It Was Mother

It Was There

It Was There
Wayras Olivier

T HERE IS PERHAPS no greater subject in fiction than class. In the opening pages of most stories you’ll find the obstacle exerting itself on the working subconscious of at least one dear leader. For example, the prejudices of Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy, the heights of Cathy or Heathcliff, each with their own shapely form of Pride which resists Wuthering away. Normally a grueling experience opens up a character’s inner life, causing a whole crop of ideas about their views on unions (which they’ve personally farmed over a lifetime) to spill onto the pages for the reader to collect. Grown and harvested is the idea that unions are not made strong and vital when the ephemeral binds with the interminable, or the attainable with the insurmountable. This private loyalty to class warfare keeps the lovers separated from one another, as a public treaty requires too much labor.

In Russia, the dismal, dispiriting devastation of the Povolzhye and Holodomor, were yet to occur when John Reed (Warren Beatty) spills his ideas about the revolution to his wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) in the film Reds. “If they have a real workers revolution in Russia,” he tells her, “they’ll have one in Germany. And if they have one in Germany it could happen all over the world. Louise, that’ll be the end of the war.”

Reed and Bryant, themselves both leftist, spent the first half of the film fighting over how to deal with pride of ownership, negotiating the details of their own union and coming to terms with how to center themselves without being emotionally disfigured. Something akin to: I’ll take care of myself for you, if you promise to take care of yourself for me. A contrarian apothegm for its time, given that marriages were sealed by: take care of me, and I’ll take care of you, leaving one partner exposed and vulnerable if and when the other fell ill or died. A remarkable amount of time is spent in this film developing this all-too-important point so that the couple is sufficiently fit and strong once they begin to cover the triumvirate’s—Kerensky, Trotsky and Lenin—rise to power in Russia upon Tsar Nicholas II’s exile (and later execution), which ended a nearly four hundred-year reign of the House of Romanov. Reed and Bryant’s experiential account of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the duma’s interim rulership is covered in Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook The World.

Absent from their coverage was that other system-structure, other than the factory, which later gave rise to collectivization. Farmers were separated and ranked, and life, the propaganda went, was made unfair by the high ranking kulaks—landowners whose farms were tilled more efficiently by their multiple beasts of burden, unlike the bednyaks and the serednyaks, (the low status farmers who either owned one muscular animal or none at all). The bednyaks and the serednyaks (whose chords of minor envy and heartburn were just waiting to be struck and exploited into major discord) were being oppressed by the kulaks, claimed the Bolsheviks, who used this pitchfork to re-tune everyone’s hearing. In concert, this aroused hostility and distrust of the kulaks making it easy for the Bolsheviks to recruit the bednyaks and the serednyaks into their band to even the score.

Russia’s economic conditions did not improve by the worker’s revolution nor, as Reed hoped, did they end the war. Upon returning home, Reed became a huckster and fanatic, and founder of the defunct Communist Labor Party of America. This is Reed, being lectured at the height of his pride by Bryant (Keaton) for his inability to question his position of certainty in the fog. Reed (Beatty) asserts that he’s committed. “To what?” she fires back:

“To the fine distinction between which half of the left of the left is recognized by Moscow as the real communist party in America? To petty political squabbling between humorless hack politicians just wasting their time on left-wing dogma? To getting the endorsement of a committee in Russia you call ‘the International’ for your group of fourteen intellectual friends in the basement who are supposed to tell the workers of this country what they want whether they want it or not?”

Reed did regain his unclouded personality before typhus brought him to an end in October 1920. One may gasp at being reminded that Stalin, that deranged megalomaniac lettered in a seminary in Georgia had a cult of personality that hadn’t yet begun. Regarding certain terrible stories about the dictator’s torrential reign, a Canadian journalist, Rhea Clyman, was sent to the USSR to clear the air in 1928 only to later be expelled permanently after separating fact from fiction about the country’s rainmaker.