JUNE 21, 2018
MAX EASTMAN’S RADICAL SOCIALIST activism positioned him prominently in the United States’s left-wing politics of the early 20th century. His postwar realignment with the right wing, which may have resulted from his direct exposure to the human costs of the Soviet project in the 1920s and 1930s, has complicated his reception. No longer a hero of the American left, he never became an orthodox rightist. In his latest book, Christoph Irmscher, known for his works on natural history and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has brought renewed attention to this important, puzzling, and largely forgotten historical figure.
Eastman came to prominence in 1912 as the editor of The Masses. He established himself as a commentator on events in Russia after 1917 and an advocate and follower of Leon Trotsky. William L. O’Neill’s The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (1978, second edition 1991), the only previous biography, failed to capture the personal dimensions of Eastman’s life and the full range of his political activities. Irmscher remedies this by following Eastman’s development closely, sometimes even on a daily basis, but he too misses a few revealing events in a very active life.
Irmscher draws on many available archival collections, and his portrait is serious, wide-ranging, and stimulating. He describes Eastman’s convoluted path as a writer, editor, and journalist in detail. The book’s 52 archival photos depict Eastman at different stages of his life, his parents and siblings, his wives, and other persons who figure in the book. Irmscher captures Eastman’s feelings and delves into the intimate realm, discussing his many romantic entanglements, which some readers may find extraneous. Despite its popular and almost sensational aspects, the book has a serious message: the utopian character of the projects in which Eastman and other radical thinkers invested stymied their realization. That is the book’s greatest merit, which outweighs its shortcomings.
Irmscher begins his story with a description of Eastman’s parents, active Congregationalist clergy who worked primarily in New York state. As the many letters from Max’s mother show, her religious devotion took the form of commitment to her community and her family. Annis and Samuel Eastman saw their parishes as venues for intellectual discussion and moral engagement, rather than prayer or even spiritual encounters. As a result, the young Max grew up as an atheist with a powerful set of moral obligations that merged seamlessly with leftist politics. He also inherited his mother’s literary and oratorical skills, which he applied to his many books, articles, letters, and university lectures.
Young Max attended a good high school and then Williams College, where he distinguished himself as a public speaker, both on campus and in the town of Williamstown, Massachusetts. These early outings left their mark on his memory and imagination. Irmscher cites Eastman’s warm recollection of his early triumphs: “It was so thrilling a situation that it went way beyond the point of stage-fright.” As Irmscher notes, “Max had discovered the power of words.”
At Columbia University, Eastman studied and taught under the well-known philosopher John Dewey, one of the fathers of pragmatism. According to Dewey, pragmatism was a tool for prediction, problem solving, and action, rather than abstract contemplation. Although he worked with Dewey for only a short time, their collaboration had a powerful impact on Eastman. He initially saw pragmatism as the instrument of radical social rebuilding. Later in life, he turned to pragmatism to preserve basic values that the radicals had once tried to destroy. For him, philosophy did not exist in a vacuum; Irmscher provides several instances in which Eastman uses the term pragmatism to mask more narrow objectives or projects.
In fact, Eastman was so taken with pragmatism and Dewey’s notion of praxis that he became an anti-philosopher. He refused to accept his PhD after Columbia University approved the dissertation that he wrote under Dewey’s guidance. Eastman appears to have been motivated by a view that only actions (as opposed to writings) have meaning. As Irmscher puts it, Eastman wanted “to close the gap between philosophy and social action.” Pragmatism, as he understood it, required him to resign from his position at Columbia, because philosophy as a purely academic pursuit had little impact on the world.
Eastman edited the leading radical semi-socialist periodical of the early 20th century, The Masses, and kept it financially afloat for five of the six years of its existence from 1911 into 1917. He became the editor in August 1912 with no salary. He declared his editorial credo in a manifesto that reads:
This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable; frank; arrogant; impertinent; searching for true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found; printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers.
This manifesto was representative of the passion and selfless devotion Eastman brought to nearly all his undertakings. Irmscher does not analyze this document in his book, although such an analysis could have been illuminating.
Irmscher devotes much attention to Max’s sister, Crystal Eastman, and the book sometimes even seems to be chiefly about Crystal. Yet documents that Irmscher quotes and presents confirm that the Eastmans’ political, social, and cultural endeavors were largely driven by Max’s initiative, rather than that of his sister. Max and Crystal did, however, often act jointly; for example, they created the magazine The Liberator when The Masses was shut down for its anti-war position.
After the October Revolution, Eastman looked to Russia and the Bolsheviks to end the Great War and to transform the entire world. He became active in the Workers Party of America, which was created after the two newly formed communist parties were banned under American laws. Irmscher does not explore Eastman’s activity in this party during the initial stage of its existence. Instead, he jumps to the year 1922, when Eastman left the United States for Genoa, Italy, to cover the European economic conference held there, and then finally traveled to Moscow.
Irmscher unfortunately gives short shrift to his subject’s political activity in Russia; this despite Eastman’s close collaboration with Trotsky and the help he provided to those who struggled against Joseph Stalin. Irmscher largely passes over the story of how Eastman wrote his book Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth (1925), and the many long conversations between the two that shaped the biography. Irmscher’s account of Eastman’s Since Lenin Died (1925), which he wrote after he left Russia and returned to Western Europe, is more analytical and richer in content. It was the first concrete study of the Russian communist opposition to Stalin’s incipient dictatorship.
Irmscher briefly mentions the document usually referred to as “Lenin’s testament” (his letter to the Communist Party Congress of 1923), in which Lenin criticized Stalin and urged his removal from the position of the General Secretary of the Party. He notes that a copy of Lenin’s letter was smuggled to Paris and, through Eastman, published in The New York Times in October 1926. Had he consulted Trotsky’s archive at Harvard University’s Houghton Library and other collections, he would have discovered how this was done, and particularly the role of Christian Rakovsky, the Soviet ambassador to France at that time. Max Eastman and those who helped him, including Rakovsky, should be more widely credited with releasing Lenin’s testament to the world.
Eastman was the first among Western radicals to discover the dangers inherent in the Bolshevik Revolution, and then to warn the American left about Stalin and Stalinism. I have described Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism in Russian in a four-volume biography (2012–2013), co-authored with Yuri Felshtinsky, and also in my own single-volume condensed edition (2012), and have highlighted the role Eastman played in spreading Trotsky’s message. To explore this phase of Eastman’s life more fully, Irmscher would have done well to consult the documents in the Trotsky archives at Harvard University, the Hoover Institution, and elsewhere.
Eastman’s early recognition of Stalin’s threat constitutes a key element of his legacy, and also suggests why he made such a radical about-face during and after World War II. Had he not witnessed the brutal campaigns against Trotsky and others whom he knew well from his time in Russia, he might not have joined Reader’s Digest as an editor in 1941, become a militant anticommunist, and then emerged as an active supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy.
Christoph Irmscher gives us a readable account, with new and important information, of a life interwoven with several of the political extremes of the 20th century. But we may not yet have heard the last about Max Eastman. Another biographer’s foray into accessible archives well worth plumbing may bring us a fuller account of Eastman’s politics, and particularly of his involvement in Russia.