David J. Lobina rediscovers a forgotten but fascinating figure in London’s radical and Jewish history
Originally from Germany, the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker spent much of his life in exile in some of the world’s major cities – Paris, London, New York – where he always gravitated towards immigrants involved in radical politics, most notably the Jewish anarchist community in London at the turn of the 20th century. Often referred to as a rabbi by members of this community as a sign of appreciation, the epithet of an ‘anarchist rabbi’ is the title of a book about Rocker’s life and thought, as well as a documentary about his time in London.
Though this story is rarely told today, Rocker’s time in London is worth revisiting, at the very least to recover him as an important political and intellectual figure. Quite the theoretician-and-practitioner anarchist, Rocker left a large bibliography behind, including three volumes of memoirs, only a small part of which have been published in English. Published in the 1950s as The London Years, his memoirs give a rich account of how a German Catholic became a leading figure in London’s Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchist movement.
Exile in England
By the 19th century, England had become the home of many left-wing political exiles fleeing more autocratic regimes in continental Europe. Widely regarded as a safe haven because of the Victorian ‘right of asylum’, which would be curtailed in the early 20th century, England had welcomed the repressed as well, such as the many Jews who fled Russia during the pogroms of 1881-1884.
Socialist groups had of course been common in England since the mid-19th century, but by the end of the century there were also specifically Jewish socialist groups. Rocker credits Aaron Liebermann as a pioneer of the Jewish labour movement, and it was indeed Liebermann who had founded a union of Jewish socialists in London in 1876, the first of its kind – Agudas HaSozialistim HoIvrim, or the Hebrew Socialist Union.
Rocker arrived in London in 1895 in part because of the conditions England offered. Initially drawn to German socialist groups, especially those that met at the Autonomie Club in Windmill Street, Rocker also frequented many of the radical social clubs then in operation all over the city, where he fostered lifelong friendships and collaborations. He met with the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta at the Grafton Hall Club near Bond Street and with Peter Kropotkin at the Italian Club in Soho, both of whom were central figures in London’s radical scene.
East End radicalism
Rocker eventually made it to the East End, where he was shocked by the area’s poverty and living conditions. He describes the area around Whitechapel as a Jewish ghetto populated by poor immigrants from Russia, Poland and Romania, most of whom were manual workers, in contrast to the Jewish community he had been familiar with in Germany. In his own words:
There were squalid courts and alley-ways, with dreary tumble-down hovels, whose stark despair it is impossible to describe. And in these cesspools of poverty children were born and people lived, struggling all their lives with poverty and pain, shunned like lepers by all “decent” members of society.
Could anything spiritual grow on these dung-heaps? These were the dregs of a society whose champions still claimed that man was made in God’s image, but who evaded meeting that image face to face in the slums of London. (London Years, 25)
It was a heavily populated district, as historians estimate there were around 120,000 Jews in the East End (contemporary photographic record of the area is still available). A world Rocker would join fully, he started attending the meetings of various Jewish radical groups at the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street and became involved with local anarchists. He was soon busy helping to organise numerous meetings and talks, including at famous venues such as the Great Assembly Hall and the Wonderland, both in Whitechapel, where he would speak himself.
More important, and certainly more enduring, were Rocker’s endeavours at the Jubilee Street Club. Founded by Rocker and fellow Jewish anarchists, Rocker’s activities there were fondly remembered by the community, as recorded in various oral accounts of the times.
Publishing and organising
Rocker’s immersion in East London’s Jewish community was to be comprehensive. At a political event in the East End he met his lifelong companion Milly Witkop, an activist from a very religious Jewish family from the Ukraine who had also made use of the Victorian right of asylum, eventually bringing her family over to London (Milly’s anarchism, as well as her partnership with Rocker, would estrange her from her family for a time). They had a son in 1907, Rocker’s second, and lived in Stepney Green until they left London for good in 1918. Their son Fermin has left an interview and a memoir of their time in London.
Rocker even learned Yiddish and in 1889 was asked to run Der Arbeter Fraynd (The Worker’s Friend), a well-known Yiddish periodical. Rocker would devote himself to both the Arbeter Fraynd and the activities of the Jubilee Street Club. He also started his own Yiddish periodical Germinal, which he edited and typeset in his own home with Milly’s help. By now Rocker ‘had plunged into a new life, with new people, and a new tongue’ (London Years, 67).
These periodicals were instrumental in the activism Rocker and his colleagues conducted at the time, not least organising industrial action for better pay and conditions, a perennial issue in the sweatshops of East London. One result of this was the 1912 tailors’ strike, which started in the West End and soon spread to the East End with Rocker’s active participation. There was also a strike by the dockers at around the same time, and this series of events eventually saw thousands of people strike and some genuine victories won.
It all came to an end with the advent of the Great War and Rocker’s internment as an enemy alien in late 1914, where he would remain until he was released in 1918. He would reunite with Milly in the Netherlands, and after the German revolution of 1918-19, the whole family was able to make their way to what was now the Weimar Republic of Germany. By the end of the 1930s, however, Rocker and his family fled Nazi Germany, arriving in New York in 1933 for what would be Rocker’s second and last exile: he died in the US in 1955.
It was while in New York that Rocker published his two most important books, Nationalism and Culture and Anarcho-Syndicalism, but these are but the tip of the literary iceberg Rocker left behind. Untranslated and so far unavailable are the hundreds of words he wrote in the Yiddish periodicals he edited in East London, a significant and sadly so far lost record of the pre-war years the poorer Jewish working classes experienced.
David J. Lobina is an academic who specialises in philosophy and linguistics