Book Review: The London Years

Maximum Rocknroll
262, March 2005

The London Years 
Rudolph Rocker
AK Press

Rudolf Rocker (1875-1958) was a German anarchist who spent much of his life working with Jewish socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists from Eastern Europe who had emigrated to the East End of London. Though he was not Jewish himself, he learned Yiddish, and was the editor of the important anarchist papers Arbeter Fraint and Germinal. Whereas most European countries had histories of persecution of both Jews and political radicals, England had an asylum policy in the years before World War One. Many well-known anarchists emigrated to England; among them were Malatesta and Kropotkin. Rocker was a good friend and comrade of the latter, and some of the most interesting parts of this book refer to the famous anarchist.

Because of the asylum policy, London and the smaller cities of England were home to many immigrant groups. But the Jewish populace among which Rocker circulated was the largest immigrant revolutionary group. The Jews were largely desperately poor textiles workers, but through the efforts of Arbeter Fraint and the Jewish anarchists, general strikes led to labor reforms which ameliorated the lives of the entire British working class. It is also important to note that many of the Jews were bound together less by religion than by Yiddish and their common culture. They did not consider themselves a nation; hence, nationalism, and especially Zionism, were uncommon even as news of pogroms in Russia began to reach the East End. Class seemed to be another great uniting force, and there were marked differences between Jews who had emigrated from Eastern and Western Europe. The former were often much poorer. Despite this poverty, many contributed whatever they could, even if it meant starving for a day or two, to the anarchist movement and its publications.

Rocker’s autobiography is a quick read. The chronological organization of the work is sometimes confusing, but not terribly so. He is not a bad writer, but he is not particularly great either. I think he is at his best when discussing his beliefs rather than when he is recounting his life story. Lists of names often caused my eyes to glaze over, but among them were often recognizable names from Kropotkin to Wilde to Geddes. Rocker’s ability to distill complicated theoretical ideas was well-known. For example, he wrote the first vernacular Yiddish critique of historical materialism, which was widely circulated. When he writes about anarchism or literature (he was responsible for incorporating pieces about culture into heretofore strictly political anarchist newspapers), his humanity, humility, and intelligence show. A couple examples: “I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because I believe there is no such thing as a final goal. Freedom will lead us to continually wider and expanding understanding and to new social forms of life. To think that we have reached the end of our progress is to enchain ourselves in dogmas, and that always leads to tyrannies.” “The inadequacy of our existing social order for large sections of the people and the glaring injustice of many aspects of our political and social life must not lead us to the mistake of measuring our entire culture as such by this one standard. . . What the human spirit has created in science, art and literature, in every branch of philosophic thought and aesthetic feeling is and must remain the common cultural possession of our own and all the coming generations . . . There is not only a hunger of the body. There is also a hunger of the spirit, of the soul, which demands its rights.”

Though I’m not sure this book will have much general appeal, anarchists love their anarchist history, and this is a strong contribution as it covers the halcyon era when the size of the movement was matched only by its boundless energy and optimism. Furthermore, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the nigh forgotten history of European Jews in the years before Hitler, and also before large-scale Zionism, the twin towers of Jewish historiography which at times can obscure a more general and humanistic picture of a people with a fascinating radical history.

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