Max Eastman was born in Canandaigua in 1883. Both his parents, Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford, were church ministers. In 1889 his mother was one of the first women to be ordained as a minister. Eastman graduated from Williams College in 1905 and afterwards studied philosophy with John Dewey at Columbia University.
Barbara Gelb has argued: "The son of two Congregational ministers from upstate New York, Eastman had been raised in an atmosphere of liberal-mindedness; having a mother who was the first woman to be ordained a Congregational minister in New York State, Eastman found himself perfectly at home in sympathy with the suffragists and other social reform movements of the day."
In 1907 Eastman moved to New York City, settling in Greenwich Village with his sister Crystal Eastman. Soon afterwards Eastman met Ida Rauh. According to William L. O'Neill: "Ida Rauh, a beautiful and intelligent Jewish woman with a private income, whom Max Eastman had known since first coming to New York. She was rebelling against her bourgeois family and explained the class struggle to him so clearly that he became a socialist." Eastman was persuaded to join the Men's League for Women's Suffrage.
The couple were married on 4th May, 1911 in Patterson, New Jersey. He later recalled that he awoke the next morning seized with terror: "I had lost, in marrying Ida, my irrational joy in life." The author of The Last Romantic (1978), has argued: "Unlike his affectionate mother and sister, Ida was never one to shower people, even her husband, with compliments and attentions. Yet these were necessary to Max's well-being. She was given to periods of indolence and so could not pour vitality into Max's languid nerves as he thought essential."
Sidney Hook got to know Eastman during this period. He later recalled: "Max Eastman was authentically American, sympathetic to the great rebels of the American past, intellectually independent, drawn to an undogmatic socialism on compassionate rather than economic grounds, an ardent supporter of women's rights at a time when it was dangerous even for a woman to be known as a feminist, defender of dissemination of information about birth control, an advocate of free love and open marriage, a pioneer for civil liberties, receptive to new ideas in almost every field. Max Eastman fought in more good causes than almost any man or woman of his generation, and yet he was by no means a purely literary radical - one of those who flaunt their radical ideas but never come within hailing distance of any political activity. Eastman put his very life and career on the line in pursuit of his radical ideas. More than once he had the courage to stand up to an enraged mob."
Eastman developed a reputation as an outstanding journalist and in 1912 was invited to become editor of the left-wing magazine, The Masses. Organized like a co-operative, artists and writers who contributed to the journal shared in its management. Other radical writers and artists who joined the team included Floyd Dell, John Reed, William Walling, Crystal Eastman, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Arturo Giovannitti, Michael Gold, Amy Lowell, Louise Bryant, John Sloan, Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, K. R. Chamberlain, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, George Bellows and Maurice Becker.
In his first editorial, Eastman argued: "This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine: a magazine with a sense of humour and no respect for the respectable: frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for true causes: a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found: printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press: a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers."
Floyd Dell was appointed as Eastman's assistant: "Max Eastman was a tall, handsome, poetic, lazy-looking fellow... I was paid twenty-five dollars a week for helping Max Eastman get out the magazine.... At the monthly editorial meetings, where the literary editors were usually ranged on one side of all questions and the artists on the other. The squabbles between literary and art editors were usually over the question of intelligibility and propaganda versus artistic freedom; some of the artists held a smouldering grudge against the literary editors, and believed that Max Eastman and I were infringing the true freedom of art by putting jokes or titles under their pictures. John Sloan and Art Young were the only ones of the artists who were verbally quite articulate; but fat, genial Art Young sided with the literary editors usually; and John Sloan, a very vigorous and combative personality, spoke up strongly for the artists."
The Masses was often in trouble with the authorities. One of Art Young's cartoons, Poisoned at the Source, that appeared in the July 1913 edition of the magazine upset the Associated Press company and he was indicted for criminal libel. However, after a year, the company decided to drop the law suit.
Eastman, like most of the people working for The Masses, believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and that the USA should remain neutral. This was reflected in the fact that the articles and cartoons that appeared in journal attacked the behaviour of both sides in the conflict.
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges. In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and Henry J. Glintenkamp and articles by Eastman and Floyd Dell had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. One of the journals main writers, Randolph Bourne, commented: "I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times. The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable."
Floyd Dell argued in court: "There are some laws that the individual feels he cannot obey, and he will suffer any punishment, even that of death, rather than recognize them as having authority over him. This fundamental stubbornness of the free soul, against which all the powers of the state are helpless, constitutes a conscious objection, whatever its sources may be in political or social opinion." The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication. In April, 1918, after three days of deliberation, the jury failed to agree on the guilt of Dell and his fellow defendants.
The second trial was held in January 1919. John Reed, who had recently returned from Russia, was also arrested and charged with the original defendants. Floyd Dell wrote in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "While we waited, I began to ponder for myself the question which the jury had retired to decide. Were we innocent or guilty? We certainly hadn't conspired to do anything. But what had we tried to do? Defiantly tell the truth. For what purpose? To keep some truth alive in a world full of lies. And what was the good of that? I don't know. But I was glad I had taken part in that act of defiant truth-telling." This time eight of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal. As the First World War was now over, it was decided not to take them to court for a third time.
