Rudolph Rocker’s autobiography recalls alternative events fit for commemoration in 2012, writes Iain McKay (from Freedom, July 2012)
While much attention will be directed towards London for the expensive Olympic farce, 2012 should be marked for far more important events – the 100th anniversary of the two great strikes by tailors and dock workers. At the centre of the epic struggle of the tailors was Rudolf Rocker whose excellent autobiography The London Years covers these events and much more.
Rocker had an eventful life and it is impossible to do it justice in a review. His autobiography covers the period when he, a non-Jew, became a leading member of the Jewish anarchist and labour movement in the East End of London (and from there, nationally and internationally). He did so by accident during a visit to Liverpool, learnt Yiddish in order to edit a newspaper (Dos Fraye Vort) there before accepting the editorship of Der Arbeter Fraint in 1898.
These were exciting times, with the labour movement “making great progress everywhere” and the “old ideas of the First International were in the air again.” The “crippling influence” of German Social Democracy was being replaced with a new movement “which was aimed not only against the economic monopoly of a privileged minority, but also against the danger of a state-bureaucracy arising in the future.” Rocker and his colleagues applied their libertarian ideas in Jewish communities across Britain. In London they were so successful that they opened the Arbeter Fraint Club and Institute in Jubilee Street, a hall that could hold 800 people.
Rocker recounts various episodes of these struggles: for example, during a bakers’ strike the demand was raised for “a trade union label on the bread, so that the public could see if it came from a bakery that observed trade union conditions.” The resulting consumer boycott on non-union bread helped win the strike. However, the peak of the movement came in April 1912 when a strike started among West End tailors. The next month thousands of immigrant Jewish tailors in the East End came out in solidarity with them and challenged the whole sweatshop system. They won a resounding victory.
Dockers in London were also on strike for better conditions. The “common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations.” With the “death-blow to the sweatshop system” produced by victory in the tailors’ strike, the British workers “looked at the Jewish workers with quite different eyes after this victory.” Yet the London dock strike continued and many dockers’ families were suffering. The successful Jewish strikers started a campaign “to take some of the dockers’ children into their homes.” This practical support “did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.” This solidarity was repaid in October 1936, when the dockers were at the forefront in stopping Mosley’s fascist blackshirts marching through Jewish areas.
Rocker stresses the importance of such partial struggles in a memorable passage: “Like many others I have believed in my youth that as social conditions became worse, those who suffered so much would come to realise the deeper causes of their poverty and suffering. I have since been convinced that such a belief is a dangerous illusion … There is a pitch of material and spiritual degradation from which a man can no longer rise. Those who have been born into misery and never knew a better state are rarely able to resist and revolt … Certainly the old slogan, ‘The worse the better’, was based on an erroneous assumption. Like that other slogan, ‘All or nothing’, which made many radicals oppose any improvement in the lot of the workers, even when the workers demanded it, on the ground that it would distract the mind of the proletariat, and turn it away from the road which leads to social emancipation. It is contrary to all the experience of history and of psychology; people who are not prepared to fight for the betterment of their living conditions are not likely to fight for social emancipation. Slogans of this kind are like a cancer in the revolutionary movement.”
Rocker also recounts his relationships with such famous libertarians as Louise Michel, Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin as well as his speaking tours of America and attending the 1896 Congress of the Second International. The latter, he explains, was considered important to anarchists to attend. Had these “not concealed their true nature” as Social Democratic congresses then “the anarchists would have been the last to want to be represented” but as they proclaimed themselves socialist ones, anarchists considered it “wrong to deny them admission.”
There he saw at first hand the intolerance of the Marxists against the anarchists. As Rocker dryly comments: “I often asked myself during this London Congress what would happen if people so intolerant and despotic as these German social democrats ever came to power in a country. I began to fear that socialism without liberty must lead to an even worse tyranny than the conditions against which we were fighting. What has since happened in Russia has proven my fears to have been more than justified.”
A significant portion of the book relates to the First World War and Rocker’s time in various British internment camps. He recounts the shock which most anarchists felt when Kropotkin announced his support for the Allies. Kropotkin’s ideas had influenced his “whole development” and he was bound “by ties of close personal friendship and affection” but “this was a matter of conscience” and Rocker had “to take a firm stand.” Kropotkin found few anarchists agreeing with his position. Rocker summarises Malatesta: “this war like every other war was being fought for the interests of the ruling classes, not for the nations” and “whichever side the workers fought on they were only cannon-fodder.”
So he took up his pen and, like Malatesta, Berkman and other leading anarchists, critiqued Kropotkin, doing so in spite of his fear that his anti-war activities would bring the police after him – a fear which was confirmed when he was arrested by special order of the War Office. He was interned along with numerous other Germans, from patriots to the apolitical to anti-war internationalists.
Rocker paints the fears and isolation, the petty officialdom, the injustice of internment vividly. Needless to say, this was not how it was reported and he mentions how papers “like the Daily Mail and John Bull” started “a campaign that the ‘enemy aliens’ were living in luxury.” This, like the ignorance and hatred directed towards the Jewish immigrants, will be sadly all too familiar to readers today.
One episode is particularly worthy of note. Wealthy Germans convinced the British officers to close off a part of the ship they were interned on and charge access to it. As Rocker notes, “these were the people who were always proclaiming their German patriotism … Now they told the English that they regarded the great mass of their fellow-Germans on the boat with such contempt that they would pay for the privilege of not having to mix with them.” This, in a microcosm, shows the poverty of nationalism.
Rocker was refused permission to be expelled to Russia after the February revolution in 1917. Interned for four years, he was finally sent to Germany as part of a prisoner exchange – trying to escape in Holland before he could taste the Kaiser’s hospitality. Ironically, once he had arrived in Germany he was refused entry because he had been stripped of his nationality due to his anarchist activism. He gained his freedom by being expelled to Holland, and the book ends with him visiting his old anarchist comrade Domela Nieuwenhuis.
As the epilogue by his comrade Sam Dreen notes, it is a shame he did not produce another volume chronicling his activities in the German Revolution as a leading member of the syndicalist Free Workers Union as well as his work for the syndicalist International Workers Association formed in 1921. An introduction by the late Colin Ward summarises Rocker’s life and influence well.
Rocker also produced the definitive introduction to Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice in 1937. He analysed the Russian Revolution in articles like ‘Anarchism and Sovietism’ and defended the Spanish anarchists against the Stalinists in The Tragedy of Spain. Pioneers of American Freedom, his account of liberal and libertarian thinkers in North America, is an excellent introduction to individualist anarchism. His massive Nationalism and Culture is a searching analysis of human culture through the ages, with an analysis of both political thinkers and power politics.
Combine all these with numerous articles for the anarchist press and you are left to wonder why there has been no comprehensive anthology of Rocker’s works yet in English. Suffice to say, The London Years will show its readers that Rocker’s ideas and life should be of pressing interest to modern revolutionaries.
The London Years by Rudolf Rocker, published by Five Leaves Press/AK Press, £14.99.
(originally published in Freedom, July 2012)