John Spargo

John Spargo

John Spargo, the son of Thomas Spargo (1850-1920) and Jane Hocking Spargo (1851-1900), was born in Longdowns, Cornwall, on 31st January, 1876. After leaving school he trained as a stonecutter.

In 1894 he enrolled on a course run by J.A. Hobson as part of the Oxford University Extension Program. The following year he moved to South Wales where he found work as a stonemason in Barry Docks.

Spargo became a socialist after reading the work of Henry Meyers Hyndman. He was especially impressed by England for All (1881), where he attempted to explain the ideas of Karl Marx. In 1896 Spargo formed a branch of Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Other members since its formation included Tom Mann, John Burns, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Lansbury, Edward Aveling, H. H. Champion, H. H. Champion, Guy Aldred and Ben Tillet.

Spargo was elected president of the Barry Trades and Labour Council and became a member of the National Executive Committee of the SDF. Markku Ruotsila, the author of John Spargo and American Socialism (2006) has argued: "It was an amazing, meteoric progression for an uneducated stonemason from Western Cornwall that took place in these few years of Spargo's education in Marxism... he was recognized as one of the most promising and energetic Marxist agitators in the country."

Although Henry Meyers Hyndman was a talented writer and public speaker, many members of the Social Democratic Federation questioned his leadership qualities. Hyndman was extremely authoritarian and tried to restrict internal debate about party policy. Several members including William Morris, Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx John Burns and Tom Mann left the party. However, Spargo remained loyal to Hyndman.

On 27th February 1900, Hyndman, Spargo and the Social Democratic Federation met with the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass the motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee(LRC).

Soon afterwards Spargo was invited to go of a lecture tour of the United States. He took with him his new wife, fellow socialist, Prudence Edwards. The couple arrived in New York City in February 1901. Spargo saw the potential of the country and decided not to return to England. He became friends with Morris Hillquit. Spargo went to work for Hillquit but spent most of the time lecturing on socialism.

Later that year the Social Democratic Party (SDP) merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. Spargo was one of its founding members. Leading figures in this party included Eugene Debs, Victor Berger, Ella Reeve Bloor, Emil Seidel, Daniel De Leon, Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, William Z. Foster, Abraham Cahan, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, Walter Reuther, Bill Haywood, Margaret Sanger, Florence Kelley, Rose Pastor Stokes, Mary White Ovington, Helen Keller, Inez Milholland, Floyd Dell, William Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, Upton Sinclair, Agnes Smedley, Victor Berger, Robert Hunter, George Herron, Kate Richards O'Hare, Helen Keller, Claude McKay, Sinclair Lewis, Daniel Hoan, Frank Zeidler, Max Eastman, Bayard Rustin, James Larkin, William Walling and Jack London.

Spargo's first wife, Prudence, died of tuberculosis in March 1904. The following year he married Amelia Rose Bennetts, a British-born socialist who worked in a carpet mill. The couple had two children, a daughter named Mary and a son who died in childhood. According to John Patrick Diggins: "It was well known that on many of his trips Spargo cavorted with a number of attractive ladies, and he quickly built a reputation not just as an effective socialist organizer but as a womanizer of some note."

In September 1905, Spargo helped to establish the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Other members included Jack London, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Upton Sinclair, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism."

In 1905 Spargo published the best-selling expose of slum life, The Bitter Cry of Children. This was followed by a book about child nutrition, Underfed School Children. In 1907 he published an account of his Christian Socialism, entitled, The Spiritual Significance of Modern Socialism. He was now considered one of the most important popularizers in the socialist movement. In 1910 Spargo published the first full-length biography of Karl Marx. The book, Karl Marx: His Life and Work, according to Robert Asher, "depicted the founder of scientific socialism as sentimental, but above all a pragmatic tactician".

Over the next few years Spargo became a controversial figure in the Socialist Party of America. Although he argued in favour of women's suffrage and civil rights for African Americans, he called for the restriction of immigration. Spargo held that this policy would make socialism more appealing to trade union members. He also strongly attacked the Industrial Workers of the World for advocating a general strike, a move that he considered to be "inflammatory, inviting employer and state repression".

On the outbreak of the First World War most socialists in the United States were opposed to the conflict. They argued that the war had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and argued that the America should remain neutral. In an article in September 1915 Eugene Debs wrote: "I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war."

After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, Spargo argued for a pro-war policy. He was supported by William Walling and Upton Sinclair, but when he was defeated at a special conference of the Socialist Party of America, he resigned from the party.

Spargo now moved to the right and became a member of the Republican Party, supporting Calvin Coolidge in the election of 1924 Presidential Election and Herbert Hoover in the 1928 Presidential Election. Spargo was also a strong opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He lost interest in politics and devoted his time to the Bennington Museum in Vermont.

John Spargo died in 1966.

Primary Sources

(1) John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of Children (1905)

Work in the coal breakers is exceedingly hard and dangerous. Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men. When a boy has been working for some time and begins to get round-shouldered, his fellows say that "He's got his boy to carry around whenever he goes."

The coal is hard, and accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust fill the breakers and are inhaled by the boys, laying the foundations for asthma and miners' consumption.

I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day. The gloom of the breaker appalled me. Outside the sun shone brightly, the air was pellucid, and the birds sang in chorus with the trees and the rivers. Within the breaker there was blackness, clouds of deadly dust enfolded everything, the harsh, grinding roar of the machinery and the ceaseless rushing of coal through the chutes filled the ears. I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was expectorating some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed.

