I was the Left Opposition

Stuart Middleton

  • Max Eastman: A Life by Christoph Irmscher
    Yale, 434 pp, £35.00, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22256 2

American radicalism, the art critic Hilton Kramer claimed in a review of Max Eastman’s autobiography in 1965, produced ‘not an intellectual tradition that illuminates current problems but a collection of case histories’, of which Eastman’s is ‘in some respects the most dismaying’. It isn’t difficult to see what he meant. Eastman’s career as editor, essayist, philosopher, translator, activist and poet made him a major figure in American intellectual life, and at times a glamorous one. But his journey across the political spectrum, from the bohemian radicalism of pre-war Greenwich Village, to Trotskyist left-oppositionism, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley’s National Review, seemed to exemplify the failures of socialism in the 20th century. In his final years Eastman himself was sometimes overcome by a sense of personal futility; he complained on his death bed that his life had been wasted. Christoph Irmscher’s new biography uncovers some new details of that life, but also gives us an opportunity to reconsider the hopes and failures of radical politics in the 20th century, and their possibilities in the 21st.

Eastman’s assumption that life should be turned to account shows the profound hold over him of the traditions of New England puritanism. He was born in 1883, the child of Congregationalist ministers in Canandaigua, New York. The family was dominated by his mother, who instilled in her children a nonconformism that made a virtue of being at odds with the world. He developed an intense bond with his mother and sister, Crystal, but was emotionally distant from almost everyone else, despite himself, until he was in his thirties. As a student at Williams College, he discovered a facility for writing and public speaking; he also developed mysterious back pains that he later attributed to his relationship with his mother, and an interest in psychology prompted by the ‘suggestive therapeutics’ he used to treat them. His first serious publication was an essay on ‘The New Art of Healing’ which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1908.

By then Eastman was living in New York with Crystal, and through a friend of hers became an assistant to John Dewey at Columbia. Dewey was one of the leading philosophers in America, and his prestige beyond university philosophy departments was such that, as Eastman recalled, ‘rays of his influence may have helped to mould me long before I heard of him.’ The guiding principle of the philosophical approach William James defined as ‘pragmatism’ was that ideas and beliefs are not inherently true, or right, but are made so by their practical consequences. For James, this meant that religious belief could retain its validity in an age of science on the grounds of its efficacy for the believer. For Dewey it underpinned an ideal of democracy understood as a capacity for harmonious ‘associated living’, sustained by the constant appraisal of ideas and practices in terms of the ends they served. For Eastman pragmatism was an instrument of radical iconoclasm: he once gave a course in aesthetics in which he elaborated 23 different definitions of beauty and concluded by demonstrating that beauty was undefinable. He became, and remained, an accomplished anti-philosopher. He later argued that ‘if “the meaning of an idea is its results in action,” then the meaning of pragmatism is to resign your chair in philosophy.’

Eastman was as good as his word, and refused to take his PhD after his dissertation was approved at Columbia. He had already achieved some celebrity by inadvertently founding the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, after his call for the establishment of such a group was taken seriously by the progressive publisher Oswald Garrison Villard. The world of activism and public speaking suited Eastman, and he rode the upsurge of progressivism and socialism that resulted in the candidacies of Theodore Roosevelt and the socialist Eugene Debs in the presidential election of 1912. Alongside Crystal, who was a prominent workers’ rights campaigner, he cut a figure in pre-war Greenwich Village, where artistic, political and moral conventions were enthusiastically rejected. It was here Eastman met his first wife, the lawyer and women’s trade unionist Ida Rauh, who relieved him of his sexual inhibitions and instructed him in the rudiments of Marxism. Eastman appears to have become a socialist because of its anticipated practical effects, and because it seemed to fit with his rather self-conscious defiance of convention and religion. He was also responding to the industrial conflicts of early 20th-century America. A speech given by the labour organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at a silk-workers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey in 1913 inspired in him a sense of ‘the likeness of all human beings and their problems’, a feeling he could still recall in his eighties. The conception of socialism as the natural extension of individualism was widely shared in the early 20th century, in America and Britain.

