Fellow-Travelling

Neal Ascherson

  • The Collected Works of John Reed
    Modern Library, 937 pp, $20.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 679 60144 9

Good journalism often has a guising element in it, in which the voice of the journalist seems to come from an unexpected direction. The best journalism transcends this. But it is still true that many of the great practitioners who have written for the British or American press have been evasive about their native backgrounds and have used their trade to affect or colonise quite different ones. These are personalities who, while not exactly rebels in the out-and-out sense, feel dissatisfied and embarrassed with the social identity into which they were born and in which they were raised, and migrate into new ones – sometimes into several. Most people have come across the crypto-Etonian columnist with the Tyneside accent and the warm loyalty to working-class experience, or the swaggering Texan brute of a newshound, festooned with body-armour and film pouches, who began life as the only child of a Harvard professor of literature.

Why this guising is peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon press world is hard to explain. It is more than just revolt against the confines of a class system, and my guess is that it relates to puritan yearnings for rebirth in a new body with a new soul. But it does produce wonderful reporting. Men with this kink (it’s not a common manoeuvre for women journalists) make magnificent interpreters, as they transmigrate into what they fancy are the hearts of strange or inarticulate groups with a story to tell. They usually get those hearts about right, and the force of their empathy projects the story to seize the attention of thousands of reluctant or ignorant readers.

There are emotional penalties to be paid for these gifts of transmigration, however. Any travelling ‘fireman’ journalist comes to know them. You arrive at the site of some emergency – a lost revolution, a group evicted from their homes, a valiant strike against terrible odds, a burst dam – and within hours you are being tugged into intimacy by people desperate for your help and urgent to have their story told. For a while, you transfer; the empathetic guising takes place and that particular group of people become your intimate comrades, their cause your cause. Sex, always wildly liberated by catastrophe and insurrection, may well be one of these emotional bonds obscuring the category difference between reporter and reported. But then, as the story dies down or the desk loses interest, the day comes when you must kiss these wonderful friends goodbye. The taxi waits, about to take you through roadblocks and across snipers’ alleys to the airport. You have a return ticket, but they do not. And in three or four months’ time, you will be appalled to discover that you are beginning to forget their faces, their names, the details of their struggle ... apart from what you wrote about it.

To go on doing that – constantly to amputate that identification with others and to replace it with the ‘next story’ and its new cast of momentarily unforgettable people – is profoundly destructive to any personality, to any journalist. People who live like that cease to be human beings in a fairly short span of time – in my experience, ten years or so. But, of course, there is an alternative. It is the condition dreaded by foreign and feature editors alike. It is the moment when they realise that ‘our guy has gone native.’ He (or she, because I also know women journalists who have done this) has put his life where his laptop is, and formally enlisted with the people he is supposed to be writing about. Yesterday’s bourgeois media correspondent becomes today’s revolutionary press officer.

John Reed was not the first or the last journalist to follow this trajectory. But he remains the most spectacular. He went to report Russia after the February Revolution in 1917, made straight for the Petrograd Bolsheviks and became a denizen of the seething halls of the Smolny Institute. On 7 November, in the right place at the right time, Reed joined a band of Red Guards who decided to make a rush across Palace Square and – a few moments later – found that he had stormed the Winter Palace. After working for the victorious Bolsheviks for some months, he returned to the United States and in 1919 completed Ten Days that Shook the World, to this day far the best-known and most influential eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution. Returning to Russia as a delegate to the Comintern, he died of typhus in Moscow in October 1920, at the age of only 32. Lenin wrote an Introduction to Ten Days: ‘unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.’ Reed became an immortal, and was buried under the Kremlin wall. Sixty years later, Warren Beatty impersonated him in the movie Reds.

He was anything but a callow romantic. In 1917, Reed was already a socialist journalist who had covered revolutionary war in Mexico and had involved himself not only in writing about some of the most brutal industrial struggles in the United States – the Paterson silk-workers’ strike and the 1914 Ludlow massacre, when 21 people, mostly women and children, were killed during the Colorado coalminers’ strike – but in active support for them. It was his involvement in socialist politics which had brought him into contact with the group of Russian Marxist émigrés in the United States, who returned home in 1917 and later provided Reed with the priceless network of English-speaking contacts which made Ten Days possible. And yet, experienced as he was, John Reed found in the Russian Bolsheviks a fresh, final identity into which he entered and in which he died. His grasp of Marxism seems to have been hazy; his socialism was broad, angry, generous, coloured with radical ideas about the New Life. But in the Smolny Institute he found at last ‘his’ revolution.

