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Alfred Wagenknecht

Alfred Wagenknecht

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Alfred Wagenknecht was an American Marxist activist and political functionary. He is best remembered for having played a critical role in the establishment of the American Communist Party
Communist Party USA
The Communist Party USA is a Marxist political party in the United States, established in 1919. It has a long, complex history that is closely related to the histories of similar communist parties worldwide and the U.S. labor movement....

 in 1919 as a leader of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party
Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party
The Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party was an organized faction within the Socialist Party of America in 1919 which served as the core of the dual communist parties which emerged in the fall of that year — the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America.-Precusors:A...

. Wagenknecht served as Executive Secretary of the Communist Labor Party of America and the United Communist Party of America in 1919 and 1920, respectively.

The Socialist years (1904-1919)

Alfred Wagenknecht, called "Wag" by many of his friends, was born August 15, 1881 in Görlitz
Görlitz is a town in Germany. It is the easternmost town in the country, located on the Lusatian Neisse River in the Bundesland of Saxony. It is opposite the Polish town of Zgorzelec, which was a part of Görlitz until 1945. Historically, Görlitz was in the region of Upper Lusatia...

, Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, the son of a shoemaker. The family emigrated to the United States in 1884, and thus the German-born Wagenknecht essentially grew up as an American, living in Cleveland before departing as a young man for Washington state, on the West Coast.

Wagenknecht was drawn to radical politics at an early age, elected Organizer of the Pike Street Branch of Local Seattle, Socialist Party of America
Socialist Party of America
The Socialist Party of America was a multi-tendency democratic-socialist political party in the United States, formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party which had split from the main organization...

 in 1903. In this capacity he organized speakers for the branch, coordinated "street meetings" designed to bring socialist ideas to passersby by means of soapbox
A soapbox is a raised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. The term originates from the days when speakers would elevate themselves by standing on a wooden crate originally used for shipment of soap or other dry goods from a manufacturer to a...

 speakers, and organized social events such as music recitals and dances.

The next year saw Wagenknecht serving as the Press Agent for Local Seattle. He was an active member in the party's radical Pike Street Branch, which engaged in a long-running battle with the moderate Central Branch throughout the decade.

In 1905 Wagenknecht married Hortense Allison, sister of party comrade Elmer Allison
Elmer Allison
Elmer T. Allison was an American socialist political activist and newspaper editor. He is best remembered as the longtime editor of The Cleveland Socialist and The Toiler, forerunners of the official organ of the Communist Party, USA, The Daily Worker.-Early years:Elmer T...

. Wagenknecht was prominent in the ongoing free speech fights which local Seattle had with city officials over the right to speak in public and hold meetings on city streets and sidewalks.

Wagenknecht was elected to the State Committee of the Socialist Party of Washington
Socialist Party of Washington
The Socialist Party of Washington was the Washington state section of the Socialist Party of America , an organization originally established as a federation of semi-autonomous state organizations...

 (SPW) in 1905 and was the paid Local Secretary-Treasurer of a newly reorganized Local Seattle in 1906.

In 1907, with the return of Hermon F. Titus's left wing publication, The Socialist, to Seattle, Wagenknecht left the employ of Local Seattle and went to work for Titus as Business Manager for his publication.

Wagenknecht was a delegate of the SPW to the 1908 National Convention of the Socialist Party, where he fought a bitter battle with a representative of a moderate faction of the old Local Seattle organization which had been deprived of its charter by the State Committee for "political fusionism" late in 1906. The pair argued their cases on the floor of the convention for 20 minutes each, with the body ultimately deciding not to intervene against the left wing State Committee.

In 1912 he was elected Assistant State Secretary of the SPW.

As was the case for many rank-and-file party members of the day, Wagenknecht was a regular candidate for public office on the Socialist ticket, running for US Congress in 1906, for Seattle Comptroller in 1908, and for Congress again in 1912 when the party's first choice, John Wanhope, stepped aside.

In July 1913, Wagenknecht became Editor of the Everett, Washington
Everett, Washington
Everett is the county seat of and the largest city in Snohomish County, Washington, United States. Named for Everett Colby, son of founder Charles L. Colby, it lies north of Seattle. The city had a total population of 103,019 at the 2010 census, making it the 6th largest in the state and...

 Socialist weekly The Commonwealth. Shortly thereafter, Wagenknecht went to work for the National Office of the Socialist Party of America for the first time, serving as a National Organizer. In 1914, he was elected to the governing National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party for the first time. After his stint in Chicago came to a close, Wagenknecht moved his family back to Ohio, where he was elected State Secretary of the Socialist Party of Ohio in 1917, serving through 1919. He was also a delegate to the pivotal 1917 Emergency National Convention of the SPA, held at the Planters' Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...

