Historically speaking:

From the Palmer Raids to the Bridgman Raid, part 2

by Patrick E. Mears, Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, with assistance from Stan Rubins

This is a continuation of the article begun in The Grand Rapids Legal News for Dec. 30, 2011, reprinted from the Winter 2010 issue of the Stereoscope, The Journal of the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan. It is used by permission of the author. For further acknowledgments, please see last Fridays’s issue.

The Establishment and Growth of Marxist Political Organizations in Michigan: 1874-1922

The theoretical bases of communism were developed by two nineteenth century German political philosophers of bourgeois origin, Karl Marx35 and Friedrich Engels.36  Marx and Engels collaborated on numerous works, the most important of which were The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Marxism, as communism37 came to be called, was a philosophy of history and action. According to this theory, often labeled as “dialectical materialism,” world history is essential a series of class struggles which, through a mutation of Hegelian theory,38 create a new synthesis from the clash of the “thesis” and “antithesis.” In the nineteenth century Marx and Engels posited the current struggle in industrialized Western Europe as between the bourgeoisie, viz., the owners of capital, and the proletarian, the industrial workers. This struggle would ultimately result in the victory of the proletarian, who, after an intervening period of dictatorship, would establish a workers’ state where the means of production, i.e., capital, would be owned by all citizens and that wealth would be created and distributed according to the axiom, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”39

The first American political party that was avowedly Marxist was the Workingmen’s Party of the United States founded in 1876.40 This party, which changed its name in 1877 to the Socialist Labor Party, recruited members throughout the United States, including some members from Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Socialist Labor Party (“SLP”) ran candidates in a number of municipal elections throughout the country, including elections in Detroit. The two leaders of the SLP in Michigan in the early days were Joseph Labadie41 of Detroit and Judson Grenell42 of Ann Arbor. The SLP in Michigan was described by Oakley Johnson, a Marxist agitator and historian, in 1966 as holding “a strategic place in Socialist leadership, with Detroit as the national publishing center.”43 During these early years, the SLP published in Detroit the weekly newspaper, The Detroit Socialist.

In 1901, the Socialist Party of America (“SPA”) was formed by the union of the Social Democratic Party formed by Eugene V. Debs44  and “a large group of dissidents from the Socialist Labor Party known as the ‘Kangaroos.’”12 The high tide of the SPA’s electoral successes took place in the first two decades of the twentieth century. ...Debs, running for president of the U.S. on its ticket in 1912, captured 6 percent of the popular vote. In 1910, Victor Berger, another founding member of the SPA, became the first socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District that encompassed Milwaukee. That same year, Milwaukee elected its first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.46 In 1912, the SPA held 1,200 elected offices in 340 municipalities.47
In Michigan during those two decades, SPA candidates also enjoyed electoral successes, electing mayors in 1911 in Flint, Kalamazoo, Greenville, South Frankfort, and Wilson.48 The SPA also fielded candidates for mayor of Ann Arbor (1913) and Muskegon (1914). The leader of the Socialist Party in Grand Rapids during this period was Ben Blumberg, a cigar-maker, who was described by a contemporary as “a thin, whimsical little man with a cast in one eye, but sharp-eyed for all that. He was a union member, and there is no doubt he knew his scientific socialism.”49 Other prominent Michigan socialists after the turn of the twentieth century were John Keracher of Detroit, a Scottish-born shoe merchant who joined the SPA in 1910 and founded the “Proletarian University of Detroit,” where he taught a course on Das Kapital at night to workers. Keracher was elected the state secretary of the Michigan branch of the SPA in 1917.50 Joseph Warnock of Harbor Springs was another shoe merchant who was elected village president of Harbor Springs in 1912 and ran for governor of Michigan in 1910, garnering 9,992 votes.51 A number of SPA periodicals appeared in Michigan during this time, including Tyomes, a Finnish paper published in Hancock, the Progressive Worker of Holland, Poe’s Paper of Kalamazoo, and Michigan Socialist, published in Detroit.52
The Russian Revolution
and the Creation of The Communist Party of America
The abdication of Russian Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 and the Bolshevik-inspired October Revolution in October of that year not only changed the political and geographic landscape of Europe but also had a profound impact upon American politics. A group of SPA leaders sympathetic to the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks, which group included John Reed,53 Louis Frania, and Charles Ruthenberg, split off from the Socialist Party in 1919 and founded what eventually became the CPUSA.54 In 1919, there were two competing “Bolshevik” parties, the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party, both of whom petitioned the Comintern in Moscow for official recognition.55 In 1921, both of these parties, under pressure from Moscow, merged to form the CPUSA.56 In the meantime, the much-feared world Communist revolution threatened by Lenin and Trotsky after 1918 created a backlash in Western Europe and the United States, eventually resulting in the “Palmer Raids” in early January 1920, where federal agents in a massive operation arrested thousands of alleged Communists and socialists throughout the United States.57 After these raids, the CPUSA elected to “go underground” to avoid further arrests and prosecution.58 It was in this climate of fear and repression that the secret meeting of the CPUSA leadership was held in August 1922 in Bridgman, Michigan.

