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.

The system was what the historian Martin J. Sklar has called "a mix of capitalism and socialism." Spargo called it "a communism of opportunity" or "socialized individualism." In a new era, he wrote, capitalist America had progressed towards "a new type of communism, based upon private property and individualism," in which the genius of capitalism would be channeled to achieve "socialization of results." His articles explaining this theory were published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and in a pamphlet entitled "Why I Am No Longer a Socialist."

It was in foreign policy, however, that Spargo would have the greatest impact. When World War I began, Spargo was one of the few pro-war socialists who broke with their party's complete opposition to the war. He argued that, through wartime collectivism, labor would gain new rights and the social-democratic transformation of America would be accelerated. He and others did their part to try to convince British, French, and Italian socialists to support the Allied coalition, and at home they offered their services to the Wilson administration by writing pro-war propaganda.

When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, Spargo became the first prominent anti-Bolshevik in American socialist ranks. Leninism, he argued, was not only a false claimant to the name of socialism, it also produced a regime whose foreign policy of exporting revolution endangered world peace and the very advances of social democracy he and his followers supported. Spargo wrote the first anti-Communist book, Bolshevism: The Enemy of Political and Industrial Democracy, which was immediately attacked by John Reed as a "very clever and subtle misrepresentation of Bolshevism"--a system Reed supported by soon writing Ten Days That Shook the World, the most influential pro-Bolshevik book published in America.

Spargo's Bolshevism gained wide support from both disillusioned socialists and American statesmen. From the time he authored it, Ruotsila writes, Spargo found "contentment and meaning in his life in the passionate crusade against Bolshevism." It was this passion, and Spargo's solid understanding of Marxist doctrine and Soviet practice, that led to his playing a major role in the Wilson administration.

He began by building a coalition of liberals, whom he knew would favor social reform that would undermine the Communist message, and conservatives, whom he knew would favor containing the Soviets and eventually support measures to destroy the new Bolshevik regime. His next step was to convince the Wilson administration to adopt his views--a difficult task since, during the war, Spargo strongly opposed Wilson's curbs on civil liberties, openly campaigned to free Eugene Debs from prison, and fought limits imposed on sending the socialist press through the mail.

Spargo also feared that Wilson did not comprehend the true nature of the Bolshevik threat, and would not enact the kinds of measures necessary to counter it. His most natural allies, he came to believe, were conservative anti-Communists, and he liked what he saw as the Republican party's active, anti-Bolshevik foreign policy. With the support of both ex-presidents Roosevelt and Taft, Spargo soon gained great influence in newly emerging anti-Communist organizations, whose leaders favored military intervention to destroy Bolshevism.

In 1920 John Spargo attained his greatest success. Using his contacts to get to Wilson, he drafted a proposed diplomatic note he hoped the administration would consider as a basis for dealing with the Bolsheviks. Much to his surprise, that draft became the policy statement itself. Named for Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, the Colby Note advocated opposition to the dismemberment of Russia, support of an independent Poland, and a firm refusal to recognize the Bolshevik regime as the legitimate government of Russia. It also suggested that military aid be extended to any sovereign governments threatened by Soviet aggression. With his authorship of the Note unknown, Spargo was able to write a New York Times article calling it "the most efficient single force recently directed" towards destruction of the Bolshevik government.

The Harding administration continued to back the substance of the Colby Note, as did the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. Spargo took the opportunity to cement his ties with major Republican conservatives, formally joining the party and endorsing Calvin Coolidge's 1924 campaign for the White House, which led to a close relationship between Coolidge and Spargo.

But the Spargo-inspired policy toward Soviet Russia began to unravel when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. When FDR announced in 1933 that he would move to recognize the Soviet regime, Spargo was the first person publicly to condemn the new policy in print. The social and economic policies of the New Deal similarly outraged him, and he developed what Ruotsila calls (in today's terminology) a "Left-libertarian case against" the New Deal.

He saw public funding of government projects as steps that retarded, rather than advanced, economic recovery. As an alternative, he favored an industrial democracy similar to that called for by social democrats, and based on cooperation of progressive businessmen and moderate trade union leaders. In addition, he feared that some New Dealers favored an American style of central planning that would lead to collectivism and have the same dangerous results as in the Soviet Union. The New Deal, he thought, was driving towards what Ruotsila calls a "centralized, illiberal and coercive governance on par with Bolshevism and Fascism."

In Spargo's eyes, New Deal agencies created a new and dangerous government bureaucracy. Though he supported private enterprise, Spargo also favored regulatory legislation that would stifle corporate greed; but he opposed any move of government into business, arguing that it would lead not only to an unnecessary bureaucracy but also to increased taxes that would harm the production of wealth. Roosevelt's domestic policies were, in effect, what Spargo had opposed when he was a socialist: a centralized bureaucracy leading to a new state capitalism.

For the rest of his life, Spargo carried on the fight from his rural home in Vermont. He tried to rehabilitate Herbert Hoover's reputation, and worked to gain support for William Green and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when the Left was backing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He helped build a counter-coalition against liberal policies, and worked to resuscitate the Republican party at the grassroots level. During World War II he proved his flexibility by backing Lend Lease and supporting a military alliance with the Soviet regime he detested. In 1944 he supported the presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey, seeing Dewey as a person who would favor a decentralized government pledged to voluntary associationalism and individual liberty, but who would also support an internationalist policy of cooperation between nations in the postwar period.

In his final years, the aging Spargo was a confirmed Cold Warrior. By the time William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review, Spargo's "influence on early Cold War anticommunism was of the same kind, his goals the same, and his trajectory largely the same" as those of James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, and Max Eastman. As Ruotsila points out, Spargo had argued first in the 1940s what they were saying in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Spargo maintained that the only genuine liberalism came from the Goldwater campaign, and he wrote that he "hoped that Senator Goldwater will initiate a new period of growth and progress, making the Republican party a great dynamic force." He called Ronald Reagan's famous televised speech for Goldwater "in the great classical tradition of political campaign oratory .  .  . [the] only logical presentation of the issues."

Markku Ruotsila has succeeded in restoring to historical memory the fascinating life of John Spargo, a man who did much "to shape twentieth-century debates over American domestic and foreign policies in significant and lasting ways." Most striking, writes Ruotsila, is "the resemblance between Spargo's trajectory and that of the neoconservative movement." The neoconservatives stayed rooted, as Spargo did, in their old philosophical suppositions. Like Spargo, he notes, neoconservatives rediscovered the role of religious perspectives on American life, and celebrated American democracy "and the global beneficence and mission of a regulated American-style capitalism." And of course, like Spargo, they favored the use of American military power when needed, and during the Cold War were strong and principled anti-Communists.

The strategy adopted by the Reagan administration against communism was one that, had Spargo lived, he would have certainly applauded: "Destruction of Bolshevism was his cause for almost 50 years," Ruotsila writes. Many of his policies were adopted; other of his ideas vigorously debated: Spargo alone went back to the start, with the birth of the Soviet Union. Certainly, as Ruotsila says, John Spargo deserves "his pride of place" in the pantheon of those who waged the struggle.

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is working with Allis Radosh on a book about Harry S. Truman, the creation of Israel, and American foreign policy.

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