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.
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.
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.
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. On this question there is no disagreement.
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.
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. We know that - and we are not hiding it.
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.
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Charles E. Ruthenberg: The first leader of the Communist Party USA
At the time of his death in 1927, he was lauded as “one of the most indicted and imprisoned workers” in the history of the American labor movement. Yet today, few know the name Charles Emil Ruthenberg. When he passed away suddenly at the age of 44, he cheated a Michigan prison of its next inmate and left a young Communist Party USA—then called the Workers (Communist) Party—in mourning for its first general secretary.
Years ago, when visiting the row of graves behind the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, I recall seeing the name Charles Ruthenberg among other U.S. notables buried in the Kremlin wall, radical heroes like John Reed and Big Bill Haywood. The name Ruthenberg was an unfamiliar one, though I was unaware of the pivotal role he played in the founding of the Communist Party and the work he did to ensure its survival in the dangerous years of the “first Red scare.”
I’d seen the movie Reds and marveled at Warren Beatty’s electric portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the clash of dynamic personalities—John Reed and Louis Fraina—that were the driving force behind the CPUSA’s founding as two separate parties in 1919. I’d only learn much later that the story was a bit more complex than the “immigrants vs. native born” narrative that played out in the film. In that telling, inherited from Theodore Draper’s classic book, The Roots of American Communism, the Communist Party of America (CPA), under the Italian Fraina, was a Russian immigrant-dominated group somewhat out of touch with the American worker, while Reed’s Communist Labor Party (CLP) was led by English speakers and catered to the concerns of the U.S.-born proletariat.
Charles Ruthenberg, as pictured on a memorial cover of “Labor Defender,” April 1927. | People’s World Archive
Completely left out of the movie was the fact that the Ohio-born C.E. (as he liked to be called) Ruthenberg was a central leader of the CPA and tirelessly worked for unity between the two parties before they were even established. In the film, you see Fraina (played by Paul Sorvino) show up at the meeting of the now-expelled delegates of the Socialist Party’s Left Wing issuing an invitation to join in the CPA’s founding the next day. In real life, that was actually Ruthenberg, not Fraina.
After a long debate that night, the group spurned his overture by a vote of 37-21 and proceeded to found their own party, the CLP. Ruthenberg had gone to his fellow communists—still small-c at this point—to appeal for the formation of a single party of socialism. Though that first attempt was in vain, Ruthenberg never stopped pushing for a united, open party in touch with the masses.
Born the son of a Cleveland longshoreman in 1882, Ruthenberg’s formal education ended when he was 16, but he continued studying on his own, becoming part of the pool of “working-class intellectuals.” He worked a series of jobs, including in a picture frame factory, before eventually scoring a position in the business department of a book company. He developed his administrative and executive abilities there during the day and continued his self-education at night.
Seeing the class struggle play out on the job, he became more and more disillusioned with the social and economic system of capitalism. Initially preparing for a life as a minister, Ruthenberg traded the Bible for Capital, borrowed from his local library branch. When asked by a prosecutor years later how he had been converted to socialism, he answered: “Through the Cleveland Public Library.”
By 1909, when he was 27, Ruthenberg had officially joined the Socialist Party. A year later, he was the party’s candidate for Ohio state treasurer, running on a platform that called for unemployment insurance—several decades before that reform was eventually won. 60,000 people cast their ballots for him. Two years later, he was the candidate for Cleveland mayor, part of a wave of Socialist campaigns that made Ohio the country’s first “Red State,” although that designation meant something very different than it does today.
He quickly became an outspoken figure on the Socialist Party’s left wing, known for his uncompromising attitude against the imperialist war looming in Europe. When the U.S. finally entered the conflict in 1917, Ruthenberg led the campaign for an anti-war resolution at the Socialist Party’s National Emergency Convention in St. Louis. He and other left-wingers were determined that their party not follow the example of the European socialist parties supporting the war.
In June, he was arrested, along with Alfred Wagenknecht and Ohio SP organizer Charles Baker, for obstructing the military draft. A swift conviction in November—the same month as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—sent them all to prison for a year. He and his comrades began serving their term in January 1918. From that time right up until his death, Ruthenberg was either in prison or facing imprisonment.
Emerging from the Canton workhouse just as the war was ending, Ruthenberg returned immediately to work. Support for the left wing of the party was consolidating among the membership, driven by dissatisfaction with the lukewarm way the party leadership had met the issue of imperialist war, its half-hearted embrace of the workers’ revolution in Russia, its refusal to join the new Communist International, and its failure to support efforts to build industrial labor unions.
The left wing, with Ruthenberg leading the charge, carried on an intense campaign to shift the party’s direction. In elections for the executive, they took 12 out of 15 seats. The old leadership refused to honor the results, however, and initiated a purge of all the left-led state parties and foreign language federations, which together represented the vast majority of the party membership. Through its bureaucratic maneuvers, the right-wing leadership effectively split the Socialist Party.
Ruthenberg was fresh out of jail once again after having charges against him in connection with Cleveland’s 1919 May Day parade dismissed when the break with the Socialist leadership was made official.
Though united in their opposition to what they saw as the “opportunism” of the Socialist Party executive committee, Ruthenberg and the other left-wingers were divided as to how they should proceed. The bulk of the left wing, with Ruthenberg and Fraina at their head, prepared for the founding of a new party—a communist party. They set Sept. 1 as the date to establish the new group.
