HARPSWELL — Before social media and pre-Internet, political conservatives and liberals talked to each other.

A lot.

George Mitchell and Bob Dole were friends.

The late Jeff Butland, as the Republican president of the Maine Senate, made the liberal Maine Times required reading for new GOP lawmakers.

In the 1990s, Jasper Wyman, director of the Maine Christian Civic League, had regular coffee sessions with me, a Maine Times reporter.

We disagreed on everything, and we laughed a lot.

So if you are concerned about polarizing politics, I submit the problem is not with people who have strong views, or even radical views.

Our worst civic problem is that we either shut down or attack from afar when we hear opposing viewpoints.

All of which makes me more fascinated with John Reed, a man I’ve been researching for the past two years.

John Reed might not seem like a catalyst for give-and-take dialogue.

As an American journalist who wrote “Ten Days That Shook the World,” the definitive account of the Russian Revolution, he has been buried at the Kremlin since his death in 1920.

Reed was a crusader for workers rights in America, a good reason to remember him on Labor Day.

In recent years, tea party activists have carried signs declaring labor unions to be un-American.

John Reed believed that organized labor helped create the United States’ middle class.

As one of several notable muckraking journalists of his time, Reed aspired to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

What separated him from his peers was that Reed feasted on the give-and-take of political arguments.

He didn’t hide in his editorial offices. Nor did he practice the “parlor politics” of the Greenwich Village Bohemian crowd, where he had many friends who loved his sense of humor but loathed his habit of getting arrested at labor rallies.

Walter Lippman considered Reed a narcissist. Upton Sinclair called him a playboy.

But there was no denying Reed’s talent and passion, the depth of his convictions or his relentless inquisitiveness.

After graduating from Harvard in 1910, Reed set out to make a name for himself in journalism.

But journalism was simply a means to an end. Reed really wanted to settle some scores after his father’s fall from grace.

Charles Jerome Reed did not have a college education, but he married into money and made a fortune himself as an agricultural equipment dealer in Oregon in the late 1800s.

He had powerful friends, and he threw lavish parties for the business and political elite in Portland, Ore., a conservative city that tolerated liberal speech with paternal bemusement.

C.J. Reed rocked the boat, and he paid the price.

After Theodore Roosevelt appointed him a U.S. marshal, C.J. helped exposed the Oregon land fraud ring, a scandalous collusion of politicians and business leaders scheming to make profit from the sale of public land.

The elder Reed was ostracized and devastated. He died within a few years following John Reed’s college graduation.

“His father’s fall out of the upper classes set John off on a brief, life-long quest to invest his energies in an adventurous life that had real meaning,” wrote historian David Millholland in an article for the Oregon Cultural Museum website.

And so there was John Reed a century ago, writing with grace and anger about violence against striking workers in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Colorado; riding with Pancho Villa and capturing the dialogue of peasants during the Mexican Revolution; calling out Woodrow Wilson for reneging on his pledge to keep the U.S. out of the Great War; and telling the world that the Bolshevik Revolution would lead to a stable society if western powers ended their embargo and stopped supporting counter-revolutionaries.

These deeds did not garner John Reed any admiration from historians.

Lost in his fast and furious sprints around the globe between 1912 and 1920 were his friendship with the quintessential capitalist, Henry Ford.

Also lost was his brief return to America to support his friends who faced sedition charges.

John Reed was a complicated man in turbulent times.

In 2012, the world seems perfectly calibrated to repeat the calamities of 1912 to 1920.

Lost in the shouting, the fear and the upheaval is a voice that sounds like John Reed.

Kenneth Z. Chutchian is a teacher and writer who lives in Harpswell.

– Special to the Press Herald