Rocker, Rudolf, 1873-1958

Rudolf Rocker
Rudolf Rocker

Biography of famed German anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, who amongst other things organised Jewish garment workers in London's East End.

Submitted by Steven. on September 18, 2006

Rudolf Rocker
Born 25 March 1873 - Mainz, Germany, died 19 September 1958 - New York, USA

Rudolf Rocker was born in Mainz, in the German Rhineland, into a Catholic family of skilled workers with liberal views. His parents died young, and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage. He was apprenticed as a bookbinder, and followed the trade as a travelling journeyman for several years. He became a socialist in his youth, and joined the Social Democratic Party; but he supported the leftwing opposition group of Die Jungen (The Young), was expelled in 1890, and soon moved towards anarchism.

He visited several parts of Western Europe, following his trade and his political interests. He observed the second congress of the Second International in Brussels in 1891, began contributing to the anarchist press in 1892, and left Germany to escape police harassment in 1892. He lived for a couple of years in Paris, and then settled permanently in Britain in 1895.

Although Rocker was a Gentile, he became involved in the Jewish anarchist movement. He learnt Yiddish, lived in the Jewish community, and became the lifelong companion of Milly Witcop (1877-1953). He quickly became a prominent speaker and writer, on cultural as well as political topics, and for 20 years he was the most liked and respected person in the movement. In 1898 he edited Dos Fraye Vort (The Free Word), a new Yiddish weekly paper in Leeds, for a couple of months, and then became editor of Der Arbeiter Fraint (The Workers' Friend), a revived Yiddish weekly paper in London, and in 1900 also of Germinal, a new Yiddish monthly.

The Jewish anarchist movement became larger than the native movement. A federation of Jewish anarchist groups was formed in 1902, the circulation of the papers and other publications increased, and a thriving social club was opened in Jubilee Street in East London in 1906. Rocker was the most influential figure in the movement, representing it at the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam in 1907, and becoming a member of the International Anarchist Bureau established there. The Jewish anarchists were very active in the growing trade union movement, and Rocker favoured the development of anarcho-syndicalism as a new form of anarchist theory and practice.

In 1914 Rocker vigorously opposed both sides in the First World War, and after a few months he was interned as an enemy alien. Soon afterwards the Arbeiter Fraint was suppressed and the Jubilee Street club was closed. The Jewish anarchist movement in Britain never really recovered, and most of its members were later attracted to Zionism or Communism.

In 1918 Rocker was deported from Britain to the Netherlands, and he soon returned to his native country. He became a leading figure in the German and indeed the international anarcho-syndicalist movement. He was an active member of the Freie Vereinigung Deutscher Gerwerkschaften (Free Association of German Trade Unions) and then a main founder of the Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (Free Workers Union of Germany) and editor of its paper, Der Syndikalist. He was the moving spirit of the International Congress in Berlin in 1922 which led to the formation of the International Working Men's Association, and was one of its secretaries.' He exerted his influence against anarchist support for the Bolshevik Revolution after 1917 or for Arshinov's Organisational Platform (which advocated the reconstitution of the anarchist movement as a virtual political party) after 1926, and he led the libertarian opposition to the rising Nazi movement.

In 1933 Rocker had to leave Germany again to escape persecution by the new Nazi regime. He settled in the United States, which he had previously visited for lecture tours, and he continued to work as a speaker and writer, directing his efforts against the twin evils of Fascism and Communism. He spent the last 20 years of his life as a leading figure in the Mohegan community at Crompond, New York, and was the best-known anarchist in the country until his death. He supported the Allies in the Second World War, which caused a breach with some old comrades, but he continued to receive more admiration and affection than any veteran of the movement since Kropotkin or Malatesta.

