The Passions of Max Eastman

The Passions of Max Eastman

Max Eastman, 1900 (Library of Congress)

Max Eastman: A Life
by Christoph Irmscher
Yale University Press, 2017, 434 pp.

The history of the American left has produced its share of heroes and celebrities. The memory of Eugene Debs has survived for his righteous indignation over capitalist inequality, Emma Goldman for her feminism and passionate anti-statism, W.E.B. Du Bois for his trenchant analysis of racial oppression, Mother Jones for her tireless advocacy on behalf of labor, and Joe Hill for his music and martyrdom. These women and men all touched moral chords whose echoes move us in the present. They make up what historian Eric Foner calls our “ongoing radical tradition,” one in which socialism “refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, . . . to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not.”

But the radical tradition contains more than enduring egalitarian passion. The history of the twentieth-century American left also includes the failure of many left movements, as well as the eventual disaffection of so many activists who made up their ranks. The impulse to highlight the heroic is understandable, but it leaves unanswered the key questions of how and why those movements failed or why so many abandoned the left. A selective memory that overlooks the less admirable dimensions of the left’s history serves today’s progressives poorly.

Max Eastman does not occupy a place in the pantheon of the left. He once did. By the end of the First World War, he was “one of the hottest of radicals” of his day, in the words of Countryside magazine. To the few on the left who remember him, he was the idiosyncratic editor who breathed creative life into the journal the Masses and who, with courage and humor, defied the government’s attempt to silence him and his colleagues in a sedition trial during the First World War. To the even fewer on the right who recognize his name, it was Eastman’s journey from the left into the anticommunist camp in the late 1930s and 1940s that stands out. Eastman’s name, then, is largely forgotten and his legacy for both left and right unsurprisingly remains unexplored.

That’s unfortunate, though not because he can be pressed into contemporary political service—his analyses and writings are too idiosyncratic and shifting to be of actual use to anybody. Eastman was a self-absorbed seeker of the spotlight for whom self-promotion and the pursuit of pleasure too often competed with his political commitments. His critique of Marxism is of largely academic value, since its influence, even in its day, was hard to discern. And while his eventual embrace of free-market capitalism in the 1940s and 1950s may have kept him in the limelight, he was more a popularizer of conse...