During the height of the violent protests by the anti-war movement in the late 60s, a cartoon circulated that reflected the shock parents experienced at their long-haired, profanity-spewing communist-flag waving children. In an attempt to soothe said parents the cartoon had one wife telling her husband, “Don’t worry about it, honey. Why, even Max Eastman ended up writing for Readers’ Digest.”
This implication that Eastman, once nearly thrown in jail for supposedly violating the Espionage Act by opposing World War I on socialist grounds, had now embraced the establishment depends heavily on which establishment one is talking about.
It is certainly true that by the 1940s, the former proponent of the Bolshevik Revolution had veered rightward, abandoning even socialism and embracing the anticommunism of the Reader’s Digest where he worked.
But if one considers the intellectual zeitgeist as one feature of the “establishment,” then Eastman was never part of it; indeed, he spent a large part of his life as a minority of one.
While American crowds cheered Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war in 1917, Eastman denounced America’s entry into World War I as simply to make money for the upper classes. When he continued to oppose the war through his writings for the anti-war left-wing Masses magazine, Eastman was prosecuted by the government for supposedly violating the Espionage Act, which made it a federal crime to agitate against the war (Eastman won the case).
In the early 20s, he was a frequent visitor to Bolshevik Russia and was very much the premature anti-Stalinist while other leftists praised Stalin. Eastman, by turns, caught the thuggish nature of the then-Party member Stalin early and warned that the Soviet Union would slide into dictatorship should Stalin take power.
Sidney Hook, an anti-Stalinist Marxist who nonetheless was frequently at loggerheads with Eastman, praised Eastman as a lone voice warning against Stalin:
“Of all the forms of intellectual independence Eastman displayed in his life, nothing matched the courage he had to summon up when he stood practically alone on his return from the Soviet Union in 1924. He had brought with him the first hard evidence of the Stalinization of the Bolshevik regime. In consequence, he became a rebel outcast in his own country and a pariah in the radical movement that had been central to his life.”
This isolation would be even more accentuated in the 1930s when intellectuals became Stalinists. As a result, Eastman’s books were largely ignored, and it reviewed by leftists were denounced as reactionary.
By the late 1930s, Eastman had abandoned even Leon Trotsky’s brand of Marxism and was a decided anticommunist.
When he brought these views with him into the World War II era when the Soviets and the United States were military partners, and even rock-ribbed Republicans like Henry Luce were praising Stalin, Eastman remained a voice in the wilderness.
By now regarded by even liberal anticommunists as a senile reactionary, Eastman bucked the intellectual tide even further by supporting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade in the 1950s. While liberals denounced McCarthy by the term of “red-baiter,” Eastman defended both the Senator and that term:
“Red Baiting – in the sense of reasoned, documented exposure of Communist and pro-Communist infiltration of government departments and private agencies of information and communication – is absolutely necessary. We are not dealing with honest fanatics of a new idea, willing to give testimony for their faith straightforwardly, regardless of the cost. We are dealing with conspirators who try to sneak in the Moscow-inspired propaganda by stealth and double talk, who run for shelter to the Fifth Amendment when they are not only permitted but invited and urged by Congressional committee to state what they believe. I myself, after struggling for years to get this fact recognized, give McCarthy the major credit for implanting it in the mind of the whole nation.”
Now writing for William F. Buckley’s pro-McCarthy National Review–he was an original contributing editor—Eastman in 1955 completely repudiated the revolution he once so fervently championed:
“Instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik revolution locked it into a state’s prison tighter than ever before. No flight of thought was conceivable, no poetic promenade even, to sneak through the doors or peep out of a window in this pre-Darwinian dungeon called Dialectic Materialism. No one in the western world has any idea of the degree to which Soviet minds are closed and sealed tight against any idea but the premises and conclusions of this antique system of wishful thinking. So far as concerns the advance of human understanding, the Soviet Union is a gigantic road-block, armed, fortified and defended by indoctrinated automatons made out of flesh, blood and brains in robot-factories they call schools.”
As supportive of the Cold War as Buckley, Eastman typically parted company with conservatives on the magazine. Against Buckley’s fervent Catholicism, Eastman remained an atheist (the magazine’s increasingly pro-Christian viewpoint would force Eastman to leave it in the 1960s). Always willing to entertain second thoughts, the free marketeer (Eastman helped publish the libertarian Frederich Von Hayek) now believed the conservative movement had been “taken over by reactionary forces who confused the quest of social justice with Communist treason.”
His final gesture of independence from the movement he was now part of occurred when he opposed the Vietnam War.
At first glance, Eastman would seem to be merely a knee-jerk rebel. But there is a consistent strain in his thinking that traced back to his days as a political leftist radical. The theme he lived by was provided in, of all places, The Masses magazine, when he wrote that the mission of the periodical was to be ‘directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found.”
And that was Eastman’s creed, be it on the Right or the Left.