, at which the St. Louis Program against the war in Europe
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 was adopted.

After American entry into the war, Wagenknecht's unyielding antimilitarism
Antimilitarism is a doctrine commonly found in the anarchist and, more globally, in the socialist movement, which may both be characterized as internationalist movements. It relies heavily on a critical theory of nationalism and imperialism, and was an explicit goal of the First and Second...

 brought him into conflict with the law. State Secretary Wagenknecht was indicted along with Local Cuyahoga County head C.E. Ruthenberg
Charles Ruthenberg
Charles Emil Ruthenberg was an American Marxist politician and a founder and long-time head of the Communist Party USA .-Biography:Charles Emil Ruthenberg was born July 9, 1882 in Cleveland, Ohio...

 and Ohio State Organizer Charles Baker
Charles Baker
Charles Baker or Charlie Baker may refer to:*Charles Baker , executed English Jesuit priest*Charles Baker , North American surveyor and jurist...

 for allegedly obstructing the draft. The trio were tried together and found guilty and sentenced to 1 year in the State Penitentiary on July 21, 1917. This decision was upheld by the US Supreme Court on Jan. 15, 1918, and the three were not released until after completion of the sentence (less time off) on Dec. 8, 1918.

Upon his release, "Wag" was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party and worked for National Office running the party's Propaganda Department. He was an early and fierce adherent of the Left Wing Manifesto
Left Wing Manifesto
The Left Wing Manifesto is the name rather confusingly bestowed upon two distinct programmatic documents of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party during the factional war in the Socialist Party of America of 1919...

 authored by Louis C. Fraina
Louis C. Fraina
Louis C. Fraina was a founding member of the American Communist Party in 1919. After running afoul of the Communist International in 1921 over the alleged misappropriation of funds, Fraina left the organized radical movement, emerging in 1930 as a left wing public intellectual by the name of Lewis...

 and was active in the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party
Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party
The Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party was an organized faction within the Socialist Party of America in 1919 which served as the core of the dual communist parties which emerged in the fall of that year — the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America.-Precusors:A...

, the organized faction seeking to "win the Socialist Party for the Left Wing." Wagenknecht ran for National Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party in 1919 and was the leading vote-getter in the race, which was ultimately annulled by the outgoing NEC on account of purported voting irregularities by the language federation
Language federation
Language Federations were formed in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants to the United States, primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe, who shared a commitment to some form of socialist politics...

s of the party.

Wagenknecht and the Left Wing attempted to establish themselves as a parallel National Executive Committee despite the outgoing NEC's refusal to officially tabulate the vote, and the "new NEC" met one time in Chicago in August in an attempt to assert authority over the party apparatus, with Wagenknecht declaring himself "Executive Secretary Pro Tem." This effort was rebuffed by sitting Executive Secretary Adolph Germer
Adolph Germer
Adoph Germer was an American socialist political functionary and union organizer. He is best remembered as National Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party of America from 1916 to 1919. It was during this period that the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party emerged as an organized faction...

 and the party's Regular faction, however.

The Communist Years (1919-1956)

Wagenknecht was not eligible to participate in the seminal 1919 Emergency National Convention
1919 Emergency National Convention
The 1919 Emergency National Convention of the Socialist Party of America was held in Chicago from August 30 to September 5, 1919. It was a seminal gathering in the history of American radicalism, marked by the bolting of the party's organized left wing to establish the Communist Labor Party of...

 of the SPA owing to the expulsion of the Socialist Party of Ohio from the party for their endorsement of the Left Wing Manifesto, which was portrayed by the Regular-dominated outgoing NEC as an automatic violation of the party constitution. Consequently, Wagenknecht cleverly rented a room downstairs from the SPA's convention at Machinists' Hall in Chicago and ran a parallel convention to the official one upstairs — a gathering which was joined by a steady stream of disgruntled Left Wing delegates bolting from the official gathering. Wagenknecht presided over this alternative convention, which on Aug. 31, 1919, declared itself to be the founding convention of the Communist Labor Party of America
Communist Labor Party
The Communist Labor Party of America was one of the organizational predecessors of the Communist Party USA. The group was established at the end of August 1919 following a three-way split of the Socialist Party of America...

. This convention elected Wagenknecht as National Secretary of the CLP, a role which he maintained throughout the organization's brief history.

The CLP was devastated by the raids of the US Department of Justice headed by A. Mitchell Palmer and his Special Assistant, J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972...