But a group led by Reed and Wagenknecht insisted on staging a raid of the upcoming Socialist convention in Chicago, scheduled for the end of August, to take the seats they’d been elected to. It was a foregone conclusion that they’d be denied credentials, and so they rented a room downstairs from the official meeting, anticipating they’d need a place to set up their own party.
At noon the next day, the founding convention of the Communist Party of America opened on Chicago’s Blue Island Avenue at the headquarters of the Russian Socialist Federation. The meeting hall was decked out in red banners bearing revolutionary slogans. Portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky hung above the stage.
The founding convention of the Communist Party of America, Chicago, Sept. 1, 1919. | People’s World Archive
Just as the meeting was about to open, the Chicago Police Red Squad busted into the hall, and detectives immediately began tearing down and destroying all the flags and floral decorations. Photographers rushed in to take pictures of everybody. The delegates stared at the police, and then a brass band struck up the “Internationale” and everyone started to sing and cheer.
After the excitement died down a bit, Louis Fraina made the opening keynote with the following words: “We now end, once and for all, all factional disputes. We are at an end with bickering. We are at an end with controversy.”
Of course, with two separate communist parties founded just 18 hours apart, it was clear that the division and factionalism were not over.
For a united party of action
The government stepped up its repression of both communist parties almost immediately. Many Communist leaders were driven underground or deported in the infamous “Palmer Raids.” Just over a year after the founding conventions, Ruthenberg was again targeted. He was convicted in November 1920 for “criminal syndicalism” for signing the Socialist Party Left Wing Manifesto and sent away to Sing Sing prison. The recommended sentence was 5 to 10 years, but after 18 months, he was out after an appeals court said he never should have been found guilty.
The two communist parties during this time united into a single Communist Party, thanks largely to negotiations led by Ruthenberg and Wagenknecht. John Reed had died in October 1920 in Russia, and Fraina was under a cloud of espionage and, eventually, embezzlement of party funds.
The unified party emerged from the underground as the Workers (Communist) Party, with Ruthenberg as its leader. But six weeks after he won his appeal and release, he and 16 others were arrested at a party convention in Bridgman, Michigan. The charge, again, was criminal syndicalism. Seeing that Ruthenberg was one of the ablest organizers and leaders in the Communist Party, security agencies and the police were determined to keep him isolated behind bars.
A new conviction was handed down, and Ruthenberg once more entered prison in January 1925, expecting to serve up to ten years. An appeal to the Supreme Court resulted in an order for a retrial, and 20 days later he was free once more pending further proceedings. The threat of re-imprisonment hung over his head from then until the day he died.
At a meeting of the party’s political committee in February 1927, Ruthenberg was jotting down notes when William Z. Foster told him that he looked pale. His only response was that he was “kind of under the weather.” A couple of hours later, he collapsed and was taken to emergency appendectomy surgery. He died three days later of acute peritonitis.
Ruthenberg’s death is announced on the front page of the Daily Worker, March 3, 1927. | People’s World Archive
Thousands packed a memorial meeting at Chicago’s Ashland Auditorium—the same hall where Ruthenberg had spoken at the launch of the Daily Worker in 1924. In honor of his wishes and at the request of the Communist International, his ashes were conveyed to Moscow, where he was interred just behind Lenin’s final resting place.
Through all the years of factionalism, sectarianism, and repression, Ruthenberg maintained his stance in favor of a united, legal, and practical party. Though some, like Fraina, would fade into obscurity or ignominy, Ruthenberg remained dedicated to building a party of socialism in the United States.
He was a devoted Marxist but had little sympathy for those who, on the basis of protecting their supposedly revolutionary principles, would have made the party into little more than a debating society. “The knowledge gained in study classes,” he wrote in his last Daily Worker column, “must be carried into the actual class struggle.”
His political legacy was captured in an article he wrote during the worst days of the intra-party factional fights. The Communist Party, he said in 1920, must be “a party of action,” must participate “in the everyday struggles of the workers and by such participation, inject its principles and give a wider meaning, thus developing the Communist movement.”
Charles Emil Ruthenberg was born July 9, 1882, in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Wilhelmina (née Lau) and August Charles Ruthenberg. [ 1 ] [ 2 ] Ruthenberg's parents were ethnic Germans and Lutherans who emigrated from Prussia in 1888. [ 3 ] In America, young "Charlie's" father first worked in America on the docks of the Cuyahoga River as a longshoreman. [ 4 ] In later years the elder Ruthenberg went into business for himself with a son-in-law, tending bar at a saloon frequented evenings by those who worked on the docks. [ 5 ]
C.E. Ruthenberg graduated from the parochial Lutheran school in June 1896. [ 6 ] He went to work in a bookstore, attending Berkey and Dyke's Business College in the evenings for a ten-month course in bookkeeping, accounting, and typing. [ 6 ] Ruthenberg married Rosaline "Rose" Nickel, also of German descent, in June 1904. [ 7 ] The couple had a son named Daniel in 1905, the only child the pair would have. [ 8 ] Ruthenberg worked as the bookkeeper and sales manager for the Selmar Hess Publishing Company in this period, overseeing more than 30 salesmen throughout the Middle West. [ 7 ]
The socialist years (1908-1918)
Ruthenberg's first political attraction was to the Single Taxer Tom Johnson, a "reform" Mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909. [ 8 ] Ruthenberg was soon drawn to more radical politics, however, and in the middle months of 1908 he began calling himself a socialist. [ 9 ] Ruthenberg joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in January 1909, [ 10 ] and attended an English language branch of Local Cuyahoga County.