In 1918 Eastman joined with Art Young, Floyd Dell and his sister, Crystal Eastman, to establish another radical journal, The Liberator. Other writers and artists involved in the magazine included Claude McKay, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, Maurice Becker, Helen Keller, Cornelia Barns, and William Gropper.
In 1922 the journal was taken over by Robert Minor and the Communist Party and in 1924 was renamed as The Workers' Monthly. After this Eastman left the United States and travelled to the Soviet Union. Eastman had welcomed the Russian Revolution but became disillusioned when Joseph Stalin ousted Leon Trotsky.
Eastman divorced his first wife, Ida Raub, to marry Elena Krylenko in 1924. He met her during a visit to the Soviet Union. Elena's brother, was Nikolai Krylenko, who, as president of the supreme tribunal he prosecuted all the major political trials of the 1920s. Later, Joseph Stalin appointed Krylenko as Commissar for Justice and was involved in the conviction of a large number of members of the Communist Party during the Great Purges.
Eastman went to live in France in 1924 where he wrote Since Lenin Died (1925), and Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1926). In these books Eastman warned of the dangers posed by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. The book was unpopular with most American Marxists and Eastman was denounced as a rebellious individualist. Sidney Hook argued: "Of all the forms of intellectual independence Eastman displayed in his life, nothing matched the courage he had to summon up when he stood practically alone on his return from the Soviet Union in 1924. He had brought with him the first hard evidence of the Stalinization of the Bolshevik regime. In consequence, he became a rebel outcast in his own country and a pariah in the radical movement that had been central to his life."
In 1927 Eastman returned to the United States and now a supporter of Leon Trotsky, becomes his translator and unofficial literary agent. During the Great Purge most of Eastman's left-wing friends in the Soviet Union were executed by Stalin. Books published during this period include The Enjoyment of Laughter (1935), The End of Socialism in Russia (1937), Stalin's Russia and the Crisis in Socialism (1940), Marxism, Is It Science? (1940) and Heroes I Have Known (1942).
During the Second World War Eastman began to question his socialist beliefs. In 1941 the Reader's Digest appointed him their roving editor and began publishing his attacks on socialists and communists. He wrote: "Red Baiting - in the sense of reasoned, documented exposure of Communist and pro-Communist infiltration of government departments and private agencies of information and communication - is absolutely necessary. We are not dealing with honest fanatics of a new idea, willing to give testimony for their faith straightforwardly, regardless of the cost."
In 1952 Eastman was introduced to Alexander Orlov, a NKVD officer who had fled to the United States in 1938. Orlov had been working on a book about Joseph Stalin. Eastman agreed to be his literary agent. Eastman arranged for Orlov to meet Eugene Lyons, another former Marxist who was now a staunch anti-Communist. This led to a meeting with John S. Billings, the editor of Life Magazine. Orlov submitted his manuscript to the magazine and the first of the four articles, The Ghastly Secrets of Stalin's Power, appeared on 6th April. The article created great controversy and was discussed in great depth in the American media. With each successive installment, the circulation of the magazine reached new heights. Orlov's book, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, was published by Random House in the autumn of 1953.
In the 1950s Eastman was a strong supporter of Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His anti-Communist articles in the Reader's Digest, The Freeman and the National Review in the early 1950s played an important role in what became known as McCarthyism. In June 1953 he wrote: "Red Baiting - in the sense of reasoned, documented exposure of Communist and pro-Communist infiltration of government departments and private agencies of information and communication - is absolutely necessary. We are not dealing with honest fanatics of a new idea, willing to give testimony for their faith straightforwardly, regardless of the cost. We are dealing with conspirators who try to sneak in the Moscow-inspired propaganda by stealth and double talk, who run for shelter to the Fifth Amendment when they are not only permitted but invited and urged by Congressional committee to state what they believe. I myself, after struggling for years to get this fact recognized, give McCarthy the major credit for implanting it in the mind of the whole nation."
In 1955 he published Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. He argued: "Instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik revolution locked it into a state's prison tighter than ever before. No flight of thought was conceivable, no poetic promenade even, to sneak through the doors or peep out of a window in this pre-Darwinian dungeon called Dialectic Materialism. No one in the western world has any idea of the degree to which Soviet minds are closed and sealed tight against any idea but the premises and conclusions of this antique system of wishful thinking. So far as concerns the advance of human understanding, the Soviet Union is a gigantic road-block, armed, fortified and defended by indoctrinated automatons made out of flesh, blood and brains in robot-factories they call schools."
In 1956 Eastman wrote: "We are fighting this cold war for our life, and we must fight on all fronts and in every field of action. We must employ in a campaign to liberate the enslaved countries and deliver the world from the menace of Communist tyranny all the means employed by the Communists to destroy and enslave us-expecting only that we fight with the truth, adhering to moral principle, while they fight with lies and a deliberate code of treachery. And we must make our aim as clear to the world as the Communists have made theirs. We must never affirm our loyalty to Peace without linking to it the word Freedom."
For over twenty-five years Eastman worked as a roving reporter for the Reader's Digest where he advocated free enterprise and warned of the dangers of communism. He also wrote two volumes of autobiography: The Enjoyment of Living (1948) and Love and Revolution (1965).