[This article appeared in the March/April 1982 issue of The St. Croix Review, pp. 22-27.]
The Movie “Reds”
Dwight D. Murphey
As a motion picture it’s magnificent, but it should stimulate some unsettling thoughts about the moral and intellectual blind spots within modern society.
If it is judged purely as entertainment or as a work of art, the movie “Reds” is a magnificent motion picture. Matched against the qualities that a great film should possess, it excels in many of them. It falls short of “Dr. Zhivago” mainly by the absence of a hauntingly captivating musical score. But it outdoes itself in the humanity of its characterizations of the people with whom it deals.
“Reds” has two dimensions: it is an epic of the relationship of the early twentieth century American radical intelligentsia to the Russian Revolution; and it is a deeply personal telling of the lives and loves of John Reed and Louise Bryant, portrayed engagingly by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.
Although it uses various humanizing devices that help avoid any impression of heavy-handed propaganda that might turn off an American audience, “Reds” amounts without question to an apotheosis of Reed and Bryant. The ideological significance of such a cinematic monument becomes apparent when we realize that John Reed, the American Communist who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, is the only American to be buried inside the Kremlin.
The emotions with which I viewed the film were necessarily complex. To any sensitive observer there is a strange sense of disassociation that comes from watching such a drama, with such a message, in a theater filled with Americans who are eating popcorn and enjoying the story without in the slightest differentiating it from any other well-told yarn, such as, say, “High Noon” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” I came from the theater wondering whether there is anything that is real in the world.
There is much that the movie suggests about contemporary socialist thought, about the orientation of our intellectual culture and the public toward the totalitarian systems, and about the forces that continue to make up the dynamic of our society.
The movie’s statement about socialism can best be understood in the context of the dilemmas of modern socialist thought.
Its overriding thrust is clearly favorable to a militant egalitarian and collectivist perspective. Socialism, it says in effect, is a valid response to ubiquitous injustice. Capitalism is clearly venal. Anti-Communists are brutal and stupid. By no means does the movie treat these subjects with neutrality, if that were possible.
The characters are presented as likeable, vulnerable, everyday folks who differ from the average viewer only by having been touched by the electricity of inspiration on behalf of the highest ideals. Warren Beatty is straight out of “Heaven Can Wait” and Diane Keaton is still “Annie Hall.” The effect is two-fold so far as the movie’s message is concerned: it is a persuasive medium to incline the viewing public in favor of its worldview, although this is minimized to perhaps a subliminal, but still significant, effect by the fact that most members of the audience are not caring much about the idea-content of the film. And it serves in the present historical context to reassure any past or prospective militants, who during the past decade have been caught in a malaise of introspection and doubt, that “I’m OK, you’re OK.” As a movie embellishing certain heroes of the Left, it functions as a rebuilder of self-esteem.
I am not clear from seeing “Reds” just what form of socialism it endorses. It clearly opposes the Stalinist heresy that settled in upon the Bolshevik Revolution, but it does idealize militancy and stress the depth of capitalistic injustice. Probably it comes closest to endorsing the “Communism with a human face” that has been so popular among the dissident intellectuals in
Eastern Europeand that is represented, for example, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville’s The Socialist Register. Or it may be that it would carry socialism back fully to the small-unit socialism of Proudhon, whose slogan “Property is theft” is prominently displayed several times during the movie.
It is noteworthy, though, that “Reds” shares the scars and doubts that socialism generally has suffered during the twentieth century. No longer are we seeing the pristine revolutionary naivete that was so typical of Communism during and before the Bolshevik Revolution. Although the movie is up-beat in its view of socialism, the self-doubts appear in several ways.
One of these is that there is a healthy skepticism about the ultimate value of revolution. The film clearly appreciates that the Bolshevik Revolution wound up off-track, spitting out its own children and losing sight of its original ideals. The unfolding story shows how Reed’s individuality came to be suppressed and how the masses were betrayed as the revolution came under the sway of bureaucratic insensitivity and ideological opportunism. [Note in 2006: When this was written, I wasn’t aware, of course, of the later studies that have shown that the brutality and totalitarianism were present from the beginning, as exemplified by Lenin. It wasn’t just Stalin and “bureaucratization” that warped the Bolshevik experience. See, for example, Dmitri Volkogenov’s book Lenin: A New Biography (1994), a review of which appears in these collected writings as Book Review 45 (BR45).]
Closely associated with this is a realization that the Leninist doctrine of an elitist vanguard for the proletariat proved abortive. Emma Goldman is caused to exclaim that “it is a system that cannot work.”
We should note, however, the precise degree to which this realism about the wayward course of the then-incipient Stalinism is carried. Although it is important to the movie, it is not given excessive emphasis. None of the elderly intellectuals whom the movie uses as commentators as the story progresses is caused to reminisce about such things as how most of the revolutionaries were later purged and executed; or about the slaughter of the kulaks or the incarceration of millions in the Gulags.
The lightness of this treatment is assuredly no accident. It reflects profoundly the moral tight-rope being walked by the Left outside the Soviet sphere. There is a hierarchy of perception of relative evils that continues to be an essential part of the worldview of the Left.