Ruthenberg was an Organizer for and later Secretary of Local Cuyahoga County continuously from 1909 to 1919. In addition he was on the Ohio State Executive Committee of the SPA from 1911 to 1916, during which time he edited the newspapers of local party, The Cleveland Socialist (1911–1913) and Socialist News (1914–1919). Ruthenberg also periodically contributed material to the official organ of the Socialist Party of Ohio, The Ohio Socialist. He was elected to the National Committee of the Socialist Party in 1915 but was defeated by Arthur LeSueur in the vote at the annual meeting of that body for election to the governing National Executive Committee of the party. [ 11 ]
During this time Ruthenberg traveled to many cities throughout the American Northeast and Midwest, speaking to labor groups, trade union organizations, and anti-war groups, building a network of contacts. Ruthenberg was associated with the far left so-called "Impossibilist" wing of the SPA, which had little hope for the efficacy of ameliorative reform, seeking instead revolutionary socialist transformation.
Ruthenberg was a frequent candidate on the ticket of the Socialist Party. His first electoral failure came in 1910, when he ran for Ohio State Treasurer on the Socialist ticket. In 1911 he ran for Mayor of Cleveland, in 1912 for Governor of Ohio, for U.S. Senate in 1914. In 1915 he ran again for Mayor of Cleveland and in 1916 he ran for United States Congress. In 1917 he made his third run for Mayor of Cleveland (receiving 27,000 votes of 100,000 cast), followed by his second run for Congress in 1918. His final fourth and final run for Mayor of Cleveland came in 1919. [ 12 ]
Ruthenberg was a delegate to the seminal 1917 Emergency National Convention of the SPA. There he was elected to the Committee on War and Militarism and was one of three primary authors of the aggressively antimilitarist St. Louis program , along with Morris Hillquit and Algernon Lee.
After American entry into World War I, Ruthenberg continued to publicly attack the "imperialist" conflict and American participation therein. He was arrested for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by obstructing the draft in connection with a speech given at a rally on May 17, 1917. Also charged at the same time were Alfred Wagenknecht and Charles Baker. The trio were tried together in July 1917 and sentenced to one year in the Ohio State Penitentiary, a decision upheld by the US Supreme Court on January 15, 1918. Informed of this decision, issued a statement declaring
The Supreme Court has decided we must spend a year in jail. The crime for which we are convicted is truth telling. We believe in certain principles we fought for those principles, and we go to jail ostensibly for inducing a certain Alphones Schue not to register. The charge is merely and excuse. The important fact is that the ruling class feared our message to the workers and tried to silence that message. That fact should make a hundred willing workers take up the work we lay down. [ 13 ]
Ruthenberg, Wagenknecht, and Baker served almost 11 months of their sentence, finally being released on December 8, 1918.
The 1919 Cleveland May Day Riot
Freed from prison in December 1918, Ruthenberg dove in with both feet to the burgeoning left wing movement rocking the Socialist Party. May Day of 1919 was an event of enormous enthusiasm and great fear. A gigantic assembly was planned in Cleveland, in which four parades of marchers, many waving red flags, would come together in the public square to hear speeches and rally for freedom for Eugene V. Debs and Tom Mooney and the adoption of the 6 hour day and the $1 minimum wage. As many as 20,000 people are said to have participated in the march, with 20 to 30,000 more people lining the streets to watch. Ruthenberg later described the events that followed:
When the head of the line was within a block of the Public Square the first trouble occurred. An officer in the uniform of the Red Cross jumped from a "Victory" Loan truck and endeavored to take a red flag which a soldier in uniform was carrying at the head of the procession. A scuffle followed in which other soldiers from the truck and some businessmen joined. During the scuffle one of these businessmen drew a revolver and wildly threatened the workers in the procession. In five minutes, however, the struggle was over. The lieutenant and his supporters were driven back to the sidewalk, the head of the line reformed, and with the red flag still flying, marched on to the Public Square.
Suddenly, the police made their appearance:
They came down Superior Ave., which divides the "Square" into northern and southern sections, headed by the mounted squad, followed by auto load after load. The newspapers later reported that 700 men had been concentrated at the Central Statiion, who now descended upon the marchers. The first thousand or so of workers marched onto the square and took possession of the "Victory" Loan speakers' stand, which had been built over the stone blocks placed on the Public Square for the use of speakers at public meetings. The chairman was about to introduce [me] as the first speaker when an officer and a few soldiers tried to climb to the platform, demanding that the soldier that held the red flag give it up. [Then], without warning, a squad of mounted police dashed into the audience, driving their horses over the assembled workers and clubbing them as they went." [ 14 ]
A riot ensued, pitting the police and their supporters (backed by tanks) against the marchers. Two marchers were killed in the fighting, hundreds injured, and about 150 arrested in this Cleveland May Day Riot. [ 15 ] Ruthenberg was charged for incitement to murder in connection with this event but no conviction was obtained.