Around a year before he heard Flynn speak, Eastman had received a telegram informing him: ‘You are elected editor of The Masses. No pay.’ The Masses was a drab, vaguely socialist monthly facing financial ruin after less than a year’s existence. Yet under Eastman’s editorship it became the most celebrated mouthpiece for pre-war Village radicalism, and Eastman one of the heroes of that milieu. Assisted by the novelist Floyd Dell and by contributors including the artists Art Young and John Sloan, and the writers Louis Untermeyer and John Reed, Eastman encouraged the breaking of taboos around prostitution, birth control and organised religion, championed workers’ rights, and exposed industrial and racial violence. He wrote an impassioned account of the Ludlow massacre of April 1914, when striking mineworkers and their families were shot at and their tent settlement set on fire by the Colorado National Guard. He published caricatures showing the anti-vice campaigner Anthony Comstock in the nude, and as an enraged midget wielding a sword over a prone, unclothed woman. The Masses never had a large readership: it was kept alive by the donations Eastman extracted from the bourgeoisie its contributors mocked. But its influence exceeded its circulation. Under Eastman, Irving Howe wrote, The Masses was ‘the rallying centre … for almost everything that was then alive and irreverent in American culture’.

The irreverence initially survived the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914. Eastman suggested that the conflict would be a fillip for the international labour movement, and the magazine mocked the ‘preparedness’ campaign to which the president, Woodrow Wilson, lent his support after the sinking of the Lusitania, with the loss of 128 American lives, by a German submarine in May 1915. As the US inched towards war, the magazine’s artists and polemicists were emboldened. The cartoonist Boardman Robinson depicted Eastman explaining pacifism to the warmongering Nobel peace laureate Theodore Roosevelt, and in September 1917 John Reed catalogued the repressions that had followed the declaration of war the previous April, a decision justified by Wilson on the questionable grounds that ‘the world must be made safe for democracy.’ As Eastman told a rally of the anti-war People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace, which he and Crystal had helped found, ‘There is no use making the world safe for democracy if there is to be no democracy left in the world. There is no use waging a war for liberty if every liberty we have must be abolished in order to wage war.’ When he repeated the message at a meeting in Fargo, North Dakota, soldiers from a nearby training camp threatened to lynch him.

By 1917 The Masses was not only opposing the war but enthusiastically supporting the revolutions in Russia. The paper was suppressed at the end of that year, and Eastman, Dell and five other contributors were charged with conspiring to obstruct the draft. Calmly deflecting the prosecutor’s questions, Eastman reframed the indictment as a matter of free speech and secured two hung juries. Eugene Debs wasn’t so lucky: his trial ended in a ten-year prison sentence (which was commuted in 1921, after nearly three years).

Eastman’s support for the Bolshevik regime was undiminished. The revolution, he wrote, was ‘the one thing that has ever happened in the political sciences comparable to the confirmations of the hypotheses of Copernicus and Kepler and Newton in the physical sciences’. That was a bold view to express at the height of the postwar ‘red scare’, and Eastman had close shaves with would-be vigilantes and again courted prosecution by exposing US support for counter-revolution. When Bertrand Russell, who had welcomed the revolution in a piece for Eastman’s new magazine, the Liberator, denounced the cruelty and fanaticism he had witnessed in Russia, Eastman derided him as a Menshevik whose ‘tender emotions about human progress’ were out of step with the world-historical march of Bolshevism. In April 1922 he set off for Russia announcing, disarmingly, that he intended to ‘find out whether what I have been saying is true’.

He had other reasons for making the journey. His marriage had broken down and he had embarked on an affair with the actress Florence Deshon. But this foundered too, along with Deshon’s acting career and her contemporaneous affair with Charlie Chaplin, to whom Eastman had introduced her. In February 1922 she was found dying in her apartment, where a gas jet had been left on. Eastman rushed to the hospital and gave her a direct blood transfusion, but it was too late. Her friends suspected suicide, and later Eastman decided he agreed. As he crossed the Atlantic he wrote a threnody in which he envisaged lying down with her in the grave.