I could not do that work and live, but there were boys of ten and twelve years of age doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of them had never been inside of a school; few of them could read a child's primer. True, some of them attended the night schools, but after working ten hours in the breaker the educational results from attending school were practically nil. "We goes fer a good time, an' we keeps de guys wot's dere hoppin' all de time," said little Owen Jones, whose work I had been trying to do. . . .

As I stood in that breaker I thought of the reply of the small boy to Robert Owen [British social reformer]. Visiting an English coal mine one day, Owen asked a twelve-year-old if he knew God. The boy stared vacantly at his questioner: "God?" he said, "God? No, I don't. He must work in some other mine." It was hard to realize amid the danger and din and blackness of that Pennsylvania breaker that such a thing as belief in a great All-good God existed.

From the breakers the boys graduate to the mine depths, where they become door tenders, switch boys, or mule drivers. Here, far below the surface, work is still more dangerous. At fourteen and fifteen the boys assume the same risks as the men, and are surrounded by the same perils. Nor is it in Pennsylvania only that these conditions exist. In the bituminous mines of West Virginia, boys of nine or ten are frequently employed. I met one little fellow ten years old in Mt. Carbon, W. Va., last year, who was employed as a "trap boy." Think of what it means to be a trap boy at ten years of age. It means to sit alone in a dark mine passage hour after hour, with no human soul near; to see no living creature except the mules as they pass with their loads, or a rat or two seeking to share one's meal; to stand in water or mud that covers the ankles, chilled to the marrow by the cold draughts that rush in when you open the trap door for the mules to pass through; to work for fourteen hours-waiting-opening and shutting a door-then waiting again-for sixty cents; to reach the surface when all is wrapped in the mantle of night, and to fall to the earth exhausted and have to be carried away to the nearest "shack" to be revived before it is possible to walk to the farther shack called "home." Boys twelve years of age may be legally employed in the mines of West Virginia, by day or by night, and for as many hours as the employers care to make them toil or their bodies will stand the strain. Where the disregard of child life is such that this may be done openly and with legal sanction, it is easy to believe what miners have again and again told me-that there are hundreds of little boys of nine and ten years of age employed in the coal mines of this state.

(2) John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of Children (1906)

The textile industries rank first in the enslavement of children. One evening, not long ago, I stood outside of a large flax mill in Paterson, New Jersey, while it disgorged its crowd of men, women, and children employees. All the afternoon, as I lingered in the tenement district near the mills, the comparative silence of the streets oppressed me. There were many babies and very small children, but the older children, whose boisterous play one expects in such streets, were wanting.

At six o'clock the whistles shrieked, and the streets were suddenly filled with people, many of them mere children. Of all the crowd of tired, pallid, and languid-looking children I could only get speech with one, a little girl who claimed thirteen years, though she was smaller than many a child of ten. Indeed, as I think of her now, I doubt whether she would have come up to the standard of normal physical development either in weight or stature for a child of ten. One learns, however, not to judge the ages of working children by their physical appearance, for they are usually behind other children in height, weight, and girth of chest, - often as much two or three years. If my little Paterson friend was thirteen, perhaps the nature of her employment will explain her puny, stunted body. She works in the "steaming room" of the flax mill. All day long, in a room filled with clouds of steam, she has to stand barefooted in pools of water twisting coils of wet hemp. When I saw her she was dripping wet though she said that she had worn a rubber apron all day. In the coldest evenings of winter little Marie, and hundreds of other little girls, must go out from the superheated steaming rooms into the bitter cold in just that condition. No wonder that such children are stunted and underdeveloped.

(3) John Spargo, Socialism and Motherhood (1914)

Socialism appeals to the mother with peculiar force. It is the Liberator. At all times and in all places the Socialist movement has waged war against every political, social and economic disability of woman and proclaimed the gospel of her emancipation. With unfaltering courage and constancy it has proclaimed its faith that until woman is set free so that she can stand erect and unbound, free to achieve her highest and noblest aims, free to love and choose maternal responsibilities with knowledge and power, the race-life can never attain its perfect blossoming, the Superman never be born.

Socialism appeals most strongly to the mother through its fundamental demand for the equalization of opportunity. Men do not see as vividly as women do, nor feel as keenly, the terrible injustice of unequal opportunity in childhood, or the limitless suffering and wrong arising from it. A man may assent heartily, without reservation, to the Socialist demand for an equal chance for every child born into the world, but only in rare instances will he comprehend the full significance of the demand as readily as a woman will, especially if she be a mother. A mother will understand that the demand for equality of opportunity as the birthright of every child voices the most revolutionary aspiration ever born of human hopes and nurtured by human hearts.

The claim for an equal chance for every child born into the world carries with it that most fundamental of claims, that every child has a right to be well-born into the world. And that ideal can never be realized until every mother-to-be is safeguarded by all the arts and resources of our civilization to the end that she may bring her baby into the world with joy-healthy of body, glad of heart, serene of soul, unafraid of the future, unterrified by want or the fear of it, secure in the consciousness that the child she bears is heir to all the riches and advantages of earth.

It is sometimes charged that the demand for equality of opportunity is a modification of the revolutionary aim and temper of true, uncompromising Socialism. Nothing could be farther from the truth! So long as the Socialist movement unequivocally stands for that principle, and directs all its policies toward its realization, it will be revolutionary, the incarnate voice of Social Revolution. As so often happens, its simple, inflexible justice gives to the demand a sweet reasonableness which induces many to assent to it lightly without any serious examination of all that it involves. The witchery of words lures men on and on until they find themselves far beyond their depths in the great ocean of thought. Simple as it may be to say, " I believe in an equal chance for every child born into the world," an intelligent understanding of all that the declaration implies would limit its acceptance to those who realize the necessity of a complete reconstruction of society.