Formation of the CPA
Ruthenberg was an early endorser of the Left Wing Manifesto written by Louis C. Fraina and around which the formal Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party congealed. He was a Left Wing-supported candidate for the Socialist Party's governing National Executive Committee in the party election of 1919, the result of which was overturned by the outgoing NEC ostensibly on the grounds of election fraud carried out by some of the branches associated with the party's language federations.
Ruthenberg was a delegate to the June 1919 Convention of the Left Wing Section and was elected there as a member of the faction's governing National Council. Ruthenberg was initially supportive of the tactic of continuing to fight "to win the Socialist Party for the Left Wing" at its forthcoming 1919 Emergency National Convention in Chicago, but in the face of federation pressure for immediate formation of a Communist Party of America and the apparently hopeless task faced by Wagenknecht & Co., Ruthenberg shifted his support to the Federations and their call for an immediate Communist Party.
Dominated as it was sure to be by the Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Latvian language federations, the anglophonic Ruthenberg was a valuable commodity to federation leaders like Alexander Stoklitsky , Nicholas Hourwich , and Joseph Stilson . Nor did Ruthenberg owe any allegiance to the idiosyncratic Socialist Party of Michigan, led by John Keracher and Dennis Batt. Therefore, the ambitious Ruthenberg made an ideal candidate to head the new organization, which was established in Chicago on September 1, 1919, as the Communist Party of America (CPA). While decisive authority on the floor of the convention and on the Central Executive Committee which it elected remained in the hands of the so-called "Russian Federations," Ruthenberg was elected by the Chicago conclave as the first Executive Secretary of the new organization. Ironically, it was his old Ohio party comrade and prison mate, Alfred Wagenknecht who was elected to head the rival Communist Labor Party of America in the aftermath of the failed effort to win control of the Socialist Party at its August 1919 Convention.
A period of bitter and acrimonious rivalry followed, in which both of the competing American communist organizations sought to win the favor (and financial support) of the Communist International (Comintern). Adding to the complexity of the situation, the Socialist Labor Party of America and the Socialist Party of America sought affiliation with the Comintern as well. The Comintern was adamant about its structure, however, and it sought one and only one centralized organization in each country. Merger between the CPA and CLP was demanded.
The fulfillment of the Comintern's demand for unity proved to be no simple task, however, and the history of the next three years are a complex tale of splits, mergers, secret conventions, organized caucuses, and parallel organizations that lies outside of the scope of this presentation. In outline terms, a fight erupted among the leadership of the CPA in 1920 and Ruthenberg, together with a group of his English-speaking adherents such as Isaac Ferguson and Jay Lovestone as well as the Chicago-based section of the Russian federation, exited the organization (along with a major part of the group's funds) in April 1920 and joined with the Communist Labor Party to form the United Communist Party (UCP) in May.
Wagenknecht headed this new joint organization with Ruthenberg placed in charge of the party press. This still left a divided Communist movement, however, with the major part of the old CPA, now headed by Charles Dirba still remaining in increasingly bitter opposition. It was not until the end of 1922 — after another merger, split, and merger — that this rift was finally resolved, with the establishment with a new unified Communist Party of America and its parallel "Legal Political Party," the Workers Party of America (WPA).
During much of this complicated dance, C.E. Ruthenberg was in jail. In October 1920, Ruthenberg was tried together with his associate Isaac Ferguson in New York for alleged violation of the state's Criminal Anarchism law, said to have been breached by the Left Wing Section when it published Fraina's Left Wing Manifesto the previous year. The pair were tried and sentenced to 5 years' confinement in the State Penitentiary on October 29, 1920. The pair sat in Dannemora Prison until finally released on a $5,000 bond on April 24, 1922. Ruthenberg was immediately made Executive Secretary of the WPA upon his release on bail, with Abram Jakira in charge of daily operations of the parallel and underground CPA.
The above ground WPA headed by Ruthenberg grew rapidly, boosted by the addition of the massive Finnish Federation to its ranks, while the underground party withered and died, put to bed for good in 1923. Thereafter Ruthenberg was the sole Executive Secretary of the American Communist Party (still calling itself the Workers Party of America) — a position which he retained for the rest of his life, despite spending much of the 1920s as a leader of a minority faction within the party.
The Criminal Anarchism convictions of Ruthenberg and Ferguson were ultimately overturned by the New York Supreme Court In July 1922, just in time for another round of prosecutions, this time related to ill-fate August 1922 Unity Convention of the CPA held at Bridgman, Michigan.
The 1922 Bridgman Convention
A secret conclave had been arranged at the Wolfskeel Resort on the wooded shore of Lake Michigan to finally unite the CPA with a parallel organization maintained by its dissident Central Caucus faction . The site was regarded as relatively safe, having previously been used for a secret convention of the United Communist Party in the spring of 1920. This time, however, an informant of the US Department of Justice had managed to win election to the gathering as a delegate and the authorities had been notified.
The forced merger did not, however, end the rivalries between the two groups. Ruthenberg and his supporter Jay Lovestone were at odds with a rival faction led by William Z. Foster, who had strong ties to organized labor and who wanted to direct the party's work toward organizing within the American-born working class, and James P. Cannon, who led the International Labor Defense organization.
He ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Representatives from Ohio's 20th Congressional District (now abolished) as the candidate of the Workers Party of America, as the CPUSA was then known, on his return to the United States.
