The Passions of Max Eastman

The Passions of Max Eastman

One of the “hottest radicals” of the early twentieth century, Max Eastman is now largely left out of the pantheon of the left. Can we still learn from this idiosyncratic editor today?

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 conservative ideas and spouter of right-wing dogma than he was a deep thinker of the right. So why bother with Max Eastman at all?

Eastman’s life story casts light on important parts of the history of twentieth-century radical politics. It reminds us of the intensity of ideological debate and of the countless factional battles and sectarian struggles that defined left politics and engrossed so many partisan combatants. Eastman’s early embrace of the Bolshevik model revealed the facile infatuation of many American leftists with a foreign model that had little applicability to the United States. His disillusionment with that model and evolving critique first of Stalinism and eventually of Marxism itself may have been prescient, but the hostile reception of that critique by those in the orbit of the communist left displayed the baleful influence of party doctrine and discipline that required automatic rejection. Eastman’s journey from left to right is a poignant reminder that immersion in the communist left of the 1920s and 1930s gave rise to a surprising number of angry defectors who infused the anticommunist camp with their bitter, first-hand personal experiences. For those interested in the left’s history, Eastman’s life offers more than a few cautionary tales.

These are not, however, the matters than animate Eastman’s latest biography. “Max Eastman was, for quite some time, one of the most widely known American writers both at home and abroad,” begins Christoph Irmscher in his new book. “[A]dmired and loved, loathed and lambasted,” Eastman lived a life that resisted efforts to fit it into a “neat story line.” Perhaps so, but Irmscher attempts to do so by highlighting the personal over the political. His is an intimate biography of one of the twentieth century’s more flamboyant political writers, a sophisticated and meticulously researched account of a political celebrity. We learn much about the psychological demons haunting Eastman from childhood until death; we learn something about his political passions as he traversed continents and the ideological spectrum. What we don’t quite learn is why Eastman matters. The answer to that question lies not in the personal but in the political, not in the immediate biographical detail, but its placement onto the wider political canvas.

Born in 1883 in upstate New York, Eastman studied philosophy at Columbia under John Dewey, attended suffrage meetings, and became a well-known speaker on the lecture circuit. His sister Crystal, herself a prominent activist, introduced him to Ida Rauh, an attorney and secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, who in turn introduced him to the works of Marx and Engels, a body of writing he would engage with, first from the left and later from the right, for the rest of his life. He quickly came to see his marriage to Rauh in 1911 as a grave mistake, one that led to the loss of what he called his “irrational joy in life.” That problem he addressed by having affairs with other women, a recurring pattern that Irmscher covers in copious detail.

Eastman’s entrée into the broader world of left-wing politics was an invitation to edit the Masses, a job that conveniently got him out of his house in rural Connecticut and away from his wife and newborn son. How and why Max embraced Marxism is not Irmscher’s concern; Eastman’s transformation of the Masses into a feisty, creative journal opposed to dogmatism is. With war raging in Europe, Eastman, like a good socialist, declared that he did “not recognize the right of a government to draft me to [a] war whose purposes I do not believe in.” He delivered antiwar speeches across the country on behalf of the People’s Council of America for Democracy and the Terms of Peace. Repression eventually caught up with him when the postmaster general barred the Masses from the mail; a mob of soldiers forced him to flee from a speaking engagement in Fargo, North Dakota, and the government indicted him and other Masses writers for unlawfully obstructing the draft. Two trials in 1918 failed to convict the defendants but afforded them a pulpit to denounce the war further. The Masses went out of business. Eastman, with his sister Crystal, simply founded a new magazine, the Liberator.

Then, in 1922, it was off to Europe to witness the fruits of the victorious Bolshevik Revolution up close. “At the age of thirty-nine he had divested himself of most of the responsibilities others entering middle age have accumulated,” Irmscher observes, “and he was eager for new adventures.” Adventures are what he got in the Soviet Union. He attended party conferences, met with leading Soviet officials, immersed himself in the study of the Russian language, wrote articles, worked on a novel and a biography of Trotsky, had multiple affairs, and otherwise enjoyed an extended vacation of several years’ duration. He was initially impressed with what he saw: “Even the beggars in their dust-colored rags seemed young and hopeful, their wonderful faces radiating contentment,” in Irmscher’s words. The horror stories some Russians shared with him made little impression on the radical American writer. In the pieces he sent back to the United States, he was “reinventing Moscow as a larger version of Greenwich Village.”

