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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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.