The Magazine

Forgotten Apostate

The most important ex-socialist you've never heard of.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By RONALD RADOSH
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John Spargo and American Socialism

by Markku Ruotsila

Palgrave/Macmillan, 344 pp., $75

A  few years ago, a well-known neoconservative asked a simple question: "Why do so many of us persist in calling themselves social democrats?" He was most likely thinking of the late Sidney Hook and his disciples in Social Democrats USA--a group that fought alongside conservatives against Communist totalitarianism in the waning days of the Cold War.

Hook was second to none in his hatred for Communist societies and the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism that guided them. He opposed those who sought détente with the Soviets; supported the dissidents within and the indigenous rebels without who fought them militarily; waged relentless ideological warfare on those who appeased communism at home, and became a supporter of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. Nevertheless, Hook continued to proudly wear the rubric of social democrat. He was letting people know that, philosophically, he was carrying on the values and traditions that came from his old socialist convictions.

Hook, it turns out, was not the first self-proclaimed social democrat to take such a course. The path he took was taken first by John Spargo (1876-1966). That name, unlike Hook's, is almost unknown today. It is the merit of the Finnish historian Markku Ruotsila that he has resurrected the importance of this once well-known American socialist. Spargo, Ruotsila proves, was important to key decisions made by Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. In subsequent years, Spargo continued to be of influence as he regularly had contact with people such as Herbert Hoover, Bernard Baruch, Arthur Vandenberg, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge.

Like Sidney Hook, Spargo had written many early books advocating an American style of Marxism. Before he died, in the last article he wrote, Spargo argued that although Barry Goldwater failed to gain the presidency, he should act as the "rebuilder and intellectual inspirer of the GOP."

Spargo's unique role was both as an architect of early anti-Communist foreign policy and as an intellectual thinker who sought to modify Marxist doctrine. His life as an active socialist began in the west of England, when he became a Methodist preacher. At age 14, he began his study of the writings of the famed British socialist H.M. Hyndman, and left the church to immerse himself in the writings of various Marxists. By the age of 20, he was a leader in the South Wales union movement, and stood for a seat in the House of Commons. Although he was rising quickly in the ranks of the British left, at age 25 he suddenly and precipitously sailed for New York with his new wife.

He landed in 1901, and although he was without funds or a job, he immediately made contact with American socialists. Before long, his reputation in the movement grew, and as in Britain, his drive and brilliance propelled him "to the top of the American socialist movement," in Ruotsila's words. Before long he was editing a major socialist magazine and writing a new book almost every year. A flaming radical, he announced he agreed with the famous Mother Jones who had said that "all human liberty is dead in America."

As he came to know his adopted country, he gradually changed his views. By 1904 he saw the power of electoral politics and became interested in what he once rejected: immediate and practical social reform. In 1909 he was elected to leadership of the new Socialist party of Eugene Debs and became part of its so-called right wing. Spargo was soon forced to reconcile his growing interest in mainstream political practice with allegiance to Marx's revolutionary doctrine: Between 1907 and 1917 he became an American supporter of the revisionist Marxists in Europe. The result was condemnation by Debs as one of the "cowardly progressive capitalists" who used socialist phraseology for antisocialist ends. Spargo ignored Debs, and continued to carry out a systematic reexamination of the nature of Marxism, making him America's major revisionist socialist.

Over the ensuing years, this careful intellectual effort led him to a unique analysis of the American political and economic structure; that is, that the United States economy grew to wealth and power with complementary elements of both socialism and capitalism. America had become a nation whose system embodied the best of socialism: a belief in equality of opportunity, economic growth that would benefit the working man as well as the wealthy, and regulation of industry when it was deemed necessary.