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


The London Years

Rudolf Rocker
The London Years
Five Leaves Press, Nottingham 2004, pp. 228, £14.99

RUDOLF Rocker, born in Mainz on the Rhine in 1875, writes how he, a gentile and raised as a Catholic, came to edit in London the Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend), for which purpose he had to learn Yiddish. This book is an abridgement of The Memoirs of Rudolf Rocker published in German, and translated as The London Years by Joseph Leftwich.

Rocker’s first encounter with Jewish anarchists, refugees from Russia, had been in Paris, where he had attended and also spoken at their meetings. He was especially impressed by the fact that the women joined in the discussions as equals of the men: ‘One could talk to these women and forget that they were women.’ (p. 11) Rocker arrived in London in 1895 on a bleak, foggy morning of which he remarks ‘it was like coming into a world of ghosts’. He had been called to London to discuss how to resume smuggling literature over the German-Belgian frontier, the comrades engaged in this having been arrested. However, nothing came of this, and he returned to Paris. On coming to London for a second visit, Rocker found the German movement flourishing, for persecution on the continent had led to many comrades seeking refuge in London. In this way the movement was strengthened.

Rocker writes about the various groups which came together, the oldest of these being the Communist Workers Educational Union, which had been launched in 1840 by German refugees belonging to the Secret Society of the Communist League. Among the members of this educational union were Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Wilhelm Liebknecht. While some anarchists held to Lassalle’s Iron Law of Wages, Rocker and other comrades accepted Marx’s theory of labour power, although Rocker was critical of historical materialism.

As it happened, Rocker was of an age to be conscripted into the German army, and so to find out where he stood he went to the German consulate for a medical examination. However, he was told that he must return to Germany for this. He writes: ‘I realised that the road back to my native land was closed to me forever unless there was a revolution there.’ And so he decided to settle in London, finding work as a bookbinder. Together with his comrades he explored the slum areas – Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and returned from these excursions spiritually and physically exhausted. He writes: ‘It was an abyss of human suffering, an inferno of misery.’ Rocker discussed the premise believed by many that those who suffer would come to realise the deeper causes of their poverty and concluded that ‘there is a pitch of material and spiritual degradation from which a man can no longer rise’. He considers both slogans ‘the worse the better’ and ‘all or nothing’ erroneous, the latter leading to radicals opposing any improvement in the lot of the workers.

A visit to Liverpool resulted in Rocker finding his way into the Jewish labour movement. It was quite by chance that he met an acquaintance on the street and was taken to see Moritz Jeger, who ran a small printing shop. Together with Albert Levey, Jeger had issued a newspaper called The Rebel. However, only two issues had been published when the two men found themselves at loggerheads, and Levey left for Hull. Rocker agreed to assist in restarting the group, which had fallen away due to the disagreements between Jeger and Levey. A new journal was started called Das Freie Wort, and Rocker became the editor. However, he had as yet not learned Yiddish, and so Jeger offered to translate his articles from German – which he did very badly! Rocker writes that Jeger ‘made an unholy mess of everything I wrote …’ (p. 48). He must have been relieved when an invitation came to him from London to edit the renewed Arbeter Fraint.

Rocker writes of comrades he met both inside and outside the Jewish labour movement, many of their names known to us today. For instance, Kropotkin was a special friend. Rocker informs the reader of the histories of these comrades, and tells of how they came into the movement, following up their subsequent development. Because Rocker possesses a literary gift, the persons about whom he writes come alive, and we see them clearly through his eyes.

He writes also of Milly Witcop, the two of them partners to the end of their lives, and also of his two sons, Rudolf and Fermin. As ‘Free Love’ was an anarchist principle, Rocker and Milly refused to marry legally, and allowed themselves, while on a visit to the United States, to be deported rather than agree to a legal marriage ceremony. It was believed by anarchists that ‘free love’ would destroy the bourgeois state. It is ironic that today when it is customary for couples to live together without legal marriage, the bourgeois state appears to be stronger than ever!

Both Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals and Rocker’s book cover similar grounds and periods, Rocker’s being largely from personal experience. Both writers include the Houndsditch murders and the Sidney Street siege.

