Max Eastman

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The young Max Eastman.

Max Forrester Eastman (January 4, 1883 – March 25, 1969) was an American writer on literature, philosophy and society; a poet, and a prominent political activist. Moving to New York City for graduate school, Eastman became involved with liberal and radical circles in Greenwich Village. He supported socialism and became a leading patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and an activist for a number of liberal and radical causes. For several years, he edited The Masses. With his sister Crystal Eastman, in 1917 he co-founded The Liberator, a radical magazine of politics and the arts.

In later life, however, Eastman changed his views, becoming highly critical of socialism and communism after his experiences during a nearly two-year stay in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, as well as later studies. He was influenced by the deadly rivalry between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, by which Trotsky was assassinated, as well as the wholesale abuses committed during the Great Purge. Eastman became an advocate of free-market economics and anti-communism, while remaining an atheist and independent thinker. In 1955, he published Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. He published more frequently in National Review and other conservative journals in later life, but always remained independent in his thinking; for instance, he publicly opposed United States involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s, earlier than most.

Early life and education

Eastman was born in 1883 in Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, the fourth of four children. His older brother died the following year at age seven. His father Samuel Elijah Eastman was a minister in the Congregational Church, and in 1889 his mother Annis Bertha Ford joined him, one of the first women in the United States to be ordained in a Protestant church. They served together as pastors at the church of Thomas K. Beecher near Elmira, New York. This area was part of the "burned-over district," which earlier in the 19th century had generated much religious excitement, resulting in the founding of the Shakers and the Mormon movement. In addition, religion inspired such progressive social causes as abolitionism and support for the Underground Railroad. Through his parents, Max became acquainted in his youth with their friend, the noted author Samuel Clemens, better known as "Mark Twain".

Eastman graduated with a bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1905. His good friend and roommate while at Williams was Charles Whittlesey, later known as the Lost Battalion commanding officer and a World War I hero. From 1907 to 1911, Eastman completed the work toward a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in philosophy at Columbia University under the noted philosopher John Dewey, and was a member of both the Delta Psi and Phi Beta Kappa societies.

Settling in Greenwich Village with his older sister Crystal Eastman, he became involved in a number of political causes, including helping to found the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in 1910. While at Columbia, he was an assistant in the philosophy department, as well as a lecturer with the psychology department. After completing the requirements for his doctoral degree, he refused to accept it and simply withdrew in 1911.

Marriage and family

After moving to New York City, Eastman married Ida Rauh, a fellow radical. They divorced in 1922. In 1924 he married the painter Elena Krylenko, a native of Moscow, whom he had met during his nearly two-year stay in the Soviet Union. Elena was sister to Nikolai Krylenko, who later was the Soviet Commissar of Justice. He organized many of Joseph Stalin's infamous "show trials" of the 1930s.[1] Elena died in 1956.

In 1958 Eastman married Yvette Szkely, who was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1912. She emigrated to New York with her divorced step-mother. She had a long-term relationship with Theodore Dreiser before her marriage to Eastman. In 1995 she published a memoir, Dearest Wilding. Yvette Eastman died in New York in 2014 at the age of 101.[2]

Leading radical

Eastman became a key figure in the left-leaning Greenwich Village community, and lived in its influence for many years. He combined this with his academic experience to explore varying interests, including literature, psychology and social reform. In 1913, he became editor of America's leading socialist periodical, The Masses, a magazine that combined social philosophy with the arts. Its contributors during his tenure included Sherwood Anderson, Louise Bryant, Floyd Dell, Amy Lowell, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Robert Minor, John Reed, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair and Art Young. The same year Eastman published Enjoyment of Poetry, an examination of literary metaphor from a psychological point of view. During this period, he also became a noted advocate of free love and birth control.[3]

In his first editorial for The Masses, Eastman wrote:

"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 humour 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."[4]

