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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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.