Agnes Smedley: Author, U.S. Radical and Supporter of the Chinese Revolution

By Peg Strobel

Agnes Smedley, 1914

I became a socialist feminist in the 1970s, shortly after I had returned from studying in India and shortly before I read and was moved by Agnes Smedley’s autobiographically inspired first novel Daughter of Earth, reprinted by The Feminist Press in 1973. Her working-class protagonist supports the Indian nationalist movement in New York City against the British colonizers. My group of socialist feminists who toured the People’s Republic of China in 1977 devoured the press’s 1976 reprint of her essays from 1928-41, Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution, which were drawn from her reports as a journalist on various parts of the Chinese civil war and the struggle against Japanese expansion. But many people outside my age cohort have likely never heard of Agnes Smedley (unless they’ve happened upon the PBS online website “Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies”). Who was Agnes Smedley (1890-1950)?

It turns out that she was a very complicated person. We know how complicated thanks to the research of Ruth Price, author of The Lives of Agnes Smedley. And lives they were. Leftists who are drawn to political intrigue and mystery will be drawn to Smedley, particularly if they are feminists. And historians and others who like mysteries will love Price’s piecing together of layers of information that became available for a short time just before the crackdown on protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and after the release of archival information with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Born in Missouri, of Cherokee heritage on her mother’s side, Smedley grew up in Colorado mining towns. Though she identified with oppressed peoples throughout her life, she fudged the fact that her father was in fact a deputy sheriff during Colorado’s mine wars of the early decades of the 20th century, not a miner. Wanting to be a writer, and acutely aware of what she did not know, she took classes ˗ in Tempe, Arizona; Berkeley; New York University; and Germany. But she remained committed to action more than to study. Exposed to socialism in Arizona, and to the Indian resistance movement in California, Smedley moved to New York City in 1917. There she continued her work with Indian nationals to oust the British from India. While there, she also worked with reproductive justice advocate Margaret Sanger.

Ultimately, the internal politics of the Indian nationalist movement, and her relationship (sexual and otherwise) with a key Indian Communist Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, ultimately made it impossible for her to function in those circles. But in the process, she was indicted under the Espionage Act in 1918. Eventually charges were dropped, and she moved to Germany.

Like her friend Emma Goldman, she was intrigued by the Bolshevik Revolution but disturbed by its suppression of individual freedoms. Through contacts in Germany, she ended up in China. Although she sympathized with the struggles of Chinese peasants, initially she saw her work in China as a way, by uniting Asians against the British, to support the Indian movement, because she was barred from engaging in direct action in its behalf.

She ended up being one of a handful of American journalists who provided information to the West about the Chinese situation in the 1920s and 1930s. She traveled with various portions of the Red Army and visited the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stronghold in Yenan. Her vivid reportage was based not only on conversations with intellectuals in cities, such as CCP members in Shanghai and author Lu Hsun, with whom she helped to establish the League of Left Wing Writers. She also interacted with those directly involved in the civil war and anti-Japanese struggles, earning her a reputation as a major figure both in China and the U.S.

At the same time, as a writer and activist, Smedley was caught in the personal and political rivalries of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and Maoist wings of the Communist movement.

Was she a Communist spy, as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) charged, causing Smedley to leave the U.S. for London in 1949? Well, Price discovered that she had indeed spied for the Comintern and for Soviet military intelligence while in China. Not against the U.S., but against the Japanese, feeding information to the Soviets from Japanese and German agents in Tokyo and Shanghai.

Was she a member, or had she ever been a member, of the Communist Party, as HUAC would have asked? It turns out there is no evidence that she was a member. She had a strained relationship with the CPUSA over many things, including her criticism of Guomindang (GMD) Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek when the party line was to unite the GMD and CCP against the Japanese.  And after 1934, the Soviets found her “too unruly” (Price’s words, 246). The CCP leadership in Yenan rejected her application for membership. Author and China hand Owen Lattimore noted after her death, “Had she lived long enough she would have been one of the first to be shot when the CCP took power. . . . She was more radical and idealistic than the members of the CCP: a fact which they recognized” (quote by Price, 418).

She indeed had a reckless spirit. In Yenan she earned the opprobrium of the wives of CCP leaders when she taught the latter to dance the foxtrot. She had numerous, if not always satisfying, sexual and romantic relationships with men and was androgynous in behavior.

One of Smedley’s less attractive qualities was the way in which she used her friends and supporters. These included Margaret Sanger; Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU; Harold Ickes, a member of Roosevelt’s and Truman’s cabinets; Sinologist John Fairbank; and numerous friends who loaned her money and gave her support in times of ill health and financial problems.

The most charitable explanation for her behavior towards friends is that she was a woman of serious political commitments and passions, who was always on the brink ˗ of having no money, having problematic relationships with U.S. embassies from which she needed to get travel documents, and having periodic serious bouts of mental breakdown and physical exhaustion.

British journalist Freda Utley, who met Smedley in Hankow in 1938 as the Japanese were capturing increasing chunks of China, described her as “a heroic and tragic figure, doomed to destruction by her virtues, her compassion for human suffering, her integrity and her romanticism” (quoted by Price, 329). Those characteristics informed her many books on China. Decades later, literary critic Paula Rabinowitz declared Smedley to be the “mother of [U.S.] women’s literary radicalism” and her novel “the [U.S.’s] first truly proletarian novel” (quoted in Price, 183). Critics lauded Daughter of Earth, published in 1929, as ranking with the work of Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos and Jack London. Her writings and her lives should be appreciated and rescued from obscurity by a new generation of socialist feminists.

A member of Chicago DSA, Peg Strobel is on DSA’s National Political Committee and co-chairs DSA’s Feminist Working Group.

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