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The Workers’ Friend - Rudolf Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint Jewish anarchist group in the East End of London

September 10th marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Rudolf Rocker, an occasion which prompted the Argentinian anarchist journal, La Protesta, to write: “With the passing of the old and dearly loved master the cycle of a brilliant generation of anarchist thinkers and militants is closed.” Here we look at some of Rocker’s contributions to the working class movement

The Early Years

  • 1873: Johan Rudolf Rocker is born March 25th in Mainz, Germany early 1880s: put into an orphange
  • 1887: apprenticed as a bookbinder late 1880s: under the influence of an uncle, becomes active in the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany / Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands)
  • 1890: increasingly disillusioned with bureaucracy, intolerance and chauvinism within the SPD, becomes active in the youth wing, die Jüngen
  • 1891: attends the International Socialist Congress in Brussels, converting to anarchism due largely to the refusal by the Congress to denounce militarism; die Jüngen expelled from the SPD
  • 1891-2: involved in the smuggling of anarchist and other clandestine literature into Germany from Belgium and the Netherlands
  • 1892: leaves for Paris, escaping conscription and police attention due to smuggling activities and increasing influence in the Mainz labour movement
  • 1893: first encounters with Jewish anarchists, whose Yiddish language he takes as ‘a German dialect which I couldn’t follow’; also comes into contact with anarcho-syndicalist ideas via the CGT (General Confed-eration of Labour / Confédération Générale du Travail)
  • 1895: leaves Paris for London due to a wave in anti-anarchist sentiment

The origins of the Yiddish speaking anarchist and labour movements working among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist grouping the mid 1870s. The lot of these immigrants was to escape from persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of the capital’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion. The following year the paper began its association with the International Workers Educational Club in Berner Street and soon moved to weekly publication.

clerical sabotage

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement which, due to the TUC’s support for immigration control, was somewhat of a necessity. However, its radical and anti-religious thrust alarmed the Anglo-Jewish clerical and lay leadership who, through bribery, managed to sabotage publication in May 1887. This prompted the Club to gather the funds for its own printing press allowing Der Arbeter Fraint to resume publication three months later.

The anarchists became the largest and most active grouping around Der Arbeter Fraint during and following the international campaign for the five Chicago anarchists judicially murdered in November 1887 for the ‘Haymarket Affair’. By early 1891, anarchists and social democrats had gone their separate ways but, although Der Arbeter Fraint and the Club remained in anarchist hands, the funds were severely reduced. By the end of 1892 the Berner Street premises were abandoned, while Der Arbeter Fraint was suspended from July 1894 until April 1895.

Such was the situation when Rudolf Rocker joined the Arbeter Fraint group in 1895. He quickly became a regular speaker at the group’s meetings, where he met his lifelong companion Milly Witkop. Milly was a Ukrainian Jew who had come to London a year earlier. By 1896 Rocker was writing regularly for Der Arbeter Fraint which, however, stopped publication once more in March 1897.

And there Rocker’s time in London might have ended. Rudolf and Milly decided to emigrate to New York but were not admitted as they were not legally married. Refusing to formalise their relationship, they hit the front pages in the US press. Nevertheless they were deported on the same ship they had arrived on.

Unable to find work upon return, they moved to Liverpool where Rocker collaborated in editing Dos Freie Vort (The Free Word) which led, at the end of 1898, to Rocker being offered the editorship of a relaunched Der Arbeter Fraint. He accepted, and remained editor until 1914.

Rocker was especially concerned with combating the influence of Marxism in London’s Jewish labour movement and Der Arbeter Fraint published twenty five of his essays on the topic. The paper’s unsound financial footing forced yet another break in publication in early 1900. To fill the propaganda gap Rocker founded the more theoretical fortnightly Germinal, which continued for the next three years.

A conference of Jewish anarchists held in Whitechapel in December 1902 decided to re-launch Der Arbeter Fraint as the ‘organ of the Yiddish speaking anarchist groups in Great Britain and Paris’ with Rocker as editor. The first issue appeared in March 1903 and the paper went on to appear continuously, edited by Rocker, until 1914. In 1905 Germinal also resumed publication going on to gain a circulation of 2,500, while Der Arbeter Fraint reached a peak of 5,000 copies.

the Workers’ Friend club

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel. Rocker, by now a very eloquent and influential speaker, spoke regularly. The club had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Throughout his life Rocker insisted on the need for education in the workers movement. Workers who could think for themselves could evaluate the claims of political parties, which in Rocker’s view exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses. In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

During June 1906 the Arbeter Fraint group was involved in a garment workers’ strike. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. Rocker and two other Arbeter Frainters were co-opted by the union leading the strike on to the strike committee. However, the strike failed because strike funds ran out.

