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The young Max Eastman.
Eugene V. Debs, Max Eastman and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1918.
Charlie Chaplin and Max Eastman in Hollywood 1919.

Max Forrester Eastman (January 4, 1883 – March 25, 1969) was an American writer on literature, politics and society; supporter of progressive causes who later transformed into a supporter of individual rights and opponent of socialism, and patron of the Harlem Renaissance.


Early life and education

He was born in Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York. Both his parents, Samuel Elijah Eastman and Annis Bertha Ford, were Congregational Church clergy. In 1889 his mother was one of the first women ordained as a minister. This area was part of the "Burnt Over District", which earlier in the 19th century had generated much religious excitement, including the formation of the Mormon movement, and social causes, such as abolitionism and support for the Underground Railroad.

Eastman graduated with a bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1905. From 1907 to 1911 he worked toward a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University but chose not to claim the degree. He was a member of the Delta Psi and Phi Beta Kappa societies. Settling in Greenwich Village with his sister Crystal Eastman, he became involved in political causes, helping to found the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in 1910. While at Columbia, he was an assistant in the philosophy department, as well as a lecturer with the psychology department. After completing the requirements for his degree, however, he refused to accept it and simply withdrew in 1911.

Marriage and family

He married Ida Raub. They divorced in 1922.

In 1924 he married Eliena Krylenko, a native of Moscow, whom he met during a year's stay in the Soviet Union.


Eastman became a key figure in the left-leaning Greenwich Village community, and lived its influence for years. He combined this with his academic experience to explore varying interests, including literature, psychology and social reform. In 1913 he published Enjoyment of Poetry, an examination of literary metaphor from a psychological point of view. The same year he became an editor of The Masses, a magazine combining socialist philosophy with the arts.

In 1918 The Masses was forced to close due to charges under the Espionage Act of 1917. Its frequent explicit denunciations of U.S. participation in World War I had caused protest. Eastman subsequently stood trial twice under provisions of the Sedition Act, but was acquitted each time. In 1919 he and his sister Crystal founded a similar publication titled The Liberator. In 1922 after continuing financial troubles, it was taken over by the Workers Party of America. In 1924, The Liberator was merged with two other publications to create The Workers Monthly, and Eastman left the magazine.

Eastman embarked in 1923 on a fact-finding tour of the Soviet Union to learn about the Soviet practice of Marxism. He stayed for over a year, observing the power struggles between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Upon returning to the United States, Eastman wrote several essays that were highly critical of the Stalinist system, beginning with "Since Lenin Died" in 1925. These treatises were unpopular with American leftists of the time. In later years, however, Eastman's writings on the subject were cited by many on both the left and the right as sober and realistic portrayals of the Soviet system.

Although Eastman's view of the Soviet Union was sharply altered by his experiences there and by subsequent study, his commitment to left-wing political ideas continued unabated. While in the Soviet Union, Eastman began a friendship with Leon Trotsky, which endured through the latter's exile to Mexico. Eastman translated several of Trotsky's works into English during this time.

During the 1930s Eastman continued writing critiques of contemporary literature. He published several controversial works in which he criticized James Joyce and other modernist writers, who, he claimed, fostered "the cult of unintelligibility."[1] Eastman published The Literary Mind (1931) and Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), in which he also criticized some elements of Freudian theory. In the 1930s, he debated the meaning of Marxism with philosopher Sidney Hook (who, like Eastman, had studied under John Dewey at Columbia University) in a series of public exchanges.[2] Eastman was an active traveling lecturer throughout the 1930s and 1940s, when he spoke on various literary and social topics in cities across the country.

Following the Great Depression, by 1941 Eastman had mostly abandoned his former left-wing beliefs and connections. That year he was hired as a roving editor for Reader's Digest magazine, a position he held for the remainder of his life. He wrote articles critical of socialism and communism, served as a contributing editor of the conservative National Review magazine, and in the 1950s actively supported McCarthyism. Eastman's repudiation of socialism in general and communism in particular reached a high water-mark with the publication of Reflections on the Failure of Socialism in 1955. Friedrich Hayek refers to Eastman's life and to his repudiation of socialism in his The Road to Serfdom, and, in turn, Eastman helped to promote Hayek's work by serializing The Road to Serfdom for Reader's Digest. For the noted economist Ludwig von Mises, Hayek's mentor, Eastman threw a party in order to celebrate the publication of his treatise Human Action.[3]

Although his politics moved Eastman into conservative circles, he remained a lifelong atheist, and, in the 1960s, he resigned from The National Review's Board of Associates on the grounds that the magazine was too explicitly pro-Christian.[4] During this period he also produced a number of autobiographical works, and several include memories of his friendships and encounters with many of the leading figures of his time, including: Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, John Reed, Ernest Hemingway, Isadora Duncan, Leon Trotsky, H. L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and John Dewey. The last memoir was Love and Revolution: My Journey through An Epic (1964). He died at his summer home in Bridgetown, Barbados, at the age of 86.

Actor Edward Herrmann portrayed Eastman in the 1981 film Reds, starring Warren Beatty, which was based on the life of John Reed and was winner of three Academy Awards. The irony of Eastman's famous good looks being depicted by Herrmann, and Reed's bookish appearance being depicted in the film by the handsome Beatty, has been noted by scholar John Patrick Diggins in his work, Up From Communism.[5]

Selected works


  1. ^ Eastman, "The Cult of Unintelligibility," Harper's Magazine, clviii, April, 1929, pp. 632-639; famously, when Eastman asked Joyce why his book was written in a very difficult style, Joyce replied: "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years."
  2. ^ John Diggins, Up From Communism, Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 51-58.
  3. ^ John Diggins, Up From Communism, Harper & Row, 1975, .pp. 201-233.
  4. ^ O'Neill, William L., The Last Romantic: a Life of Max Eastman, Transaction Publishers, 1991; "Morality and American Society by William F. Buckley," interview, Acton Institute [1] (retrieved 4-13-09).
  5. ^ For this observation and more on Eastman, John Diggins, Up From Communism, Harper & Row, 1975, .pp. 201-233.

External links



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