He started life in Portland, Oregon. This gave him a certain cachet in New York radical circles; John Dos Passos thought of him as a tall man from the West whose natural Western integrity was a rebuke to the denizens of smoke-filled rooms. This was not an image which Reed discouraged, but in fact he seldom visited Oregon and was far more at home in the East. His father, a Portland businessman, backed the ‘Progressive’ wing of the Republican Party and put unwise trust in Teddy Roosevelt, but his campaigns against local corruption in Oregon brought him the respect and friendship of Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens, the last giants of the ‘Muckraker’ generation of American fiction and journalism which was already – by about 1910 – in decline. Steffens, especially, became a sort of literary and political godfather to young Jack Reed when he graduated from Harvard and hit the New York radical scene in 1910, introducing him to old Muckrakers and, equally helpfully, to their editors. ‘Big and growing, handsome outside and beautiful inside, when that boy ... came to New York, it seemed to me that I had never seen anything so close to pure joy,’ wrote Steffens (that quotation and the next come from Eric Homberger’s shrewd and reliable biography John Reed, published by Manchester University Press in 1990). Max Eastman, the socialist editor of the Masses, who met his future star correspondent in 1912, was more specific:

He had a knobby and too filled-out face that reminded me, both in form and colour, of a potato. He was dressed up in a smooth brown suit with round pants legs and a turned-over starched collar, and seemed rather small and rather distracted. He stood up or moved about the room all through his visit, and kept looking in every direction except that in which he was addressing his words.

This volume calls itself The Collected Works, but the title is misleading. Here are Reed’s three longest works: Insurgent Mexico, The War in Eastern Europe and Ten Days that Shook the World. The first two are in part Reed’s own compilations from long feature articles, which makes it all the more of a pity it was decided to omit all his shorter pieces. ‘The Colorado War’ (1914), a report on the coal strike, ‘Daughter of the Revolution’ and ‘The Worst Thing in Europe’ (these two written from Europe for the Masses in 1915), and the two long articles he wrote from wartime Germany for Metropolitan Magazine: all are excluded – although those who have read them declare that they belong to his best work, and their inclusion would not have added much to the costs of a collection already nearly a thousand pages long.

It was in 1913 that Metropolitan Magazine asked Reed to go to Mexico and report the revolution of Pancho Villa. The outcome of his stay, the articles which were subsequently published in 1914 as Insurgent Mexico, is one of the triumphs of reportage literature, a work whose empathy, humour, descriptive talent and sheer verve are not matched by the far more famous Ten Days. Reed is not out to report politics or even military news. The only historical background provided in Insurgent Mexico, as it stands, is a vague impression of Pancho Villa as the man of the people, of his enemies as a deluded soldiery in the service of the brutal landlord class, and of Villa’s commander Carranza as a chilly grandee who would prefer reform to the agrarian revolution for which Villa’s men are fighting. The political situation is just the frame, within which Reed paints a tremendous panorama of human struggle as he witnessed and sometimes shared it.

The first words of the book reveal its particular quality. ‘Mercado’s Federal Army, after its dramatic and terrible retreat four hundred miles across the desert when Chihuahua was abandoned, lay three months at Ojinaga on the Rio Grande.’ Here is a young American writer already practised in the literary tricks of his day, devices which Hemingway, among many others, was soon to develop and perfect. Resonance is all: you may never have heard of Mercado or his retreat, or know where Chihuahua is, but you are included by a weatherbeaten somebody who evidently does know – and his offer is too flattering to refuse. On the surface, you might think that the sentence was modelled on the Gallic Wars. Under the surface, however, expert showbiz is at work.

There is a ballad quality in the book; and at many moments, journeying in carts or on horseback, marching or resting with Villa’s ragged men, Reed inserts their touching and extemporised ballads – sometimes at considerable length. So it is disconcerting to find out (not from this book, but from Homberger’s) that Reed went to Mexico speaking almost no Spanish. As the tape-recorder had not been invented and Reed never mentions having an interpreter, the credentials of these songs remain quite a problem. In general, it is unsafe to use Insurgent Mexico as a historical source; Reed deliberately mixes up and changes the chronology of his own movements and of the events he describes in order to satisfy his sense of narrative. The dialogue he records throughout is probably almost all invented; sometimes perhaps based on scraps heard and understood, but essentially confected for effect. At this level, Reed’s book is a history of Pancho Villa’s rebellion like For Whom the Bell Tolls is a source-book for the Spanish Civil War.

With all those qualifications, it is a magnificent feat of writing. It is highly personal, about dusty rides, plunges into cool water, the scent of early morning in the barren plains of northern Mexico, the joy of food and a cigar and companionship. It describes Reed’s initiation into the experience of battle, in a skirmish at La Cadena: ‘I suddenly discovered that I had been hearing shooting for some time. It sounded immensely far away – like nothing so much as a clicking typewriter. Even while it held our attention it grew ...’ Villa’s men are driven back. Reed sees some of his friends killed and then runs wildly from the enemy horsemen until he can run no more and falls into a gully hidden by mesquite bushes. This is a tricky, Red-Badge moment in the life of any young American writer, but Reed, recording with terse words the horrors around him, affects no heroics for himself.