His first stop in Europe was Genoa, where he attended the economic and financial conference proposed by Lloyd George to aid European reconstruction and establish formal relations with the USSR. Here he met his first Bolsheviks, finding in the Soviet delegation the embodiment of his ideal of the ‘scientific revolutionary’. He went on to Moscow and travelled around the USSR, learning Russian from a lover in Yalta and starting an affair with Eliena Krylenko, whose brother Nikolai would become Stalin’s commissar of justice (before being purged himself). Eastman arrived in Moscow as war communism was giving way to the New Economy Policy, a partial restoration of market economics that imparted a veneer of affluence to Soviet life. Moscow reminded Eastman of Greenwich Village before the war, a place where a ‘democracy of manners and aspects and attitudes’ was flourishing. Unperturbed by reports of Bolshevik violence, Eastman told readers of the Liberator of the ‘hard-handed, iron-minded men’ he encountered at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in December 1922, where he finally saw Lenin and met Trotsky, who seemed to him ‘the most universally gifted man in the world’.

Eastman was unaware of the power struggle within the Communist Party that Trotsky was losing to the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. At the Party Congress in May 1924, Eastman, in the front row next to Nikolai Krylenko, saw Trotsky publicly humiliated by Stalin and Zinoviev, and decided to leave the country with Eliena, who had been compromised in the eyes of the Soviet security police years before for carrying a letter for her anarchist sister, Sophia. Since neither of them had a valid passport, Eastman was appointed to a diplomatic post by Eliena’s boss, Maxim Litvinov, and they were hastily married (or rather Eastman was; the bride was too busy packing to attend the ceremony). They settled temporarily in the South of France and Eliena worked in Paris to support Eastman while he wrote. He made it clear to her that the marriage was merely one of convenience, though it would become much more to him in time.

Irmscher displays an almost prurient interest in Eastman’s love life, but more significant is his description of how, over the following three years, Eastman became a significant member of the ‘Left Opposition’ to Stalin. In 1925 he published Since Lenin Died, which held up the ‘saintly’ Trotsky as Lenin’s rightful heir and exposed the machinations of Stalin and his supporters, who, he wrote, were overseeing ‘the transformation of Bolshevism from a science into a religion’. He also discussed ‘The Testament of Lenin’, a series of notes dictated towards the end of his life in which Lenin criticised Stalin and urged his removal from the position of general secretary. Trotsky, desperately struggling for political survival, was forced to denounce Eastman’s account. He also denied the existence of the Testament, but a copy was smuggled to Paris, and Eastman helped to arrange its publication in the New York Times in October 1926. By then he had also completed his theoretical opus Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution, beginning a bitter dispute with Sidney Hook, who had also been Dewey’s student, over the relationship between Hegel and Marx and between Marx and Dewey. The argument continued into the 1930s, until Eastman brought out a self-published pamphlet – which he thought settled the matter in his favour.

Eastman cut a lonely figure on the American left when he and Eliena returned to the US in 1927. He was one of the most prominent communists in the country, but his opposition to Stalin made him an apostate. ‘I was for six years alone in America in supporting the Left Opposition,’ he wrote to Trotsky in 1933: ‘I was the Left Opposition.’ After Trotsky was sent into exile in 1929 Eastman acted as an informal literary broker for him in the US, and with Eliena’s help translated his major works, including the epic History of the Russian Revolution.

Until the mid-1930s Eastman shared the Trotskyist view of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state that had degenerated into bureaucracy. After the first of the Moscow Trials in 1936, at which Trotsky was vilified in absentia and Stalin began to eliminate potential rivals among the ‘old Bolsheviks’, he abandoned this vestigial article of faith and, in an article in Harper’s, proclaimed ‘The End of Socialism in Russia’. It was now, he claimed, ‘a totalitarian state not in essence different from that of Hitler and Mussolini’. The implication was that Eastman still believed in the idea of a socialism untainted by Stalinism. But this position was increasingly difficult to sustain within the philosophical framework that had shaped his political commitments, according to which the validity of socialism as an idea must be inextricable from its practical consequences. When Dewey returned from chairing an inquiry in Mexico into the charges made against Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, he remarked to Sidney Hook that whatever Marxism meant in theory, in practice it could not be separated from the official dogma of the Soviet Union. Eastman took this logic a step further. His equation of Stalinism and Nazism seemed to be vindicated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, but the following year, in Stalin’s Russia and the Crisis in Socialism, he declared that Stalinism was not an aberration from socialism but its ultimate realisation. He also claimed that economic collectivism was incompatible with human nature and must always end in totalitarianism, asking for the first time whether the Marxian insistence on the primacy of economics did not mean that the free market was the precondition of all other forms of liberty.


