Colin Revolting looks at the film Reds, the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant’s experiences centred on the Russian Revolution, through the lens of relationships and his own passage through the difficult times of the early 1980s.
Reds is an epic love story, set amidst the American left and the Russian Revolution a century ago. It tells the tale of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two young left-wingers who are among the many drawn into supporting the Russian Revolution when it erupted in February 1917. The two writers and activists travel to Petrograd to bear witness to a society in tumultuous change. From these experiences, Reed, already one of the most successful left-wing journalists, wrote Ten Days That Shook the World and Bryant wrote Six Red Months in Russia.
Reds was a multi-million dollar movie which played in cinemas across the UK in 1982. My girlfriend, JD, and I went to see it one Saturday night at the Coronet, Elephant and Castle. We were 21 years old and lefties, like most of our friends, although we didn’t define ourselves as such.
From the opening moments of the film, Reed is shown throwing himself into the political tumults of the time – the Mexican revolution, which began in 1910, agitating with the Industrial Workers of the World union and outraging his parents’ friends with his radical opinions. Bryant is a photographer, shocking small-town sensibilities with her avant-garde photography, including her naked image.
They are initially drawn to each other for their mix of lively character, political interests and general magnetism. From the beginning their relationship is portrayed as a mixture of unsureness and confusion, arguing and teasing, laughter and fury, inspiration and competition. This wasn’t a typical Hollywood romance – though it had more of that than some lefties could stomach. Paul Foot however, himself a popular socialist journalist and activist, reviewed the film very favourably under the memorable title, There is no Revolution without Love.
For a change a relationship was portrayed in a way that we, like many younger people, could genuinely identify with. We were swept up in the film. The frantic conversations, their radical crowd of friends, the passion and the energy of the politics.
Bryant wants to escape her marriage and Reed wants her to come to New York with him. Bryant is sick of being seen as someone else’s property. (In the 1960s someone had asked my mum, “are you Will Fancy’s wife?”. “Yes,” she answered, “And whose husband are you?”) Bryant, already burnt by her stifling marriage and fearing for her independence, asks Reed in what capacity she would be going to New York with him. “What as?”, she asks. “Your girlfriend? Your mistress, your paramour, your concubine?”
“Why does it have to be as anything?” Reed asks.
Bryant looks him in the eye. “Because I don’t want to get into some kind of emotional possessive involvement where I’m not able to… I want to know what as?”
Soon after meeting in the sixth form at school, JD and I had been to the huge anti-racist carnivals of 1978. Since then JD had become a student at Newcastle Poly, involved in left-wing women’s groups and supporting strikes, and I’d been on week-long unemployed marches and anti-Nazi riots. We’d both been fighting against the attack on abortion rights. I was making short films as part of the local alternative music and arts scene – the Greenwich Performance Collective.
Still in their late twenties, John and Louise are drawn to the radical arts scene in Greenwich Village, New York. Bryant goes to escape her marriage and establish herself as a writer. They write and perform plays and poetry and hang out with others living a bohemian life together. Among their New York friends are many radicals such as the anarchist Emma Goldman and socialist Max Eastman (editor of The Masses and The Liberator) and the two of them are further radicalised.
Jack, as John Reed is known to his friends, gets involved in a left-wing attempt to take over the Socialist Party, at the time the largest force in US radical politics. But the left is knocked back and split into two. The majority leave the party, despite Jack and others urging them to stay and fight. Reed travels often for his journalism and campaigning and during one of his absences Bryant begins a relationship with one of their bohemian friends, the playwright Eugene O’Neill.
JD was in the middle of her English degree at Newcastle Polytechnic wanting to be a journalist. I had been turned down by a couple of colleges for film-making courses (in towns I’d never been to before or since) and was stuck living with other unemployed friends in a squat. The pressure cooker of 24/7 shared habitation quickly turned many friendships sour. Living together was difficult, but living apart was not easy either. My relationship with JD had never been like a straightforward Hollywood romance – how could it be? We were absolute beginners, trying to make things work with very few useful guidelines. School, family and the media offered precious little useful advice. This was one of the reasons Reds was so enthralling. Here was people thinking, arguing, competing and cheating, struggling with jealousy and feelings of inadequacy to establish a relationship of equals.
Monogamy was seen by some of our generation as a stifling, limiting convention that hadn’t worked out for our parents and that we wished to avoid. As the Au Pairs – a radical left feminist band of the time sang, “Monogamy – look what you done to me.”
The guilt and jealousy of having other relationships weighs heavily on Reed and Bryant. They split up and she leaves to report on the war in France. In 1917 revolution erupts in Russia and Reed decides he must be there to report on it. He travels to France to persuade Bryant to come with him.
“They’re in their third provisional government in six months,” he says when he finds her working in a field hospital. “You know what that means? It means there might be another revolution. The workers are deserting the factories, the army’s deserting the battlefronts. The exiles are all coming back. The Jews, the anarchists, the socialists. All of them are going back, only this time it might be the real thing. And if they have a real workers’ revolution in Russia, they’d have one in Germany, and if they had one in Germany – it could happen all over the world. Louise, that’d be the end of the war.”
