Charles Ruthenberg

Charles Ruthenberg

Charles Ruthenberg, the son of a longshoreman, was born on 9th July, 1882, in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was very religious and he attended German- Lutheran elementary school. At the age of sixteen he found work sand-papering moldings in a picture-frame factory.

Ruthenberg later worked as a house-to-house salesman for a book publishing company. During this period he studied the Bible and theology and considered becoming a Church minister. According to Theodore Draper: "Instead, he became interested in evolution, then sociology, and finally socialism."

In 1909 Ruthenberg joined the Socialist Party of America. He made rapid progress and ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1911, for governor of Ohio in 1912 and for United States senator in 1914. He left his employment in the sales department of a roofing company in 1917 to become a full-time party organiser.

Ruthenberg was a strong opponent of the First World War and in July 1917 he was sentenced to one year in the workhouse for making anti-war and anti-conscription speeches. Ruthenberg was also a supporter of the Russian Revolution and joined the Communist Propaganda League.

In February 1919, Ruthenberg joined forces with Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram Wolfe and Jay Lovestone to create a left-wing faction that advocated the policies of the Bolsheviks in Russia. On 1st May 1919, Ruthenberg was attacked by the police during a political protest meeting.

On 24th May 1919 the leadership expelled 20,000 members who supported the pro-Bolshevik faction. The process continued and by the beginning of July two-thirds of the party had been suspended or expelled. This group, including Ruthenberg, Earl Browder, Jay Lovestone, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Benjamin Gitlow, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the Communist Party of the United States. By the end of 1919 it had 60,000 members whereas the Socialist Party of America had only 40,000.

Ruthenberg was appointed as National Secretary of the party. As the author of The Roots of American Communism (1957) pointed out: "Ruthenberg was the natural choice for National Secretary of the Communist party for two reasons - he was a native-born American, and he had demonstrated his ability to run an organization. Almost no one else qualified on both counts." Along with Louis Fraina, Jay Lovestone, Harry M. Wicks and Alexander Bittelman, Ruthenberg joined the Central Executive Committee of the party.

Initially, the American Communist Party was divided into two factions. One group led by Ruthenberg, that included Jay Lovestone, Bertram Wolfe and Benjamin Gitlow, favoured a strategy of class warfare. Another group, led by William Z. Foster and James Cannon, believed that their efforts should concentrate on building a radicalised American Federation of Labor.

Ruthenberg argued in an article published in Communist Labor: "The party must be ready to put into its program the definite statement that mass action culminates in open insurrection and armed conflict with the capitalist state. The party program and the party literature dealing with our program and policies should clearly express our position on this point. On this question there is no disagreement."

The growth of the American Communist Party worried Woodrow Wilson and his administration and America entered what became known as the Red Scare period. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's attorney general, ordered the arrest of over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists. These people were charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government".

Ruthenberg was one of those arrested. In October 1920, Ruthenberg was tried for alleged violation of the state's Criminal Anarchism law, said to have been breached when he was involved in publishing the Left Wing Manifesto written by Louis Fraina the previous year. Ruthenberg was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years. He remained in Dannemora Prison until released on a $5,000 bond on 24th April, 1922.

On 14th July, 1923, Ruthenberg wrote in The Voice of Labour: "We know that it was our efforts, our work in the trade unions, our propagandizing, our leaflets, our newspapers, our speakers, our organizers, who to a large extent made possible this Convention. And because of that, we took the liberty of interposing with our organization of the militant self-sacrificing workers who are ready to give their strength and money to this cause, and who can be the motive force pushing it forward and spreading it out and making it a real mass movement. We know that - and we are not hiding it."

It was decided that because William Z. Foster had a strong following in the trade union movement that he should be the party candidate in the 1924 Presidential Election. Benjamin Gitlow, who represented the Ruthenberg group, was chosen as his running-mate. Foster did not do well and only won 38,669 votes (0.1 of the total vote). This compared badly with the other left-wing candidate, Robert La Follette, of the Progressive Party, who obtained 4,831,706 votes (16.6%).

The Comintern eventually accepted the leadership of Ruthenberg and Jay Lovestone. As Theodore Draper pointed out in American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960): "After the Comintern's verdict in favor of Ruthenberg as party leader, the factional storm gradually subsided. Membership meetings throughout the country 'unanimously endorsed' the new leadership and its policies. At the Seventh Plenum at the end of 1926, the Comintern, for the first time in five years, found it unnecessary to appoint an American Commission to deal with an American factional struggle... Ruthenberg's machine worked so smoothly and efficiently that it made those outside his inner circle increasingly restless. Beneath the surface of the factional lull, another rebellion smoldered, with the helpful encouragement of Cannon, who had touched off the anti-Ruthenberg rebellion three years earlier."

Charles Ruthenberg died suddenly in Chicago on 2nd March, 1927, three days after an emergency operation for appendicitis which had developed into peritonitis.