Rocker was a very prolific speaker and writer in both Yiddish and German, and he produced a great many articles and pamphlets and several books -- especially a libertarian study of the conflict between nationalism and culture, biographies of Johann Most and Max Nettlau, and a long autobiography. Many of his writings were translated into Spanish and widely circulated in Latin America, but not many appeared in English. Apart from a few pamphlets, three books were published in the United States -- the ambitious study of Nationalism and Culture (1937), [2] an essay in literary criticism called The Six (1938), and a popular survey of Pioneers of American Freedom (1949). Two more were published in Britain -- a popular survey of Anarcho-Syndicalism (1938), and the section of his autobiography covering The London Years (1956). Some others were translated into English but not published -- especially Behind Barbed Wire and Bars, an account of his internment during the First World War.

The most accessible of Rocker's books is Anarcho-Syndicalism. This arose from the Spanish Civil War and Revolution, which broke out in 1936 and brought anarchism and syndicalism back on to the political stage for the first time since the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It was in 1936 that Fredric Warburg took over the publishing company of Martin Secker and made the new company of Secker & Warburg one of the main London publishers. He specialised in good fiction, especially by leading foreign writers, and in political books by unorthodox socialists, including some who were sympathetic to anarchism and later contributed to the anarchist press (such as Jomo Kenyatta, Ethet Mannin, George Orwell, Reginald Reynolds, and F. A. Ridley). He took particular interest in Spain, and published several books on the subject (the best known being Homage to Catalonia). A salient feature of the Spanish situation was of course the existence of a mass movement of revolutionary syndicalists led by militant anarchists, and Warburg decided to publish a book on the ideology inspiring them.

In April 1937 -- at a time of growing confrontation between the Nationalist rebels and their Falangist allies on one side and the Republican regime and its leftwing allies on the other, and also between the libertarian movement and the Socialist and Communist authorities within the Republic -- Warburg approached Spain and the World, the new leading anarchist paper in Britain, with a proposal for a quick short book on anarchism. This was passed on to Emma Goldman, the best known anarchist in Europe, who was then working for the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists in London, and she passed it on to Rudolf Rocker in the United States, as being the most likely person to be both able and willing to produce what was wanted in the time demanded.

Rocker accepted the proposal in June, and wrote a 45,000-word text in German between July and October 1937. It was rapidly translated into English by his friend Ray E. Chase in Los Angeles, and was set up in proof in Britain by January 1938. When the book was published (without any mention of the translator) in London in March 1938, it was well received by readers on the left and well reviewed in the liberal press (and a Spanish translation appeared in the same year). But it wasn't a commercial success, and within a couple of years the Freedom Press had acquired the remaindered stock (as of several other Warburg books). It wasn't published in the United States or reprinted in Britain at that time. But in 1947 an Indian edition was produced by Arya Bhavan in Bombay and published by Modern Publishers in Indore, for which Rocker provided a new Epilogue describing the situation of anarcho-syndicalism following the Second World War. (Incidentally he never made any money from the book, his small advance royalty just paying for the translation.)

In 1946 Rocker wrote an abridged version of the book as an essay with the title Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism for Feliks Gross's American symposium European Ideologies (1948). It was reprinted in James J. Martin's edition of Paul Eltzbacher's Anarchism (1960), and extracts were included in two American anthologies -- Irving Louis Horowitz's The Anarchists (1964) and Priscilla Long's The New Left (1969). Extracts from the original book were included in another American anthology -- Leonard I. Krimerman's and Lewis Perry's Patterns of Anarchy (1966) -- and various extracts and versions have appeared in pamphlet form from time to time.

The essay consists of slightly revised passages from different places in the book. Thus in the first part, both sections come from the first chapter; in the second part, the first edition comes from the third chapter, the next three from the fourth chapter, the next from the fifth chapter, and the last section from the sixth chapter. In the end, nearly onethird of the book is reproduced in the essay, the omissions mainly concerning the general history of the labour movement and the detailed history of the syndicalist movement.

The essay was first published as a Freedom Pamphlet in 1973, and is now reprinted without any change except the addition of this new introduction. After half a century, Rudolf Rocker's account of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism is inevitably dated in its emphasis and in some particular points, but it remains valuable as a short and clear view of a significant ideology by one of its best-known and best-informed adherents.

Written by Nicolas Walter

From the introduction to the 1988 Freedom Press edition of Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism


Kate Sharpley

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Submitted by Kate Sharpley on June 21, 2023

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