Reviewing a few scenes from Reds
Reviewing a few scenes from Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981): Goldman versus Reed versus Zinoviev by Prairie Fire
(llco.org, originally published Feb. 25, 2008)
Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981) is a biographical account of the life of John Reed (Warren Beatty). Reed was a journalist and a communist. He rode with Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution. He was a cofounder of the American Communist Party. He witnessed the October 1917 uprising in Russia. He wrote what is probably the most famous eyewitness account of the days of the October uprising, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). His account was so famous that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin felt obliged to correct some factual errors in the book. According to the movie, he was a one-time prisoner of the White armies who Lenin helped free in a prisoner exchange between the Whites and Reds, “[Lenin] would trade for Reed Fifty professors.” Reed is famously known for being the only American buried in the Kremlin. Reds is also a love story between Reed and fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton).
Reds garnered twelve Academy Award nominations in 1981. This was more awards than any other film in the previous fifteen years. Warren Beatty was awarded the Oscar for best director for the film. This was the case even though Reds was up against unusually stiff competition, Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981). In 2008, The American Film Institute dubbed it one of the ten greatest movies of all time in the epic genre. (1) During the Brezhnev years, during the Reagan presidency, how it was that Hollywood produced a three-hour movie sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution is a bit of a mystery. It is not a mystery that this critically acclaimed movie was not a success with American audiences.
Throughout the latter part of the movie, Reed is depicted as being in a permanent state of spiritual crisis over the disconnect between the ideal of the socialism and the reality of the USSR. Reed confronts his own inner struggles through his encounters with Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), the anarchist, and Gregory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), the Bolshevik bureaucrat.
John Reed versus Emma Goldman
An exchange between Goldman and Reed:
Goldman: “Jack, we have to face it. The dream that we had is dying. If Bolshevism means the peasants taking the land, the workers taking the factories, then Russia’s one place where there is no Bolshevism.”
Reed: “Ya know, I can argue with cops. I can fight with generals. I can’t deal with a bureaucrat.”
Goldman: “You think Zinoviev is nothing worse than a bureaucrat. The soviets have no local autonomy. The central state has all the power. All the power is in the hands of a few men and they are destroying the revolution. They are destroying any hope of real communism in Russia. They are putting people like me in jail. My understanding of revolution is not a continual extermination of political dissenters. And I want no part of it. Every single newspaper has been shut down or taken over by the Party. Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does it end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution? The dream may be dying in Russia, but I’m not. It may take some time, but I’m getting out.”
Reed: “You sound like you are a little confused about the revolution in action, EG. Up ‘till now you’ve only dealt with it in theory. What did you think this thing was going to be? A revolution by consensus where we all sat down and agreed over a cup of coffee?”
Goldman: “Nothing works! Four million people died last year. Not from fighting war, they died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights — where nothing works!”
Reed: “They died because of the French, British and American blockade that cut off all food and medical supplies. And, counter-revolutionaries have sabotaged the factories and the railroads and telephones. And the people, the poor, ignorant, superstitious, illiterate people are trying to run things themselves just like you always said they should, but they don’t know how to run them yet. Did you honestly think things were going to work right away? Did you honestly expect social transformation was going to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war EG, and we got to fight it like we fight a war: with discipline, with terror, with firing squads. Or we just give it up.”
Goldman: “Those four million didn’t die fighting a war. They died from a system that cannot work.”
Reed: “It’s just the beginning EG. It’s not happening like we thought it would. It’s not happening the way we wanted it to, but it is happening. If you walk out on it now, what does your whole life mean?”
Reed’s response to Goldman is Mao’s “revolution is not a dinner party.” (2) Anarchists measure existing socialism against impossible utopias. Whereas the idealistic vision is an important component of revolution, of pushing forward the revolution, of raising people’s sights, when such idealism is not combined with materialist analysis, it can become counter-revolutionary. The Goldman in Reds represents much of the contemporary “radical left” of the West who condemn the experience of “real existing socialism” of the USSR and China in their revolutionary years. She represents an idealist “left” that wipes its hands of all political responsibility and a “left” that learns nothing from the past.