Eastman’s dilemma here was one that threatened the fundamental assumptions of progressive politics in the early 1940s. The ‘totalitarian’ regimes of Germany and Russia were widely viewed as epitomes of different forms of the modern state, and as antithetical to democracy. ‘We have become conservatives,’ the British journalist H.N. Brailsford declared in 1939, ‘fighting with our backs to the wall, to preserve for Europe the liberties our fathers won.’ Characteristically, Eastman pursued this reasoning further than most by founding his critique of socialism on the idea of an immutable and inherently flawed ‘human nature’, which was incompatible with the dynamic and adaptive principles of pragmatism. In 1941 he published an essay in Reader’s Digest with the title ‘Socialism Doesn’t Jibe with Human Nature’. From this point Eastman’s relationship with the left was increasingly distant, and his association with Reader’s Digest – for which he became a well-paid ‘roving editor’ – came to symbolise his abandonment of radicalism.

There were complicating factors. Eastman’s espousal of Trotskyism, and his defence of artistic and intellectual freedom, broke ground that was later occupied by the editors of Partisan Review from the late 1930s; but his move from anti-Stalinism to anti-socialism, and his support for America’s entry into the Second World War, set him at odds with them. When Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941, and the US entered the war the following December, the growth of popular sympathy with Russia heightened Eastman’s concern that what he called ‘the mental habits of totalitarianism’ might develop in American society. He was also suspicious of the admiration for the Soviet Union once again in vogue in the liberal press. Irmscher reports that he began keeping lists of people and organisations he suspected of communist sympathies, on sometimes insubstantial evidence, and believed that thirty million people in America were somehow under Stalin’s influence.

As a harbinger of the anti-communist left that formed after the war, he received some credit for his prescience, even from Partisan Review after it turned against what it called ‘The “Liberal” Fifth Column’ in America. In 1950 the novelist James T. Farrell, who had denounced Eastman in its pages in the early 1940s, printed a public apology saluting the moral courage Eastman had shown in criticising the Soviet regime at the cost of his own popularity and livelihood. But Eastman wasn’t interested in becoming the grand old man of radical American letters. Instead he went beyond the anti-communism of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which Farrell and Hook were leading members, and publicly endorsed McCarthyism on the basis that there was no middle ground in the fight against communism. Old friends like Floyd Dell tried to talk him into moderation, but to no avail. His increasingly polarised view of politics led him to endorse free market economics, and to lend his name to the masthead of the conservative National Review when it was launched in 1955.

Eastman’s career followed a broader shift in American intellectual culture, as the sceptical, tolerant and relativistic impulses of pragmatism gave way to the antagonistic dogmas of the cultural Cold War. Eastman himself wasn’t a very convincing dogmatist. He defended Chaplin and other victims of McCarthyism, and his political views were less extreme than he sometimes made them sound: Dell told him that his view of capitalism was ‘utopian’ and his conservatism ‘jerry-built’. Eastman broke with the National Review three years after it was founded over its ‘primitive and superstitious’ emphasis on religion, as he described it to Buckley. Irmscher quotes an unpublished essay in which he acknowledged his proximity to anarchism – an affinity common among former socialists who feared that collectivism contained the seeds of totalitarianism.

Eastman’s radicalism had always drawn on the mainstream of American political culture, in particular the need, which he learned from Dewey, constantly to re-evaluate ideas and practices in terms of their practical effects. Dewey calmly persisted in this until his death in 1952, but Eastman jettisoned it along with his socialism rather than subject that body of ideas to the same process of reappraisal. His editorship of The Masses had demonstrated the potency of American radicalism’s synthesis of individualism and solidarity, the sense that, as Debs declared at his trial in 1918, ‘While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’ Perhaps the appalling sense of futility that beset Eastman in old age indicates the personal costs of his abandonment of that outlook, in favour of free-market dogmas which he refused to submit to critique.