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The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
By the time the Congress was over, Angelica was the only Russian leader to whom Jack could still talk and confide his doubts and sorrows. Yet he still had fight in him, and wrote an article for his party’s journal in which he said: “Nobody in Russia seems to understand industrial unionism … At the next Congress these theses must be altered.”
But for him there was to be no “next Congress.”
“When he came to see me after the Congress,” Dr. Balabanoff wrote, “he was in a terrible state of depression. He looked old and exhausted. The experience had been a terrible blow.”
Either during the Congress or right after it, Reed resigned his post as member of the Executive Committee of the International, as a protest—his Communist biographers have circumspectly said—"on an organizational question.” Somehow he was made to withdraw his resignation, and somehow, despite broken health and spirit, made to go with Zinoviev, Radek, and a trainload of delegates to a congress of the “Toiling Peoples of the East” in Baku. The hues and costumes of the men from the East, and their sudden way of drawing and raising aloft curved scimitars to approve a resolution, stirred Jack’s romantic heart. But the demagogy of Zinoviev and Radek, and the luxury on the special train running through a land of famine, sickened him.
Back in Moscow, Jack took to his bed with typhus. How much the virus, how much the ravaged body, how much the broken spirit prevailed, we can only guess. To Angelica Balabanoff, and to Louise Bryant, who had just managed to come to Moscow from America, it seemed, as Angelica was to write, that “the moral and nervous shock had deprived him of the wish to live, of that love of life that was so prominent in his character.”
When Kobetski, technical secretary of the International, wrote to Lenin that Reed was dead, Lenin answered: Comrade Kobetski
- 1. Your report (that is the report of the physician you sent me) and the note, should be sent abroad.
- 2. Who is in charge of the Hotel Lux? Its remodelling for the Comintern? The management part?
With Reed’s death, all rebellion ended. As the author of what Lenin rightly esteemed to be the best book on his seizure of power, Reed was given a state funeral. Feeling that she could not speak of him without speaking of his last days, Angelica Balabanoff refused to deliver an address or even attend his funeral. “I knew Reed would have understood … Most of the people who commemorated him were not entitled to do so. Their speeches had to be cold, official, conventional.”
A decade passed, and the ashes lay forgotten, along with the sturdy example of independence. Then Stalin began to utilize the names of the safely dead, and to purge the living, including most of the men who figured so prominently in Reed’s book: Trotsky, Antonoy-Ovseenko, Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and so many more. Ten Days That Shook the World was alive with them, so it too was suppressed, first in Russia and then wherever the Comintern owned the copyright through a manipulated publisher, as in England.
But in America, John Reed’s name was exploited through the John Reed Clubs. A biography was invented for him in which rebelliousness and manly opposition to dictatorial authority found no place.
Then suddenly, the “line” changed. In the new “Popular Front” period of the 1930'$, revolution had to be played down. Jack’s name was too inseparable from the idea of the October Revolution. It was dropped as remorselessly as it had been previously used; overnight, the John Reed Club became the League of American Writers.
With Stalin’s death, the wheel of fortune took another turn. Reed’s book reappeared in Russia; Lenin’s cold letter to Kobetski was published as evidence of Lenin’s “concern for American writers.”
Still John Reed’s spirit evades official control and goes its own characteristic way. It lives on in the record of his rebellious, adventurous, generously romantic, perpetually immature, brave poet’s life, in his colorful Insurgent Mexico, and, at its enduring best, in Ten Days That Shook the World.