In 1925, Comintern representative Sergei Gusev ordered the majority Foster faction to surrender control to Ruthenberg's faction Foster complied. The factional infighting within the CPUSA did not end, however the communist leadership of the New York locals of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union lost the 1926 strike of cloakmakers in New York City in large part because of intra-party factional rivalries, as neither group wanted to take the responsibility for accepting a strike settlement that appeared insufficiently revolutionary.
In 1926–27 his First Amendment case, Ruthenberg v. Michigan, was pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court had voted 7–2 (with Brandeis joined by Holmes dissenting) against Ruthenberg. But Ruthenberg died shortly before the Court rendered its ruling, thus the opinions in the case were never published.
Death and legacy
Ruthenberg died on March 1, 1927 in Chicago after undergoing surgery for acute peritonitis. [ 16 ] He was cremated and an urn containing his ashes was placed in the Kremlin wall, not far from the burial place of his former factional rival John Reed.
Charles Ruthenberg 1924 (wiki)
Along with the rest of the country, Clevelanders were shocked on the evening of September 6, 1901, to learn that President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, New York. What brought the news closer to home than elsewhere, however, was the knowledge soon to follow that the man who had fired the fatal bullet had been a resident of their own city. Leon Czolgosz was the son of Polish immigrants living in Cleveland’s Warsawa district on the southeast side.
A reporter from the Cleveland World tracked down the assassin’s father on Fleet Avenue. He had once run a neighborhood saloon, where a group of anarchists was said to have met in a hall above the barroom. “I think he is insane,” said Paul Czolgosz of his son. “I don’t think he is an anarchist. He is, I believe, a member of the Socialist Labor Party, but of no other organization.”
In fact, the younger Czolgosz had once been rebuffed in his attempt to join a local anarchist society and was a classic example of the loner in the history of American assassinations. Then as now, however, conspiracy-minded Americans were prone to associate foreigners and immigrants indiscriminately with such European political movements as Anarchism, Communism, and Socialism.
Even native-American politicians were not immune from such suspicions. Tom L. Johnson , Cleveland’s great reform mayor, may have been “the best Mayor of the best governed city in the United States” in the eyes of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, but businessman Mark Hanna saw Johnson as a “socialist-anarchist-nihilist.” Most of Johnson’s reforms happened to be as American as apple pie: paving and cleaning the streets, removing “Don’t Walk on the Grass” signs from city parks, building municipal bath houses, and instituting a city purchasing department to eliminate waste and corruption. The closest he carne to socialism was in his campaigns to establish municipal ownership of electric power and street railways. That was enough for conservatives like Hanna, whose antipathy couldn’t have been allayed by the sight of the mayor campaigning in a Winton automobile known as the “Red Devil.”
Tom Johnson was mayor of a city of 381,768 residents in 1900, one third of whom were foreign-born and three quarters of whom were either foreign-born or children of the same. Two thirds of the city’s working class were engaged in construction, manufacturing, and service trades, most of them was skilled or semi-skilled laborers. They lived in working-class neighborhoods dominated by up-and-down double or front-and-back-yard single houses. Many if not most still lacked indoor plumbing–hence the need for public baths. Working conditions were even more primitive than housing conditions, marked by low wages (15 to 25 cents an hour), long hours (10 to 12 per day), child labor, and sweatshop standards. Employers resisted workers’ efforts to organize for better conditions by the use of company spies, strikebreakers, and blacklists against workers involved in unionizing activities.
Two approaches were available for those workers who persisted in attempting to organize: the traditional craft unions of the American Federation of Labor or the class-oriented Socialist Labor Party. Labor unions sought to achieve their goals through collective bargaining with employers or government legislation, while Socialists sought broader reforms through the replacement of capitalism by a workers’ government that would take over and operate the major means of production.
While native-American workers tended to favor trade unions, and immigrants were more comfortable with socialist organizations from their European experience, there was a considerable overlap between the two approaches. Max Hayes , a native-born American printer, for example, was secretary of Cleveland’s Central Labor Union as well as a member of the Socialist Party of America. He co-founded and edited the official organ of the Central Labor Union, the Cleveland Citizen, and ran for Congress and Ohio Secretary of State on the Socialist ticket. He regarded unionism as his primary allegiance, however, and believed that socialists should work for reform through unions and the existing political system.
A major test for Cleveland’s union movement came with the garment workers’ strike of 1911. It started on June 6, when 5,000 Cleveland garment workers walked off the Job, only three months after 135 New York workers had died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Cleveland’s garment industry ranked fourth in the nation, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union viewed it as a potential model for organization. Their demands included a fifty-hour work week with a half holiday on Saturdays and no more than two hours overtime a day, abolition of sweatshop conditions, and a raise in pay.
Garment manufacturers matched their striking employees in a display of solidarity. Refusing to negotiate with union representatives or agree to arbitration, the owners kept their businesses in operation by bringing in strikebreakers and sub-contracting with out-of-town plants. Strikers organized parades to promote their cause, including a march through the downtown business district by two female locals. The manufacturers countered by hiring agents to infiltrate the unions and incite members to violence. Told by one of these that their tactics were “too lady-like,” female strikers responded by assaulting scabs and police with their purses and fists, thereby turning public opinion against the strike. After five months, the strikers returned to work with none of their demands gained.
