of the crucial previous years. The book told the full truth about Lenin’s testament, his plans to remove Stalin from power, and what had happened after Lenin’s death. A few months later, the world communist press published Trotsky’s repudiation of the book and the story of Lenin’s testament as a fraud, written again under pressure from Stalin’s faction and accepted because of the same “party patriotism” mentioned earlier. (Trotsky, once in exile, profusely apologized to Eastman for this.)
As Eastman put it, it “was a field day for the trained Stalinist sharpshooters in all countries. There is hardly a civilized language on the globe in which the party militants did not learn to pronounce, and execrate, my name.” (LR, p. 448)
In October 1926, Eastman translated the testament and sold to it to the New York Times, which “gave it a front-page headline and the entire second page of the paper” (p. 453). This was timed to coincide with the last stand of the Left Opposition in Russia, when its leading lights went directly to the factories to publicize the testament and attempt to oust Stalin. This attempt was
“blocked by the untheoretical device of sending strong-arm squads into the proletarian meetings to hoot and yell, and lining up cars and trucks outside the buildings to blow their horns and sirens, until not a word of the appeal could be heard” (LR, p. 453)
Thus checkmated, the Opposition signed another forced capitulation.
In the following year, Trotsky’s co-factioneer Adolf Joffe committed suicide to protest Trotsky’s expulsion from the party, and (as Eastman put it) “the uselessness of his life under Stalin”. Joffe’s famous suicide note rounds out Eastman’s portrait of Trotsky, as presented here:
“I have never doubted the correctness of the course you have pointed out, and you know that for over twenty years, ever since the “permanent revolution”, I have marched with you. But I have thought you lacked the inflexibility and intransigeance of Lenin, his resolution to remain, if need be, alone in the course which he has recognized as sure in view of a future majority…Politically you have always been right, commencing with 1905, and I have often told you that with my own ears I heard Lenin acknowledge that in 1905 it was not he but you who were right….But you have often renounced your truth for the sake of an agreement, a compromise, whose value you overestimate.” (LR, pp. 484-485).
When Eastman finally returned to the U.S. in 1927, after five years abroad, he was on his way to becoming a non-person on the left. The great wave of Stalinophilia in the American left and intelligentsia was still a few years away, but no one knew what to make of Eastman, who was light years ahead of them in understanding the Russian situation (22) 22 . Eastman threw himself into a translation of the three volumes of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, one of such a high quality that Trotsky said it was better than the original, and he always referred translators in other languages to it.
In 1932, Eastman traveled to Trotsky’s place of exile at Prinkipo to work on the translation of the book and other articles by Trotsky. Here Eastman deepened some of the impressions he had already developed in his acquaintance with Trotsky in Russia, where he had begun a biography that ultimately became merely a portrait of Trotsky’s youth. As Eastman said:
“ I hero-worshipped (Trotsky) and do still (written in 1964-LG)…but I did not feel any affection for him…I could not explain why…with all those intimate talks about his infancy and his youth…we never came together.” (LR, p. 558)
Eastman kept the notebooks of his time in Prinkipo, which allowed him much later to compare his first impressions of Trotsky with those made after his departure a week later. At first, he had written:
”Trotsky seems the most modest and self-forgetful of all the famous men I have known. He never boasts; he never speaks of himself of his achievements; he never monopolizes the conversation…With all the weight of world-wide slander and misrepresentation he struggles under today…he has not so far breathed a syllable suggestive of preoccupation with himself…I agree with Lunacharsky after all…that there is ‘not a drop of vanity in him”. (LR, pp. 558-559)
“He seems to me oversure of everything he believes. I suppose that is what Lenin meant in his testament when he warned the party against Trotsky’s ‘excessive self-confidence’…when that cocksureness breaks down he is nonplused. He does not know how to cherish a doubt, how to speculate. Between us, at least, to confer is out of the question.” (ibid.)
“The man has the childlike charm of an artist…I merely record these …three impressions: an utter absence of egotism, instinctive magnanimity, and something like weakness, or a man overburdened with his own strength.” (LR, p. 560)
A week later, on the train leaving Turkey, Eastman’s impressions had evolved somewhat.
“my mood has changed to such an extent that I could hardly write (those first impressions) down. I feel “injured” by his total inward indifference to my opinions, my interests, my existence…He has never asked me a question. He has answered all my questions as a book would answer them, without interchange, without assuming the possibility of mutual growth…I was an amateurish creature needing to be informed of the technical truth which dwelt in his mind.” (LR, pp. 560-561).