Bryant says, “You don’t have to tell me what’s happening in Russia. I read the papers.”
“Well, come with me.” Reed says, “As a colleague, I’m not talking about anything else. Come with me as a colleague. You ought to be in Petrograd. I want to work together. As partners.”
“I don’t want a partner”, says Bryant. “And if I wanted to go to Russia, I’d go alone. I wouldn’t need you to take me.” The weight of historic events persuades her to go. As she explains, “I’d be a goddamned fool not to take you up on this offer [of a ticket to Petrograd]. So, here’s what I want. I want to sign my own name to my own stories. I want to be referred to as Miss Bryant, and not as Mrs. Reed. Now, I assume you know that I’m not going to sleep with you, so just don’t confuse the issue by bringing it up. That’s it.”
They reach Petrograd in time to experience the revolutionary process first-hand. They chase around the city talking to soldiers and workers, interviewing Lenin and even joining the storming of the gilded Winter Palace.
Living at opposite ends of the country, JD and I swapped letters and stories of our interactions with the socialists, feminists and anarchists we met. Old commies harangued us for throwing stones at fascists, feminists challenged our use of sexist language, some socialists built campaigns and others controlled them in undemocratic ways. As well as learning about the world of relationships we were learning about the workings of the radical movements – for good and bad. People were refused membership, people were expelled, groups descended into arguments and imploded. The parallels and interplay with personal relationships was interesting.
More than just a love story, the film Reds explores the possibility of equal relationships as a major theme. As one reviewer pointed out, the film’s director Warren Beatty had, “more belief in the possibility of equal relationships than in revolution”. But the film filled me with hope that both were possible, indeed, on the horizon.
In Russia the workers and soldiers are joined by a wide range of radicals who are working together in this transformative moment. They have driven out the old rulers and the bourgeois leaders and begin to make a world for the majority. Inspired by this insurrectionary spirit Reed and Bryant’s newspaper reports capture the moment and inform the English-speaking world. And the experience brings Jack and Louise back together – they were colleagues and now they are lovers again. Laughing, playing, criticising and collaborating on their writing. Agreeing to work together they are the most effective they have ever been. They return to the USA with grand plans to write their books and rally support for the revolution.
But the battle inside the Socialist Party of America continues. In the faction fight the foreign-language sections have left and now the section that Reed is part of also walks out. Inspired by the Bolsheviks they both wish to start a Communist Party but can’t agree to do so together. Two parties are declared and Reed and his now ‘rival’ Louis C. Fraina both go to Russia seeking the endorsement and political support of the new Communist International. This is too much for Bryant, who isn’t convinced by the fledgling Communist Parties, and who is concerned for Reed’s health and the prospects of him completing his book. She won’t travel with him and says he shouldn’t assume she’ll wait for him. Torn between balancing his personal and political life he chooses to return to Russia.
By 1982 the radical movements of the 1970s were in serious decline under the shadow of Thatcher and Reagan’s victories – both electoral and industrial. The 1980s were blowing a chill breeze. Many of us young radicals were looking at the retreating movements and battle-weary left and making choices. The movement around Tony Benn for deputy leader of the Labour Party had been defeated three months before but many involved (including revolutionaries) were arguing that closer involvement was still needed to pull Labour to the left. Other revolutionaries who had knocked back the fascists were putting more emphasis on ideas and explanations, educational meetings and weekend schools where meetings explained and debated everything from anarchism to Zinoviev.
With the movement on the streets in the UK in decline, friends were turning to new concerns. Studying and careers, settled relationships, leaving London – if not Britain – in search of new experiences. All the issues that inevitably weigh down on hopes and aspirations for wider societal change.
Could the world be changed for the better? We wondered. Now in our twenties, our generation were learning from the failures of the previous and discovering the severe limitations of life under capitalism in a deep depression. “Don’t let the Depression get you down!” was the name of my short comedy film in response. Thatcher would soon declare war and win another election: these were indeed dark times. But these were also the times we lived in, we didn’t choose them and it was the world we had to exist in, and resist.
Whilst Reed returns to Russia, in the USA, Eugene O’Neill sees attempts to change the world as fanciful and futile. Instead he seeks solace in his art, whisky and hopes to make him and Bryant king and queen of their own kingdom of two.
Reed is sick from losing a kidney, sickened by the behaviour of the growing bureaucracy and consumed by the thought that Bryant is back with Eugene O’Neill. He decides to leave Russia and return to the US. But with 16 foreign armies invading and embargoing the country this is far from easy. Reed is soon arrested and stuck in a hostile Finnish prison, alone and isolated. Communication is slow and getting word out is near impossible. But Louise hears of Jack’s predicament and makes a heroic journey to save him. Meanwhile the Soviets secure his release. The revolutionary process is moving on and ideals come crashing against the realities of making a new world. Reed debates with anarchist Emma Goldman, who has decided to leave Russia, even more critical of what has happened to the revolution by 1920.