Revolutions are born in blood. Rejecting the Bolshevik revolution is a rejection of revolution per se. Hence, the anarchist narrative becomes the liberal, Western one: Since revolutions are not possible, positive social change can only happen through liberalism, reformism, gradualism. The “left” no longer believes in the radical reorganization of society to actually reach communism. They neither believe in communism as a real, physical possibility nor do they feel they obliged to fight for communism. “Anarchists” don’t really believe in anarchism. “Communists” no longer believe in communism. And, in the RIM, “Maoists” no longer believe in Maoism. In the First World, the death of the belief in revolution can be attributed to the growth of parasitism. However, revolutionary thought has had a hard time of it in the Third World too because of the hegemony of the liberal narrative. Without proletarian state power, with nothing to stand in its way, the liberal, Western narrative about the evils of totalitarianism is unopposed. Even with the Islamic upsurge, much of the so-called “left” buys into the end of history narrative of triumphant, globalized capitalist-imperialism.
Revolutions will never live up to the hopes of Goldman. Real revolutionaries face the reality and inevitability of violence. They engage it; they are obliged to create something from the chaos. They enter the fray. They lead. They take the burden of history and responsibility on their shoulders. The eternal critic stands the edge looking in. She can only criticize the Bolsheviks. She does not even have the courage of her convictions to oppose the Bolsheviks in out-and-out counter-revolution by taking up arms against them. It is no accident that the real Goldman never met up with the anti-Bolshevik leader Nestor Makhno. She admired him from afar, even though she had the opportunity to join him. (3) No doubt, she would have criticized Makhno had she come close enough to be burned by his sun.
John Reed versus Gregory Zinoviev
In Reds, Reed’s adversary within the Comintern is Zinoviev. Zinoviev is portrayed as the bureaucrat par excellence. Reed is portrayed as the idealist within the revolution as opposed to Goldman’s position as an idealist outsider.
At the Comintern, Zinoviev brushes aside the concerns of the American delegation over whether the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or American Federation of Labor (AFL) can be turned into an instrument for revolution. If J. Sakai’s history of the labor movement is correct, then Reed is probably correct about favoring the IWW. The IWW represented the least chauvinistic part of the labor movement in the United States. Perhaps the communist focus should have been on the IWW, not the AFL. Zinoviev brushes these concerns aside in favor of moving on to “the national and colonial issue.” Whether the Comintern is correct or not on the IWW versus AFL issue, Zinoviev’s shift of emphasis from the Western, American worker to the resistance of the oppressed nations against imperialism is correct. Both Zinoviev and Lenin were right that “the storm center of revolution is heading East.” Reed briefly resigns over IWW versus AFL issue, but returns after he realizes his own error of walking out of the revolution is the same as Goldman’s. Reed, himself spiritually divided, tears up his resignation. Zinoviev and Karl Radek (Jan Triska) welcome Reed back:
Zinoviev to Reed: “Thank you comrade Reed.”
Radek to Reed: “Welcome back comrade Reed. Now you will be able to represent the American workers at the Fourth Comintern Congress at Baku to inspire revolution among the peoples of the Middle East.”
Zinoviev to Reed: “Prepare for a difficult trip.”
Radek to Reed:“Our only route is through divided territory.”
On the way to Baku through divided territory, a spiritually divided Reed laments over an IWW flyer, over a revolution that seems estranged from himself. This is underscored with a musical leitmotif expressing lament and innocence lost. In the opening scene after Reed arrives at the Comintern congress in Baku, he is taken aback by Islamic peoples cheering as they burn an effigy of Uncle Sam. Reed delivers a speech for the Comintern to Islamic peoples in English. As Reed delivers his speech it is translated into several languages. After the translators finish delivering another version to the crowd, the crowd chants “Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!” Reed turns and asks a Muslim, “What is that for?” “They are supporting your call for a Holy War of Islamic people against the Western infidel!” Taken aback, Reed’s health worsens. As they return on a train to Moscow, Reed confronts Zinoviev over the rewriting of his speech:
Reed: “Zinoviev. Did you do the translations of my speech?”
