When Max Eastman Was Young

For the young Max Eastman, socialism meant open inquiry, cultural experimentation — and above all, freedom.

Max Eastman and Claude McKay at the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Moscow, 1923.

One hundred years ago, in autumn 1918, a dazzlingly handsome young socialist editor coolly faced the jury in a Manhattan courtroom. His mission was to defend himself and fellow contributors to the Masses magazine against indictment under the Espionage Act.

A big man with an agile, cat-like walk, prematurely white hair, and favoring bright clothing, Max Eastman had swagger. The words he spoke were adroit, eloquent, and defiant. The judge and courtroom were spellbound, and, with eight dissenting votes, a verdict could not be reached. Soon a pamphlet version of the editor’s speech was being hawked around the country under the auspices of his new magazine, the Liberator. It was called Address to the Jury in the Second Masses Trial: In Defense of the Socialist Position and the Right of Free Speech.

The Espionage Act As Censorship

When Eastman was put on trial on the grounds that editors of the Masses had published treasonable material that could obstruct the military draft, the thirty-five-year old became legendary as a figure who left an indelible mark on his generation of radicals. In two trials, in April and November 1918, the jury was deadlocked about Eastman and his fellow editors, though a mechanism was found to shut down the Masses by taking away its mailing rights.

Simultaneously, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was charged under the same Act in response to his June 1918 antiwar “Canton Speech.” At a trial in September of that year, Debs was sentenced to a decade of imprisonment (eventually commuted) and disenfranchised for life.

The original Espionage legislation was passed in 1917, upon the US entrance into the war, and was intended to prohibit interference with recruitment to the armed forces and support of enemies during wartime. We now know, as Eastman argued in his Address to the Jury, that the law had little to do with “espionage” and great deal to do with censorship. In fact, no one was convicted of spying or sabotage at the time. The focal point for enforcement of the Act was speech and writing critical of US entry into World War I.

Eastman’s Address to the Jury is noteworthy for blending his defense of socialism, the Socialist Party view of the war, and the legitimacy of the Russian Revolution with the paramount causes of free speech, liberty, and democracy. Like Eastman’s popular lectures that encompassed poetry, sex, women’s rights, humor, and, after 1917, “Hands off Russia,” this mixture reminds us that a species of “Left Libertarianism” — socialist activism that moves forward by expanding personal freedom — was inscribed in the DNA of US radicalism from its birth.

Romantic Anticapitalism

Eastman’s root idea was that socialism should be a normal extension of individualism, and esteem for the dignity and freedom of the human being, especially as one’s senses and personality unfolded in nature. Such a perspective sprang from the womb of Romanticism: His early immersion in a rural environment; his love of the Romantic poets, especially John Keats and Walt Whitman; his identification with Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson; his study of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust; and even his sympathetic response to Friedrich Nietzsche — who was likewise an inspirer of socialist Jack London.

Thus the twenty-something Eastman, relocated to Greenwich Village after 1907, was well-prepared to take to heart the first half of Karl Marx’s famous formula that concludes the second chapter of The Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Eastman’s socialism accentuated the side of Marxism pledged to create a classless social order where individuals have the capacity to shape decisions affecting their lives, and where no personal or group claims can encroach on the rights and autonomy of a minority. To some extent, the life he lived was intended to model this new way of inhabiting the world.

Eastman’s version of Romantic anticapitalism was also a trend of thought variously shared by a number of his contemporaries such as Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, and Jean Toomer. The radical culture they forged combined feminism, psychology, literature, education, and sympathy for the “New Negro” and Harlem Renaissance. In particular, they tried to challenge capitalist civilization by using concepts of wholeness in opposition to the fragmentation of humanity, consistent with the Marxist opposition to alienation and the demand for the reintegration of art and labor in forms of creative life.

Scenes From The Life Of A Revolutionary Intellectual

The son of two progressive Congregationalist ministers who served in Elmira, New York, Eastman earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College and a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University under the direction of John Dewey. As a resident of Greenwich Village, sharing an apartment with his older sister, Crystal Eastman — an extraordinary activist in her own right — he was introduced to feminism and radicalism. In 1912, he received a famous telegram, “You are elected editor of the Masses. No pay.”

Eastman was irresistibly charming, even when on the offensive. Yet the Masses wasn’t always very polite. The art, essays, and editorials by an exceptional band of writers and artists — John Sloan, Floyd Dell, Art Young, Dorothy Day — could be hard and deliberate as well as funny. The July 1916 issue features a picture of a headless giant drawn by cartoonist Robert Minor, later a prominent Communist. He is standing before an army medical examiner who pronounces, “At last a perfect soldier.”

