Reasserting the importance of committed, truthful, on-the-ground reporting on the centenary of John Reed’s passing

Reasserting the importance of committed, truthful, on-the-ground reporting on the centenary of John Reed's passing

John Reed – journalist, poet, adventurer, political activist and workers’ rights defender – is the author of the landmark chronicle of the October Revolution of 1917. In this archive image, taken in October 1917, armed soldiers march towards the Kremlin with a banner reading ‘Communism’.

(AP/Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive)

On 17 October 1920, just days before his 33rd birthday, American journalist John Reed, author of Insurgent Mexico, a book covering the Mexican Revolution, and Ten Days that Shook the World, the most famous chronicle of the October Revolution of 1917, died of typhus in a Russian hospital in Moscow. Both of these works and Reed’s career now constitute an invaluable example of engaged journalism committed to social justice while ensuring truthful reporting, respect for sources and the indispensable need for the journalist to be where the news is happening.

Reed was a forerunner of narrative or literary journalism, capable of taking his readers to the scene of the events and giving them a sense of the atmosphere surrounding them, many decades before Tom Wolfe made it fashionable under the generic term ‘new journalism’ or authors such as Rodolfo Walsh, Truman Capote, Gay Talese or Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez elevated it to the category of a literary genre.

One of Reed’s ‘brothers in arms’ and author of one of the most insightful introductions to Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), journalist Albert Rhys Williams, wrote a highly detailed portrayal of the US journalist in action in the full throes of the Revolution: “He collected material wherever he could find it, moving from place to place. He collected complete files of the Pravda and Izvestia, all the proclamations, booklets, posters, and announcements. Posters were a special passion. Every time a new poster appeared, he did not hesitate to tear it from the wall if there was no other way of getting it.” According to Williams: “Those who wanted to be abreast of contemporary affairs needed only to follow John Reed, for he always hastened, a kind of storm bird, to wherever big things happened.”

John Reed, journalist, poet, adventurer, political activist and workers’ rights defender, is the only US citizen whose remains are buried in the most sacrosanct place in the Russia that inherited the Soviet Union, the foot of the Kremlin Wall.

This empire of empires was to emerge a few years after the triumph of the Revolution, in October and November 1917, an event Reed recounted in a way few others could aspire to.

John Reed was born into a wealthy family in Portland, Oregon, on 22 October 1887. The future chronicler of conflicts and revolutions graduated from Harvard in 1910 and his interests soon turned from adolescent heroic fantasies towards the social struggle and journalism. In 1913, Reed’s life reached a turning point that shaped his political engagement. Having joined the staff of The Masses, a socialist publication headed by Max Eastman, Reed covered a series of serious labour disputes in the United States that reinforced his vision of journalism as a tool for denouncing social injustice. War in Paterson, his article on the silk workers’ strikes in New Jersey dates back to that time. As an uncomfortable witness to such labour struggles, Reed had his first experience as a guest of the federal prison system, one that would be repeated throughout his life, including in Finland, where he was imprisoned many years later on suspicion of spying for Bolshevik Russia.

Being on the scene

Reed travelled to Mexico in 1913 as a correspondent for Metropolitan Magazine, to cover the Mexican Revolution for almost four months. During his time there, he was able to interview and develop a good rapport with the guerrilla and revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, who fondly nicknamed the US correspondent ‘Chatito’. The 1914 book Insurgent Mexico was the result of those months spent chronicling the war and the insurrection, a book that would earn him great prestige as a war correspondent and paved the way for his journey to Europe, where he was sent to cover the First World War.

In The Traders’ War, an article written in September 1914 for The Masses, Reed explained that the war in Europe was, in fact, a “clash of traders”. In The Worst Thing in Europe, an article also written for The Masses, in March 1915, he gave a brief insight into Russia’s “military might”, a presage of what was to come two years later, when its army fell apart, abandoned the front and joined the Revolution: “The Russian army, inexhaustible hordes of simple peasants torn from their farms, blessed by a priest, and knouted into battle for a cause they had never heard of…,” wrote Reed.

One of the keys to Reed’s ability to describe events with such precision, and irrespective of his own political assessment of them, is that he was always on the scene of the events as they were happening.

