A Forgotten American Socialist's Indictment Of Russian Communism That Shaped American Policy

The year was 1917. Revolution had broken out in Russia, and the Czar was replaced by a weak but semi-democratic government led by Alexander Kerensky. However, there was a small minority party called the Bolsheviki that wanted absolute power. At first, they didn't get anywhere. Then they got a boost from the outside.

A secret German government document dated December 3, 1917, stated "It was not until the Bolsheviki had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under varying labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party."

By November 1917, the Bolshevik party was able to accumulate enough support in the capital of Petrograd to seize power by force.

An outraged American socialist, John Spargo, wrote in his 1919 book "Bolshevism: The Enemy of Political and Industrial Democracy" (the first anti-Soviet book in the English language):

The defenders and supporters of the Bolsheviki have made much of the fact that there was very little bloodshed connected with the successful Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd. That ought not to be permitted, however, to obscure the fundamental fact that it was a military coup d'etat, the triumph of brute force over the will of the vast majority of the people. It was a crime against democracy. That the people were passive, worn out, and distracted, content to wait for the Constituent Assembly, only makes the Bolshevik crime appear the greater.

Let us consider the facts very briefly. Less than three weeks away was the date set for the Constituent Assembly elections. Campaigns for the election of representatives to that great democratic convention were already in progress. It was to be the most democratic constitutional convention that ever existed in any country, its members being elected by the entire population, every man and woman in Russia being entitled to vote. The suffrage was equal, direct, universal, and secret.

Apologists for the Bolsheviki insisted that they "resorted to desperate tactics because nothing effective was being done to realize the aims of the Revolution, to translate its ideals into fact."

Nonsense, says Spargo. "Quite the contrary is true. The Bolshevik insurrection was precipitated by its leaders precisely because they saw that the Provisional Government was loyally and intelligently carrying out the program of the Revolution, in co-operation with the majority of the working-class organizations and their leaders."

Spargo offers a stinging indictment of Bolshevik values:

The Bolsheviki did not want the ideals of the Revolution to be realized, for the very simple reason that they were opposed to those ideals. In all the long struggle from Herzen to Kerensky the revolutionary movement of Russia had stood for political democracy first of all. Now, at the moment when political democracy was being realized, the Bolsheviki sought to kill it and to set up something else — namely, a dictatorship of a small party of less than two hundred thousand over a nation of one hundred and eighty millions. There can be no dispute as to this aim; it has been stated by Lenin with great frankness. "Just as one hundred and fifty thousand lordly landowners under Czarism dominated the one hundred and thirty millions of Russian peasants, so two hundred thousand members of the Bolshevik party are imposing their proletartan will on the mass, but this time in the interest of the latter." (The New International, April, 1918)

Lenin's figures probably exaggerate the Bolshevik numbers, but, assuming them to be accurate, can anybody in his right mind, knowing anything of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, believe that the substitution of a ruling class of one hundred and fifty thousand by one of two hundred thousand, to govern a nation of one hundred and eighty millions, was the end to which so many lives were sacrificed? Can any sane and sincere person believe that the class domination described by the great arch-Bolshevik himself comes within measurable distance of being as much of a realization of the ideals of the Revolution as did the Constituent Assembly plan with its basis of political democracy, universal, equal, direct, secret, all-determining suffrage?

We do not forget Lenin's statement that this new domination of the people by a ruling minority differs from the old regime in that the Bolsheviki are imposing their will upon the mass "in the interest of the latter." What ruling class ever failed to make that claim? Was it not the habit of the Czars, all of them, during the whole revolutionary epoch, to indulge in the pious cant of proclaiming that they were motived only by their solicitude for the interests and well-being of the peasants?

This analysis strips the Bolsheviks of even the vaunted "good intentions" that so endeared them to intellectuals who were viewing the events in Russia from a distance.

Spargo would return to the topic many times, including in his 1920 book "Russia as an American Problem," which contained insights like "there could be no more complete confession of the bankruptcy of Bolshevism" than a "communist Utopia parasitically dependent on the capitalist enterprise of other nations!"

"Russia as an American Problem" accomplished two things. First, it pissed off Lenin, who complained about it in a secret speech. But more importantly, it caught the eye of Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby. He wrote to Spargo: "Your reasoning is as tight and close as that of a first-class lawyer, and your use of citations gives your chapters the power of a brief."

Spargo responded with a series of policy recommendations for the Woodrow Wilson administration to adopt toward Russia. To Spargo's surprise, his declarations were adopted almost word-for-word. Its key principal — the refusal to recognize the Communists as the legitimate rulers of Russia — became United States policy, and remained so until Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized Stalin's regime in 1933 (on the advice of the infamous Walter Duranty of The New York Times).

The battle against the Soviet Union became the central cause of John Spargo's life, leading him out of Socialism and into Conservatism. By the time he died, he was a supporter of Barry Goldwater.

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