The numerous denunciations of U.S. participation in World War I published in The Masses, many written by Eastman, provoked controversy and reaction from authorities. Eastman was twice indicted and stood trial under provisions of the Sedition Act, but was acquitted each time. In a July 1917 speech, he complained that the government's aggressive prosecutions of dissent meant that "[y]ou can't even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage."[5] In 1918, The Masses was forced to close due to charges under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Eastman raised the money to send the radical John Reed to Russia in 1917. His magazine published Reed's articles from Russia, later collected as Ten Days That Shook the World, his notable account of the Bolshevik Revolution.[6]

Charlie Chaplin and Max Eastman in Hollywood 1919.

In 1919, Eastman and his sister Crystal (who the next year was one of the founders of American Civil Liberties Union) created a similar publication titled The Liberator. They published such writers as E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Claude McKay and Edmund Wilson. In 1922 after continuing financial troubles, the magazine was taken over by the Workers Party of America. (In 1924, The Liberator was merged with two other publications to create The Workers Monthly.) Max Eastman ended his association with the magazine.[3]

In 1922, Eastman embarked on a fact-finding tour of the Soviet Union to learn about the Soviet enactment of Marxism. He stayed for a year and nine months, observing the power struggles between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. After attending the Party Congress of May 1924, he left Russia in June of that year. He remained in Europe for the next three years.

Upon returning to the United States in 1927, Eastman published several works that were highly critical of the Stalinist system, beginning with "Since Lenin Died," which was written in 1925.[7] In that essay, he described Lenin's Testament, a copy of which Eastman had smuggled out of Russia. In it Lenin proposed changes to the structure of the Soviet government, criticized the leading members of the Soviet leadership, and suggested Joseph Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet leadership denounced Eastman's account and used Party discipline to force Trotsky, then still a member of the Politburo, to write an article denying Eastman's version of the events.[3] In other essays, Eastman described conditions for artists and political activists in Russia. Such essays made Eastman unpopular with American leftists of the time. In later years, however, his writings on the subject were cited by many on both the left and the right as sober and realistic portrayals of the Soviet system under Stalin.[3]

Eastman's experiences in the Soviet Union and his studies afterward led him to change his view of Marxism as practiced in Soviet Russia under Stalin. But, his commitment to left-wing political ideas continued unabated. While in the Soviet Union, Eastman began a friendship with Trotsky, which endured through the latter's exile to Mexico. In 1940 Trotsky was assassinated there by an agent of Stalin. Having mastered the Russian language in little more than a year, Eastman translated several of Trotsky's works into English, including his monumental three-volume History of the Russian Revolution. He also translated and published works by the poet Alexander Pushkin, including The Gabrieliad.[8]

During the 1930s, Eastman continued writing critiques of contemporary literature. He published several works in which he criticized James Joyce and other modernist writers, who, he claimed, fostered "the Cult of Unintelligibility." These were controversial at a time when the modernists were highly admired. When Eastman had asked Joyce why his book was written in a very difficult style, Joyce famously replied, "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years."[9]

Eastman published The Literary Mind (1931) and Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), in which he also criticized some elements of Freudian theory. In the 1930s, he debated the meaning of Marxism with the philosopher Sidney Hook (who, like Eastman, had studied under John Dewey at Columbia University) in a series of public exchanges.[10] Eastman was a traveling lecturer throughout the 1930s and 1940s, when he spoke on various literary and social topics in cities across the country.

Contributions to the women's rights movement

Eastman was a notable member of the women's rights movement in the early 20th century. He served as President of the Men's Equal Suffrage League in New York and was a founding member of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in New York in 1910. In 1913, he spoke at Bryn Mawr College on the subject of women's suffrage in a speech titled, "Woman Suffrage and Why I Believe in It."[11]

Changing political beliefs

Hegelism is like a mental disease—you cannot know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you've got it.

— Max Eastman, Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution (1926), p.22

Following the Great Depression, Eastman started to abandon his socialist beliefs, becoming increasingly critical of the ideas of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and G. W. F. Hegel, which he had once admired.