The contemporary reader, particularly one partisan to Trotsky, may well be inclined to agree that for Trotsky Eastman was indeed an “amateurish creature”. But after his exile Trotsky had publicly defended Eastman as a “friend and defender of the October Revolution” and on this occasion he also kept trying to convince Eastman to stay at Prinkipo for several months to continue their collaboration. “He was,” Eastman wrote, “blandly oblivious to the unwarmth and unfruitfulness of our relation.” (p, 568)
”On the disputed question of Trotsky’s ‘vanity”, I still agree with Lunacharsky. His failing is subtler than that and more disastrous. He lives instinctively in a world in which other persons (except in the mass or as classes) do not count. In youth he stood so prodigiously high above his companions in brain, speech, and capacity for action, that he never formed the habit of acquiring—he was always telling. His knowledge and true knowledge, his view and the right view, were identical. There is no bragging or vanity in this, no preoccupation with himself. Trotsky is preoccupied with ideas and the world, but they are his own ideas and his own view of the world. People, therefore, who do not adulate, go away from Trotsky feeling belittled. Either that, or they go away indignant, as I am….” (LR, p. 561)
“I want to dwell on the manner in which his arrogance differs from vanity, or self-centered egotism. It is not a conscious thought, but an unconscious assumption that he knows, that he is the truth, that other people are to be judged and instructed…That…is why he is weak and indecisive and lacks judgement, when frustrated. That is why he became almost hysterical when I parried with ease the crude clichés he employed to dedend the notion of dialectical evolution. The idea of “meeting my mind”, of “talking it over” as with an equal, could not occur to him. He was lost. He never made one move after Stalin attacked him that was not from the standpoint of tactics a blunder. Trotsky is much concerned with the task life imposes of making decisions. He told me once that in youth he passed through a period when he thought he was mentally sick because he could never make up his mind about anything, but as commander of the Red army he often astonished himself by the prompt assurance with which he gave orders to generals and colonels trained for a lifetime in military science.” (ibid.)
“It was in revolt against an inferior father’s stubborn will that Trotsky developed the “excessive self-confidence” that Lenin warned against. What he needed, when that self-confidence cracked, was a father—an authority to refer to. That is what Lenin supplied.” (LR, pp. 561-562)
“The lack of comfort or beauty in Trotsky’s house, the absence of any least attempt to cultivate the art of life in its perceptual aspect, seems sadly regrettable to me. A man and woman must be almost dead aesthetically to live in that bare barrack, which a very few dollars would convert into a charming home…To save money, Natalia Ivanova explains. Through sheer indifference to beauty, I should say. Trotsky talks a good deal about art in his books, and lays claim to a cultivated taste, but he shows no more interest in art than (in the garden of the Prinkipo villa—LG).” (LR, pp. 562-563)
“Although it is not so in his books, he seems in personal life to lack altogether the gift of appreciation. I think it is because no one ever feels appreciated by him that he fails so flatly as a political leader. He could no more build a party than a hen could build a house…his social gift, his gift of friendship, is actually about on the level of a barnyard fowl. His followers, the followers of the great brain, make pilgrimages to him, and they come away, not warmed and kindled, but chilled and inhibited. Those of them, that is, who have individual will and judgement of their own. Hence he has no influence, properly so called. He does not sway strong people but merely directs the weak.” (LR, p. 563)
“Trotsky is playful, and proud of being so, but I notice that his humor consists almost exclusively of banter. A perpetual poking of fun at the peculiarities of others…good-natured, smiling and charming fun, to be sure, but not varied with an occasional smile at himself, or any genial recognition of the funny plight of mankind in general. And when you take part in the game, when you poke fun at him, he does not laugh, and his smile is never so cordial as when he himself lands a blow.” (LR, p. 564)
“On my way home from Prinkipo, I met in Paris with Alfred Rosmer, one of Trotsky’s closest friends—the closest, I think, after Christian Rakovsky—and we spoke of the subtle contradictions in Trotsky’s character. To my hesitant and groping effort to say that he seemed to me to lack a feeling for others as individuals, his friend said shortly: “That’s completely true. He has no humanity. He lacks it absolutely.” (my translation from the French-LG).
