Ohio History Journal

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Charles E. Ruthenberg: The Development

of an American Communist, 1909-1927





The Communist Party of America was the product of native radicalism and a foreign

ideology that inflamed extremists world wide after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917

in Russia. In the United States, many Socialists who had resisted American involve-

ment in the First World War on moral and ideological grounds later saw the Bolshevik

experiment as man's only hope for international peace, class fraternity, and social

amelioration. One such radical was Charles Emil Ruthenberg of Cleveland, Ohio.

Since he joined the movement in its infancy and became an important leader, an

examination of his political career can shed important insights on the character of

early Communism in America.1

"C. E." Ruthenberg became the first Executive Secretary of the Communist Party

of America at its conception in September 1919. He was neither a Russian emigrant

nor a Soviet agent from Moscow but was born in Cleveland, July 9, 1882, of German

immigrant parents. Ruthenberg had been an American Socialist party leader of ten

years' experience before he was persuaded by the Leninist ideology. His conversion

was not sudden but, rather, was the logical development of his thoughts from utopian

idealism to political revolution. He joined world Communism because he saw in it

the fulfillment of the socialist ideals to which he had dedicated his adult life.

Ruthenberg, like many of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, was not a laborer, but a

middle-class social nonconformist who had lofty ideals for a new social order. His

father had been a cigar maker in Germany and an activist in the German Social

Democratic party but was not politically involved after he left Europe. The father

had four sons by a first marriage and three daughters by a second before his arrival

with his family in Cleveland, only four months before the birth of his last child,

Charles. At first, August Ruthenberg found work as a longshoreman on the ore

docks, but later, he managed a saloon. Everyone in the Ruthenberg family worked



1. The only published biographical studies of Ruthenberg have been by Communists. The

principal eulogy of his career is by Oakley C. Johnson, The Day Is Coming: Life and Work of

Charles E. Ruthenberg, 1882-1927 (New York, 1957). Other biographical sketches are Jay

Lovestone, Ruthenberg: Communist Fighter and Leader (New York, 1928), Robert Minor, "Our

C. E.," The Communist, XIV (March 1935), 217-226, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Debs,

Haywood, Ruthenberg (New York, 1939). The Ruthenberg Papers at the Ohio Historical Society

were opened to the public in 1969. See Stephen M. Millett, "Charles E. Ruthenberg and Amer-

ican Bolshevism, 1917-1921" (unpublished M. A. thesis, The Ohio State University, 1970), for a

study based on these papers.


Mr. Millett is an instructor at the Air Force Institute of Technology.