[Marxism] Max Eastman biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 17 08:49:45 MDT 2018


LRB, March 22, 2018
I was the Left Opposition
by 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.



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