A Disorderly Journey

FILENE, PETER

A Disorderly Journey Love and revolution: my journey through an Epoch By Max Eastman Random House. 665 pp, $8.95. Reviewed by Peter Filene Free-lance critic ... Max Eastman, former friend, you...

...Yet this resolution does not exhaust the issue in Eastman's case...
...When Eastman sensed the new mood in his old friend, he experienced his "first marginal glimpse of a disappointment" which, 15 years later, expanded to profound disillusionment with the USSR...
...to use his own words, he has objectified that trait vividly in this medley of love and revolution...
...Thus Eastman locates his ideological development in a context of personal emotion and anecdote...
...Relying on his earlier writings, his own and others' letters, and the research of later scholars, the 82-year-old author acts as a self-historian...
...According to his recollection, he converted to Marxism after hearing a three-sentence summary of Marx's theories by the woman soon to be his wife...
...Indeed, he later remarks with almost wry astonishment that Lenin's ruthless suppression of the rebellion by Russian sailors at Kronstadt (192 I) made no impression on him...
...If it implies any generalization at all, it prompts speculation as to how many ostensibly sober, singleminded servants of political radicalism were, in fact, secret Max Eastmans mixing romances with dialectics...
...Presumably, then, he furnishes the data for a more valid analysis of his intellectual development than could be constructed from his editorials, speeches and books alone...
...Paradoxically, he would not have been true to himself...
...In Marxism: Is It Science...
...Had he done so, he would no longer be the Henry Adams we "know...
...However sincerely Eastman may have opposed American intervention in Russia, for example, he apparently was just as sincerely thrilled, during his anti-intervention speaking tour, to meet Charlie Chaplin and to enjoy a brief, passionate affair with a beautiful Russian refugee named Vera...
...At the same time, however, this very richness also prevents the reader from taking Eastman's ideas as seriously as they might be taken...
...But isn't an autobiographer obligated to tell the whole story...
...The contortions of this intellectual itinerary are perplexing...
...In this broader scope, the virtues of his autobiography become its liabilities...
...Ida, that's a perfectly wonderful idea...
...For he is also dealing with the world beyond himself, with the public as well as his private world of events...
...Isn't the value of his product dependent on honesty, even at the cost of dramatic focus...
...Nay, you are worse, since you yourself were once the Bolshevik leader of a generation of young intellectuals...
...At the same time, he implied that Eastman was important enough to warrant such extravagant public rebuke...
...He has preserved the vitality and authenticity of his materials, using hindsight to note his errors rather than silently to correct them...
...You are a filthy and deliberate liar...
...His ideological itinerary was a restless one: In the winter of 1910-11, he became a Marxian socialist, although skeptical of Marx's philosophy of history and of the doctrine of class struggle...
...Eastman's vitality was too disorderly for any such constraints, and his autobiography, unfortunately, is the same...
...As the constant victim of "my capital vice of self-dispersal, of wanting to live all lives at once...
...After surveying the Bolshevik experiment in person during 1922-24 and witnessing Stalin's consolidation of party control in the wake of Lenin's death, Eastman became a Trotskyist...
...Eastman exclaimed, and thereby passed "a turning point in my mental life...
...An affair with Eliena Krylenko, the death of Lenin, a virtual nervous breakdown, a frantic attempt to complete a novel, the 13th Communist Party Congressall these events crowd against one another in a staccato sequence of chapters...
...it too becomes "gay and jocular and daring...
...Adams frankly made a literary and philosophic artifice of his life, even to the extent of omitting any mention of his marriage...
...Life-to-the-fullest was his goal...
...A glance at one of the most illustrious examples in this century, The Education of Henry Adams, indicates how variously an author can interpret his obligations...
...In retrospect he sees Lenin's action as an obvious clue to the tyranny latent in Soviet rule...
...Love" joins "Revolution...
...Controversy has always swirled around the figure of Max Eastman...
...In mid­1918, John Reed returned from Russia, no longer the "gay and jocular and daring" young man whom Eastman fondly remembered, but a tense and somber lieutenant of the Revolution who was assigned by Lenin and Trotsky to organize a Communist movement in America...
...Eastman's book provokes such questions about the mode of autobiography in general...
...With this diatribe in the Communist Daily Worker of 1934, Mike Gold pronounced Eastman's excommunication from the fold of American radicalism...
...Moreover, Chaplin and Vera have an obvious advantage in competing with intervention for the reader's interest...
...government indicted the Masses under the wartime espionage act, so he had no inclination to follow Reed to death by typhus in the service of a Marxian faith, nor to follow an Adams or Marx in searching for historical laws...
...The result of such complexity is, in one perspective, an historical richness...
...In fact, political affairs loom as large as love affairs, particularly since his strictly chronological narrative requires a constant shift of focus...
...Eastman's choices at two intellectual junctures furnish especially striking examples...
...Similarly, Eastman cannot be legitimately criticized for having portrayed himself as he has done...
...Yet in so doing he increases the perplexity by superimposing a second map, a maze of emotions upon the ideological maze...
...The use of the third person signals his manipulation of his experience...
...Despite these exceptions to his already qualified faith, Eastman admitted his definitive disenchantment with the Revolution only in 1934, and then only after great mental struggle...
...Aware of this fact, Eastman attempts to specify the occasions for each change of course...
...As soon as the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, he became a fervent admirer of the Revolution and particularly of Lenin, "that practicalminded and free-minded engineer of revolution...
...Just as he did not want to go to jail for the principle of free speech, after the U.S...
...Dogma was his enemy, whether in the Soviet Union or in his experience...
...This anecdote would be trivial if Eastman himself did not lay so much stress upon its place in his ideological development...
...This combination of political notoriety and personal conscientiousness could make Eastman's "journey through an epoch" an instructive guidebook to 20th-century American radicalism...
...Eastman prohibits anyone from ignoring the emotional context in which he formed his political ideas...
...His first moment of doubt about the Soviet experiment was similarly idiosyncratic...
...Consequently, this "journey through an epoch" is a guide-book to its exuberant author rather than to American radicalism at large...
...During the next seven years his attacks on the USSR and on Marxism came fast and furious, reaching a particularly bitter pitch during the Moscow purge trials...
...In 1918 he experienced a slight misgiving about the Soviet regime, but he barely had time to realize the notion as he assailed American intervention in Russia...
...The question of a "good" autobiography seems to be unanswerable...
...at the same time, he suddenly decided that Lenin was less an engineer of revolution than "a fanatic of the Marxian religion...
...Yet would anyone wish that Adams had been more "honest" and converted his great work of literature into a more faithful account...
...At the time, however, he was "absorbed in a tragic love [with Florence Deshon] and a treatise on comic laughter [later published as The Sense of Humor...
...1940) he renounced socialism altogether...
...His autobiography describes all three incidents with uniform intensity...
...In this second volume of his autobiography, Love and Revolution, he relates his experiences with gusto and at length...
...The failure of the Bolshevik Revolution, which Eastman in 1940 termed "perhaps the greatest tragedy in human history," becomes the subplot to a comedy...
...From the editorship of the irreverent, Left-wing Masses during World War I to his polemics against Stalinism and American fellow travelers during the '30s, Eastman seems to have acted in every scene of the turbulent drama of American radicalism between the wars...
...after all, one cannot set down rules to govern the author's image of himself...
...The world has always loathed the Judases more than it did the Pontius Pilates...
...The Kronstadt rebellion simply passed me by...
...He has also been remarkably candid about his private failings and relationships...
...Max Eastman, former friend, you have sunk beneath all tolerance...

Vol. 48 • April 1965 • No. 9


 
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