I especially enjoyed Rocker’s account of the International Socialist Congress in London in July 1896. The congress began on Sunday 26 July with a peace march followed by a mass meeting in Hyde Park. As the first marchers entered the park, there was a cloudburst and most of them fled for shelter. The congress proper opened the next day in Queen’s Hall, and the first question was whether the anarchists and representatives of other anti-parliamentarian groups should be admitted. The English trade union leader Ted Leggatt of the Transport Workers Union, an anarchist, cried out in his powerful voice: ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ Three members of the French parliament had no mandate, and Bernard Shaw protested that being a member of parliament did not confer the right to attend as a delegate. He was ignored. The chairman, Paul Singer, a member of the German parliament, cut short the discussion and said he would take a vote. Pandemonium broke out. Keir Hardie, the deputy chairman, made himself heard above the chairman’s gong, which sounded like a big church bell, and told Singer that in England meetings were not conducted like that. Delegates who tried to speak on the motion were shouted down. This went on for hours, and most of the third day was wasted. The fourth day saw the expulsion of the anarchists. Rocker puts the blame for this on the German social democrats. Colin Ward in the introduction tells us that it was the experience of the German SPD’s authoritarianism which made Rocker an anarchist.

Rocker and his comrades were elated at news of the 1904–05 revolution in Russia. ‘We were sure that we stood on the threshold of Russian liberation. A number of younger comrades returned to Russia to take part in the revolution.’ Afterwards, when the revolution had been defeated, Rocker puts the blame on the lack of a united leadership and a planned concerted movement. The interest and enthusiasm in London for this revolution had, however, increased interest in the Jewish labour movement. The growth of the Arbeter Fraint led to the opening on 3 February 1906 of a club and institute in Jubilee Street. Every Jewish trade union in the country sent messages of support, and Peter Kropotkin, although ill, spoke at the opening. Other speakers included John Turner, an English anarchist and trade unionist, and Ted Leggatt.

Militancy increased, and in April 1912 1,500 West End tailors came out on strike. Rocker, realising that strike-breaking work was being done in the East End workshops, published a call in the Arbeter Fraint to abolish the sweatshops. Eight thousand people packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the Jewish tailoring trades unions, with another 3,000 standing outside the hall. A decision was taken to strike. The clothing industry in the East End was at a standstill. The London dock strike was in progress at the same time, which brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together, joint strike meetings being held. Rocker writes that this tailoring strike in the East End spelled the end of the sweatshop system. Additionally, Jewish families in sympathy with the dockers took their children into their homes. This strengthened the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers. The period between 1912 and the outbreak of war in 1914 saw the Jewish labour movement reaching its peak.

On 2 December 1914, Rocker was arrested and interned as an enemy alien, first at Olympia, then on the Royal Edward, moored off Southend. It was on this ship that my father first met Rocker. After a time, both Rocker and my father, were transferred to internment in Alexandra Palace. Rocker writes about the poor conditions in these camps, the other internees and the attitudes of the commanders. While in the camps, he was able to lecture to groups of prisoners on literature and social philosophy, for example, Tolstoy as Artist and Social Philosopher. These lectures were well attended in spite of objections from a small group of German patriots.

Milly Witcop was arrested under DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act), and was imprisoned without trial in Holloway gaol, and later, having appeared before an Advisory Committee, in the women’s prison at Aylesbury. Rudolf’s older son was also arrested, but was allowed to join his father at Alexandra Palace. The younger son, Fermin, aged seven, was cared for by relatives and friends.

The news of the March 1917 revolution in Russia was received with joy. ‘I could hear the bells ringing in the era of peace and brotherhood, the nations gripping hands, all joining in singing the International.’ (p. 202) Even the declaration of war against Germany by the United States in April did not dim Rocker’s hopes. Rocker and Milly, like many of their comrades, applied to go to Russia, and at first it was agreed that they could do go together with their younger son, Fermin, provided that the Russian government, now Bolshevik, would admit them. A note from Russia agreed to admit Rocker, but the British government changed its mind and gave its permission only to Milly and her son. Milly refused to go to Russia without Rocker. And then the separate peace made by Russia with Germany at Brest Litovsk destroyed all hopes of the British government allowing them to go to Russia. No doubt, in the long term this saved their lives.

An agreement between the British and German governments to exchange civilian prisoners saw Rocker bound for Germany via Holland. On arrival, however, he found a sympathetic lieutenant who determined that Rocker was stateless. Therefore he was able to return to Holland.

The introduction by Colin Ward and an epilogue by Sam Dreen tells of Rocker’s subsequent history.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011