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International Socialism, Winter 1998


Judy Cox

John Reed – Reporting on the Revolution


From International Socialism 2:81, Winter 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


J. Newsinger (ed.)
Shaking the World: John Reed’s Revolutionary Journalism
Bookmarks, 1998), £11.95

At its best, journalism can help to undermine the ideology of the ruling class, revealing the connections between different aspects of the system, the role played by apparently neutral institutions of the state and the potential of workers’ struggles to achieve change. John Reed, a US journalist born in 1887, was perhaps one of the greatest exponents of such journalism. His account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, is one the best descriptions of that revolution ever written, and Lenin himself recommended it unreservedly. However, John Reed recorded and participated in great struggles beyond Russia, across the American coalfields and the haciendas of Mexico. His writings are, therefore, a testimony to the power of committed journalism as well as to the struggles which he witnessed.

John Reed was born into a well to do family but the years in which he grew up, the first decades of the 20th century, were years of growing criticism of, and resistance to, the development of US capitalism. The ‘robber barons’ were forging business empires at home and the US state was forging its empire abroad in wars against Spain, Cuba and the Philippines. The growing revulsion at this increasingly naked and brutal drive for profits found popular expression in literature, for example in the novels of Upton Sinclair and Jack London which sold millions of copies. Even the acclaimed novelist Henry James wrote that the US was ‘rank with each variety of the poison-plant of the money passion’. [1] Alongside the politically committed novelists were a new breed of journalists – the muckrakers – who contributed to the atmosphere of protest. The year John Reed graduated from Harvard, 1910, was also a year in which the US stood on the brink of a period of tempestuous class struggle. In this infectious political atmosphere it was not surprising that a well educated young man from a comfortable background should start working for a radical magazine, The Masses.

It was as a reporter for The Masses that John Reed first encountered the class struggle in the flesh when he was sent to cover a strike by silk weavers in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913. The forces involved in the strike were typical of many strikes in the US during this decade. On one side were the employers, backed up by the violence of the police, the courts and private ‘detectives’. On the other were a desperate group of workers, many of them immigrants, whose only support was the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was a revolutionary syndicalist organisation which helped the Paterson strikers build rank and file solidarity so successfully that by March 1913 some 25,000 workers were striking. John Reed arrived in April and was almost immediately arrested, eventually finding himself in prison with the IWW leader, Big Bill Haywood. Reed described with great power and passion the treatment that the striking men, women and children received, how they were beaten off the pickets lines, arrested in their thousands and imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The scale of the arrests in Paterson was one of the highest in US labour history. In one trial a women in the audience was sentenced to 60 days in prison for smiling, and another for 30 days for gasping at this sentence! By the end of the strike five strikers had also been murdered. Reed’s articles proved to be so popular that one Paterson policeman later complained that ‘jailing one lousy poet’ gave the IWW more publicity than jailing hundreds of strikers.

The weavers were eventually beaten back to work but the Paterson strike turned out to be a mere preliminary to the struggles which then erupted. In September 1913 the United Mine Workers of America took on J.D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The conditions in the mines were appalling, union members were summarily sacked and union organisers were regularly assassinated. The miners were fighting for an eight hour day, a 10 percent pay increase, union recognition, the limitation of company fraud and the enforcement of Colorado’s mining laws! Despite a blizzard, all strikers and their families were immediately evicted from their company owned homes. The union established tent colonies to house 11,000 workers but these were frequently fired on by company guards. The strike reached a crisis point in April 1914 when National Guardsmen attacked the Ludlow colony with machine guns. Women and children hid in cellars dug under the tents and, when the guards set fire to their tents, some were burnt alive. At least two women and 11 children were killed. A union organiser, Louis Tikas, was captured and shot out of hand.

Reed arrived in Colorado shortly after the massacre. He described the tragic scene at the camp where baby carriages and children’s toys lay riddled with bullets. Reed also wrote about how the miners responded – by launching a virtual insurrection in the coalfields. The miners’ union openly armed the strikers and in a series of ferocious attacks scabs and guards were killed and mines dynamited. Reed described how news of the massacre spread like wildfire:

In three hours every striker for 50 miles in either direction knows that the militia and mine guards had burned women and children to death. Monday night they started, with all the guns they could lay their hands on, for the scene of the action at Ludlow. All night long the roads were filled with ragged mobs of armed men pouring towards the Black Hills. And not only strikers went. In Aguilar, Walsenburg and Trinidad, clerks, cab drivers, chauffeurs, school teachers, and even bankers seized their guns and started for the front. It was as if the fire started at Ludlow had set the whole country aflame. [2]

At this point the federal government intervened, not to protect the strikers but to protect the mine owners from them. Despite widespread outrage at the massacre and big demonstrations in solidarity with the strikers, the strike was defeated. For Reed, it was a ‘transforming experience’, similar to that which George Orwell underwent in Barcelona in 1937. [3] When Reed reported from the strike, he called his article The Colorado War to drive home to his audience the violence that was being mobilised against the strikers. The article caused such outrage among those who supported the mine owners that some bookstores refused to sell the magazine which carried it. In the article, Reed explained the appalling provocation which drove ordinary workers to take up arms. He pointed out that the workers were not revolutionaries, but were simply fighting for a living wage and safety at work and for the implementation of the law. Reed explained how at every turn the workers were pushed towards militancy by the intransigence of the mine owners and the brutality of the tactics they used.

