Credit: Genthe photograph collection, Library of Congress.

Writer and Radical

By Lincoln’s Birthday 1918, Crystal and Max Eastman launched the Liberator: The Journal of Revolutionary Progress. The magazine quickly became the paper of record for revolutionary movements worldwide.

Lincoln and Debs covers. Credit: Heritage Auctions USA.

Like The Masses before it, the Liberator boasted an array of vanguard writers, some of the most important of the modern era: Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Amy Lowell, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Edmund Wilson, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Day, and Edna St. Vincent Millay among them.

Drawings and lithographs by leading-edge contemporary artists were also published regularly. Representatives of the Ashcan School – candid, documentary-style illustrations of immigrant and urban life – set the overall tone; the illustrators Boardman Robinson and John Sloan functioned as editors, while work by George Bellows, and the school’s unofficial leader, and Robert Henri frequently appeared. The magazine included caricatures by Al Frueh and George Grosz and illustrations by the sculptor Jo Davidson and the modern artist and portraitist Randall Davey. Even Pablo Picasso turned up in its pages.

Liberator cover array. Credit: Heritage Auctions USA.

With the Eastman siblings working together, the Liberator doubled the circulation of The Masses in its first month, and it reached 60,000 subscribers in its first year – three and a half times the 17,000 The Masses hit at its height. The Liberator differed from its predecessor in one other respect as well: it was not a cooperative enterprise. Crystal and Max co-owned the magazine, with Crystal serving as Managing Editor.

Liberator masthead. Credit: public domain.

The Liberator plainly supported Bolshevism, protesting policies and political actions the editors saw as threatening to the stability of the new Soviet republic.

Liberator January 1920 cover. Credit: public domain.

The Eastmans also saw the magazine as a watchdog for propaganda and misinformation concerning revolutionary revolts. “Bolshevism was so fabulously lied about in the American press, pulpit, barroom, and drawing room, in Congress and on the lecture platform,” Max Eastman recalled, “that truth itself seemed to be crying for help.” 1

Liberator June 1918 cover. Credit: public domain.

The U.S. government saw the magazine as a threat to national security. By the summer of 1919, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer inaugurated the General Intelligence Division, or “radical division,” of the FBI. The agency began collecting files on “left-wing agitators” – more than 200,000 files in the first year – under the strategic supervision of a twenty-four-year-old law school graduate and former Library of Congress cataloguer, J. Edgar Hoover.

A large number of pacifists, internationalists, socialists, feminists and other radicals – including Max and Crystal Eastman – were watched by government agencies. And on July 10, 1919, a small reconnaissance team snuck into the Liberator office building at 34 Union Square East in lower Manhattan. They sketched the floor plan for the purpose of wiretapping the editors and writers at work. 2

FBI sketch of Liberator offices. Credit: New York State Archives.

Crystal’s most important work for the Liberator was her on-the-ground reporting from inside the new Hungarian Soviet Republic, the first by any American reporter. She thrilled at meeting the revolutionary leader Bela Kun, Communist Russia’s first ally, and was embraced by the revolutionary leadership, who invited her to stay at the Hotel Hungaria in Budapest, the same place the young commissars lived.

Original telegram from Eastman to Liberator from Budapest. Credit: Collection of Anne and Cordelia Fuller and Rebecca and Charles Young.

As John Reed had done in Russia, she wanted to see a Communist state first-hand. Reed published his famed Ten Days That Shook the World in 1919, the same year Crystal visited Hungary. But while Reed embraced revolution whole-heartedly, celebrating the Bolsheviks characterizing counter-revolutionary forces as arch-enemies, she experienced profound ambivalence about the revolutionary conditions she saw.

When Eastman wrote of Communist Hungary in August 1919, she could not ignore the lived human experiences of revolution all around her. Even as she praised the abolition of private property, she admitted its devastating cost – the violence and human suffering that came with it. A pacifist and feminist as well as a radical, she publicly admitted, “There is no use having any illusions about the revolution. It was born in starvation, and its first business is war.” 3

August 1919 cover. Credit: public domain.

Before she left Budapest, Eastman began calling herself a “pacifist revolutionary.” And she struggled – revealingly, collectively, and for the rest of her life – with the dilemma contained in the coinage: how to make sense of violence perpetrated to achieve the equality and justice she and others had long argued was the only recipe for world peace?


  1. Eastman, Love and Revolution, 137.
  2. Records of the New York State Legislature, Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities, New York State Archives, L0038, reel 4.
  3. Crystal Eastman, “In Communist Hungary,” Liberator, August 1919, 9.
Crystal Eastman by Amy Aronson

The social justice issues to which Eastman dedicated her life – gender equality and human rights, nationalism and globalization, political censorship and media control, worker benefits and family balance, and the monumental questions of war, sovereignty, force, and freedom – remain some of the most consequential questions of our own time. Available from Oxford University Press.

Learn More & Get Involved