Such experiences undoubtedly prompted workers, especially those of recent European background, to consider socialistic solutions to the labor question. An estimated four out of five male workers, and two of five female employees, in Cleveland’s garment industry were foreign-born. When Charles Ruthenberg was ready to Join the Socialist Party in 1909, he found only eight English speaking locals in the city, as against eighteen of various nationalities, led by the Germans, Czechs, and Poles.
The son of German immigrants, Ruthenberg had begun his political odyssey as a supporter of Tom L. Johnson. Though still a believer in the free enterprise system, he was against special privilege and in favor of the mayor’s campaign for municipal ownership of the city’s street railways. Ruthenberg was not a laborer or tradesman but a white collar worker. Even before Johnson’s defeat in 1909, however, he was rapidly moving in the direction of socialism. Asked much later for the cause of his conversion, he replied, “Through the Cleveland Public Library.” When Eugene V. Debs , the most prominent socialist in America, spoke at Grays Armory in 1911, brochures listing the library’s holdings on socialism were distributed to those in attendance. Ruthenberg became recording secretary of Cleveland’s Socialist Party and within two years was running for mayor against Newton D. Baker and earning a respectable 8,145 votes.
It was a time fermenting with change, for socialists as well as progressives in general. Early in 1912, a state constitutional convention proposed no fewer than forty-one amendments to the Ohio constitution, last revamped in 1851. Voters approved thirty-three of them, including the great ballot reforms of initiative and referendum. Equally important for cities such as Cleveland was passage of a “home rule” amendment granting cities greater control over ways of addressing some of the unique problems of urban life. It had been drafted largely by Cleveland’s new mayor, Newton D. Baker, who promptly set about promoting the adoption of a new city charter.
Baker also played a prominent role in the Presidential election of 1912. At the Democratic National Convention he gave an impassioned speech from the floor which led to the overturning of the constitution’s unit rule, thus releasing nineteen of Ohio’s delegates to vote for the eventual nominee, Woodrow Wilson . A split in the Republican party between supporters of President William H. Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt virtually guaranteed Wilson’s election. So great was Baker’s dislike of Roosevelt that he expressed a preference for Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate. In an unscientific exit poll of Cleveland theatergoers taken by the Cleveland Press, Debs actually outpolled Taft, finished third behind Wilson and Roosevelt. Wilson carried Ohio in the general election, but Debs picked up an impressive 89,930 votes in the state, a tenth of his national total of 900,000. Ruthenberg, the Socialist candidate for governor, was close behind with 87,709 votes. The party’s statewide appeal was much wider than its 3,500 dies-paying members, gaining Ohio a national reputation as the “Red State.”
Ethnic groups remained the core of the Socialist Party, especially in multi-cultural Cleveland. Many of their meetings took place in the old Germania Hall, rechristened Acme Hall when the original tenants, the Germania Turnverein, left in 1908 for newer quarters. On the west side, Socialist meetings were often called to order in a hall built by the Hungarian Workingmen’s Singing Club on Lorain Avenue. One Hungarian woman recalled passing the hat there for Socialist contributions following a Ruthenberg speech. Ruthenberg was often the featured English-speaker of the night at these gatherings, appearing at them often several nights a week. He would later observe that the best working-class daily newspapers in America all happened to be printed in foreign languages. One was the Americke Delnicke Listy (American Daily News), located in Cleveland’s Czech neighborhood on the southeast side. During the garment strike it had attempted to discourage strikebreakers by printing their names and addresses.
When war clouds gathered over Europe in 1914, Cleveland’s socialists turned May Day into an antiwar demonstration, marching through Public Square and rallying that evening in Acme Hall. War indeed broke out that August, and 3,000 socialists showed up in the rain for an antiwar protest in Wade Park. Though confined as yet to Europe, the First World War presented serious issues for American socialists, particularly those of foreign extraction. As socialists they were opposed to all wars as manifestations of capitalist rivalries. To the various Slavic and Magyar nationalities within the socialist movement, however, the war offered the promise of liberating their cultural homelands from German, Austrian, or Russian domination.
As events pushed America closer to participation, the war became more than an academic question f or American socialists and workers. Ruthenberg and the socialists campaigned against American entry right up to the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s war message to Congress. They scheduled a stop-the-war meeting f or April 1, 1917, at Grays Armory, only to find the doors locked upon their arrival. Undampened, Ruthenberg led them in the rain to register their protest on Public Square.
For workers of all political persuasions, the war offered the benefit of high employment. Taking advantage of the wartime labor shortage, the garment workers again went on strike in 1918. The manufacturers this time agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration, but only at the urging of Secretary of War Newton Baker, former Mayor of Cleveland, who wanted to insure the supply of military uniforms. The workers not only won a substantial raise but secured union recognition in Cleveland’s men’s clothing industry.
America’s socialists found the government far less tolerant of their political activities. Foreign-born citizens, especially those from enemy countries, saw their loyalties under suspicion. An Americanization Board was established in Cleveland by the Mayor’s Advisory Committee to teach English to foreign-speaking aliens and to encourage them to become naturalized American citizens. Max Hayes and the moderate branch of the Socialist Party in general supported America’s participation in the war.