We should give them some credit for sincerity when they say that they detest the Stalinist aberration that deflected socialism from its “true course.” But if ever the need arises to evaluate whether it is the
Soviet Union, or Red China, or Castro’s that is ultimately the greater evil in comparison with the Cuba or its allies, they have no hesitation. Viscerally they know that the non-Communist world fairly reeks with social injustice, that the really noteworthy abuses taking place anywhere are the “civil rights violations” committed by non-Communist countries, and that the dangers from the conflict between the systems arise mostly out of the perverse paranoia of the United States . United States
This selective perception by the Left results in an enormous distortion of modern history. Even today, years after Solzhenitsyn, the world intellectual community (and resultant world opinion) continues to think of Hitler’s “holocaust” as far exceeding any other atrocities committed during history. The equal or greater atrocities under Stalin and Mao continue to be blanked out. [Note in 2006: See the estimate of 85 to 100 million people put to death under Communism, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Stephane Courtois, et. al. A review of that book appears in these collected writings as Book Review 56 (BR56).]
The very fact that “Reds” has been produced, using the lavish apparatus and talent of American film-making, and has taken its place as part of the movie fare offered to the American public reflects the impact of the Left’s hierarchy of perception. Unfortunately, the American people are thoroughly convinced of the rightness of that way of seeing things.
If we were to consider the twentieth century’s other major totalitarian ideology, Nazism, we would understand that it would be unthinkable to film an epic that would apotheosize Horst Wessel, say, and that would present him and his associates in warmly empathetic human terms.
We all know full well that that would be a travesty. We are so filled with a justifiable abhorrence toward Nazism that no one would entertain seriously an argument that “it is narrow and foolish to fail to see the Nazis as the flesh-and-blood people that they were.” We automatically subordinate the intellectual value of empathetic understanding to our desire to reaffirm the moral outrage that we feel about what the Nazis did and what they stood for.
There is nothing comparable in the thinking of our intellectual culture or in public opinion about the totalitarianism of the far Left. Here, there is no sensing of a need for moral outrage.
Rather, the moral consensus runs clearly the other way: in our philosophical vacuity we sheepishly admit that the socialist is correct in the direction of his egalitarian idealism, albeit the militant is misguided in his discomforting methods; and we possess a powerful moral consensus that it is pinched and narrow for anyone to view such a movie as “Reds” as the travesty that it clearly is.
The villain, indeed, is seen as the anti-Communist. This is perhaps the most effective part of the message that “Reds” conveys to the viewing public, since it reinforces the public’s own preconceptions. The movie gets away with applying some really heavy-handed characterizations to federal agents, Congressional investigators, and company police.
This demonstrates how greatly the Left has won the moral battle with anti-Communism. There was a time when heroic anti-Communists sought to stir up the same sense of outrage toward Communism that we feel toward the Nazis, but they were beaten down and thoroughly defeated. The very fact that “Reds” is not widely perceived as a deeply offensive and insensitive affront to human decency shows exactly how complete the Left’s victory has been.
The reverberations of such a fact spread ever outward. We should be aware, for example, that there is no hope of an effective consensus against Communist expansionism in
Asia, Africaor Latin Americauntil this warping of moral perception is reversed. Ronald Reagan may occupy the White House, symbolic of American power; but underneath him many of the basic constituent elements of the modern world remain the same. His eventual significance in world history will depend far more upon his impact, if any, upon the intellectual and moral factors in our civilization than upon anything else.
The truth is that the intellectual energy in modern civilization still runs to the Left. If this were not so, why are we seeing an epic memorializing John Reed? Why not one based on the drama of the Hungarian Revolution or the sacrifices of the boat-people streaming out of
? Where are the conservative study groups on our college campuses, electrified by a new vision to accompany Ronald Reagan’s presidency? Their absence is perhaps the saddest fact in the world today. Vietnam
But if we return to a discussion of the self-doubts expressed within “Reds,” we can find some reason for hope in the Left’s own loss of faith and will. There is a change in the underlying dynamics within modern society; and it consists, in part at least, in the fact that even socialists learn by experience.
Doubts are interjected at several points about the purity of an activist’s motives. It is not taken for granted that the activist is really serving humanity as it is instead of his own private quest. Doubts of this kind were devastating to John Stuart Mill as a young man, and they are potentially the most self-destructive that can be entertained by the Left. A full appreciation of the causes and nature of the historical link between the radical intelligentsia and the “have-nots” can serve as an acid that will dissolve the dynamic mechanism of resentment and opportunism that for a century and a half has hammered the Left into being.
Tied to this is a suggestion that the intellectual is out of his milieu when he becomes an activist. The movie seems to say that an artist should stay an artist. The film doesn’t seem to see the intellectual as the prime mover, but says instead that he is better off observing and commenting, although without any suggestion that the reason for doing so is that he will be more effective that way. I see both an intellectual failure and a loss of will in this aspect of “Reds.” It fails quite significantly to understand the central role of the alienated intellectual in all socialism. And it indicates a psychology of withdrawal that is in keeping with the posture of many radicals during the past decade. This almost certainly reflects an inner loss of faith despite the brave manifestations of socialist conviction that appear throughout the movie.
There is even some surprising conservatism in “Reds.” Sexual freedom comes out looking quite anemic compared to the human tendencies toward monogamy. Mutual commitment and fidelity emerge as stronger values than sexual transciency.
I have no doubt but that “Reds” is correct (conceptually if not morally) in presenting the militant Left as “just plain folks.” As such, they may continue to be impressed by the lessons of experience. If they can learn that permanent commitment to another human being serves their values better than variegated sex, perhaps they can learn much more besides.
The day may yet come when we have our epic to the Hungarian Revolution.