The book begins to work towards its climax as Reed joins Pancho Villa’s army preparing to advance along the railway to capture the city of Torreón. He gives us the scene at dawn as the steam whistles shriek and the order to move is given; the trains lined up behind one another for miles, their locomotives pouring black smoke into the blue sky, the plain on either side of the tracks covered by the army drawn up on foot or on horseback. Reed himself rides in the cowcatcher of the leading locomotive, with a peasant family which has made its home in the big iron basket. What a young man’s fantasy of glory! Only gradually, as the story moves to its finale – the long and horrible battle for the town of Gómez Palacio – does the reader become aware that Reed also has a place in a press boxcar, full of American newspapermen, photographers and film crews and equipped with darkrooms and whiskey.

But long before the advance on Torreón, when Reed ceases to be a loner and becomes a member of a press corps, he has implied his relationship with Villa’s men. ‘At noon we roped a steer and cut his throat. And because there was no time to light a fire, we ripped the meat from the carcase and ate it raw.’ That is a suggestive ‘we’, unless Reed is seriously saying that he personally helped to rope and slaughter the steer. Guising is taking place as Reed – although he admits that the others teased him and called him ‘gringo’ or ‘Meester’ – extracts himself from the position of educated spectator and slides into a new identity which is literary but at the same time subjective and emotional. As Disney’s repulsive Monkey King chants: ‘I wanna be like You.’

The next book, The War in Eastern Europe, is based on Reed’s experiences in Serbia and Russia during the First World War. Compared to Insurgent Mexico, it is an awkward and often strained bit of work. This time, identification eluded him; there was no side which he cared to join. An earlier journey into wartime Europe, to France, Britain and Germany, had left him miserable; while most of his American friends and employers were already (in 1915) cheering for noble Britain and poor little Belgium in their resistance to fiendish Germany, Reed could see only the triumph of a ruling capitalist class which had deluded the masses into patriotic illusion. In August 1914, Reed had written an anonymous piece for the Masses which contained the famous phrase: ‘This Is Not Our War.’ The almost universal collapse of European socialist parties into war fever appalled him. Reed found it impossible to write what was expected of him by Metropolitan Magazine, although he managed some memorable pieces for the Masses in which he expressed his revulsion.

Later in 1915, Reed tried again. In France, he had failed to reach the Front, or to escape the stranglehold of army press officers whose job was to keep war correspondents away from the real story. Now he headed for the Balkans and the Eastern Fronts, in the company of the illustrator Boardman Robinson. They reached Salonica, and then travelled slowly north into Serbia, ravaged by two unsuccessful Austrian invasions and then by a typhus pandemic. At Belgrade, half-ruined, they came under shellfire from the Austrian positions across the Sava; they visited typhus hospitals crowded with the dead and dying, and rode up to the top of the Gucevo massif in northern Serbia to find it still heaped with the rotting dead of the past year’s battle. From Serbia, they travelled across the Balkans to the Bukovina and crossed the River Pruth in order to reach the Russian armies fighting in what is now western Ukraine or eastern Poland.

This was Reed’s first experience of what was still Imperial Russia. It was nearly his last; after wandering about behind the collapsing front, the two Americans in their Stetson hats and puttees were arrested in Chelm as suspected spies and locked up for several weeks. They would probably both have been shot, if the American Embassy in Petrograd had not – pretty reluctantly – intervened; as it was, they were deported to the capital and, after many bureaucratic battles, expelled to Bucharest.

Here, although he had lost most of his notes, Reed sat down and put his journey into a book. Boardman added his sketches, done in a jaunty caricature style discordant with the sinister subject matter. Not surprisingly, The War in Eastern Europe came out as an unsatisfactory mishmash, wandering from highly conventional travelogue prose about bustling Salonica, city of contrasts, to amateurish generalisations about national character. Admittedly, Reed hit some of his targets: ‘with such a stock, with such a history, with the imperialistic impulse growing daily, hourly, in the hearts of her peasant soldiers, into what tremendous conflicts will Serbia’s ambition lead her?’ he speculated. And it is important to read, even with gritted teeth, Reed’s horrified reaction to the sight of the Jewish communities in the small towns and villages of the Pale. He did not conceal his own revulsion, not just from the poverty and filth but from the social habits which those conditions had bred. He writes about ‘fetid smells’ and ‘whines’, about ‘a pale, stooping inbred race, refined to the point of idiocy’, and remarks that the Russians saw a potential traitor in every Jew. But here Reed’s robust socialist instinct saves him: of course the Jews would betray the Tsardom, he continued, and why not? What possible reason had they to support it? He records the routine massacres and lootings which Russian troops were encouraged to carry out when they captured a Galician shtetl, and describes Eastern European Jewry as ‘a hunted people made hateful by extortion and abuse’.