Charles Ruthenberg had become the recognized leader of the Socialist Party’s left wing. Even after America’s declaration of war against the Central Powers, he and other socialists continued to speak out against the war and the military conscription act. Given the choice between dropping his political activities or losing his position as office manager in one of Cleveland’s leading garment makers, Ruthenberg turned down a $5,000 raise and $10,000 stock offer to work full time for socialism. Alfred Wagenknecht, state secretary of the Socialist Party, was arrested at an antiwar meeting on Public Square, near the statue recently dedicated to Tom L. Johnson and free speech. (Years earlier, when the notorious anarchist Emma Goldman had come to town and dared Johnson to stop her from speaking, the mayor had invited her to have her say on Public Square.)
Ruthenberg and Wagenknecht were soon charged with obstructing the Conscription Act and sentenced to a year in the workhouse in Canton, Ohio. Even under sentence, Ruthenberg was on the ballot for mayor and received 27,000 votes, more than a quarter of the votes cast. Two Socialists were elected to the city council and another to the board of education in that election, though the board member was subsequently prosecuted under the Espionage Act and removed from office.
Eugene Debs came to Canton in 1918 to address the Socialist Party’s state convention. After visiting Ruthenberg in the workhouse, he went to the park across the street to deliver a fiery antiwar speech to a thousand supporters and a couple of note-taking government agents. Two weeks later, Debs was arrested as he arrived in Cleveland to speak at a socialist gathering at the Bohemian Gardens on Clark Avenue. He was tried for violating the Espionage Act in the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland and sentenced to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Following Ruthenberg’s example, he ran for President in 1920 and pulled in nearly a million votes from behind bars.
Despite such moral victories, socialism in the United States never recovered from the hysteria of World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1918 in Russia brought hope to socialists everywhere, but fear and alarm to their enemies. Although fighting ended in November, 1918, wartime passions still burned fiercely in America, which had entered the conflict so belatedly. There were race riots in twenty-three American cities in 1919, fueled by the urban incursion of African Americans in search of wartime Jobs.
Cleveland had its own riots that year, but the targets were reds, not blacks. Some 30,000 socialists and their sympathizers gathered as usual on May 1 for the annual May Day observance. From various starting points they marched towards Public Square, where Ruthenberg was to deliver the oration of the day. Tens of thousands more lined the streets to watch, not all of them sympathetic. As the columns, Ruthenberg at the head of one, reached the more crowded downtown streets, onlookers began to attack the marchers, trying to snatch their red flags and break up their ranks. Among the attackers were army veterans, patriotic vigilantes, and, by some accounts, the police themselves. Two people were killed, scores sent to hospitals, and more than a hundred arrested, most of them marchers.
Officially, the May Day Riots were blamed on the socialists, who carried such “provocative” banners as “Workers of the World, Unite!” Even Max Hayes blamed the riots on incendiary statements by Ruthenberg. The city banned the red flag and talked of purchasing six tanks for riot control. Ruthenberg was arrested for “Assault with intent to kill,” a charge which was later dismissed.
Later accounts generally saw the marchers as the victims of mob action, spontaneous or even organized. “I saw a peaceable line of unarmed paraders attacked on an obviously preconcerted signal,” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Ted Robinson would write years later. “I saw men and women brutally beaten…. I saw the blood flow in sickening streams at the city’s busiest corner I saw the victims arrested while the attackers went free and I saw the fining and Jailing of these victims on the following day.”
By the end of that year, Ruthenberg had led the radical wing of socialists into the formation of the Communist Party of the United States. He became the party’s general secretary and spent his remaining years either organizing or fighting and serving prison sentences on such charges as advocating the violent overthrow of the government. At the age of 44, he died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix in Chicago in 1926. His ashes were taken to Moscow, where he joined John Reed and Bill Haywood as the only Americans interred in the Kremlin.
It was largely the reaction of the Red Scare that prompted the United States to impose immigration quotas following World War I. Such legislation, and the illusory prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties,” checked the appeal of socialism in America. Not even the Great Depression could restore it to the strength it had demonstrated in Cleveland and other urban centers in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
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MAY DAY RIOTS
The MAY DAY RIOTS occurred in Cleveland on 1 May (May Day) 1919 and marked a major episode of unrest that characterized the rising tensions in American society at the time of the First Red Scare, in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in RUSSIA. The clashes involved Socialists, the INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD (IWW), trade-union members, police, and military troops. The disturbances in Cleveland occurred alongside May Day clashes in other major American cities, such as New York and Boston. However, it was Cleveland that experienced the worst and most violent unrest.
The events of May Day 1919 came only months after the Seattle General Strike of February 1919 and just days after bombs were mailed to several prominent American public figures by the followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. As an industrial center with close to one million people and a large blue-collar foreign-born population of 30%, Cleveland was fertile ground for labor activism. Its preeminent radical was CHARLES RUTHENBERG, a Socialist activist born to German immigrant parents in Cleveland’s CUDELL neighborhood. Arrested for opposing American involvement in World War I, Ruthenberg sought to hold a mass demonstration on Cleveland’s PUBLIC SQUARE on May 1, the International Workers’ Day. The aim was to protest the jailing of Socialist Eugene V. Debs and to voice opposition to the American intervention in Russia’s Civil War on the side of the Whites against the Reds. At the time, socialism was on the ascendancy in Cleveland. In 1917, that fateful year of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ruthenberg ran for mayor on the Socialist ticket and won nearly 30% of the vote. However, Cleveland was ultimately a city dominated by established political machines. The Cleveland Socialists had no easy way to gain power, a circumstance that made LOCAL CLEVELAND much more radical than other branches of the Socialist Party in the Great Lakes region.
