2005-01-07 / Society

The only American buried in the Kremlin

John Reed (1887–1920) was an American journalist and political radical. His life was filled with excitement, courage, and contradictions. Born into a middle–class family in Portland, Oregon, he attended private schools and graduated from Harvard University in 1910, determined to make a name for himself as a poet. He settled in Greenwich Village where he found a job with a magazine. By 1912 he became associated with the radical periodical, the Masses . A year later he published a witty verse portrait of Village life, The Day in Bohemia, or Life among the Artists .

While observing striking silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, Reed was arrested, and his subsequent article for the Masses , War in Paterson , not only suggested an awakened social conscience and made him an immediate Village celebrity; it also changed his life. The article was the first example of the participatory journalism that remained his trademark.

Radicalized by the Paterson experience, he directed the Paterson Pageant at Madison Square Garden on June 7, 1913, to raise money for the strikers. Using striking workers, short dramatic scenes, and audience participation, Reed anticipated several innovative techniques employed by pageantry and radical theater in the 1920s and 1930s.

In late 1913, Reed was sent by Metropolitan magazine to report on the Mexican Revolution. His fame grew as he rode with revolutionaries, interviewed their celebrated leader, Pancho Villa, and merged personal experiences with dramatic events in an impressionistic analysis, Insurgent Mexico (1914).

Reed wrote best about events to which he was personally committed. Unlike his Mexican reporting, his articles on World War I were less than brilliant because he opposed the war. His journalistic career seemed to be unraveling when he was barred from the western front because of a foolish prank. Yet the most important part of his life was just beginning when he and his wife, Louise Bryant, a fellow writer, went to Russia after the czar’s overthrow.

Reed discovered in revolutionary Russia a working class determined to control its own destiny. In Petrograd when the Bolsheviks seized power, he sympathetically described the events in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). Reed subordinated his persona to the book’s central character, the Russian working class. He anticipated the new journalism of the 1960s by actively participating in the events he was describing and by exploring the meaning of the revolution by trying to capture the emotions of its participants.

In Russia, as in Paterson and Mexico, Reed was committed to the events he reported. This commitment went further in the case of Russia than ever before. However, he tried to help the revolution succeed by working for the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda in Moscow and later by helping found an American Communist Party.

He was instrumental in helping found the Communist Labor Party, a body distinct from the Communist Party of the foreign–language federations, which he believed did not understand the psychology of the American working class. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow, he also unsuccessfully campaigned for the creation of an industrial union in the US along the lines of the IWW rather than following party doctrine of trying to control from within the more conservative unions like the AFL.

After his death of typhus in 1920, he was buried within the Kremlin walls. At the time of his death he was still deeply committed to the revolution but willing to question the application of its ideals to America.

Taken from Granville Hicks, John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary (1937) and Robert A. Rosenstone, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (1975).

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