Guest editorial Rudolf Rocker 1873-1958. A tribute.

Author:Morris, Brian

In this extended editorial I want to pay homage to the memory and teachings of the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker. Rocker is very much a forgotten figure within anarchist circles. There is no mention of him, for instance, in Daniel Guerin's anthology of anarchism No Gods, No Masters, nor in George Woodcock's The Anarchist Reader - and he is singularly absent from Bookchin's magnum opus The Ecology of Freedom. And even in general accounts of the history of the anarchist movement, as his biographer, Mina Graur (1997) recounts, Rocker is mentioned only in passing. With the emergence of the so-called new anarchism, Rocker is in the process of being further marginalised. Indeed, the earlier generation libertarian socialists to which he belonged is now perceived to be old-fashioned and outdated, or as John Moore put it in the pages of the Green Anarchist, just plain obsolete. Old anarchism, we are informed, has become a 'historical baggage' that needs to be rejected, or at last given a 'major overhaul' (Purkis and Bowen 1997: 3); it is a historical relic of no relevance at all to contemporary radical activists (Holloway 2005: 21).

There is then a growing tendency among many radical scholars not only to forget the past but to repudiate it entirely, thus denying that an earlier generation of anarchists have anything to teach us with regard to contemporary struggles. This approach seems to me not only unwarranted and unfair but also short-sighted. As the notable Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah (1979) remarked: 'the present is where we get lost - if we forget our past and have no vision of the future'. So my aim here is to briefly outline some of the teachings of Rudolf Rocker, thus indicating their contemporary relevance. For it seems to me that we should not look upon Rocker simply as a historical relic, of interest only to historians, but as someone who has a contemporary relevance and who remains a source of inspiration to all those today who strive for radical change. Anarchism is both a social movement and a political tradition. It did not simply wither away at the end of the 1930s, as Mina Graur contends (1997: 244) only to re-emerge phoenix-like as a new form of anarchism in the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, as David Graeber argues (2002). For class struggle, anarchism has had a decided and continuing presence in all the protest movements since the Second World War.


Rudolf Rocker was born in Mainz on the Rhine, South Germany, in 1873. He lost both his parents at the age of fourteen. He was sent to a Catholic orphanage, an experience he linked to a desert exile. Apprenticed to a bookbinder, he was influenced by his maternal uncle Rudolf Naumann, who introduced him to socialism as well as to literature, especially romantic literature. Throughout his life Rocker was an incurable romantic, and as his son Fermin records, he had an absolute passion and reverence for books (1998: 23). And he seems to have spent many hours scouring second-hand bookshops.

At the age of seventeen Rocker joined the German Social Democratic Party, but soon became critical of its rigid and authoritarian ethos and its statist politics, that derived essentially from the Marxists Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle. Expelled from the Party, Rocker began associating with anarchists, and studying the writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Johann Most. Thus by the age of twenty Rocker had become an anarchist. To avoid arrest, he left Germany in November 1892, and after a two-year sojourn in Paris, came to London at the end of 1894. Rudolf Rocker's subsequent life as an anarchist can be divided into three distinct phases.

In the first phase, 1895-1914 Rocker became an 'anarchist missionary to the Jews' (Fishman 1975), becoming closely identified with the Jewish immigrant workers of London's East End. He married a young Ukrainian Jew, Milly Witcop, who was to become a life-long partner, lived in Stepney Green, and learned to speak and write Yiddish. He edited the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Der Arbeiter Fraint (Worker's Friend) and a literary monthly journal Germinal and was actively involved in the Jewish labour unions in their fight for better working conditions. During these 'London years', which he described as the best years of his life, Rocker was not only deeply involved in political struggles, but he regularly gave lectures on literary and cultural topics at the Jubilee Street Club, which was then the centre for Jewish Social and intellectual life. And by all accounts Rocker was an excellent and inspiring speaker. Nellie Dick recalls that Rocker's lectures always held his audience 'spellbound' (Avrich 2005: 283). He also came to know some of the many anarchists who were involved in radical struggles in the years prior to the First World War, including Louise Michel, Errico Malatesta, John Turner, Max Nettlau, Gustav Landauer, Emma Goldman, Sam Yanovsky and Peter Kropotkin.

The outbreak of war provided the transition to the second phase of his political life: 1918-1933. Because of his German background and political radicalism Rocker was arrested in 1914 and interned as an 'enemy alien'. At the end of the war he was deported from Britain to the Netherlands, but soon made his way to Germany. 1918 was the start of his anarcho-syndicalist period, the phase which Sam Dolgoff considered to be the most crucial of Rocker's career, constituting his 'greatest achievement' (1986: 109). Rocker travelled throughout Germany giving propaganda speeches promoting libertarian socialism. He was actively involved and one of the founders of the Free German Workers Union and, according to Nicolas Walter, the 'moving spirit' of the International Congress held in Berlin in 1922, which led to the formation of the International Working Men's Association. Along with Alexander Shapiro and Augustin Souchy, he was one of its secretaries. Indeed Rocker became one of the leading...

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