Monday, 27 January 2020

An Anarchist-led Mass Movement in Britain (2006)

An Anarchist-led Mass Movement in Britain
Written By: Tobias Abse
Date: September 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 28: Autumn 2006 

William J. Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2004. ISBN 0 907123 45 7. £14.99)
Rudolf Rocker, The London Years. Translated by Joseph Leftwich. (Nottingham & Oakland, Five Leaves and AK Press, 2005. ISBN 0 907123 30 9. £14.99)

The recent reprints of Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals (first published in 1975) and of Rudolf Rocker’s autobiographical work The London Years (first published in 1956) are very welcome and should serve to introduce a new generation to the fascinating story of the pre-1914 East End Jewish anarchists (and, to a lesser extent, socialists), as well as to the astonishing life of a charismatic German political exile, who learned Yiddish as an adult and became their leader after 1898.

Unlike Spain, Italy or France, anarchism in Britain has usually been a rather marginal trend in the labour movement, generally confined to political exiles like the Italian Errico Malatesta or the Russian Peter Kropotkin, so the existence of what could be described as an anarchist, or at any rate an anarchist-led, mass movement amongst the Yiddish-speaking working-class Russian and Polish Jews of London’s East End in the decades before 1914 is a phenomenon deserving more general recognition.

Whilst the rise and fall of the movement owed a lot to the presence or absence of Rudolf Rocker, who was interned by the British authorities in 1914 and after the First World War returned to Weimar Germany before taking refuge from the Nazis in the United States, where he remained until his death in 1958, neither book really explains the movement’s collapse after 1914. Although Fishman mentions “the triple pulls of Zionism, Orthodoxy and Communism after 1917” (p. 308), I suspect that in putting Communism in third place he underestimates the pull of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which won over the rank and file of so many anarchist and syndicalist movements outside Spain by the early 1920s, and East End Jewish Communists would doubtless have played down any anarchist antecedents, even if such traditions of direct action may partially account for their inclination towards greater militancy than the CPGB’s national leadership in episodes such as Cable Street.

Important as these books are in rescuing the East End anarchists from historiographical neglect, they also raise more general questions for labour historians that transcend the history of anarchism, particularly the relationship between newly-arrived immigrant workers and the native working-class in conditions of high unemployment and housing shortage, and the difficulties of organising irregularly employed workers in small workplaces where sweated labour was generally predominant.
The success of the East End anarchists was not primarily a result of ideological factors, except perhaps for some of the long-standing activists whose world-view was clearly transformed and removed from the narrow confines of the ghetto by the wide-ranging and inspirational lectures of a man like Rocker, but the product of their orientation towards militant trade union activism, an orientation which their social-democratic rivals usually lacked. Whilst by no means all the trade union leaders of the tailors and other East End trades were anarchists, indeed many were conventional opportunist bureaucrats, it was the anarchists who provided the dynamism behind such bitter disputes as the tailors’ strikes of 1889, 1906 and 1912, which, whilst they did not necessarily always secure lasting victories, certainly demonstrated the enormous power of collective action to a hitherto atomised and fragmented workforce.
The Right often successfully used anti-immigrant feeling to divide the East London working class, and these years saw the passage of the Aliens Act (1905), ending the British ‘open borders’ policy. However, the gulf between Jewish workers and non-Jewish, and intermittently anti-Semitic, workers such as the dockers was transcended during the peak years of labour militancy such as 1889, when dockers’ leaders such as Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillett spoke at tailors’ meetings, and 1912 when over 300 children of striking dockers were taken in to East End Jewish homes.

Much more could be said about both books – for example, Rocker’s account of wartime internment as an ‘enemy alien’, despite his manifest hatred of the Kaiser, parallels subsequent British treatment of German-Jewish and anti-Fascist refugees during the Second World War – but due to space constraints, I will end by focussing on two striking features of the movement that offer a marked contrast to the conduct of recent self-styled radicals in Tower Hamlets.

The first is the undisputed willingness of its leaders such as Rocker, Wess (and, for that matter, their ally Kropotkin) to live in extreme poverty, sacrificing everything for the cause and not profiting from it in any way. The second is the propensity of the Jewish radicals (a propensity that the non-Jew Rocker sometimes thought excessive) towards militant atheism and anti-clericalism. The Jewish radicals held political meetings on Friday nights, organised balls on Yom Kippur and even brandished ham sandwiches outside the synagogues. Needless to say, the story of their relations with the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Hermann Adler, was one of mutual hatred, and they were generally at odds with such Anglo-Jewish community leaders as Sir Samuel Montagu, and rarely received a fair hearing in the Jewish Chronicle.

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