The Convicted Defendant: Charles E. Ruthenberg of Ohio

Charles Emil Ruthenberg, the son of German immigrants, was born on July 9, 1882, in Cleveland, Ohio.  Ruthenberg graduated from school in June 1896 and later attended Berkey and Dyke’s Business College of Cleveland for a 10-month course in bookkeeping. After being attracted to the reform politics of the mayor of Cleveland, Tom Johnson, Ruthenberg joined the SPA in 1909. Ruthenberg immersed himself in politics thereafter, being appointed secretary of the Cuyahoga County branch of the SPA and later in 1911, as a member of the Ohio State Executive Committee of the SPA. In 1915, Ruthenberg was elected to the SPA’s National Committee.59
In addition to his role as a political organizer and insider, Ruthenberg was the SPA’s candidate for election as Ohio’s state treasurer (1910), state Senate (1916), mayor of Cleveland (1917), and United States Congressman (1918).60 Ruthenberg protested against America’s participation in World War I and was arrested for making anti-war and anti-draft speeches during May 1917, therefore being charged with two other SPA defendants for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.61 After trial before Federal District Judge C.C. Westenhaver in Cleveland, Ruthenberg and his co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to a one-year term of imprisonment in the Ohio State Penitentiary. This verdict was upheld on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ruthenberg v. United States, 245 U.S. 480 (1918).62 After serving 11 months of his sentence, Ruthenbeg was released on December 8, 1918.63
The SPA planned a large rally for May Day, 1919, in downtown Cleveland in support of freedom for Eugene V. Debs, convicted for making an anti-war and anti-draft speeches in Canton, Ohio, and Thomas J. Mooney, a union organizer and socialist, who was convicted of bombing a 1916 patriotic rally in San Francisco. The May Day rally turned into a riot when the police attempted to halt the planned speeches, one of which was to be made by Ruthenberg. Although subsequently charged with incitement to murder as a result of the riot, Ruthenberg was not convicted. Even though Ruthenberg’s case was scheduled for trial, no jury was impaneled or court proceeding held. The prosecution simply moved to dismiss the case, which motion was granted.64
Later in 1919, Ruthenberg, as a member of the “Left Wing Section” of the SPA, became involved in the split in the party’s ranks that resulted in the creation of the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America (“CLP”).65 After this schism, Ruthenberg and group of the members of the Commu-nist Party of America, including Jay Lovestone and Chicago attorney Isaac Ferguson, resigned and joined the CLP, which thereafter became the United Communist Party at a convention held at the Wulfskeel Resort in Bridgman, Mich. from May 26-31, 1920.66
To be continued in the Jan. 6 issue of the Grand Rapids Legal News.