With hindsight. Reed’s first impressions of Russia are suggestive. In some ‘Face of Russia’ sketches appended to the book, he tries to define his own affection for this people (‘Russians ... are perhaps the most interesting human beings that exist’) and for their culture, which he found ‘the most comfortable, the most liberal way of life’ – meaning, it seems, the genial chaos of daily existence, beset with glasses of tea and nocturnal arguments about life’s meaning, indifferent to clocked time or planned routine. His political predictions were good, but no better than those of most foreign observers at the time, for whom revolution was by now a question of when rather than if. ‘Is there a powerful and destructive fire working in the bowels of Russia?’ he asked rhetorically.

There certainly was. But the overthrow of the Tsardom in early 1917 did not immediately bring John Reed back to Russia. He set out with his bold-hearted partner Louise Bryant in August, and reached a darkened, tense Petrograd in early September. His Russian was almost nonexistent – ‘even sketchier than his Spanish’, commented the American socialist Bertram Wolfe – and although he eventually reached the stage of being able to make out more or less what a speech was about, his grasp of the language was never up to much.

It is important to remember that when reading Ten Days. The late A.J.P. Taylor, in his Introduction to the 1966 Penguin edition, called Reed a ‘great writer’ but warned that the book was not history; as in Insurgent Mexico, Reed was unreliable about the dates and order of events, offered second-hand accounts as firsthand, added imaginative detail and generally heightened the drama. Taylor called ‘much of it ... fiction’. Notoriously, Reed gives a thrilling account of Lenin’s appearance at a closed Bolshevik meeting in Smolny on 3 November, allegedly communicated to him outside the door by Volodarsky as the meeting went on. No such meeting took place, and it is not easy to find another one in those days which would fit Reed’s account.

But this is simply to say that Reed was a journalist. Most of us in the trade understand what it means to be thrown into a fast-moving foreign crisis without knowing much of the language; we grasp desperately at the foreign correspondents already there and at anyone involved in the crisis who speaks English. Translators are useful only up to a point; every day, we find ourselves synthesising, from a few understood phrases or the offhand comments of some more fluent colleague, a plausible version of what is being said or done. John Reed was no exception. He was very lucky to befriend some first-class British and American journalists who both spoke good Russian and took the Bolsheviks seriously, and to find waiting for him that group of Russian socialist exiles he had known in New York. Between them, they took him straight to the heart of things. He had access to most of the leading Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and, some time after the November Revolution, to Lenin himself.

To read Ten Days is to feel immediately: yes, that is how it must have felt. The book lacks the romantic allure, the literary devices, of Insurgent Mexico; it opens with an impassive Preface quite unlike anything in the two previous books, and instead of peon ballads Reed inserts the texts of numerous leaflets and proclamations. And yet he is not consciously breaking with his own past; he salutes the Bolshevik Revolution as an ‘adventure ... one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked on, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses, and staking everything on their vast and simple desires ...’ The romantic impulse is still at work, and all his skill goes into constructing a suspense which thickens until the reader is desperate to reach the resolving explosion. There are wonderful accounts of things seen, of human beings intolerably stretched and sleepless, of roaring mass meetings skilfully contrasted – as Homberger notices – with the cold and deserted palaces of the old regime. There are impish details: when Reed first sees Lenin speaking, he is struck by how far too long his trousers are and by his ‘little winking eyes’. There is even humour, as when the Commissars for War and the Navy rush to the Front by motor-car and have to borrow pen and paper from their unnamed passenger (Reed himself) to write an order.

Ten Days is a work of commitment, close to a work of propaganda. Reed did not cleave to the Bolsheviks because of some sophisticated analysis about class struggle, but because he felt that the Bolsheviks were the only party in the autumn of 1917 with a coherent programme which corresponded to the ‘wishes of the masses’. How did he know what the wishes of the masses were, it can fairly be asked? Right or wrong, he thought he sensed it, and took the plunge. This time, the guising was serious and beyond play-acting. It is significant that Reed does not attempt to include the Bolsheviks in any ‘we’, as he had done with Pancho Villa’s men. ‘We’ now means simply John Reed and the other journalists, or sometimes Reed and Louise Bryant, but no more.

The road ahead was not the roving correspondent’s return to New York and on to the next big story. Instead, it led to his part in the founding of the Communist Party of the United States, to his journey back to Russia as a Comintern delegate, to his death and sanctification. Stalin would probably have murdered him if he had lived that long. But the rumour that he died already disillusioned with Communism has little evidence to support it. John Reed had grown up at last, and in his final disguise became himself.