In 1941, he was hired as a roving editor for Reader's Digest magazine, a position he held for the remainder of his life. About this time, he also became a friend and admirer of the noted free market economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Röpke. He allied with the American writers James Burnham, John Chamberlain and John Dos Passos.[12] Hayek referred to Eastman's life and to his repudiation of socialism in his widely read The Road to Serfdom. Eastman arranged for the serialization of Hayek's work in Reader's Digest; the economist later won the Nobel Prize. Later, Eastman wrote articles critical of socialism for The Freeman, an early libertarian publication edited by his friends John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt.[13]

Initially, Eastman had supported the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy's public attacks on the influence of communism. In the early 1950s, Eastman's anti-Communist articles in the Reader's Digest, The Freeman and the National Review played an important role in what became known as McCarthyism.[14] But he soon came to believe that the anti-Communist movement was "taken over by reactionary forces who confused the quest of social justice with Communist treason". [15] In 1955, his repudiation of the Left reached a high-water mark with the publication of Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. By this time, he had come to believe that the Bolshevik Revolution, "rather than producing freedom, produced the most perfect tyranny in all history."[16] Also in 1955, he became one of the original contributing editors of the conservative National Review magazine.

In the 1950s, Eastman joined the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Hayek and Mises. He was a participating member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom at the invitation of Sidney Hook.[17] Although he became aligned with conservative political thinkers, Eastman remained a lifelong atheist.

In the 1960s, he broke with his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. and resigned from the National Review's Board of Associates on the grounds that the magazine was too explicitly pro-Christian.[18]

Shortly after this, he began to publicly oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. [15]Despite his advocacy of free market economics, Eastman had a range of views that were unconventional for a political "conservative." Favoring the self-description of "radical conservative," he rejected the label "libertarian" then being used by political writer Rose Wilder Lane. They engaged in an acrimonious correspondence. Eastman associated the term with the ideas of the writer Albert Jay Nock.[19]

Assessment of literary works

A prolific writer, Eastman published more than twenty books on subjects as diverse as the scientific method, humor, Freudian psychology and Soviet culture, as well as memoirs and recollections of his noted friendships. His biographical portraits have been called "brilliant" and his psychological study of the young Leon Trotsky "pioneering," by the historian John Patrick Diggins.[20]

He composed five volumes of poetry and a novel. In addition, he translated into English some of the work of Alexander Pushkin. For the Modern Library, he edited and abridged Marx' Das Kapital.

He also wrote two volumes of memoirs, as well as two volumes of recollections of his friendships and personal encounters with many of the leading figures of his time, including: Pablo Casals, Charlie Chaplin, Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Isadora Duncan, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, H. L. Mencken, John Reed, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Santayana, E. W. Scripps, George Bernard Shaw, Carlo Tresca, Leon Trotsky, Mark Twain and H. G. Wells. Eastman's last memoir was Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epic (1964).

In 1969 he died at his summer home in Bridgetown, Barbados, at the age of 86.

Representation in other media

  • Max Eastman narrated the documentary film Tsar to Lenin (1937).
  • Edward Herrmann portrayed Eastman in the film Reds (1981), directed by and starring Warren Beatty, which was based on the life of John Reed. John Patrick Diggins, Eastman's biographer, said that it was ironic that Herrmann was cast as Eastman, who was an extremely handsome man, while the good-looking Beatty portrayed Reed, who had a bookish appearance.[21]
  • He was portrayed by actor Mark Pellegrino in the 2012 TV movie Hemingway & Gellhorn, directed by Philip Kaufman.
  • He is mentioned in James Thurber's memoir, The Years With Ross (1959). Thurber quotes Wolcott Gibbs as saying of Eastman's The Enjoyment of Laughter: "It seems to me Eastman has got American humour down and broken its arm."
  • He appears in Thomas Hart Benton's 1930 mural "America Today", sitting on a subway ogling the burlesque actress Peggy Reynolds.

