He was born in Canandaigua, New York; both his parents were members of the clergy. Eastman attended Williams College in 1905, two years later moving to Columbia University to work toward a Ph.D. in philosophy. Settling in Greenwich Village with his sister, Crystal Eastman, he became involved in political matters, helping to found the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in 1910. While at Columbia he was an assistant in the philosophy department as well as a lecturer with the psychology department. After completing the requirements for his degree, however, he refused to accept it, leaving in 1911.
Read The Nice People of Trinidad, an article by Eastman published in 1914. Read more of Eastman's writing, free from the Max Eastman Archive. Eastman had become a key figure in the left-leaning Greenwich Village community, and combined this with his academic experience to explore varying interests including literature, psychology and social reform. He published Enjoyment of Poetry, an examination of literary metaphor from a psychological point of view, in 1913, the same year becoming an editor of The Masses, a magazine combining socialist philosophy with the arts.
In 1918 The Masses was forced to close under the Espionage Act passed by Congress the preceding year, due to its frequent explicit denunciations of U.S. participation in World War I. Eastman subsequently stood trial twice under provisions of the Sedition Act, but was acquitted both times. In 1919 he and his sister Crystal founded a similar publication titled The Liberator, which was taken over by the Workers Party of America) in 1922, after experiencing financial troubles. In 1924, The Liberator was merged with two other publications to create The Workers Monthly and Eastman quit working for it.
Eastman embarked in 1923 on a fact-finding tour of the Soviet Union in order to get a feel for how the Soviet version of Marxism worked in practice. He stayed for over a year, and during that time observed the power struggles between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Upon returning to the United States he wrote several essays, beginning with Since Lenin Died in 1925, which were highly critical of the Stalinist system. These treatises were unpopular with American leftists of the time. In later years, however, Eastman's writings on the subject were cited by many on both the left and the right as sober and realistic portrayals of the Soviet system.
Although Eastman's view of the Soviet Union in particular was drastically altered by his experiences there and by subsequent study, his commitment to left-wing political ideas continued unabated. While in the Soviet Union Eastman began a friendship with Leon Trotsky which endured through the latter's exile to Mexico; Eastman translated several of Trotsky's works into English during this time.
During the 1930s Eastman continued writing critiques of contemporary literature, publishing several controversial works in which he criticized James Joyce and other modernist writers, who, he claimed, had fostered "the cult of unintelligibility." This work began in 1931 with the publication of The Literary Mind and continued through Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), in which he also criticizes some elements of Freudian theory. Eastman was also an active traveling lecturer on various literary and social topics throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
By 1941 Eastman had largely abandoned his former left-wing beliefs and connections. He was hired that year as a roving editor for Reader's Digest magazine and stayed in the job for the remainder of his life, writing articles critical of socialism and communism, and actively supporting McCarthyism. Eastman's repudiation of socialism in general and communism in particular reached its high water-mark with the publication of Reflections on the Failure of Socialism in 1955. In his later years he produced a number of autobiographical works, culminating in Love and Revolution (1964). He died at his summer home in Bridgetown, Barbados at the age of 86.