It’s May 5, 1918, the 100th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. There’s an admiring article about him in the New York Times Magazine.
My first reaction: What?
The New York Times was so conservative that it had recently let the president of Columbia University write the Times’ good-riddance editorial himself after renowned historian Charles Beard resigned from the university’s staff over free speech issues. If you’re having trouble disentangling this sentence, you can read all about this episode here. Or you can just take my word for it: the Times was really, really conservative.
Then I started reading about John Spargo, who wrote the article, and got even more confused. The British-born Spargo was a leading socialist thinker and a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. He was the author of Karl Marx: His Life and Work.
What was going on here?
As I learned more about Spargo, it started to make sense. It turned out that he had resigned from the Socialist Party in 1917 after his attempt to get it to support U.S. participation in the war was roundly defeated. He started his own short-lived socialist party and helped found the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, a pro-war labor organization led by AFL president Samuel Gompers.
In 1918, it all came down to where you stood on the war. Being a socialist was a less serious offense than being a pacifist. The defunct socialist magazine The Masses was on trial, but for obstructing conscription, not for advocating socialism (although that probably didn’t help).* Also, Wilson had until recently been trying to keep Russia’s Bolshevik government in the war (they made peace with Germany in March), so a hard-line anti-socialist stance hadn’t been in the national interest.
In Spargo, the Times had found a prominent socialist who would argue in favor of the war in Marx’s name. Kind of, anyway. The headline of Spargo’s article reads “Today is 100th Anniversary of Marx’s Birth: Bitterly Opposed to Prussia and an Ardent Admirer of America—his Record Shows Where He Would Have Stood in the Present War.” Which overstates Spargo’s case, kind of.
Spargo writes that
because Marx wrote in the famous “Communist Manifesto” that “the workingmen have no country,” and because he was a strong advocate of internationalism, it has been generally supposed that Marx did not believe in nations or nationalism. This is a profound misconception.
According to Spargo, Marx was a strong German nationalist, and was no pacifist—favoring, for example, vigorous action against France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. He hated militarism, though, “with all the fierce passion of which he was so magnificently capable.” His view on war was nuanced:
Always he asked himself whether a particular war, or the triumph of one or the other side in a particular war, made for human progress or against it.
Marx was also a “a great friend of America,” and a big Abraham Lincoln fan. According to Spargo, he played an influential role in Britain’s decision to stay out of the Civil War instead of siding with the south.
Therefore, Spargo says,
Having regard to his life’s record, we are justified in believing that, if Marx were alive today, he would hold in scorn those Socialists who, in the name of Socialist Internationalism, have proclaimed their opposition to America’s participation in the great struggle for freedom, democracy, and that independence and integrity of nations without which there can be no internationalism.
That’s a bit of a leap of logic. But it got Marx into the New York Times on his centenary.
*Actually, it was between trials—Judge Augustus Hand (cousin of Learned) had declared a mistrial on April 27 after the jurors failed to reach agreement. One juror held out for acquittal and eventually persuaded one or two others (accounts vary) to side with him. When his fellow jurors found out that he was of Austrian descent, they threatened to have him lynched. “If I had noticed that man’s jaw, I never would have let him on the jury,” the prosecutor later said. A new trial was scheduled for later in the year.