Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The First Neoconservative

The latest edition of Historical Materialism is now out, and it contains my lengthy review of a biography of John Spargo, arguably America's first neoconservative:

Markku Ruotsila's impressive new biography of John Spargo is an incisive assessment of one of the earliest architects of neoconservatism. Spargo, a British socialist who spent most of his life in the United States, had moved gradually to the right of the socialist movement, advocating a gradualist and anti-revolutionary interpretation of Marxism. Having defended the American intervention in WWI, he was an early and avid critic of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was Spargo who composed the Colby Note that formalised the Wilson administration's anti-communist doctrine, and engaged in a political alliance with Benito Mussolini which he maintained through Italy's Fascist years on account of Mussolini's intransigent anti-communism. A harsh critic of the Roosevelt administration's 'New Deal' and its recognition of the USSR, he moved to the hard right in his domestic politics, supporting the Dies Commission and McCarthy, and later supporting first Richard Nixon then Barry Goldwater in the 1964 elections. This review examines Spargo's journey to the right in the light, not only of the peculiar Hyndmanite Marxism into which he was initially inducted and the reformist socialism to which he later graduated, but also of his social Darwinism, his support for colonialism, and his perceptions of the global racial order. I argue that Ruotsila, while providing an unprecedented glimpse into a neglected prehistory of neoconservatism, is mistaken to see Spargo's transition as a logical and linear progression in which he successfully preserved the core of his 'Social Gospel' even as he became a Republican activist. He also understates, I will maintain, the role of Spargo's racial concerns in the fervent anti-communism that he espoused after 1917.