On the Centennial of the Revolution, a Few Thoughts About the Film “Reds”

REDS (dir. Warren Beatty, 1981) is honestly one of my favorite American films. There is a certain interesting phenomenon in revisiting the film this year, the centennial of the revolution it portrays, because its release was at a very key political moment in American history also. It seems like a strange kind of bookending to revisit a film released at the close of the Reagan administration’s first year during Donald Trump’s final freshman quarter in the Oval Office.

Beatty engaged with some very ingenious and intriguing cinematic storytelling methods in the film, particularly in how he interspersed within the picture documentary footage of interviews given by those who remembered the events. This is noteworthy because it ended up in hindsight to be the closest thing to a Hollywood production about the Oral History of the American Left at NYU processed by Paul Buhle, Jonathan Bloom, Michael Nash, unattributed Tamiment staff, and David A. Olson. Beatty’s utility of these interviews, which admittedly carry a certain whimsical and gossipy nature, function on two levels. First, obviously, they give a realistic grounding to the proceedings that might otherwise have been impossible. Secondly, they give the editor the necessary license to stitch together a coherent narrative out of a set of episodes that would otherwise be indecipherable or alternatively totally boring to consume. Trying to develop a three-act classical Hollywood picture out of events that were even at the time of their occurrence confounding for the disengaged American voter is impossible. Beatty instead creates a collection of short sequences that re-enact with great drama and aplomb a set of developments that only in hindsight can be recognized as those which radically reshaped the history of human civilization over the next century.

With this in mind it is impossible to articulate a coherent analysis that goes beyond acknowledgement of what was good and what was bad in this film.

Let’s start with the bad. Except for an unspeaking cameo by an actor in a Eugene O’Neil play who is probably supposed to be Paul Robeson, there is no major character of color in this film. This is unforgivable. The major political events in America that develop onscreen both before and after the Russian revolution were and remain defined by racializing working men and women of various nationalities. The entire existence of the Industrial Workers of the World was premised around the need for anti-racism in the American labor movement, which was poisoned by the segregation policies in the American Federation of Labor. Likewise the split between the Debs-era Socialists and what goes on to be the Communist Party USA is framed in terms of espionage and loyalty to American patriotism rather than acknowledging, as W.E.B. Du Bois would in his letter of application to the CPUSA many decades later, that the Socialists engaged in segregation policies in the South (though one must always point out that Debs himself refused to speak to segregated audiences while rebuking racism and lynchings).

Beatty’s repeated failure in this regard is borne out to the fullest climax in his representation of the all-important Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku in 1920. Whereas the historical record describes a gathering that tried to build an alliance between pan-Islamic thought and international Communism, something recently given a rather impressive analysis by no less than the longtime anti-Bolshevik New York Times (!) and greater explanation by Bill Fletcher, Jr., Beatty clearly trafficked in anti-Muslim and anti-Asian demagoguery in the name of then-contemporary politics stemming from the Soviet-Afghan war. Rather than trying to build a coalition opposing Western imperialism in the Muslim-majority lands, we are shown a manipulative, paternalistic Grigory Zinoviev delivering speeches about jihad and holy war to a pack of hollering, rabid men in fezzes chanting “Alahu ackbar!”

Accusations of paternalistic, manipulative Bolshevik racism, espionage, and intentional avoidance of the grassroots-level impact that Leninism had on American racial discourse is not an unheard set of claims. These are the tropes utilized by American anti-Communist historians such as Harvey Klehr, John Haynes, and Allen Weinstein, men whose works have eschewed the social history approach of chroniclers like Buhle and Robin D.G. Kelley in the name of a style and substance of works, published by houses like the Hoover Institute, that focuses on the minutiae of policy, leadership politics, and the role of the Soviet Union. In practice this has generated a raft of titles that read like boring spy novels by a third-rate Le Carre impersonator, totally devoid of any true insights about why Communism in American history was lively, engaging, dynamic, tragic, militant, dogmatic, schismatic, and yes even conspiratorial all at the same time. The shortcoming of such an approach is that the distinction between rank-and-file members, who believed in their cause for genuine good reasons, and leadership, who could be and sometimes were bastards, is totally obscured.

With sad irony, the recent ouster of Marcus Farrell, a senior staffer with the Black Georgia Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, owing to a recent interview on Sputnik Radio with Eugene Puryear on the program By Any Means Necessary, is reflective of a certain resurrection of these tropes about Kremlin paternalism and continues to show why this topic is so necessary for conversation. Even with the Soviet Union gone now for over a quarter century and Russian Alexander Dugin now serving as an aspiring intellectual wellspring for European and American reactionary politics, not without at the least apathetic allowance by the Putin government, we see the anti-Russian lunacy lurching through our body politic once again and attempting to link African American liberation struggle with the Kremlin.