Endnotes: Editor’s note: Some of these endnotes have been abridged, as noted.
35Karl Marx was born [in] 1818, in Trier which was then in the Kingdom of Prussia’s province of the Lower Rhine. Marx’s father was a lawyer, although many of his ancestors had been Jewish rabbis. Karl Marx attended university in Bonn and Berlin, receiving a doctorate in 1841. Marx became a journalist..., was stripped of his Prussian citizenship, and was deported. Marx and his wife...moved to Paris and then Brussels before finally settling in London, where he expired [in] 1883... For recent biographies of Karl Marx, see David McCLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography, Palgrove Macmillan, New York (2006) and Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life, WW Norton & Company, New York (2001).
36Friedrich Engel as was born [in] 1820 in ... the Kingdom of Prussia as the son of a textile manufacturer. Engels... in 1842 moved to Manchester, England, to work in his father’s business. That same year, Engels first met Karl Marx. In 1849, Engels participated in an armed rebellion against Prussian rule and, after the uprising was crushed, he fled to England. From 1844 until Marx’s death..., Engels and Marx jointedly authored a number of works. For a recent biography..., see Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, Henry Holt & Company LLC, New York (2008).
37The historical antecedents of Marxism are discussed in detail in Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station, Harcourt Brace & Co., Inc., New York (1940). See also Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Harper Collins Publishers, New York (2009).
38Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher born [in] 1770... In 1793, Hegel received his theological certificate from the Tubingen Stift... In 1801, Hegel began his teaching career at the University of Jena, where he published his first philosophical work...
39Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875).
40Oakley C. Johnson, Marxism in United States History before the Russian Revolution (1876-1917), pp. 18-19, Humanities Press, New York (1974) (hereinafter cited as “Marxism in U.S. History”).
41Joseph Labadie (1850-1933) was described by Oakley Johnson as “...[a] pleasant, genial, eloquent, smiling man.” Oakley C. Johnson, The Early Socialist Party of Michigan: An Assignment in Autobiography, The Centennial Review, p. 161, Volume 10, November 2, Ann Arbor, Michigan (Spring 1966). Labadie transferred his massive collection of printed materials on anarchism, socialism, and early labor history to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.... described...as “the premiere collection of its kind in the country.” See also Labadie’s biography written by his granddaughter, Carlotta R. Anderson, All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement, Wayne State University Press, Detroit (1998).
42Joseph Grenell (1855-1930) was the co-editor of The Detroit Socialist with Joseph Labadie... In 1913, Grenell was appointed by the governor  of Michigan to chair the State Commission of Inquiry into the Wages and the Conditions of Labor for Women and the Advisability of Establishing a Minimum Wage, [which recommended] “immediate provision for vocational training in public schools” and “the enactment of a minimum wage law for women.” [The report was published by] Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., Lansing (1915). Grenell was a prolific author whose books are still published and sold today.
43Assignment in Autobiography, p. 162. See also Richard Jules Oestreicher, Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit: 1875-1900, pp. 76-102, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, Illinois (1989).
44Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926)... came to national prominence as the president of the American Railway Union during the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1905, Debs...and other labor leaders founded the Industrial Workers of the World {“IWW”), a radical trade union that still exists. Debs also ran for president ... in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 as the SPA’s standard-bearer... [I]n 1920, running from prison, he garnered 913,693 votes... In 1918, Debs was arrested...for violating the Espionage Act of 1917... Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, Illinois (2007).
45David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, p. 3, Quadrangle Books, Chicago (1967).
46Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer, served as Seidel’s official secretary from 1910 to 1912. Milwaukee subsequently elected two SPA mayors. See generally Richard W. Judd, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York (1989).
47Marxism in U.S. History, p. 32.
48In 1911, the city of Flint, Michigan, elected a Socialist mayor, John A.C. Menton, who ran on a platform calling for the “collective ownership of all means of production and distribution”... Socialist Cities (see above)... In the election of 1912, however, Meton was defeated...by the industrialist Charles Stewart Mott.
49Assignment in Autobiography, p. 149.
50Assignment in Autobiography, p. 147-162.
51Joseph Warnock was described by Oakley Johnson as the “owner of a fairly prosperous shoe store, and was a fascinating personality with his out-thrust jaw... and elegant manners.” Assignment in Autobiography, p. 149.
52Marxism in U.S. History, p. 32.
53John Reed ... was a left-wing journalist and Socialist politician... best known [for] ... the classic, first-hand reporting on the October Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World... His life is the subject of the 1981 film, Reds.
54David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, pp. 126-149, Quadrangle Books, Chicago (1967); Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism, pp. 148-209, Viking Books, New York (1997).
55Draper, pp. 246-266.
56Id., at pp. 267-281; Albert Fried, Communism in America: A History in Documents, pp. 35-39, Columbia University Press, New York (1997).
57For an excellent history of the impact of the October Revolution on the Western democracies, see Anthony Read, The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle With Bolshevism, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London (2008).
59Oakley C. Johnson, The Day is Coming: Life and Work of Charles E. Ruthenberg, pp. 7-90, International Publishers Co., Inc., New York (1957) (hereinafter, “The Day is Coming”).
60Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.
61The Day is Coming, pp. 118-120
62The Day is Coming, pp.121-122
63The Day is Coming, pp.136-138
64The Day is Coming, pp.141-144
65The Day is Coming, pp.145-147
66Draper, pp. 218-222, 369.