The period between 1910 and 1914 saw an upsurge in the class struggle throughout Britain, which is often referred to as the ‘Syndicalist Revolt’. Many strikes were unofficial and marked by civil unrest, with some posing a direct threat to the state. Outright defiance of police, magistrates and the military became a way of life for many workers. In the East End the Jewish garment workers once more took on the sweating system, this time successfully, and once again Rocker was an important figure in the strike.

beating the sweatshops

In May 1912 between 7 and 8,000 West End tailors, more skilled and better paid than those in the East End, came out on strike. Since much of their work was being transferred to the East End the Tailors’ Union there, under the influence of the Arbeter Fraint group, decided to support the strike. Although more than 70% of East End tailors were not engaged in work linked to the West End strike, nevertheless 13,000 East End immigrant garment workers went on strike following a May 8th assembly at which Rocker spoke. On the strike committee Rocker was responsible for collecting money and other necessities for the striking workers. He also published Der Arbeter Fraint on a daily basis to spread news about the strike and spoke at the workers’ assemblies and demonstrations. On May 24th a mass meeting was held to discuss whether to settle on a compromise proposed by the employers. A speech by Rocker convinced the workers to continue the strike and by the next morning all of the workers’ demands were met.

Meanwhile, a dock strike was dragging on in east London with the dockers’ families facing starvation. Der Arbeter Fraint called on the Jewish tailors to rally to their aid and a committee was set up and offers of accommodation and gifts poured in from Jewish workers who very often struggled to feed themselves. Rudolf and Milly personally collected children from the docks, and in all over 300 were taken into Jewish homes.

During his years in London Rocker devoted himself to the Jewish anarchist movement becoming a much loved and deeply respected figure in the wider Jewish community. Besides his involvement with the Workers’ Friend Club, he was instrumental in forming other clubs where the East End working class could meet, discuss, borrow books and buy cheap food.

Unsurprisingly, the British state did not share the enthusiasm for Rocker and his activities, especially after the outbreak of World War I. Rocker opposed both sides on internationalist grounds. Although many people expected a short war, Rocker predicted “a period of mass murder such as the world has never known before” and attacked the 2nd International for not opposing the conflict.

internment

Arbeter Fraint featured a debate between Kropotkin, who supported the Allies, and Rocker in which Rocker described the war as “the contradiction of everything we had fought for”. Shortly after this, on December 2nd, Rocker was arrested and interned. Conditions were bad and his health suffered, but he also organised lectures which helped to keep up the prisoners’ morale. Various attempts to secure his release came to nothing and only in March 1918, as part of a prisoner exchange, was Rocker deported to the Netherlands.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint was continued by Milly and other members of the group, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by state. Milly was arrested and held without charge until the end of the war when she rejoined Rocker in the Netherlands.

Rocker and the International Workers’ Association (IWA)

  • 1918: returns to Germany joining anarcho-syndicalist influenced FVdG (Free Association of German Unions / Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften); Rocker writes for and helps to produce the FVdG weekly der Syndikalist
  • 1918-19: short-lived German revolution suppressed by the Freikorps under SPD defence minister Noske
  • 1919: FVdG renamed FAUD (Free Workers’ Union of Germany / Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands) with an anarcho-syndicalist platform based on Rocker’s ‘Declaration of Syndicalist Principles’ rejecting all support for political parties and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’
  • 1920: Rocker plays an influential role in FAUD’s opposition to Moscow’s moves to subordinate revolutionary syndicalism to the Bolshevik party; FAUD hosts international syndicalist conference which ultimately leads to rejection of RILU (see DA41 for more details)
  • 1921: writes ‘The Bankruptcy of Russian State Communism’ which denounces Bolshevik suppression of Russian anarchists and syndicalists; FAUD reaches a peak of 150,000 members and der Syndikal-ist attains a circulation of 100,000
  • 1922: IWA founded in Berlin adopting an anarcho-syndicalist declaration of principles drafted by Rocker who also serves on the international’s first secretariat
  • 1926-30: becomes increasingly worried by the rise of fascism in Germany and begins work on Nationalism and Culture
  • 1933: Nazi destruction of FAUD; Rocker and Milly Witkop escape to Switzerland in February, reaching London in May; Rocker attends extraordinary IWA meeting in Paris in July which decides to smuggle Die Internationale to Germany; Rocker and Witkop finally get to enter the US in August
     

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