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Max Eastman Is ‘Sorry’ For Today’s Rebels (Alden Whitman, New York Times, Jan. 9, 1969)

Here is an article on Max Eastman and his reflections on the New Left in his old age. This article appeared in The New York Times of January 9, 1969 (p. 33).

Max Eastman Is ‘Sorry’ For Today’s Rebels


One of the country’s reigning radical writers and agitators of a half-century ago looked this week at today’s young militants and found more to pity than to praise.

He is Max Eastman, editor of the Socialist periodical, The Masses, and its successor, The Liberator, in the years before and during World War I. Widely influential in left-wing and labor circles, these magazines printed articles by Mr. Eastman and by, among others, John Reed and Floyd Dell. Art Young and Robert Minor were among the cartoonists.

Twice Faced Trial

Because of antiwar articles in The Masses, Mr. Eastman was twice brought to trial amid nationwide publicity, charged with conspiracy to obstruct the draft. The charge was dropped after two Federal juries were unable to agree on a verdict.

I feel kind of sorry for these young rebels of today, he said in an interview last Saturday at his West 13th Street apartment that marked his 86th birthday. He was on his way from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his wife spend their summers, to a winter home in Barbados.

They have an emotion not unlike ours, he continued, running his fingers through a shock of fine, snow-white hair. They want to make a revolution but they have no ultimate purpose.

I have a certain emotional sympathy for them, but they are rather pathetic because they have no plan. They just seek a revolution for its ow sake.

By contrast, said Mr. Eastman, glancing from his padded chair around a room festooned with Christmas and birthday cards, We had a program and a purpose, which was to make over capitalism into Socialism, and it was based on an ideal and on an ideal and on an ideology.

With a vigor that belied his years, the ruddy-faced Mr. Eastman categorized the radicals of the New Left as the bohemian wing of the bourgeoisie, sons and daughters of the well-to-do, who have no real class affiliation and no alliances with the working class.

It is not possible, he said in slow, measured tones, to bring about a revolution–except on a class basis–unless by some sort of fluke.

Asked why today’s rebels appeared to lack an ideology, he declared:

Socialism was once a plausible plan, but when Socialism failed completely and produced a totalitarian tyranny [in the Soviet Union under Stalin], it left social ideas without a theoretical basis.

Mr. Eastman stressed, though, that there were some similarities between rebels in 1969 and those of his era.

Mood Called the Same

The mood of militance is the same, he asserted, and so is the general rejection of convention. But many of today’s restive youth are caught up in trivialities. Obscenity, for example.

Having broken with the Socialist movement (but I never considered myself a Marxist, not even in The Masses days in 1913) when his friend Leon Trotsky was read out of the Communist party by Stalin in 1926-27, Mr. Eastman made his own transition from radicalism to the Reader’s Digest. He has been a roving editor for that publication since 1941.

The author and poet indicated hat his outlook for social change in the United States and the world was gloomy. He doubted, he said, that this country needs a revolution, or that one was possible either from the New Left or the Negro community. Negro militants, he said, are bound to raise hell, but they can’t make a revolution.

We have to patch up the world as it is and accept it, although I don’t feel very happy about it, Mr. Eastman said.

Like many writers, he has given no thought to retirement. Doubleday is to publish this spring a translation he made many years ago of Trotsky’s account of Lenin’s youth.

The manuscript, which Mr. Eastman had believed lost, turned up in the Harvard library a few years ago. It chronicles the Bolshevik leader’s life up to when he joined the Russian revolutionary movement after becoming a lawyer in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad.

In addition, Mr. Eastman is collecting a number of essays and portraits of his contemporaries for publication soon. These, he remarked with a twinkle in his bluish eyes, are to be entitled Bull in the Afternoon and Other Essays.

The lead essay, a criticism of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, precipitated the famous set-to between the two authors.

Fresh in His Mind

That encounter, which took place in 1937 in the office of Max Perkins, an editor at Scribner’s, was still fresh in Mr. Eastman’s mind.

Hemingway shoved an open book against my nose, he recalled, and accused me of saying that he lacked virility. I grabbed him by the throat and threw him–or backed him up–over Perkins’s desk and onto his back on the floor.

The two men’s friendship, never thereafter the epitome of cordiality, is now largely a mellow memory for Mr. Eastman. In addition to the piece on Hemingway, Mr. Eastman plans to include his new book essays on H. L. Mencken, Bernard Berenson and Sherwood Anderson.

At 86, an author is still an author.

The article closes with a photo from
The New York Times (by Michael Evans)
Max Eastman, with his tabby Twiggy, during the interview at his home on West 13th Street.