John Reed

Portrait of John Reed

Born: Portland, Oregon - 22 October 1887
Died: Moscow - 17 October 1920

John Silas "Jack" Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, the famous first-hand account of the October Revolution, was born to a family of rich industrialists and enjoyed a privileged youth at private school and Harvard University, where he indulged in the full range of social, cultural and sporting entertainments on offer.

After graduation in 1910, he moved to New York and began his career in journalism working as a staffer on American Magazine and rapidly building a career as a promising freelancer. Equally rapid was his conversion to radical politics, and in 1913 he began to work for The Masses, a socialist monthly magazine that was probably the most progressive in the US at the time. He also became an ardent activist, defending the rights of striking workers and earning his first stint in prison in the process. He came to the public attention for his coverage of the Mexican Revolution, for which he spent four months with Pancho Villa's army.

He left for Europe soon after the outbreak of the First World War, but his support for international socialism and his hopes for revolution compromised him as a straight war correspondent. Firmly opposed to American involvement in the war, he soon found himself persona non grata in the press.

In August 1917, Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, travelled to Russia to report on events in the fledgling republic. Drawn to the Bolsheviks, Reed witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace on 7 November 1917, and soon offered his services to the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, translating decrees and news about the actions of the new government into English. He became close to many members of the new government, meeting both Trotsky and Lenin. He spoke at the Third Congress of Soviets, and was even proposed by Trotsky as Soviet Consul in New York. The suggestion was quashed by Lenin.

Nonetheless, when Reed returned to New York in April 1918, he was a passionate advocate for the new Bolshevik state, preaching against Allied Intervention, and seemingly hoping that revolutionary fervour would soon spread to the US. He was also in considerable trouble with the law. Thanks to his anti-war articles, The Masses had been indicted for sedition, and Reed was also repeatedly arrested for his activism. All his papers had been seized on his arrival in New York, so it was not until November 1918 that he was able to write and publish Ten Days that Shook the World. Despite the damage to his public reputation, the book was widely praised by critics and sold well.

Embroiled in court cases and political in-fighting on the American left, Reed returned to the Soviet Union in October 1919. During the winter, he traveled extensively through the Russian countryside, examining and noting the consequences of the Revolution. He then attended the second Comintern Congress, where he found himself increasingly disillusioned with the authoritarian attitude of the Soviet authorities. By this time he had little hope of returning to the US, and he was ordered by Grigory Zinoviev to travel to Baku for the Congress of the Peoples of the East.

Now little more than a pawn in the Bolshevik machinery, he returned to Moscow to meet Bryant in September 1920, determined to return home. While in the south, however, he had contracted typhus and, with no medicine available due to the Allied blockade of the Soviet Union, he died on 17 October. He is the only foreigner to be buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

Works: Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), Red Russia: The Triumph of the Bolsheviki (1919), The Structure of the Soviet State (1919), Daughter of the Revolution and Other Stories (1927), John Reed and the Russian Revolution: Uncollected Articles, Letters and Speeches on Russia, (1992), Shaking the World: John Reed's Revolutionary Journalism (1998)

Connected with: Louise Bryant