Reed also described how for generations miners fought back and were defeated, each defeat leading to their replacement with more recent immigrant workers. He gave a brilliant sense of how those divisions were eroded by the experience of living in the Ludlow camp: ‘There were more than 1,200 people there, divided in 21 nationalities, undergoing the marvellous experience of learning that all men are alike. When they had been living together for two weeks, the petty race prejudices and misunderstandings that had been fostered between them by the coal companies for so many years began to break down’. [4] The Colorado War exposes the reality behind the American dream – a reality of savage repression by the ruling class and working class unity forged in the heat of the struggle. It conveys an unforgettable sense of how militant the US working class tradition really is.

Before his trip to Colorado, Reed reported from Mexico which was in the turmoil of a revolution which, as John Newsinger points out in his introduction, was ‘one of the great social revolutions of the 20th century’. When Reed arrived there in December 1913, General Huerta, who was installed by a military coup, was facing a rebellion by the Constitutionalists, an uneasy alliance between middle class liberals and the working class and peasant armies led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Reed was unequivocally on the side of the Villistas and Zapatistas, to the point of having to run for his life during a battle at La Cadena. Reed’s articles from Mexico revealed the real roots of the revolution in the poverty of the land starved peons, who worked like draft horses on the big haciendas, and their growing desire for a representative government. He also launched a powerful polemic against the growing movement for US intervention in Mexico. He argued fiercely against the idea that the Mexican Revolution was merely a ‘comic opera’, asserting instead that it was the slowly accumulated grievances of the peons that had burst into life and that US intervention would inevitably mean crushing the newly awakened democratic aspirations of the Mexican people.

In September 1914 Reed wrote an article on the outbreak of the First World War, which he called The Traders’ War. His article was a resounding condemnation of that war:

We who are socialists, must hope – we may even expect – that out of this horror of bloodshed and dire destruction will come far reaching social changes – and a long step forward towards our goal of peace among men.

But we must not be duped by this editorial buncombe about liberalism going forth to holy war against tyranny.

This is not our war. [5]

’This is not our war’ – this was the theme he returned to again and again. He described how right across Europe young men were intimidated, bullied and shamed into ‘volunteering’ to fight, how Harrods department store loaded a truck with young clerks and sent them to the recruiting office with a big sign on the side: ‘Harrods’ Gift to the Empire’. [6] In other articles Reed attacked the war fever growing in the US: ‘I know what war means. I have been with the armies of all the belligerents except one, and I have seen men die, and go mad, and lie in hospitals suffering hell; but there is a worse thing than that. War means an ugly mob madness, crucifying the truth tellers, choking the artists, sidetracking reforms, revolutions and the working of social forces’. [7]

The highlights of this collection of essays are, perhaps inevitably, Reed’s reports from the Russian Revolution. His writings on Russia in this volume are not merely exciting accounts of the greatest revolution in world history, although that alone would be well worth reading. Reed combined his narrative accounts with insights which can help us refute some of the key criticisms levelled at the revolution. For example, Reed wrote that it was fashionable to consider the revolution as a mere adventure. He replied, ‘Adventure it is, and one of the most splendid mankind ever embarked on, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses and staking everything on their vast and simple ideas’. [8] Reed explained how the success of the revolution lay in the fact ‘that the Kerensky government absolutely ignored the desires of the masses as expressed in the Bolshevik programme of peace, land and workers’ control of industry’, rather than in any skilful scheming by the Bolsheviks. He explained how disgust with the impotence of Kerensky’s Provisional Government led to the ‘astounding growth of the Bolsheviki’ and how the Bolshevik Party was the ‘ultimate political expression of the popular will’. In addition Reed emphasised the involvement of the masses in the revolutionary process: ‘The entire insurrection is a stirring spectacle of proletarian mass organisation, action, bravery and generosity.’ The revolution which Reed witnessed aroused the enthusiasm and participation of the masses and was not a coup undertaken by a small group of fanatics behind the backs of the working classes. Reed pointed out that, contrary to the image created in the bourgeois press, the Bolsheviks were reluctant to use violence against their opponents, how many of the reactionary Junkers were captured and released on their word of honour only to take up arms again, and how papers opposed to the Bolsheviks were allowed to publish. In addition, Reed was very clear that, ‘if the Bolsheviki do not rise, the propertied class will make a coup d’état a the Constituent Assembly![9] In other words, the choice facing Russia in 1917 was not that between violent revolution and peaceful parliamentarianism, but that between the Bolsheviks or the White armies, socialism or barbarism.