Eastman’s political myopia eventually gave way to a somewhat clearer view of what was transpiring around him. The “dogged chanting of party songs” at conferences annoyed him, as did the humorlessness of party officials. He became fascinated by Leon Trotsky just as the veteran revolutionary’s star was fading. Lenin’s death in 1924 and the ensuing factional battles that saw Stalin victorious troubled him. With his new Russian wife, Eliena Krylenko, he decamped for France where he continued to write, supported by royalties and his spouse’s wages. What he wrote placed him at odds with the dominant faction in the Soviet Union and its followers in the United States. While hardly uncritical of Trotsky, Eastman sang his praises in a biography of his early years. In a short but hard-hitting volume, After Lenin Died (1925), he highlighted Lenin’s preference for Trotsky as his successor and denounced the triumph of Stalin and his allies whose thirst for power was slaked by their “deceiving, or bewildering, or bull dozing, or otherwise silencing, or scattering to the ends of the earth, all those strong Communists who might oppose them” in their “dictatorship of the officialdom.”

Needless to say, those words did not endear him to the communist left. Upon his return to the United States he found a country that barely remembered him and a left-wing community in which he was hardly welcome. Robert Minor, a cartoonist, communist, and editor of the Liberator, trashed Eastman’s Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth, in the pages of the Daily Worker for its “hysterical attack upon the Communist International” and its author’s “vilification of the Soviet government.” Bertram Wolfe took him to task in the pages of the Communist for his theoretical forays against “Marxian metaphysics,” concluding that “Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection had nothing on Eastman when it comes to admiring himself.” Eastman’s relationship with Trotsky, whose writings he translated, had its ups and downs before their falling-out became permanent in the mid-1930s with Trotsky’s frustration over royalties and with Eastman’s insistence on dialectics as a “‘metaphysical contraption,’ and nothing more, theology, in other words, but not science.” Eastman was not a Trotskyist and, try as he might, he did not remain much of a Marxist either.

His return to the United States was “not a triumphant one,” Irmscher notes. “He had no position to come back to, no audiences eager for this thoughts.” The lecture circuit provided him with new admirers and income, he began new affairs, and he published literary, psychological, and political works. A brief stint as the host of the radio game show Word Game in the late 1930s eased his financial problems, and his anti-Stalinism generated regular work as a paid speaker. The latter activity, unsurprisingly, only reinforced the communists’ dislike of Eastman. At one point, they accused him of being a spy for the British government, resulting in a lawsuit and a $1,500 settlement that Eastman collected.

By the late 1930s he had given up on Marxism. He returned American communists’ opprobrium with fire of his own, accusing “Stalin’s apostles” of undertaking a stealth campaign against democracy and the American way of life, aided by countless liberals and other non-communists who joined front organizations during the Popular Front years. In so charging Eastman was hardly alone; right-wingers had been making the same case for years. Here, Irmscher argues, Eastman crossed a line, for he “named names, in eerie anticipation of the witch hunts of the 1950s.” The charge is anachronistic and, whatever one thinks of the organizations Eastman identified, the participation of Theodore Dreiser, Paul Robeson, and selected others was a fairly reliable indication of party activity behind the scenes. It may be “that none of these people belong to the Communist Party,” Eastman admitted, “but wherever their names are played up in a political ‘cause,’ you may suspect that a party nucleus is at work in the underground.” He wasn’t generally wrong.

The ferocity of Eastman’s anticommunism led the editor of Reader’s Digest to hire him as a “roving editor” and pay him handsomely for his articles. Eastman needed the money; the Digest provided him with a huge outlet for his ideas, even if the work was at times degrading and his relationship with its editor humiliating. Now the “rupture with his former comrades” was complete. For “every new friend he made Max was losing dozens of old ones,” Irmscher concludes. In the years ahead, Eastman would continue his anticommunist diatribes, ally (uneasily) with William F. Buckley and his National Review, and offer rationalizations for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade. (The term “witchhunt,” he declared in 1952, was “a new smear tactic invented by the Commies and their fellow travelers when the word Red-baiter got worn out.” Those denounced as witch-hunters were “in the main clear-headed patriots of freedom.”) Eastman, by his own definition, had become a “radical conservative” before settling on “libertarian conservative.”