Primary Sources

(1) Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (1957)

He came to socialism, he once explained, as a substitute for the ministry. When he was still working for the book company, he began studying the Bible and theology in his spare time to prepare himself for the pulpit. Instead, he became interested in evolution, then sociology, and finally socialism. When he joined the Socialist party of Cleveland in 1909 at the age of twenty-seven, he wasted little time in becoming an active organizer and perennial candidate. He ran for state treasurer of Ohio on the Socialist ticket in 1910, for mayor of Cleveland in 1911, for governor of Ohio in 1912, for United States senator in 1914, and for mayor again in 1915. Cleveland was a stronghold of the Left Wing, and Ruthenberg became its outstanding local spokesman. In the 1912 crisis, this meant that he wanted the, party to emphasize its revolutionary goal instead of vote-catching "municipal reform tactics." His career leaped ahead in 1917. In April, he stood out in the St. Louis convention of the Socialist party as the principal leader of the Left Wing. He was the Left Wing representative in the subcommittee of three that wrote the famous St. Louis antiwar resolution. In June, he left his job with the ladies' garment manufacturer to become a full-time organizer and secretary for the Cleveland local of the Socialist party. In July, he was sentenced to one year in the workhouse for making anti-war and anti-conscription speeches. In November, he again ran for mayor of Cleveland and received 27,000 votes out of a total of 100,000. Though his political activity had been confined to Cleveland, he was now one of the few nationally known Left Wing leaders with a record of real achievement behind him.

(2) The Communist (1st May , 1920)

We must try to reach the workers with our propaganda - we don't expect to make much of an impression on them at present. Well and good. We shall continue our agitation, confident that the social forces, the economic disintegration of world capitalism since the war-and which can no longer succeed in rehabilitating itself-will compel the masses to listen to our message.

(3) Charles Ruthenberg, Communist Labour (15th May, 1920)

The party must be ready to put into its program the definite statement that mass action culminates in open insurrection and armed conflict with the capitalist state. The party program and the party literature dealing with our program and policies should clearly express our position on this point. On this question there is no disagreement.

(4) The Communist (25th April, 1920)

Since the beginning of the party there have been two viewpoints represented sented in the Central Executive Committee. The majority members of the committee considered themselves "great theorists." They constantly talked about the word "principle," but never about how to relate Communist principles to the working class movement of this country and to make these principles a living reality in action...

The Executive Secretary (Ruthenberg) and the minority group, on the other hand, stood for a policy which would make the Communist Party in reality the "party of action" which its Manifesto so proudly proclaims it. They endeavored to relate the party to the life struggle of the workers. They sought to inject the party viewpoint in every struggle of the masses. They believed that a Communist Party should be, not a party of closet philosophers, but a party which participates in the every day struggles of the workers and by such participation injects its principles into these struggles and gives them a wider meaning, thus developing the Communist movement.

(5) Charles Ruthenberg, The Voice of Labour (14th July, 1923)

We know that it was our efforts, our work in the trade unions, our propagandizing, our leaflets, our newspapers, our speakers, our organizers, who to a large extent made possible this Convention. And because of that, we took the liberty of interposing with our organization of the militant self-sacrificing workers who are ready to give their strength and money to this cause, and who can be the motive force pushing it forward and spreading it out and making it a real mass movement. We know that - and we are not hiding it.

(6) Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960)

After the Comintern's verdict in favor of Ruthenberg as party leader, the factional storm gradually subsided. Membership meetings throughout the country "unanimously endorsed" the new leadership and its policies. At the Seventh Plenum at the end of 1926, the Comintern, for the first time in five years, found it unnecessary to appoint an American Commission to deal with an American factional struggle.

The men around Ruthenberg were seasoned veterans, who had never accepted Foster as a "real Communist" and never intended to let power slip out of their hands again. The "big three" in the Chicago national office - the General Secretary, Ruthenberg; the Organization Secretary, Lovestone; and the Director of Agit-Prop, Bedacht - had fought side by side since the formation of the Workers party. In the key New York district, Weinstone went back to his old job as District Organizer, which he decided to rename "General Secretary," as more befitting to his sense of self-importance. The New York Agit-Prop director, Bertram D. Wolfe, was an old-timer who had helped to form the party in 1919 and had recently returned after three and a half years in Mexico. Jack Stachel, head of the New York organization department, was a fast-rising newcomer.

Stachel was born of East-European Jewish parents who had emigrated to New York's East Side when he was still a child. After leaving school at an early age, he had worked at odd jobs and had once belonged to the millinery workers union. Like Weisbord and at exactly the same age, twenty-four, he had switched from the Socialists to the Communists in 1924 and quickly became an organizer for the Communist youth league in New York. The younger members of Ruthenberg's group welcomed him to their ranks, and he soon attracted Lovestone's attention as a hard-working organizer and hard-hitting factionalist. When Lovestone took over the national organization department, he recommended Stachel for the New York organization post. Stachel's unusually rapid rise-within two years-to the second most important post in the most important district indicated a big party career ahead for the dark, saturnine, ambitious young man.

Ruthenberg's machine worked so smoothly and efficiently that it made those outside his inner circle increasingly restless. Beneath the surface of the factional lull, another rebellion smoldered, with the helpful encouragement of Cannon, who had touched off the anti-Ruthenberg rebellion three years earlier. After Cannon broke with Foster over Gusev's intervention in 1925, he and Ruthenberg suspended hostilities. Soon, however, Cannon began to feel neglected, and the strange bedfellows parted company. By the middle of 1926, Cannon went back to his old habit of voting with Foster and Bittelman in the Political Committee, the three of them consistently out-voted by Ruthenberg's four.

Unable to win by the factional system, Cannon declared war on it. His group was far more personal than Ruthenberg's or Foster's; it was based on a portion of the cadre rather than on the rank and file. His International Labor Defense was no match for Ruthenberg's party machine or Foster's trade-union base. As a result, Cannon was compelled to maneuver between the two larger factions or to make alliances with other discontented elements. While Ruthenberg claimed credit for reducing factionalism, Cannon charged that it was worse than ever before, with the ruling faction passing itself off as the party. Cannon professed to be tired of the game and launched a campaign for a nonfactional collective leadership, or, as it came to be known, a faction to end all factions.