“I think Trotsky earnestly wanted to be regardful of the interests of others, but except in small matters and in the case of his wife, toward whom the most exquisite consideration was unfailing, he did not know how to do it. He lacked the gift of mutuality. He could apprehend, and discuss at times with keen penetration, the currents of emotion prevailing in other people, but he could not flow with them in a warm common stream.”
It must be pointed out that in the course of these observations, Eastman states that, after everything that Trotsky had been through at the hands of Stalin, it may have been a bit unfair of him to be too judgmental. Referring to their repeated arguments about Marxism and the dialectic, which Eastman was already rejecting, he writes:
“It was far from tactful of me to descend upon this lonely intellectual exile with a headful of fresh hot arguments against the religious belief by which he had guided his life to triumph and to this tragic end….Perhaps that underlay some of the responses which I attributed to more trivial causes and to the general traits of his character…” (LR p. 568)
Eastman did not completely give up on the Russian Revolution until 1933, or what in orthodox circles would be called its lingering “progressive nature”, Stalin or no. By that time, he was having to watch the rising tide of Stalinophilia in the U.S., as old friends such as Lincoln Steffens, Louis Untermeyer and many lesser figures were swept away. Again, Eastman had the great advantage over most American leftists of being able to read the Soviet press in the original and sense that “the cultural backslide was following the political one now…” (p. 582) He crossed swords, ironically, with none other than Sidney Hook, then the CP’s premier philosopher, and soon to join Eastman in the pragmatist rejection of Marx. Eastman became a regular contributor to V.F. Calverton’s Modern Monthly from 1933 until its demise in 1940. He saw the Modern Monthly as the real successor to The Masses and The Liberator, “insofar as they had one”. Calverton begged him to take over the editorship,
“but I knew all the kinds of harpies, hags and vampires that suck blood from the capillaries of an editor’s cerebrum. I had had enough of that.” (LR, p. 598)
The Stalinist New Masses, meanwhile, was regularly pillorying Eastman as a “Social-Fascist ideologue”. Eastman watched the integrity, creative and personal, of his old collaborator from The Masses, Joseph Freeman, destroyed by the party. He wrote a history of Stalin’s regimentation of art and culture, Artists in Uniform. But the Communist Party’s cultural apparatus succeeded in making Eastman’s books fall through the cracks with methods that are worth recalling. His books
’…had not only to breast a turbulent current of contrary opinion, but to wrestle with an underpull from saboteurs and secret agents planted by the Communists and their accomplices in bookstores, mail-order houses, and distributing agencies all through the country. Next to the government itself and the munitions industries, these centers of communication were then the main target of the party in an astute and unremitting campaign of infiltration. Not only were anti-Communist books mysteriously turned down in manuscript, ill-advertisted when accepted, sabotaged in sales departments and slipped under the counters in bookstores, but non-political books by authors known to hold anti-Communist opinions met the same deadly impediment of underground hostility.”
In this climate, Eastman reports,
“The warmth of emotion toward me among New York’s liberals and radical-minded progressives sank to absolute zero. At Charlie Studin’s cocktail parties—the nearest thing we had to a literary salon—I stalked about like the Masque of Death at the soiree in Poe’s horrible story.” (LR, p. 610)
While this was going on, the Moscow Trials were wiping out the Bolshevik Old Guard, the top levels of the Red Army, independent writers, intellectuals and artists, cheered on in the U.S. by the same substantial left-liberal, radical-liberal and Stalinist “progressive” currents who were suppressing Eastman’s books, and committing far worse crimes against all independent radical currents on the left and in the working-class movement.
“To me,” writes Eastman, “it was sickening to see supposedly intelligent people surrender their good sense to the self-refuting notion that all the known leaders of the October revolution, builders of the Soviet state, had been treacherous and contemptible fiends, except only one, and that one, by a sublimely improbable accident, the very man who had managed to concentrate all power in his hands…Up to that time, I had tried to maintain an attitude of humble thankfulness for my more intimate knowledge of the facts. But here the tension grew unbearable; tolerance became a pose. I permitted myself to feel derisive of the childish minds of those American intellectuals who were hoaxed by the burlesque show with which Stalin camouflaged his seizure of absolute totalitarian power.” (LR, pp. 624-625)
In March 1937 Eastman received the “personal honor and distinction” of being denounced by Stalin himself as a “notorious crook” and “gangster of the pen”. The CP’s Daily Worker ran a front-page headline “Max Eastman Is a British Agent”. While these events were unfolding, Such an honor notwithstanding, his
“ideological journey was approaching its inevitable end in the abandonment of the socialist hypothesis as disproven by two decades of experimentation” (LR, p. 631).