Eastman had no patience with reformist socialism defined merely as government ownership or as obtainable through the vote: “democracy will begin when people rule in industry as well as politics…true liberty involves the right to…possess all that you produce by doing your own work,” he perorated at the Masses trial.

A founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in 1910, and as a result known through his public lectures as “The Male Suffragette,” Eastman was at the Red end of the political spectrum in the Socialist Party. He was close to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with its revolutionary industrial unionism, and he palled around with John Reed, the journalist, poet, and future Communist martyr. However, Reed was unhappy with the war policy of the Liberator, brilliantly edited by the two Eastmans, Max and Crystal; to decrease the chance of further prosecution, the magazine argued that US intervention could be supported as a means of distracting Germany from its war on the Soviet Union.

An intimate friend of Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born poet who organized the pro-Communist African Blood Brotherhood, Eastman was outspoken on behalf of the right of blacks to armed self-defense against racists. In 1917 Eastman, Reed, and McKay welcomed the October Revolution straight away; by 1922, at age 39, Eastman declared himself a full-blown Bolshevik and received a membership card in the US Communist movement. At that point, Max and Crystal handed the Liberator over to their comrades in the Third International.

Eastman remained sympathetic to Lenin’s ideas for most of the next two decades, although he was quickly aware of the deterioration of the Russian Revolution after Lenin’s death and expressed support of Left Opposition leader Leon Trotsky starting in 1924. Having observed the power struggles in the Communist International first hand during a two-year sojourn in the USSR in the early 1920s, in 1926 he published the first exposé of the growing bureaucracy, Since Lenin Died, as well as a sympathetic biography, Leon Trotsky: Portrait of a Youth. Though no longer a man of the barricades by the 1930s, Eastman was certainly Trotsky-smacked and went on to translate his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1932) to great acclaim, as well as other books such as The Revolution Betrayed (1937).

Revolutionary, Imaginative Freedom

Yet Eastman’s inspiration for future emancipatory struggles is located not only in his independent, critical-minded communism, but also in his determination that one must flaunt cultural orthodoxy and insist on imaginative freedom. His ethics were based on individual autonomy and freedom from chains of subordination. Once he took over the editorship of the Masses in 1913, the following appeared under the masthead:

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.

In his speech to the jury he elaborated:

we were socialists. We had created this magazine, which belonged to us jointly, because we all of us desired to have one place, in which we could say exactly what we wanted to, in exactly the tone of voice that we wanted to, and no editor and no owner of a publication could tell us to say anything else or to say it in any different way.


Often writing in this breezy and engaging style, Eastman would in the 1930s find a home on the Left in the pages of the Modern Quarterly, an independent Marxist journal edited by V. F. Calverton that was noted for hosting debates among radicals.

Eastman later produced a two-volume autobiography that seemed closer to a picaresque novel, Enjoyment of Living (1948) and Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epoch (1964). To these, one might add his books of political theory, philosophy, criticism, poetry, journalism, and biographical sketches of famous people. Many seem to be transitional works on various topics that never transitioned anywhere.

It was as if Eastman suffered from an inability to concentrate his copious gifts. In 1947, six years after being hired as a roving editor for Reader’s Digest, he concluded that he had wasted his talents, even as he remained prolific.

The topic to which he devoted most of his attention was his polemics apropos the dialectical aspect of Marxist philosophy, addressed in his books Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1927), The Last Stand of Dialectical Materialism (1934), and Marxism: Is It a Science? (1940). If alive today, he would be horrified that Hegelian versions of Marxism that he aimed to debunk are widely accepted due to some fifty years of cross-fertilization by the Frankfurt School and the influence of the monumental scholarship of Herbert Marcuse and Fredric Jameson. Nevertheless, reading Eastman can be beneficial for reminding us that socialists must continually question themselves as to whether we are assembling our worldview out of faith or facts.

The Personal And The Political

Though there exist three worthwhile book-length biographies of Eastman, only the most recent, Christof Irmscher’s Max Eastman: A Life (2017), incorporates candid details about Eastman’s numerous love affairs — some brief and others lasting decades. Many critical events in his subsequent political life occurred after or at the same time as crises or changes in his personal life. When Eastman, at the height of his fame, took off and left the US for five years, it was in the wake of the brutal marital break-up with Ida Rauh, a radical lawyer who won Max over to Marxism; the beginning of Max’s decades-long foolish estrangement from their son, Daniel; and the likely suicide of Max’s lover, the actress Florence Deshon.

