On this day in 1887, the journalist John Reed was born. I suppose at this point, he is best known from the 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. But he really ought to be known for his firsthand account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. It was used as the blueprint to Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed died in Russia a year after the book was published in 1919. He was a hero of the early days of the Soviet Union and buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis with much pomp and circumstance.
Reed was a political radical and it is generally hard to separate his journalism from his activism. It is easy to dismiss him. The Soviet Union was hardly a bastion of freedom and equality even when he died. And under Joseph Stalin, whatever dream remained died forever. But given the excesses of capitalism through the time and increasing now, it is hard to see Reed in a bad light. I think the right path was the one we were on until about a half century ago: progressive income taxes, strong unions, a strong social safety net. These are the things that stop young idealists like Reed from thinking a workers’ revolution was necessary.
What I find most interesting about Reed is how he continues to fascinate people. He did lead an amazing life that is very much in keeping with his Romantic hero reputation. The film Reds didn’t much exaggerate what he did — including his treks between Russian and Finland. And he just happened to be at the center of the biggest political event in more than a century. And then he died young, still in the middle of it all. It’s impressive to me, because it is so different from any life that I could ever imagine living. And I’m fine with that.
Happy birthday John Reed!