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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 556

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This is the grave of Alfred Wagenknecht.

Born in 1881 in Görlitz, Germany, Wagenknecht immigrated to the United States with his family in 1884. He grew up in Cleveland, the son of a shoemaker. As a young man, he moved west to Washington. The family was politically radical, as was common among German immigrants. Wagenknecht joined the Socialist Party as a young man. In 1903, he was elected Organizer of the Pike Street Branch of the Socialist Party in Seattle. What this meant is that he was a public speaker, the literal soapbox radical. He stood on street corners, shouted about socialism, sold socialist newspapers, and attempted to convert people to cause. Given the poverty of workers at that time, it wasn’t always that hard to get people to listen, even if real conversions were relatively rare. The police hated these people. A few years later, the IWW, which formed in 1905, would get into epic battles with the police over the ability to speak in public places. Wagenknecht was definitely no Wobbly, but he also battled the police over his First Amendment rights.

Wagenknecht rose in the Socialist Party of Washington, being elected to the party’s state committee in 1905 and getting a job at the secretary-treasurer of a reconstituted party in Seattle in 1906. The Socialist Party was a complicated organization because, like every leftist organization ever, it was deeply riven with infighting. In this case, it was between radicals and moderates and there really were huge differences between them. Some saw revolution as the only hope for the working class. Others wanted to basically create something like the modern European welfare state with public ownership of utilities, such as the Milwaukee socialists who would govern the city for a long time but did so little in terms of real leftism that they were the scorn of radicals. Well, Wagenknecht was definitely in the radical camp and became known for his hatred of the moderates and his skill in the internal battles. So he would be the guy to take on the moderates in conventions, for instance.

Socialists loved running people for office, even if they had no chance of winning. Wagenknecht was one of them. He ran for Congress in 1906 and 1912 and for Seattle’s comptroller in 1908. In 1913, he took over the editorship of a socialist paper in Everett, Washington. But he moved on quickly, getting work with the national party and leaving the Northwest behind. He was hired as an organizer and then was elected to the party’s national committee in 1914. He was in Chicago for awhile and then back in Ohio, where he was state secretary of the Ohio Socialist Party between 1917 and 1919. Wagenknecht loudly denounced World War I in speech and in word and this brought down the law under the wild violations of free speech that the government would engage in after American entry into the war. He was found guilty of obstructing the draft after he spoke out against it and was sentenced to a year in prison. He and his co-defendants appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but those guys didn’t care about a bunch of socialists and their appeal was denied.

When he got out of prison, he renewed his commitment to left-wing socialism and was a key figure in the internal fight to move the party leftward after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He was a backer of the Left Wing Manifesto in 1919 that divided the Socialist Party. In fact, he was then evicted from the party by the moderates. So he responded by helping found the Communist Labor Party later that year. He was elected national secretary. The CLP didn’t last long because of the Palmer Raids under the Red Scare that brought J. Edgar Hoover his initial power and fame. He had to work underground and under pseudonyms between 1920 and 1923, when the Red Scare abated and Warren Harding released most of the last remaining political prisoners.

When Wagenknecht came back above ground, he was back at the old fights. He managed the Daily Worker’s fundraising drive, but he was so difficult to deal with for all factions of the communists that he was actually sent to the Philippines for awhile to organize workers there, seemingly just to get rid of him. But he was so good at management tasks that William Z. Foster promoted him to run The Daily Worker. But because others hated him, that didn’t happen. Jay Lovestone, on his weird path from communist to the biggest anti-communist in the labor movement and architect of the worst kind of AFL-CIO intervention overseas by the 1960s, attacked Wagenknecht personally in the last pamphlet he wrote before the leaving the party. Wagenknecht was also writing his own agitprop at this point, including a fictional account of the 1926 Passaic textile strike, which is one of the largest communist-led labor actions in American history. He headed down to help out on the Gastonia strike in 1929, but was arrested trying to set up a tent town.

The Communist Party had a major lift during the Great Depression, when capitalism had completely failed and desperate workers were looking for alternatives. Wagenknecht led the CP’s campaign for national unemployment insurance. A massive petition campaign was brought before the House, which led to an interesting debate the next day, where progressives such as Fiorello LaGuardia arguing for a national unemployment insurance program and conservatives arguing for all the people behind this to be rounded up and deported. Over his later years, Wagenknecht remained an active communist. He was the state chairman of the CP in Missouri from 1938-41 and then in Illinois from 1941-45. He continued working for the party up until the day he died, in 1956.

Alfred Wagenknecht is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other leftists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wesley Everest, the IWW organizer lynched in 1919, is in Centralia, Washington and Crystal Eastman is in Canandaigua, New York. C.E. Ruthenberg, one of the men arrested with Wagenknecht for speaking out against the war is also in Moscow, buried in the Kremlin. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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