During his time abroad, he was initially in the Soviet Union where he arranged an open marriage with Eliena Krylenko, sister of the People’s Commissar of Justice, Nikolai Krylenko. Following the traumatic death of Crystal in 1928, Eastman, back in New York and no longer so famous, became wholly immersed in internecine debates on the Left, writing a powerful indictment of the treatment of writers in the Soviet Union, Artists in Uniform: A Study of Literature and Bureaucratism (1934). Mostly he followed Trotskyist positions, except that he viewed dialectical materialism as dogma and interpreted Lenin as a pragmatic social engineer.

At news of the murder of his wife’s brother — Nikolai Krylenko was summarily executed during the Moscow Purge Trials — Eastman began to migrate toward social democracy and then the capitalist ideas of Friedrich Hayek. After Eliena’s death in 1956, he married Yvette Szekey, a former mistress of Theodore Dreiser, but then haphazardly drifted back toward liberalism. No one is suggesting a simplistic causal connection in this simultaneity of the personal and political, but a scholar has to patiently trace the complex networks of influences and rivalries that intertwine to give a picture of what it meant to live a life on the Left.

The Long Volte-Face

Eastman’s one abiding love affair, however, was with revolutionary socialism. Even after a political divorce from the far left at the advent of World War II, he remained haunted by its memory and emotional impact. A 1978 biographer, William L. O’Neill, put it best in The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman: “Socialism had been the one grand passion of his political life, an affair of the mind and heart. With free enterprise he made a marriage of convenience.”

Rarely has there been a career as long, absurdly bountiful, and frequently as exasperating as Eastman’s. Episodes and friendships in his life seem to offer enough material for any number of novels, although he only published one, Venture (1927), at the height of his revolutionary commitment. Perhaps this is because his post-1930s political evolution follows an-all-too-familiar dynamic out of the deradicalization playbook.

By the early 1950s, when Eastman was praising Joe McCarthy and signing up as a sponsor of William F. Buckley’s National Review, his friends might have asked, “Who is this man pretending to be Max Eastman?” He had started out as a blazing comet, the knight errant of the revolutionary left, but he ended as a sort vending machine of predictable moves. First he had abandoned an independent communist perspective to ally with the Western “camp” against the Soviet bloc; then he followed the logic of “campism” by moving steadily to the extreme right — McCarthyism.

Although there are vague indications of a 1960s sympathy with the antiwar movement and even Che Guevara, the sad truth is that Eastman had plunged into the anti-communist underworld and never really found his way out. Calling this postwar phase inchoate or even incoherent is probably too kind. It is bad enough that we have to put up with his reciting of the comforting myth of the Right that a free market brings political freedom rather than the dramatic disparities of wealth that have been exhaustively documented.

But how does one watch Eastman try to reconcile his beliefs that human nature precludes socialist altruism, due to an instinctive drive for property, while claiming that anti-statism is necessary to assure freedom? This seems a perversion of his once remarkable ability to present complex topics in a clear and memorable way. Eastman’s rationalizations in the 1950s may be the most complete example of muddled thinking on the part of an ex-radical that I have ever encountered.

Nostalgia For The Future

As a new democratic-socialist consciousness emerges among young activists today, ghosts of radicalism’s past have been rising out of the rich soil of the history of the US Left — Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, W. E. B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, C. L. R. James, Grace Lee Boggs. Now Max Eastman has been featured in two books published in 2017 — not only the biography by Irmscher but also Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals (2017) by Jeremy McCarter. The hundredth anniversary of the Espionage Act (1917) and its first court-room applications (1918) have generated a number of newspaper articles and even a commemoration of Debs’ “Canton Speech.”

It seems unlikely that many in the new socialist left will be satisfied to mechanically push the old “reset button” one more time when it comes to critical matters such as creating socialist organizations and programs. Today’s Marxists deserve better than that. Gone are the days, I hope, when the urgency of the times lured many of the best and the brightest to talk as if they could “take power first, ask questions later.”

Eastman’s idea that free inquiry, experimentalism, and instrumentalism could blend with Marxism should be relatively self-evident; when rigidity takes over, creative transformation dies out. It was Marx, after all, who first launched the attack on “Barracks Communism”—communalism that was regimented and authoritarian.

Socialist activists require a vibrant socialist culture, not adherence to a political monolith intolerant of diverse views. Above all, it would be a disaster to turn “free speech” over to the Right; or, more accurately, to right-wing front groups that cynically exploit a traditional demand of the Left.

Corey Robin gets it right when he says that “What the socialist seeks is freedom.” Sometimes it is not nostalgic to reach into the past and retrieve elements that can serve as a weapon in the wager we are making on the possibility of socialist transformation. The ethos of Eastman’s Masses is one of these. Our hard-won individual freedoms need to be safeguarded and extended as we transform society to meet our collective needs.