, coordinated actions which began in the fall of 1919 and reached their zenith with a mass operation conducted during the evening of Jan. 1/2, 1919. The CLP was driven underground, local organizations broken up into secret "groups" of no more than 10 members who met furtively, using pseudonyms and attempting to avoid detection by the authorities. Wagenknecht was known variously as "Paul Holt," "A.B. Mayer," "A.B. Martin," and "U.P. Duffy" during the "underground years" of 1920-1923.

In April 1920, Wagenknecht's former prisonmate, turned Executive Secretary rival, C.E. Ruthenberg left the Communist Party of America (CPA) along with a number of co-thinkers and a big portion of the organization's cash. This Ruthenberg-CPA and Wagenknecht's CLP finally determined to achieve the organizational unity demanded by the Communist International at a secret convention held at Bridgman, Michigan
Bridgman, Michigan
Bridgman is a city in Berrien County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 2,428 at the 2000 census. The Bridgman post office, with ZIP code 49106 opened with the name "Laketon" on November 11, 1862. The name changed to Bridgman on April 9, 1874...

 at the end of May 1920. This gathering determined to retain Wagenknecht as Executive Secretary of the new organization, called the United Communist Party (UCP), assigning the important role of Editor of the party's official newspaper, The Communist, to Ruthenberg. Wagenknecht also served on the UCP's Editorial Committee and on the 3 member Unity Committee which continued to negotiate a merger agreement with the remaining CPA organization, headed by Charles Dirba. Unity with this group was finally forged at a May 1921 secret convention held at the Overlook Mountain House hotel near Woodstock, New York
Woodstock, New York
Woodstock is a town in Ulster County, New York, United States. The population was 5,884 at the 2010 census, down from 6,241 at the 2000 census.The Town of Woodstock is in the northern part of the county...

. Confusingly, this new unified organization retained the name "Communist Party of America," the same moniker shared by the Dirba majority and the Ruthenberg minority organizations.

The merger of the UCP meant the end of Wagenknecht's tenure as an Executive Secretary. From June 1921, Wagenknecht served as the Manger of the unified CPA's "legal" weekly newspaper, The Toiler, with Wagenknecht's brother-in-law, Elmer Allison editing the publication. In 1922, a legal "mass organization" called the Friends of Soviet Russia
Friends of Soviet Russia
The Friends of Soviet Russia was formally established in the United States on August 9, 1921 as an offshoot of the American Labor Alliance for Trade Relations with Soviet Russia...

 was established by the unified CPA, and Wagenknecht was named by the CEC of the party to head it. He also sat on the Central Executive Committees of the (underground) unified CPA and the party's "Legal Political Party" — the Workers Party of America
Workers Party of America
The Workers Party of America was the name of the legal party organization used by the Communist Party USA from the last days of 1921 until the middle of 1929. As a legal political party the Workers Party accepted affiliation from independent socialist groups such as the African Blood Brotherhood,...

 (WPA) — from 1922 to 1923, when the underground party was finally dissolved. Thereafter, Wagenknecht was made the District Organizer for the tiny Wilkes Barre district of the WPA, with this job beginning in May 1923.

In 1924, Wagenknecht worked as a "Director of Special Campaigns" for the WPA, managing the fund-raising drive for The Daily Worker. Wagenknecht seems to have been difficult for both the Pepper-Ruthenberg-Lovestone and the Foster-Cannon-Lore factions and was shipped off to the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

 to organize trade unions on behalf of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU) late in 1924.

Later, Wagenknecht turned his hand to drama, producing and co-starring in The Passaic Textile Strike
The Passaic Textile Strike (film)
The Passaic Textile Strike is a 1926 American silent film directed by Samuel Russak. The film was produced to raise public awareness and financial support for the 1926 Passaic Textile Strike, which involved over 15,000 New Jersey textile mill workers in a work stoppage lasting more than a year...

, a semi-fictional account of the 1926 strike
1926 Passaic Textile Strike
The 1926 Passaic Textile Strike was a work stoppage by over 15,000 woolen mill workers in and around Passaic, New Jersey over wage issues in several factories in the vicinity...

 of 16,000 textile workers at Passaic, New Jersey
Passaic, New Jersey
Passaic is a city in Passaic County, New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the city had a total population of 69,781, maintaining its status as the 15th largest municipality in New Jersey with an increase of 1,920 residents from the 2000 Census population of 67,861...

, initially led by Wagenknecht and other American Marxist
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 and Communist leaders.