The events of May Day 1919 commenced when the procession of 30,000 marched from the Socialist headquarters at Acme Hall on Prospect Ave. and toward Public Square. They were divided into four units, each with a red flag and an American flag at its head many marchers also wore red clothing or red badges. The group consisted of the Socialists, the IWW, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Many were immigrants, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe, including HUNGARIANS, JEWS, RUSSIANS, POLES, ITALIANS, SLOVAKS, and CZECHS. Even more critically, the procession also included veterans from World War I, dressed in full uniform. The riots began when an anti-socialist veteran attempted to take the red flag of a marching pro-socialist veteran. The subsequent clashes pitted the socialist marchers against a group of self-styled “patriots” opposed to socialism, dubbed “loyalists” by THE CLEVELAND PRESS. The city used mounted police, army trucks, and even a battle tank from the Western Front to restore order. Two people died, many were injured, and 124 were arrested by Cleveland Police, including Ruthenberg. Significantly, none of those on the “loyalist” side were arrested by police. The Socialist Party’s headquarters at Acme Hall were ransacked by a mob of 100 men. Cleveland’s major newspapers attacked the foreign-born participants of the rally as “foreign agitators,” even though they were naturalized citizens, and demanded their deportation. Such nativist xenophobia would foreshadow the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, which restricted immigration of “undesirable” Southern and Eastern Europeans to the US (see: IMMIGRATION AND MIGRATION).
The May Day Riots were followed by several other disturbances across the country, including, most tragically, the Wall Street bombing of 1920. However, as America entered the Roaring 20s, the First Red Scare gradually receded from public consciousness. Clevelanders danced the Charleston to HOT JAZZ amid a seemingly prosperous future, and many preferred to move beyond the violent tumult that shook Public Square in May 1919. Still, the May Day Riots remain significant not simply as an event, but as evidence of a longer, too often forgotten history of what some might term radicalism in Greater Cleveland. It is a history that warrants our attention as it often challenges the accepted historical narrative of the city.
Charles Ruthenberg - History
In 2010, when the real estate market was in the depths of its own depression, Charles Rutenberg Realty landed a spot on the Chicago Tribune’s list of 100 best places to work. Three years later, it made history as the first real estate company to rank #1 on that list. The irony was agents don’t physically work out of the brokerage’s Naperville headquarters they work remotely and wouldn’t have it any other way. They run their own race, without the pressure to meet production goals or compete in sales contests.
Without the push to close a large number of deals, agents can work at their own pace and focus on the quality of service they provide rather than the quantity. Time and again, this relaxed approach has proven to generate referrals and repeat business: the lifeblood of the company. But it’s only part of the equation the other half has to do with how agents are compensated.
Agents pay a small fee per transaction, which gives them the ability to take home more money per deal than if they paid the company a percentage of their commissions, which is common practice at other firms.
“When we started this company in 2004, we wanted to create a company that was as good, if not better than, any other company out there,” says Ray Zabielski, designated managing broker at Charles Rutenberg Realty in Naperville. “But one where the agent could retain their commission while the company gets a small fee small enough that the agent didn’t think about it but large enough that we could run the agency successfully.”
There is no sign-on fee nor exit-fee. Agents pay $35 a month to be part of Charles Rutenberg Realty and in return, the company provides them with the infrastructure they need to work remotely and accomplish their goals: an electronic document management system errors and omissions insurance a virtual tour of all their listings and an online support network in AgentsShare.com, a vehicle for agents to research historical questions and answers, as well as post and respond to inquiries. Unlike a message board, where nobody oversees content, Zabielski reviews and approves every question and answer before it’s viewed online by anyone.
By far, a big draw for agents is compensation. Agents pay a flat fee of $325 upon closing a sale, regardless of the commission amount. If they wish, higher producing agents can opt for the plan where many of the transactions are only charged $50 each. For any non-sale activity, such as home rental, lease or referral and consulting fees, the agent pays the brokerage 10% of their total commission but it’s capped at $325. “Agents can do as much business as they want to do,” Zabielski says. “That’s not what we track it’s how they do business that’s important to us. Agents must run their business in a moral, legal and ethical manner and never jeopardize the reputation of the company.”
It’s interesting to note that the fees have stayed the same since 2004, when Zabielski started the business. “It’s more valuable to demonstrate consistency,” he says. “Agents are the lifeblood of the company they cannot be taken for granted and charged out of existence.”
It’s proven to be a winning formula. “I found out I had excellent agents who really liked the company,” Zabielski explained. Sherman Tidwell is one of them. Tidwell initially joined the company to retain more of his commissions but stayed on because of Zabielski. “His input into my transactions has given me a better understanding of real estate and helped me become a lot more successful,” Tidwell says. He admits leaving for a short time, to work for another brokerage with a similar structure, but it turned out the only similarity was the amount he paid per transaction. “There were a lot of hidden fees,” Tidwell recalled. “You don’t have that issue with Charles Rutenberg Realty. Everything is up front.” Yale Zimmerman echoed Tidwell’s sentiments and described the office staff as extremely knowledgeable and helpful. “On the one hand, they give help when needed,” Zimmerman says. “But on the other hand, they never micro-manage.”
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