Remembering John Reed

A great revolutionary activist and writer

This restless and brilliant American writer was above all a revolutionary leader of the Third International. Those who continue to struggle for the triumph of socialist revolutions with working class democracy are indebted to him, not only for his exemplary life as a militant activist; he also left us an essential book, “Ten Days That Shook the World.”


By Mercedes Petit

Ninety years ago on October 17 1920, John Reed died in Moscow, victim of typhus. It was one of the thousands of deaths caused by the immense hardships suffered in Soviet Russia in the midst of civil war. Reed participated in the Second Congress of the Third International, founded a year before in Moscow. He was about to turn 33 a few days later. On his bedside was his wife, Louise Bryant, who was also an American socialist, feminist and writer and who had traveled from the U.S. to visit him.

From Harvard to the workers liberation struggle

John Reed was born in October 1887 in Portland, a city in the north of the west coast of the United States. His father was a man who struggled against the monopolies that seized the huge wealth of those untouched regions. His family’s wealth and his great intelligence allowed Reed to be admitted at Harvard University, the most prestigious in the country where the children of the rich and the privileged where educated.

In Harvard, Reed formed a socialist club. When he finished school, Reed began a career as a writer, poet and travel journalist. In his travels, he began to report on the workers’ struggles of the day. Reed became the voice of the Colorado mine workers who faced Rockefeller and his murderous repression. During the Mexican Revolution, he accompanied armed peasants and Pancho Villa in their march to the National Palace; he portrayed them like no other writer in his book “Mexico in arms.” After his return to the U.S; Reed denounced the involvement of British and American oil companies that supplied gold and weapons to fight the revolution. Reed was arrested many times.

He worked as a newspaper correspondent in France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the Balkans and Russia when the inter-imperialist war broke in Europe. His tireless denunciations of this slaughter led to his arrest and subsequent trial. When the U.S. army declared war, he saved his life by avoiding the draft due to a kidney removal.

Ironically he would say that although the surgery “may release him to be a participant in the war between two nations. I am not exempt to participate in the class struggle”

Chronicler of the revolution

In July 1917 Reed traveled to Petrograd, the revolution in full gear, and stayed there. He was a direct witness and participant of many actions during those critical months─ which would lead to power for the first time ever a revolutionary government of workers and peasants organized in the Soviets and led by the Bolsheviks. In the meantime, he was accumulating a collection of newspapers (mainly Pravda and Izvestia); leaflets and posters and everything he found in its path (published by both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries).

He managed to rescue his formidable collection upon his return to the U.S. but the police seized it in New York. Thereafter, he locked himself in his room to write and gave birth to the unique and irreplaceable chronicle of the October insurrection, “Ten Days That Shook the World”. Fortunately, American fascist groups failed in their attempts to steal the manuscript from the publisher.

Working class militant

Reed’s rich production as a publicist and historian was a direct result of his dedication to revolutionary militancy. In fact, He was a member of the Socialist Party USA. In April 1918, he followed the trial of the 101 members of the IWW (International Workers of the World)[1]. In September 1919 the SP split in two, John Reed leading the left wing which founded the Communist Workers Party. The following month he returned to Russia and became a member of the Executive Committee of the Third International.

In July 1920, Reed attended the Second Congress. Then he traveled to Baku in the Caucasus, to accompany the Congress of Peoples of the East.   On October 17, Reed died in Moscow due to typhus.

The Trotskyist leader and historian Pierre Broue wrote: “With him disappeared not only an incomparable chronicler and historian of the Russian Revolution, a huge journalist, but also a generous man, enthusiastic, sincere and selfless, believing what he said and willing to suffer and die for his ideas, a real man … “He added that it was much more than a” romantic revolutionary “as he was often portrayed: ” A true revolutionary, with immense intelligence, courage in every test, a lucidity that earned him respect for all. “*

John Reed did not hesitate to leave out the advantages and amenities that he could have enjoyed as a journalist and writer who graduated from Harvard and as someone from wealthy origins. With fervor, he embraced the struggle for the triumph of the proletarian and socialist revolution which he accompanied in its earlier phase before his death.

His remains were deposited in a place he loved: the Red Square in Moscow, the Kremlin walls. John Reed’s remains are covered by unpolished granite stone with an epitaph that reads:  “John Reed, a delegate to the Third International, 1920.”

*Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste (1919-1943). Fayard, Paris, 1997. The author recommends the 1981 film Reds written, produced and directed by Warren Beatty, who also stars as John Reed in a romanticized portrayal which is exactly what Broué points outs in his rendition of Reed.

Source: El Socialista

Free Translation from the Spanish original


[1]Translator’s note: The IWW was also known as The Wobblies