The fact that Jerzy Kosinski, the anti-Communist Polish writer who was plagued by accusations of plagiarism, delivers his performance of Zinoviev with a near-sociopathic aura rather than showing a truly flawed yet ultimately small-c communist visionary is perhaps the climactic irony in hindsight. On the 25th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Zinoviev wrote in the introduction to a series of 1923 historical lectures:

The Russian Communist Party is not just any party. History decreed that the R.C.P was to become a mighty instrument of human progress and a major instrument of the world revolution. Its importance is great and immeasurable in the history not only of Russia but also in that of the whole world. So it is not accidental that the course of development of the R.C.P is studied today by the best minds of the international workers’ movement. And so, the more is it the duty of each one of us who has to live and fight in the ranks of the R.C.P. to know its history and to study each of the steps along its difficult road to victory and the smallest episodes of its heroic struggle for the cause of the liberation of the proletariat.

Where the line between propagandist and true revolutionary needs to be drawn is hard to discern. While there have been hundreds of biographies of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and one influential title about Bukharin, written by Stephen Cohen, which served as inspiration for the policies of both Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, there has yet to be an English biography of Zinoviev. As such, Beatty’s film sadly further obscures our understanding of who this man was and what his measure might have actually been, particularly because his 1916 works on imperialism were part of the discourse that reaches its apex with Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet on the subject. Here was a man whose achievements included trying to build both a theoretical and practical frontal assault against colonialism and racism, be it at the Baku conference or as chair of the Comintern. And he is portrayed like this? In the face of the alt-right and the attempt to re-introduce scientific racism into the discourse via foul websites like Breitbart, it would be a great deed by a scholar of international Communism to reply with a true and meaningful accounting for the legacy of Zinoviev.

What makes this film good, however, is worth pointing out. The chemistry and romance between Diane Keaton, playing the free love avant-garde artist and writer Louise Bryant, and Beatty, playing the firebrand John Reed, is only matched by the barely-veiled anxiety, hurt, and pain shown by Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neil, who nearly steals the show. Beatty uses every inch of the screen in vast, rich shots that are clearly indebted to David Lean and particularly ZHIVAGO (was this film in part supposed to be a rebuttal to that film?).

But while it seems like this film is a picture about a revolution, the truth is that it is actually a story about writers and journalists. These are the great-grandparents of writers today who promote progressive ideas while raking the muck at websites like Counterpunch. It is a film about people like me and the joy we derive from the act of writing. The difference between the 1917 typewriter Reed uses and the 2017 word processing program that I use is not that substantial. As a celebration of this kind of praxis, it makes the grade undeniably.

Furthermore, the ultimate lesson of the picture, subtle yet true, is quite relevant today. It is given epitome when Keaton’s character pleads with Reed that “You’re a writer, Jack!”

Many writers today probably find themselves within such challenges as Reed did when he became a delegate for the Comintern and tried his hand at politics. The discipline and uniformity of message required of a left wing party official of any ranking or status is simply anathema to the free spirited nature of progressive-left muckraking and writing. Reed at multiple points finds himself locking horns with the newborn Communist political system because they go against his suggestions on policy and edit his writings to reflect the proper party line. It is understandably infuriating and presents an impressive ethical query. At what point does bias and ideological alignment hinder the muckraker?

Perhaps this query offers insight. While it is undeniable that his scholarship on Frederick Douglass was important and vital for its time in history, the magnum opus of Phillip Foner’s life was his History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Published by the Communist Party’s International label, it contains all the hallmarks of the Communist stage theory of history and the Popular Front notion of progressive politics that culminates in a grand coalition with the Democratic Party. By contrast Howard Zinn, who broke with the Communist Party first and later the more mechanistic notions of Marxism when he revised his A People’s History of the United States, offered a vision whose legacy undeniably has been more profound and deeper than Foner’s. This is no slur against the former scholar, especially owing to the great trials he faced as a casualty of McCarthyism in the postwar years. Yet it also the point made by REDS, that the creative spirit of a muckraker is anarchistic and unable to be restrained by such dogmas. Zinn himself admitted in the much-improved updated version of his text that he had failed to properly engage all the currents which found their expression in the 1960’s, such as the LGBTQQIA+ movement. This eschewing of mechanistic Marxism in the name of a much more libertarian form is the true legacy of the Russian revolution which Americans much embrace today.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.