Irmscher finds a degree of continuity in Eastman’s outlook as he moved from left to right. “Through all the permutations of his political views,” he insists, “one hope had remained the same for Max: that the reforms he advocated as a pragmatist, feminist, socialist, and defender of the Bolsheviks and then of Trotsky would result in greater freedom for the individual to do exactly what he or she wanted.” That’s an unsatisfying conclusion. Irmscher is more on the mark when he avers that Eastman had from the beginning wanted nothing more than “his freedom, the freedom to do and think what he wanted to do and think.” Eastman would not have disagreed. “I care more about the freedom for the body and soul of man than I do about what is called ‘social justice,’” he admitted. His version of utopia, Irmscher maintains, was “a place of continued sexual pleasure in which all living things are equal, all wishes are gratified, nothing decays, the resources are infinite, and no one needs to feel guilty about anything at all.” Nice work if you can get it.

Eastman’s pursuit of “freedom” remained an individual one, carried out from the lectern, in publications, and in the bedroom, rarely tested through participation in actual social or political movements. To the extent that he found that freedom for himself on Martha’s Vineyard, where he purchased a house, it was because of the income flowing in from lectures and the Digest and the many women he pursued successfully over the years. He never recognized that satisfying his own freedom often rested on the subordination of those around him. This should not be surprising, given the times. But Eastman’s approach was hardly a model for others.

William O’Neill’s excellent The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman, published in 1978, focused on the more political dimension of Eastman’s life and remains an indispensable history of the left. Irmscher’s biography, in contrast, is more about the personal rather than political side of Eastman’s life. His detailed reconstruction of Eastman’s romantic entanglements, insecurities, anxieties, and passions is largely made possible by his unrestricted access to the Eastman papers at Indiana University.

Was Eastman’s life important? Eastman shaped the socialist left in the 1910s and became an astute critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s, even if his contributions to Marxist theory proved fleeting and, later, his contributions to anticommunism were clichéd. His poetry, one novel, and volumes on laughter have not endured. Max’s great fear, Irmscher suggests, was that “he might be talking only to himself.” He wasn’t. But his legacy was shorter lived than he might have wished.

Remarking on Eastman’s first volume of autobiography, Enjoyment of Living, in 1948, the New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott found that “[r]eading it does not convey the impression that Mr. Eastman enjoyed his life particularly, nor does it give much enjoyment to the reader.” Like Salvador Dalí, whose autobiography Prescott did not appreciate either, Eastman seemed to believe that because something happened to him “it is necessarily interesting.” As for his “erotic longings,” Eastman “broadcasts his at the top of his voice,” recalling them with an “enthusiasm proper only to the psychiatrist’s office.” “‘What of it?’ one asks. ‘Why do you insist on telling all this?’” were Prescott’s deflating questions.

Given that Eastman is a largely forgotten figure today, Prescott’s questions can be asked of this new biography. Irmscher skillfully reconstructs a life marked by desire, pleasure, pain, and tortured human relationships. But what of it? The connection between Eastman’s personal life and the broader political forces in which it was embedded remains elusive.

Eastman may not belong in the left’s Hall of Fame. It is difficult to fit his flawed life into the “ongoing radical tradition” that today’s left wishes to build upon. But the “rich heritage of American radicalism,” as Foner calls it, is inseparable from a less admirable heritage (to put it mildly), one that cannot be set aside because it is inconvenient or embarrassing. To the extent that Eastman is of relevance today, it is to remind us that awareness of the entirety of the left tradition may be of greater value than a selective past that may appear to be useful, but is ultimately misleading.

Eric Arnesen is professor of history at George Washington University and Vice Dean for Faculty and Administration in its Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. He is writing a biography of A. Philip Randolph.

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