Here the underlying limits of Eastman’s whole journey, with its roots in his five years with Dewey, comes clearly to the surface. To be charitable, one can say that in 1937 he would have had little access to any of the powerful Marxist analyses of the “two decades of experimentation” which began to appear at that time. He does not even mention, or attempt to engage Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, not to mention the first Marxist attempts to analyze the Stalinist bureaucracy as a new ruling class. Eastman, writing in the early 1960’s, was not going to be influenced by the wide diffusion of the early Marx, or the Hegel renaissance, or the publication of the Grundrisse, or the vast ferment of the 1960’s both east and west which gave rise to a very new, much more complex Marx. His memoirs stand above all as those of a first-hand, highly talented but politically-limited witness of great events and powerful individuals who was almost uniquely in the right place at the right time. One cannot be too harsh, given what he had lived and what was transpiring around him, and he is the first one to admit that he was not primarily a political person, and found politics repeatedly drawing him away from what he imagined to be his primary calling, poetry and literature. By his own description, he became known world-wide as a Trotskyist despite grave doubts about Trotsky, simply from honesty and his unique position.
By 1940 he was ready to publish a repudiation of socialism but
“I did not want to publish it in any of the big-circulation magazines which my socialist and progressive friends regarded as inherently reactionary…People who never dwelt in the political homeland, the nation within a nation, constituted by those who confront the general assumptions of mankind with a notion like that of working-class revolution, will hardly understand what my feelings were.” (p. 636)
Eastman turned to the Reader’s Digest, which published the article, adding without Eastman’s permission an endorsement by the 1940 Republican candidate for president Wendell Wilkie. His political obituary was widely published in the left press, including by Dwight MacDonald in the Partisan Review. Eastman’s view in his late period differs little from the widely-held view that socialism is incompatible with “human nature” and that “state ownership” (as if Marx is not about abolishing the state) leads directly to tyranny.
“The attempt by ‘democratic socialists” to prove that genuine Marxism differs from their Leninist interpretation of it, is equally futile…Indeed the sole indubitable big political difference between Marx and Lenin is that Lenin had a revolution to practice on and Marx did not.” (LR, p. 645)
My purpose in this article, once again, has been to show through the career of Max Eastman how the 20thcentury (which began in effect in 1914) wreaked its havoc on an American revolutionary tradition that long pre-existed the Russian Revolution. While I would never describe myself as a “democratic socialist” (which almost always means Social Democrat), I do think that history forces us to look back on the differences between Marx and Lenin, and on the “Bolshevization” of the early 1920’s, as lived by Max Eastman, John Reed and Louis Fraina, not to mention the working-class militants of the IWW and the left wing of the Socialist Party (such as those Latvian council communists in Boston) with new eyes. I by no means wish to imply that Trotsky’s personal weaknesses offer the key to the failure of his strand of the left opposition to Stalinism since the 1920’s. But I similarly think that no one with an experience of Trotskyist organizations can deny that there is “something there”, much in the way that Victor Serge said “the virus of Stalinism was indeed in Leninism, but in Leninism there were many other viruses that could have developed in other directions as well”. The issue is not one of “blaming” Trotsky and the Trotskyists for 90 years of working-class defeats and containment, but far more importantly looking for the hypostatization of those defeats and that containment in the outlook of the Trotskyists. The revolutionary contributions of ex-Trotskyists, such as C.L.R. James, the early Max Shachtman, the early Castoriadis or his mentor Agis Stinas (23) 23 , are already a significant portion of the post-1945 development of revolutionary theory. Some, such as James, have come up explicitly against some of the flaws identified by Eastman (24) 24 . Even the highly ambiguous figure of Ante Ciliga (a Yugoslav Trotskyist in the late 1920’s and who, like Eastman, moved to the hard right under the impact of Stalinism) captures some of the same flaws in his unforgettable portrait of the 1930’s concentration camp in Siberia where the Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Left SR’s, and anarchists cooled their heels until they were exterminated in Stalin’s terror (25) 25 .
In this re-thinking, the fate of the Max Eastman of the 1910’s and 1920’s will play an important role.