Wagenknecht was touted for the role of business manager of the Daily Worker in the last years of the 1920s as the “most competent comrade for the position” by the minority faction headed by William Z. Foster
William Z. Foster
William Foster was a radical American labor organizer and Marxist politician, whose career included a lengthy stint as General Secretary of the Communist Party USA...

 and Alexander Bittelman
Alexander Bittelman
Alexander "Alex" Bittelman was a Russian-born Jewish-American communist political activist, Marxist theorist , contributed a more complex analysis , and writer. A founding member of the Communist Party of America, Bittelman is best remembered as the chief factional lieutenant of William Z...

. He was bypassed for the responsible position by a rapid succession of three others, however, who were selected for the post based upon their loyalty to the majority faction headed by Executive Secretary Jay Lovestone
Jay Lovestone
Jay Lovestone was at various times a member of the Socialist Party of America, a leader of the Communist Party USA, leader of a small oppositionist party, an anti-Communist and Central Intelligence Agency helper, and foreign policy advisor to the leadership of the AFL-CIO and various unions...

. Lovestone singled his factional opponent Wagenknecht out for special criticism in the last pamphlet he published as head of the CPUSA, Pages from Party History, recalling Wagenknecht's "hesitation" and "wavering" over the "fundamental principle of splitting the Socialist Party" a decade earlier.

Wagenknecht was the executive secretary of the American section of the Comintern aid organization Workers International Relief in 1929 — a job which in June took him to Gastonia, North Carolina
Gastonia, North Carolina
Gastonia is the largest city and county seat of Gaston County, North Carolina, United States. It is also the third largest suburb of the Charlotte Area, behind Concord and Rock Hill. The population was 71,226 as of Gastonia is the largest city and county seat of Gaston County, North Carolina,...

 to the scene of the acrimonious Loray Mill Strike
Loray Mill Strike
The Loray Mill Strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina was one of the most notable strikes in the labor history of the United States. Though largely unsuccessful in attaining its goals of better working conditions and wages, the strike was considered very successful in a lasting way; it caused...

. Wagenknecht was attempting to reestablish a tent colony of mill strikers which had been disbursed by local authorities. Instead, on June 12, Wagenknecht was himself arrested.

Wagenknecht separated from his wife Hortense in 1930 and was finally divorced in January 1948.

With the coming of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

 in 1929 and its deepening in subsequent years, the CPUSA began placing great emphasis on attempting to organize and mobilize unemployed workers. In November 1930, Wagenknecht was placed in charge of the National Campaign Committee for Unemployment Insurance
National Campaign Committee for Unemployment Insurance
The National Campaign Committee for Unemployment Insurance was a mass organization of the Communist Party USA established in October 1930 in an effort to build a radical movement around the issue of unemployment insurance, thereby advancing the American Communist Party's cause...

, a single-purpose mass organization of the party aimed at organizing around the issue of unemployment insurance. The group conducted a massive petitioning campaign which rapidly gathered what were claimed to be 1.4 million signatures, which Wagenknecht and a delegation of 140 presented to Congress on February 10, 1931. The petition caused the House of Representatives to take up the matters of the Communists and their issue on the floor the next day, with conservatives
Conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism...

 arguing for efforts to deport
Deportation means the expulsion of a person or group of people from a place or country. Today it often refers to the expulsion of foreign nationals whereas the expulsion of nationals is called banishment, exile, or penal transportation...

 alien radicals from America, while progressives
Progressivism is an umbrella term for a political ideology advocating or favoring social, political, and economic reform or changes. Progressivism is often viewed by some conservatives, constitutionalists, and libertarians to be in opposition to conservative or reactionary ideologies.The...

 such as Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York argued in favor of unemployment insurance legislation as a means of curbing revolutionary sentiment.

In 1933, Wagenknecht served as the Executive Secretary of the National Committee to Aid Victims of German Fascism, a CP-sponsored "mass organization." In the fall of that year he ran for the New York State Assembly
New York State Assembly
The New York State Assembly is the lower house of the New York State Legislature. The Assembly is composed of 150 members representing an equal number of districts, with each district having an average population of 128,652...

 in District 14.

Wagenknecht was the State Chairman of the Communist Party in Missouri from 1938 to 1941 and in Illinois from 1941 to 1945.

Death and legacy

Wagenknecht remained a Communist Party loyalist for the rest of his days, dying on Aug. 26, 1956 in Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

 and honored at his passing with a full-page photograph inside the front cover of Political Affairs, the theoretical monthly of the Communist Party USA.


  • "The Struggle Against Unemployment in the USA," International Press Correspondence, March 26, 1931, pp. 340-341.

Further reading

  • Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism. New York: Viking Press, 1957.

See also

  • Socialist Party of Washington
    Socialist Party of Washington
    The Socialist Party of Washington was the Washington state section of the Socialist Party of America , an organization originally established as a federation of semi-autonomous state organizations...