“Nothing works,” Goldman says. “Four million people died last year. Not from fighting a war, they died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights where nothing works.”
Reed counters, “They died because of a French, British and American blockade that cut off all food and medical supplies and because counter-revolutionaries have sabotaged the factories and the railroads and the telephones, and because the people, the poor, ignorant, superstitious, illiterate people, are trying to run things themselves, just as you always said that they should, but they don’t know how to run them yet. Did you really think things would work right away? Did you really expect social transformation to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war, and we got to fight it like we fight a war, with discipline, with terror, with firing squads, or we just give it up. It’s not happening the way we thought it would. It’s not happening the way we wanted it to, but it’s happening. If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?”
Isolation as a socialist is almost an impossible state but equally somewhere that many socialists find themselves. The SWP in the early 1980s referred dismissively to people between them and the Labour Party as The Swamp. Many revolutionaries were joining the Labour Party at the time – partly inspired by the large and nearly successful Bennite movement and partly by the dispiriting experience of the movements of the 1970s declining and fracturing. I spoke to a local SWP activist who’d just joined the Labour Party. The cliché was that people like him had chosen the comfort of the mass reformist party because they couldn’t take it in the harsh reality of revolutionary politics, trying to organise working class resistance from the ground up. “It’s all infighting and factions and careerism”, he told me, “I miss the comradeship of the SWP.” Not having been in either organisation I found that surprising. I also knew people who were leaving the revolutionary parties as they saw them as undemocratic, unrealistic in the demands they made on members and impractical in their analysis of building a revolutionary party in a period of downturn in industrial struggle.
Having thrown in his lot with the revolution and accepted that his relationship with Bryant is over, Reed is incensed by one of the Bolshevik leaders in 1920. In a fiery exchange on a revolutionary train returning from the Baku conference Reed takes leading Communist Grigory Zinoviev to task, initially for rewriting his speech, but it soon escalates.
Zinoviev says to Reed, “you haven’t resolved what your life is dedicated to. You see yourself as an artist and at the same time as a revolutionary. As a lover to your wife, but also as a spokesman for the American classes.”
Reed replies, “Zinoviev, you don’t think a man can be an individual and be true to the collective, or speak for his own country and the International at the same time, or love his wife and still be faithful to the revolution, you don’t have a self to give!”
Zinoviev says, “would you ever be willing to give yourself to this revolution?”
In a rage, Reed responds, “when you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him. And when you purge what’s unique in him – you purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution! Revolution is dissent!”
Alone in the wide world, it’s very easy to feel adrift and rudderless. Community and companionship is precious. Collective creativity and the nurturing effect of a relationship of equals is like nectar. Sweet and lovely but difficult to find, easy to gorge on and often gone too soon. Jack and Louise had it for a fighting moment under the influence of the unifying struggle of working together to change society and in doing so offer inspirational ideas and actions to the world.
The relationship between JD and I continued but we made our own choices and rather than choosing together we finally split up a couple of years later. The choice between revolution and reform was one of those choices but not the decisive one. With hard work and dedication JD achieved her desire to becoming a campaigning journalist in a way I certainly didn’t with my film-making.
We didn’t see each other until after Tony Blair took the country to war in 2003 and I went on a local anti Gulf war protest with my very young sons, Joe and Louis. JD hadn’t been on the protest but was in the nearby play park – I introduced my boys and she pointed to her equally young son, Joe, middle name Louis.
Looking at the placards stuck in our pram JD observed, “you’re still in SWP? Why am I not surprised?”
“Are you still in Labour?”
“God, no.” she replied.
Blair’s war was too much for decent socialists of any shade.
At the end of Reds, Jack and Louise are together at last on Reed’s sick bed in a Russian hospital. Feverish with spotted typhus, he murmurs, “want to come to New York with me?”
“New York?” Bryant smiles, “I wouldn’t mind.”
“What as?” he says.
“What as?” she says, remembering the first time she asked him that question. “Gee, I don’t know… Comrades?
“Comrades,” Reed repeats.
‘Comrades’ was the original title of the film script written by Trevor Griffiths, the major Marxist scriptwriter of the 1970s. Warren Beatty chose to work with Griffiths because of his body of work, but also because Beatty likes to engage in a close, combative relationship with other creative people who will challenge and stretch him in the film-making process. After months of intense working together locked in a room it was all too much for Griffiths, who walked out. In his Oscar acceptance speech Beatty omitted Griffiths’ name in his long list of thank-yous. The final film is clearly not Griffiths’ original script but is a work in tension with it. Whether it is better for that or worse is a point of debate.
More than anything Reds remains an inspiration, certainly for anyone who wants a unique insight into the Russian revolution, but also for those who hope we can find ways to live together as equals, and as comrades.
All images from Reds (1981), directed and produced by Warren Beatty, written by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths, released by Paramount Pictures