1880-1945: Yiddish-speaking libertarians in France

Montmartre in 1907
Montmartre in 1907

Short article tracing the development of the Jewish Yiddish language anarchist and syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France.

Submitted by Steven. on January 13, 2007

In the pletzl (Marais) and in Montmartre in Paris (pictured, above), Jewish anarchists had a real influence. In 1907, police reports indicated the presence of about 450 anarcho-communists, an enormous figure if one realises that the immigrant Jewish population living in Paris at the time was about 20,000.

As in England, anarcho-syndicalism developed among sub-contracted workers in the clothing trade and spread to other "Jewish trades".

There were several strikes among beret-makers, hatters, tailors and bakers under the influence of the syndicalist movement. The furriers also had a strongly anarchist section.

After 1880, Jewish workers' societies were created on the initiative of socialists and anarchists, with little distinction between the two. But the peculiarity of Jewish syndicalism in France as far as anarcho-syndicalists were concerned, was the creation of immigrant locals attached to the CGT. This was necessary for a number of reasons:

- Language: Jewish immigrants had great difficulty learning French and needed to communicate between each other in order to understand the social situation they found themselves in or had to endure.
- Working conditions: The over-exploitation they endured made their trades something of a special case.
- Class relations: Most of the bosses they worked under were themselves Jews. This therefore led Jewish workers to stand alongside the exploited class, thereby rejecting the false spirit of paternalistic, communitary solidarity of their bosses.

This particularity was not always understood by native French workers, who took a very dim view of the immigration of cheap workers. But real ties nonetheless existed, most notably with the French anarcho-syndicalist militants such as Monatte, followers of a mass current within the CGT. Ideological agreement played a large role in bringing the workers together, though it was not easy, given the fact that part of the workers' movement and its leaders were imbued with a certain anti-Semitism.

The divisions between socialists and anarchists began to appear around 1890. In 1893, the anarchists formed a specific group. On a cultural and political level, there was a Yiddish libertarian theatre group, libraries were set up and meeting places (restaurants) were established by sympathizers or militants. The organization of support for Dreyfus in Jewish circles in Paris was carried on mostly by anarchists. At the only public meeting of Jewish workers in 1899 on this question, Henri Dhorr, who wrote for anarchist newspapers, was one of the speakers.

Anti-Yom Kippur balls were also regularly organized. The desire to maintain links with the Parisian and international libertarian movement was a constant preoccupation. A Yiddish-speaking anarchist federation existed between 1908 and 1910 but though a good many contacts were formed with Italy and Britain, it was unable to grow and finally folded. Many militants prepared to return to Russia in Paris, which was also a magnet for the many political refugees coming from Russia.

Anarchists remained influential in the period between the two world wars. An anarcho-communist group, the "Fraye Socialistes" (Free Socialists), produced a journal called "Arbeter Fraind" (The Worker's Friend) between 1924 and 1926 following the example of the journal produced in England which had ceased publication in 1922. This group also translated into Yiddish the works of libertarian writers. A Jewish anarchist library known as the "Selbst lerner" (Self-taught) also existed during this period. In the 1930s, other produced a magazine known as the "Fraye Tribune" which, in 1936, became the "Fraye Yiddishe Tribune".

After the Second World War, there still existed a group publishing the journal, "Der Frayer Gedank" (Free Thought). One of its members, Jacques Doubinsky, was the prime mover behind an association known as the Friends of Volin. He gave himself the task of publishing "The Unknown Revolution" (one of the best reference books on the Russian Revolution).

Contrary to Britain, the Jewish libertarian movement did not spread to the provinces, though the 1939-45 war did oblige some militants to take refuge in the countryside.

This text is a brief extract from the book "Les Libertaires du Yiddishland" by Jean-Marc Izrine, which traces the history of the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement throughout the world. This section deals with the situation in France in the early 20th century. Translated by Nestor McNab and posted to www.anarkismo.net. Lightly edited by libcom.