4 The story of the forgotten Latvian, and other immigrant groups in the U.S. in the orbit of the Dutch council communists, through the circulation of the latters’ articles in the International Socialist Review (of the Second International) after 1908 is told in Theodore Draper’s Roots of American Communism (1995) as well as in Paul Buhle’s biography of Louis Fraina/Lewis Corey, A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost (1995).
native American radicalism and liberalism in the First World War. In those
days people like my family were still animated by the spirit of a won
revolution. The Civil War was America’s great revolutionary war, and it was a
revolution which was won. It was from several generations who had won
all their revolutions and expected to go on winning them that I came . ”
6 Max Eastman, The Enjoyment of Living (1958) and Love and Revolution (1964). All quotes in this article are from Love and Revolution, and will be identified in the body of the text as LR with page number. I have focused almost exclusively on Eastman’s political development, neglecting many other interesting aspects such as his non-political literary and intellectual endeavours. A factual biography of Eastman is William L. O’Neill, Max Eastman: The Last Romantic, 1978.
9 – -Some better-known collaborators whose work appeared in The Masses included Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Any Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Randolph Bourne. The magazine also published articles by Romain Rolland, Bertrand Russell, Maxim Gorky and George Bernard Shaw
10 – Much can be said, and has been said, about the gap between the American-born radicals of The Masses and The Liberator, and the eastern and southern European immigrant groups who were the majority of the radical workers’ movement in the U.S. at this time. Referring to the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids, Eastman himself recognizes this when he writes (p. 137) “Why our Liberator office was not raided we never could guess, unless it was that Wilson failed so miserably in his two previous efforts to put us in jail. We were most inconveniently and awfully American.” (LR, p. 137).
11 -Although less remembered than The Masses, and not remembered for bridging cultural and political radicalism, artistic contributors to The Liberator included Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Louise Bryant, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell and Pablo Picasso.
12 -LR, p. 190. But it is important to recall, especially for an understanding of the dynamic of race and class in the U.S., that 1919 also saw some of the worst race riots in American history. Seventy-two blacks and six whites were lynched in that year, at least some of the whites for trying to defend blacks from mobs (p. 169). Eastman was also unique among the overwhelmingly color-blind American radicals of 1920 by his advocacy of armed self-defense for black people.
16 Eastman recounts another telling episode. In 1922, he ran into William Z. Foster, a former revolutionary syndicalist and leader of the 1919 steel strike, on a Moscow street. Foster showed Eastman a letter given to him by Zinoviev that Foster was supposed to sign and send to all American party members. “How in hell,” (Eastman said), “do these people think a revolutionary movement can be led in the United States, or anywhere else, by people whom they treat like kindergarten pupils?….Folding the letter and putting it back in his pocket, Foster said: “Max, a lot of things happen here I don’t like. But we can’t do anything about it. They’ve got the prestige. No revolutionary movement anywhere, as things stand now, can prosper without their backing.” I couldn’t answer him. I suppose it was true. You had only a choice between the spry and lively and unprincipled course he was taking, and the lethargy and heavy-hearted dying-out of the hope of revolution so painful to perceive in Bill Haywood.” (LR, pp. 347-348).
20 Eastman similarly raises important questions about Lenin which have been better argued elsewhere about the way in which “the government of soviets became the government of the Communist Party”, But in the interests of a manageable article format and of underscoring what is unique about Eastman, I will merely note these observations in passing. But cf. Philippe Bourrinet, La gauche communiste italienne (1991) and his book The Dutch Left (2001 ).
22 From 1928 to 1931 he was involved in producing an outstanding documentary film on the Russian Revolution entiteled ‘From Tsar to Lenin”, based on original footage. Unfortunately, his eccentric collaborator, who owned most of the footage, dragged Eastman into legal battles and lawsuits over royalties. Thus the film, completed in 1931, could not be shown until 1937, when the Communist Party was at the peak of its influence and had the film boycotted and relegated to oblivion. In addition to their hatred of Eastman as a “Trotskyist”, they were incensed that the film had no footage of Stalin, for the very good reason (as with the books of Reed and Rosmer) that he played such a backstage role in the revolution. One incomplete copy of the film exists in the Library of Congress.
23 -Stinas’s Memoires (1990), translated from the Greek, not only offer a panorama of the revolutionary workers’ movement in Greece from World War I onward, rivaling the power of Victor Serge or of Eastman, but show the disorientation of the Greek Trotskyists in the late 1930’s, hampered by their view of the Stalinists as “reformists”.