Zinoviev: “I supervised it. Yes.”
Reed: “I didn’t say holy war. I said class war.”
Zinoviev: “I took the liberty of altering a phrase or two.”
Reed: “Yes, well, I don’t allow people to take those liberties with what I write.
Zinoviev: “Aren’t you propagandist enough to utilize what moves people most?”
Reed: “I’m propagandist enough to utilize the truth.”
Zinoviev: “And who defines this truth? You or the Party? Is your life dedicated to speaking for yourself or?”
Reed: “You don’t talk about what my life is dedicated to.”
Zinoviev: “Your life? You haven’t resolved what your life is dedicated to. You see yourself as an artist and at the same time a revolutionary. As a lover of your wife and as the spokesperson for the American Party.”
Reed: “Zinoviev, if you don’t think a man can be an individual and be true to the collective, or speak for his own country and the International at the same time, or love his wife or still be faithful to the revolution, then you don’t have a self to give.”
Zinoviev: “Would you be willing to give yourself to this revolution..”
Reed: “When you separate a man from what he loves the most what you do is purge what’s unique, and when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent.”
Zinoviev: “Comrade Reed.”
Reed: “And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution. Revolution is dissent. You don’t rewrite what I write!”
The argument between Reed and Zinoviev is answered in Zinoviev’s favor by an artillery shell hitting the train. Like the shell, reality comes crashing down, interrupting Reed. Reed finds himself in the middle of a battle between Whites and Reds. The counter-revolutionaries, heretofore an abstraction, materialize along with the reality of revolution. Reed’s criticisms are in part petty-bourgeois, but also in part true. Echoing Goldman, but also echoing Mao’s “it’s right to rebel!,” Reed yells, “revolution is dissent!” What is the difference then between a Reed or a Mao and a Goldman? The key difference is that Reed, with all his virtues and flaws, is on the train with Zinoviev. Reed’s is a critique of the revolution from within the revolution. He does not make himself the eternal outsider as Goldman and the anarchist and Trotskyist traditions do.
Shortly after, in the final scene, Reed addresses his one time lover, lifelong partner, friend and peer, Louise Bryant from his death bed:
Reed: “Want to come to New York with me?”
Bryant: “New York.”
Reed: “I have a taxi waiting.”
Bryant: “I wouldn’t mind.”
Reed: “What as?”
Bryant: “What as?”
Reed: “What as?”
Bryant: “Gee, I don’t know.”
His relationship to the revolution, with its ups and downs, its ambiguities, mirrors his relationship to Bryant over the years. Even in the heat of their arguments, Zinoviev never stopped referring to Reed as “comrade.” The revolution should be big enough to handle the criticisms of comrades like Reed.
At this key juncture, the revolution was turning from the West represented by Trotsky and Goldman to the East represented by Lenin, Zinoviev, Stalin, Mao, Lin Biao and the Leading Light. Whatever flaws Zinoviev had, later falling out with Stalin and joining Trotsky, at this juncture, Zinoviev played a key part in putting the International Communist Movement on the correct path. With his spiritual crisis affecting his health, Reed dies with an IWW flyer beside him. The flyer is a symbol for the naive beginnings of the movement when all “workers,” Third and First World, were revolutionary. Would Reed have seen beyond himself to see that First World “workers” are reactionary? That they exploit the Third World? Would Reed have been a comrade today? Would he have embraced Leading Light Communism? Reds does not give us enough to answer these questions. Nonetheless, Reds is a provocative movie for our movement.
2. Mao Zedong, “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery, it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
3. Goldman, Emma. My Disillusionment in Russia. New York Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923. HYPERLINKhttp://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_Archives/goldman/disillusion/ch21.html
P.S.: Read the defunct Maoist Internationalist Movement’s review of Reds.