Who is John Reed?

Garry Crystal

Before Hunter S. Thompson, before Woodward and Bernstein, the original revolutionary journalist was John Reed. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1887 to a wealthy family, John Reed’s life would end only 33 years later in Russia. He is the only American to be buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Red Square.

John Reed is the only American buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
John Reed is the only American buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

John Reed thought of himself not only as a journalist, but also as a writer of poetry and stories. However, it was his political journalism that brought him to the attention of the world. He has been described as a poet/adventurer, and his revolutionary writing was written not only from intellect but also from feeling. It was his political writing that made him a hero of some of the world’s most famous radical writers.

Journalist John Reed reported first-hand on the Russian revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.
Journalist John Reed reported first-hand on the Russian revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.

From his early years, John Reed was one of the more political writers. He wrote for newspapers such as The New Review and The Masses. He was a well-known figure among radical writers in New York and was once described by Van Wyck Brooks as the wonder boy of Greenwich Village. Sangar, his first collection of poems, was published in 1913.

Reed’s political leanings became apparent early in his career. He was arrested and spent four days in jail for speaking for strikers in New Jersey. He soon turned his hand to organizing strikes for workers and was arrested on many occasions.

In 1910, John Reed traveled to Mexico to cover the Mexican revolution. He wrote about the four months he spent with Pancho Villa and his troops and the fighting that occurred in Insurgent Mexico in 1914. The bottom line, Reed said, was that the war was about profits.

His next step as war correspondent saw him reporting on the fighting in Romania, Germany, Serbia and Russia. A lot of his reports were rejected on the grounds that his writing was too leftist. To Reed, there was no revolutionary spirit among the fighters. In 1916, Reed declared his support for Woodrow Wilson, but predicted accurately that there were government groups who were trying to bring war to the world. In the same year, war was declared on Germany.

It was around this time that John Reed met the woman he would marry. Louise Bryant was a journalist and feminist. In 1917, Reed and Bryant traveled to Russia to report on the revolution. Reed sympathized and related to the Bolsheviks and had strong pro-communist views.

Reed reported first hand from the revolution and wrote his most famous book, Ten Days That Shook The World. The book told the story of the 1917 Russian revolution and the storming of the Winter Palace. He also met and became a close friend of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. It was Lenin who urged the peasants, workers and soldiers to overthrow the government and take control.

Reed's anti-war articles soon brought attention from the American government, and he was suspected of being an agitator. In 1919, John Reed became the leader of the Communist Labor Party and traveled to Russia to have the party recognized. At this time, it was practically impossible to travel to Russia from America, and Reed had to hide aboard a ship to make the trip. When Reed tried to leave Russia, he was arrested and spent some time jail on suspicion of smuggling.

Reed was eventually found guilty of smuggling, but decided not to go back to America, as he was under suspicion of being a criminal anarchist. He returned to St. Petersburg and was joined by his wife. He became a political speaker, but his time in prison had seriously weakened him. John Reed was elected into the Executive Committee of the Comintern in Moscow.

In 1920, John Reed was struck down by typhus and died on 19 October in Moscow. His books and writing reported on one of the most significant times in history. Like many great journalists and writers, he was part of the story and not just an eyewitness. The film Reds was made about Reed's life in 1981, starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Ten years in the making, it is an accurate account of Reed’s life and political writing career.

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