Selected works

  • Enjoyment of Poetry, 1913. [2]
  • Child of the Amazons, and other Poems, 1913. [3]
  • Journalism Versus Art, 1916. [4]
  • Colors of life; poems and songs and sonnets, 1918. [5]
  • The Sense of Humor, 1921. [6]
  • Leon Trotsky: The Portrait of a Youth, 1925.
  • Since Lenin Died, 1925. [7]
  • Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution, 1927.
  • The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science, 1931.
  • Artists in Uniform, 1934.
  • Art and the Life of Action, 1934.
  • The Last Stand of Dialectic Materialism : A Study of Sidney Hook's Marxism. New York: Polemic Publishers, 1934.
  • Enjoyment of Laughter, 1936.
  • Stalin's Russia and the Crisis in Socialism, 1939.
  • Marxism: Is It a Science?, 1940.
  • Heroes I Have Known, 1942.
  • Enjoyment of Living, 1948.
  • Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, 1955. [8]
  • Great Companions: Critical Memoirs of Some Famous Friends, 1959.
  • Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epoch, 1964.
  • Seven Kinds of Goodness, 1967.


  1. Richard Kennedy, Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, New York, W. W. Norton and Co., 1980, ISBN 0-87140-155-X (2nd, 1994 edition), p. 382.
  2. Meras, "Yvette Eastman, 101, Photographer, Longtime Aquinnah Summer Resident," Vinyard Gazette (Jan. 24th 2014) Retrieved May 14, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 John Patrick Diggins, Up From Communism, Columbia University Press, later, Harper & Row, 1975, p.17-73.
  4. The Masses, issue 1.
  5. Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Boston: Little, Brown, 1980, p.124
  6. John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, Boni and Liveright, 1919; Max Eastman, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, Devin-Adair, 1955, p.10.
  7. Max Eastman, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, "Biographical Introduction," pp.9–17.
  8. Diggins, "Exorcising Hegel: Max Eastman," in Up From Communism, pp.17–20.
  9. Eastman, Max, "The Cult of Unintelligibility," Harper's Magazine, clviii, April 1929, pp. 632–639.
  10. Diggins, Up From Communism, pp. 51–58.
  11. "The Suffrage Cause and Bryn Mawr - More Speakers". Dedicated to the Cause: Bryn Mawr Women and the Right to Vote. Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections. Retrieved April 16, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Diggins, Up From Communism, p.485, fn.43, 44, 46.
  13. Charles H. Hamilton, "The Freeman: the Early Years," The Freeman, Dec. 1984, vol.34, issue 1.
  14. Max Eastman. Spartacus Educational.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Paul Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in an Age of Globalization, 2006, Routledge, p.91.
  16. Max Eastman, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, Devin-Adair, 1955, p. 113
  17. Diggins, Up From Communism, pp.201–233; Sidney Hook, Out of Step, Carroll & Graf, 1987, chapter 27.
  18. William L. O'Neill, The Last Romantic: a Life of Max Eastman, Transaction Publishers, 1991; "Morality and American Society by William F. Buckley," interview, Acton Institute [1] (retrieved 4-13-09).
  19. Max Eastman, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, Devin-Adair, 1955, p. 79; his correspondence with Lane is in Eastman manuscripts. at Indiana University's Lilly Library; philosopher Ayn Rand also rejected the label, similarly calling herself a "radical for capitalism," but, in contrast, she stressed that she was "not a conservative."
  20. Diggins, Up From Communism, p.19.
  21. For more on Eastman, John Diggins, "Exorcising Hegel: Max Eastman," and "Capitalism and Freedom: Eastman," in Up From Communism, pp.17–73, and pp.201–233.

Further reading

  • Anne Cipriano Venzon, ed. (1995). "Max Eastman". United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-135-68453-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links