Red Pepper, “Rudolf Rocker: an anarchist ‘rabbi’ in London”

David J. Lobina rediscovers a forgotten but fascinating figure in London’s radical and Jewish history

October 12, 2021

Originally from Germany, the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker spent much of his life in exile in some of the world’s major cities – Paris, London, New York – where he always gravitated towards immigrants involved in radical politics, most notably the Jewish anarchist community in London at the turn of the 20th century. Often referred to as a rabbi by members of this community as a sign of appreciation, the epithet of an ‘anarchist rabbi’ is the title of a book about Rocker’s life and thought, as well as a documentary about his time in London. 

Though this story is rarely told today, Rocker’s time in London is worth revisiting, at the very least to recover him as an important political and intellectual figure. Quite the theoretician-and-practitioner anarchist, Rocker left a large bibliography behind, including three volumes of memoirs, only a small part of which have been published in English.  Published in the 1950s as The London Years, his memoirs give a rich account of how a German Catholic became a leading figure in London’s Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchist movement. 

Exile in England

By the 19th century, England had become the home of many left-wing political exiles fleeing more autocratic regimes in continental Europe. Widely regarded as a safe haven because of the Victorian ‘right of asylum’, which would be curtailed in the early 20th century, England had welcomed the repressed as well, such as the many Jews who fled Russia during the pogroms of 1881-1884. 

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