Unlike now, in the midst of the 21st century, when the internet has become the main source of information and an excuse for not sending reporters to the scene of events, a century ago, if you wanted to write with sufficient accuracy and objectivity about any event, the Russian Revolution, for example, you had to be in Petrograd, in Moscow or on board the convoy that carried the forces of Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government to crush the Bolsheviks in the imperial city.

And that is what John Reed did. That is why he headed to Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, to give a first-hand account of the by then unstoppable Revolution. John Reed and his then partner, Louise Bryant, a feminist, left-wing activist and also a journalist, set off for Europe at the end of August 1917, with Petrograd as their final destination. It was the start of their Russian adventure.

The US journalist described in great detail the events rapidly unfolding in Russia and that formed part of the history of those “ten days that shook the world”. In a report sent to The New York Call on 22 November 1917, but which corresponds to the events of 7 November according to the Gregorian calendar (25 October 1917 according to the Julian calendar followed in Russia at the time), Reed offered this brief insight into one world that was collapsing and another that was emerging: “This morning I was at the scene of the dispersal of the Junkers [military school cadets] defending the Winter Palace by the Soviet troops. In the afternoon I was present at the opening of the All-Russian Assembly of Soviets. In the evening I witnessed the assault on the Winter Palace, entering with the first Bolsheviki troops.”

In his 1975 biography of the journalist, Romantic Revolutionary, Robert A. Rosenstone writes that the Revolution was a “dream incarnate” for Reed, who “soared into a realm of visionary transcendence”. Many in the United States had an exotic and mystical notion of Russia at the turn of the century. It was the land of the “Slavic soul”, a mystical force expressed by figures such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Stravinsky or Diaghilev, the “polar opposite” to America’s materialism and pragmatism, according to Rosenstone.

The human tragedy of the First World War and the February 1917 revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II put an end to that, and what was happening in Russia started to be viewed as an almost millennium-long struggle between autocracy and democracy. Reed himself went on to apologise for not having understood what was happening from the outset. In an article for The Masses, in July 1917, prior to the tsunami of the October Revolution, Reed noted that although the focus in the analysis of Russia during those world war years was placed on its role in the struggle, the real key was the long frustrated uprising of the Russian masses, the purpose of which was to establish “a new human society on earth”. And even then he forecast that the drivers of this change would be the Soviets, “the real revolutionary heart of the New Russia”.

Pascual Serrano, journalist and expert in international politics, underlines John Reed’s ability to understand and interpret the events of the Russian Revolution, something which left Russian historians and scholars astonished from the outset. Serrano, author of the 2011 book Contra la Neutralidad (Against Neutrality), in which he analyses John Reed’s commitment to the truth and social rights, explains that this insight may have been due to the fact that he was a “foreign” correspondent, capable of perceiving details that a local analyst would perhaps overlook.

For Serrano, who also refers in his book to the committed journalism of authors such as Rodolfo Walsh, Robert Capa, Edgar Snow and Ryszard Kapuscinski, another of Reed’s skills was to give a voice to the leading characters of the stories, whether it be the striking textile workers in Paterson, United States, in the uprising in the dusty lands of northern Mexico, in the trenches of the Great War or in the Smolny Institute in Petrograd, where the Bolsheviks set up their headquarters. The aim was to break down false stereotypes through information and truthful reporting. Reed makes this clear in the preface to his book on the Russian Revolution:

“In the struggle my sympathies were not neutral. But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.”

In 1919, a year before he fell fatally ill with typhus, Reed was able to publish his most popular work, despite the obstacles put in his way by the conservative, anti-communist forces in the United States. Reed was not only confronted with condemnation on this front, but also with criticism from the inert socialist movement in his country at the time. Reed was a member of the Third International, but he was not forgiven, in socialist circles, for his independence, and not least his imagination. Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, summarised the situation in a speech paying tribute to Reed. He said, “John Reed was confronted with the choice between popular and profitable hypocrisy in the capitalist journals, and lonely disreputable truth in the revolutionary press. And he chose the truth”.

This article has been translated from Spanish.