Reed described momentous events: the opening of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the storming of the Winter Palace and the frontline fighting between the Red Guard and the White armies. Any socialist reading these articles will experience a thrill when reading these lines, written for The Liberator in November 1918:

The masses are in power ... And on the morning of 13 November, after the defeat of Kerensky’s Cossack army, Lenin and Trotsky sent through me to the revolutionary proletariat of the world this message:

Comrades! Greetings from the first proletariat republic of the world. We call you to arms for the international social revolution. [10]

Reed’s A Picture of Petrograd is a brilliant vision of a great city in the throes of social revolution. In another article championing the cause of the revolution printed in The Liberator during the German Revolution in 1918–1919, Reed points out that, while the Allies’ military power merely broke the German offensive in the west, Soviet Russia conquered Imperial Germany completely and so ended the war with the German Revolution, because the rising proletariat was so much more powerful an enemy than the greatest military machine.

According to one witness, Reed arrived in Petrograd a rebel and left a revolutionary. As a revolutionary Reed was convinced that it was his duty to take the fight home to US workers and campaign against foreign intervention in Russia. But back in the US Reed found himself in the middle of a witch hunt against socialists. This was the era of what Gabriel Kolko has called ‘political capitalism’ [11], where the huge industrial empires increasingly mobilised the power of the state to stem revolt from below. Reed described with understandable outrage the suppression of the socialist press, the horrific race riots of 1919 and the wholesale deportations of striking workers, a process which culminated in the Palmer Raids of January 1919. Confronted by this onslaught Reed embarked on a series of articles, published in a revolutionary paper, the New York Communist, which exposed the reality of ‘capitalist democracy in America’. In these articles Reed explained the Marxist analysis of the state and refuted the idea that the US state was different because of its constitutional guarantee of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He revealed how the concentration of wealth in the hands of the capitalists led to the development of ‘dollar diplomacy’ and the increasing power of big business over the institutions of the state. He described the socialist ideas which arrived with successive generations of immigrants and how they fell prey to reformism: ‘Even after the capitalist class in America had learned that government is not carried on in legislatures, but in banks and chambers of commerce, the workers still believed that political democracy could salve the problems of the wage earners’. [12]

Throughout his writings, Reed expressed his contempt for the American Federation of Labour and its exclusion of unskilled workers. But in an article he wrote for the Communist International he also pointed out the fatal flaw in the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW. The IWW led inspiring struggles under its banner of ‘One Big Union’. Wherever workers fought, the Wobblies (as IWW members were known) were there to support them, black and white, men and women. Yet for all its heroism, ‘from all the assaults upon the factory industries, from all the great strikes in the East, there is barely a skeleton of organisation left to tell the tale’. [13] He concluded that the IWW was a powerful propaganda centre, but not a force which could win over the majority of workers. He also revealed how the Wobblies’ rejection of ‘politics’, their exclusive focus on industrial militancy, left them vulnerable when faced with the onslaught of the capitalist state. So, for example, ‘on the charge of “obstructing the war”, the IWW was decapitated’. [14]

In the spring of 1919 Reed began editing the New York Communist and led one of the two rival US Communist Parties which were established that year. While the two parties squabbled about who were the real Bolsheviks, the AFL, in spite of its craftism, was leading mass struggles. At the height of the 1919 steel strike, for example, 365,000 workers were out, but the Communists failed to build any influence over the workers involved. State repression continued unabated – in one case three men convicted of distributing leaflets against intervention in Russia were sentenced to 20 years in prison – and it almost destroyed the Communist Parties. Reed himself escaped arrest only by returning to Russia, where he contracted typhus and, due to a lack of medicine, died on 17 October 1920, a victim of the Western blockade of revolutionary Russia.

As the articles in this volume demonstrate, Reed remained committed to the prospect of revolution to the end of his all too short life. This collection gives a flavour of the class struggle which followed the First World War in Russia, then capitalism’s weakness link, and also in the US, then emerging as the greatest world power. John Reed also analysed the political issues which lay at the heart of the victory of that struggle in Russia and its bitter defeat in the US. His burning criticisms of US imperialism, his consistent condemnation of the terrible racism of US society and his faith in the power of working class struggle are threads which run unbroken through this volume of revolutionary journalism at its best.


1. Quoted in Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row 1980), p. 315.

2. J. Newsinger (ed.), Shaking the World: John Reed’s Revolutionary Journalism (Bookmarks 1998), p. 45.

3. Ibid., p. xviii.

4. Ibid., p. 22.

5. Ibid., p. 79.

6. Ibid., p. 83.

7. Ibid., p. 93.

8. Ibid., p. 120.

9. Ibid., p. 121.

10. Ibid., p. 128.

11. H. Zinn, op. cit., p. 342.

12. J. Reed, op. cit., p. 190.

13. Ibid., p. 229.

14. Ibid., p. 236.

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