Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


East End Jewish Radicals

William Fishman
East End Jewish Radicals 1875–1914
Five Leaves, Nottingham 2004, pp. 318, £14.99

FISHMAN traces from Russia the Jewish immigration to London’s East End. This came as a result of the policies of Nicholas I, who was intent upon de-Judaising Russia. In a previous century, in 1742, Empress Elizabeth had ordered the expulsion of Jews, so there were comparatively few survivors by 1772. However, the partition of Poland resulted in a vast influx of Jews into Russia ‘to face the worst era of persecution until the German holocaust’.

Between April 1881 and June 1882, 225,000 Jewish families had fled from Russia; the majority setting their sights upon the United States, but a substantial minority sought refuge within the UK. During the century, successive pogroms in Russia resulted in further flows of immigrants, a great many settling in East London. These immigrants, having no experience of the factory system, were forced back into the old trades in small workshops, largely tailoring, where they were used as sweated labour. Fishman writes that ‘the poverty and alienation of the ghetto Jews in London provided fertile soil for the activities of a radical intelligentsia who sought refuge from the Tsarist police. The struggle under the leadership of this élite, poses one of the most fascinating, yet neglected chapters, in British labour history.’ (p. 97)

One such, Aron Lieberman, was appalled by the exploitation and degradation; the immigrants had no political or economic organisation to protect them, and were despised and rejected by the English workers. Lieberman noted the concentration of certain trades: hat-makers, bag-makers, carpenters, watch-makers, sugar factories, metal-working shops and tobacco factories. These were in the narrow, crooked streets of Whitechapel, in the smelly and dirty holes and corners of the workshops working 12 or 14 hours a day for paltry starvation wages. He determined to set up a dual-purpose organisation to spread socialism and to unionise Jewish workers. Lieberman was followed by a number of others with lesser or greater success.

In July 1884, the first socialist newspaper in Yiddish appeared, named Poilishe Yidl, under the sponsorship of Morris Winchevsky and E. Rabbinowitz. However, Rabbinowitz accepted advertisements, both religious and commercial, which were disapproved of by Winchevsky. The crunch came when an advertisement from the local Liberal candidate, Samuel Montagu, was published in the paper. The partnership ended, and Winchevsky founded the Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend), the socialist paper which Rudolf Rocker was eventually to edit.

The propaganda of the Arbeter Fraint made itself felt. Radical organisations allied themselves and grew with the journal. The International Workingman’s Association was formed and opened a club in Berner Street, offering a base for radical and trade union movements. Although the Arbeter Fraint was militantly opposed to religious practice, even those who continued in religious observance found a meeting place in the club.

This secularism raised the ire of the Chief Rabbi, Dr Adler, whose instinct, in any event, was to support the Jewish masters against their sweated workers. He, and the rest of the religious establishment, took any steps available against these anarchists. The anarchists did not help in this matter by holding a ball each Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) and marching to synagogues in order to wave ham sandwiches!

Insofar as Dr Adler and Anglo-Jewry were concerned, these immigrants were required to become Anglicised as quickly as possible as a means of eroding the ‘alien’ question and anti-Semitism. It was during this time that agitation was taking place for an Aliens Bill, which was eventually passed in 1905. The TUC in both 1894 and 1895 had carried a resolution against the admission of ‘pauper aliens’. The English workers viewed the immigrants as rivals for employment and undercutting wages and conditions. It was at this time that an early fascist/racist organisation was formed, the British Brothers League.

Fishman notes that the Anglicisation of Jewish immigrants was achieved with regard to succeeding generations, and he puts this down to the 1870 Education Act. This, he says, cut off in the long term potential recruits to the Jewish labour movement. However, in the meantime, the struggle to organise and win converts to socialism continued.

The 1880s were a time of high unemployment and much unrest, and Fishman writes that the word ‘unemployed’ was first used as a noun in the Oxford Dictionary from the year 1882, and the word ‘unemployment’ in 1888. Marches of the unemployed, in which Jewish radicals participated, organised by the Social Democratic Federation, culminated in Bloody Sunday on 13 November 1887. He refers also to the match girls’ strike as pin-pointing the East End as a pioneering centre for the development of the new unionism. Additionally, Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx had organised the gas-workers, and a victory in wages and conditions was obtained without strike action. A victory parade took place with 12,000 marching from the Embankment to Hyde Park. Within a fortnight the great dock strike had begun. The East End tailors came out on strike, demanding an improvement in wages and conditions, with some success. During a bakers’ strike, Jewish housewives refused to buy bread which lacked a union stamp to show that it came from a bakery which observed trade union conditions.

Fishman writes: ‘This tide of local militancy did not subside at once … Direct action had come to stay.’ (p. 185) By 1914, the Jewish labour movement, primarily under anarchist direction, had reached the peak of its activity. He quotes Rocker as remarking: ‘Who could have foreseen the collapse which followed the beginning of the Great War?’

There is so much in this well-researched book, and onto the stage walk so many well-known names from the labour and socialist movement – William Morris, Henry Hyndman, Peter Kropotkin, Ben Tillett, Robert Blatchford, to name but a few, and all are seen in a different context.

Fishman writes of the cooperation and a united front between all socialist denominations which at that time was not difficult, for the Jewish anarchists accepted economic materialism. Differences would arise later when practical conclusions were drawn from the Marxist conception of history.

Without having experienced it, I was nostalgic for the social life enjoyed by these anarchists – picnics, balls, outings and club life. I was also impressed by the education in the Workers Circles and the wide curriculum including literature and music.

This is a fascinating book bringing together a history of Jewish immigration in the nineteenth century and the work of radicals to involve them in the struggle to improve their conditions. I should add also that it has a good and helpful index.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 29.10.2011