Max Eastman

Max Eastman (1883-1969) was a poet, radical editor, translator, and author. He edited the socialist magazine The Masses (1912-1917) and translated Leon Trotsky into English.

Max Forrester Eastman was born on January 4, 1883, the son of two ministers. He graduated from Williams College in 1905 and studied philosophy with John Dewey at Columbia University (1907-1911), where he completed the work for a doctoral degree which he then decided not to claim. In 1909 Eastman founded the Men's League for Women's Suffrage and became a well-known and popular member of the bohemian left in New York City, where his growing reputation as a writer, lecturer, and fund-raiser led to his being invited, in 1912, to become the editor of the socialist magazine The Masses.

Under Eastman's leadership The Masses became an exuberantly anti-establishment left-wing socialist magazine featuring literary and political writing by such figures as Floyd Dell, John Reed, and Louis Untermeyer and graphic art by John Sloan, Robert Minor, and Art Young. When The Masses at first opposed America's entry into World War I it was banned by the government, and its editors, led by Eastman, were put on trial twice under the Espionage Act. Eastman was the star at both trials, a handsome and articulate young man whose eloquence was credited with achieving the victory of two hung juries at a time when most defendants under the Espionage Act were foredoomed to conviction.

After the death of The Masses Eastman founded The Liberator (1918-1922), then embarked enthusiastically on a sojourn to the Soviet Union, where he expected to discover the success of socialism. Eastman left the Soviet Union in 1924, disillusioned by the bitter struggle that followed Lenin's death in which Trotsky was brushed aside by Stalin. In 1925 Eastman's small book Since Lenin Died revealed to the world for the first time "Lenin's Testament," warning the party against allowing Stalin to succeed to power. Eastman's opposition to Stalin isolated him from American Marxists, and although he continued for some years to consider himself a radical, his views were rejected by orthodoxies of the left and the right, a position that Eastman himself, a rebellious individualist, did much to encourage.

Eastman's differences with his former comrades led him into bitterness that finally came full circle when in 1941 he published in the Reader's Digest (a conservative popular magazine with an enormous circulation) an article titled "Socialism Does Not Gibe with Human Nature." Eastman accepted a retainer as a roving editor for the Reader's Digest (which supported him until his death in 1969) and became an advocate of free enterprise and a supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's attacks on alleged communists. (He did not, however, inform on his former friends, as some ex-communists and fellow travellers did).

Eastman was, according to his most sympathetic biographers, a gifted man who because of personality, conviction, and circumstance did not achieve his full possibilities. He was a prolific writer whose real text seems to have been his own contradictory life and an idiosyncratic, rebellious individualist whose journey from radical socialism to conservatism seemed to typify an American pattern. Eastman's intelligence and independence allowed him to struggle free of Marxist orthodoxies, but also prevented him from discovering a satisfying engagement with culture and politics. In his personal life, Eastman was a lifelong advocate of feminist principles who, after divorcing his first wife and through two long and apparently successful marriages, became the conscientiously self-indulgent lover of many women. Eastman's opposition to Marxist literary theory cut him off from an important part of American intellectual and artistic life during his prime; his opposition to modernist approaches to art throughout his life cut him off from much of the rest. Milton Cantor, one of Eastman's biographers, says that Eastman "we find that rare thing—the fusion of the life and the letters, the thinker and the doer, the artist and the revolutionary … who knew life and yet loved it, knew men and yet loved them… He was, before the loss of hope, … [the] gnarled apple which had the sweetest taste."


Further Reading on Max Eastman

Eastman wrote, edited, and translated many books. Among them are Enjoyment of Poetry (1913) and Poems of Five Decades (1954). His political works are better known than the poetical and include Since Lenin Died (1925); The End of Socialism in Russia (1937); Marxism: Is It Science? (1940); and Stalin's Russia and the Crisis in Socialism (1940). Also important are two volumes of autobiography: The Enjoyment of Living (1948) and Love and Revolution (1965). For a sampling of The Masses, see William L. O'Neill (editor), Echoes of Revolt: the Masses, 1911-1917. For general biography, see William L. O'Neill, The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (1978) and Milton Cantor, Max Eastman (1970). Useful critical accounts of Eastman in the context of American radicalism may be found in Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (1961); John P. Diggins, Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (1975); and Leslie Fishbein, Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of The Masses, 1911-1917 (1982).


Additional Biography Sources

O'Neill, William L., The last romantic: a life of Max Eastman, New Brunswick, U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1991.