by Jason Lever
Posted on Sun, 01 Dec 2013 17:20:46 GMT
Its role in unionising Jewish tailors, bakers and cabinet-makers
Anarchism had a short but significant influence on Jewish political and trades union life, and anarchists played a notable part in the struggle to unionise Jewish trades (ref: Fishman, 1981) including two of those relevant to Solomon Lever.
This occurred during the transition between Jewish support for socialism and the municipal reformism of the pre-Second World War Labour Party that was taken up by Solomon Lever.
For one of its leading thinkers and activists of the time, ‘the fact is that all the Jewish trade unions in the East End, without exception, were started by the initiative of the Jewish anarchists... out of the[ir] ceaseless educational work’ (Ref: Rocker). This is supported by others, in that ‘the small band of Jewish social-democrats and anarchists in England found that they were in demand… as trade-union managers’ (ref: Alderman, 1983).
Anarchists were involved in the 1906 tailors’ strike, for example, which resulted in the working day being reduced to ten and a half hours. In the wake of the 1912 strike, shorter hours, improved sanitary conditions and union recognition were won with mutual anarchist and union support (ref: Glinert).
Anarchists founded the Jubilee Club, in Jubilee Street, hosting lectures on art and music by Jewish intellectuals and pauper scholars, translating Tolstoy and Chekhov into Yiddish and organising tours of of the British Museum.
Mass meetings of the Federation of Jewish Anarchists took place in the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End and in the Wonderland in Whitechapel, attended by thousands of people. The strapline of its Journal, the Arbeter Fraint, set out that it was ‘the organ of the Federation of Yiddish-Speaking Anarchist Groups of Great Britain and Paris’ ((Ref: Rocker). Its Jewish roots were also reflected in its motto, at the top of the front page, by Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? And if not now, when?” (Ref: Rocker)
Nevertheless, the heyday of anarchism was brief in the radical currents of East End political life. It stood square against traditional Jewish identity, by rejecting all forms of authority – whether the state, the church/synagogue or the family. Unsuprisingly, this limited its popular appeal amongst Jewish East Enders.
In his 1956 autobiographical account of his days as a leading protagonist of anarchism in the East End, Rudolf Rocker argues that ‘the libertarian movement among Jewish workers in Britain not because its forces were spent.... fell a victim of the First World War, when it had reached its peak’ (Ref: Rocker). In the second year of the war (1915), the printing press of the Arbeter Fraint was closed by the government.
Soon a different left-wing ideology took hold – communism. A significant number of East End Jews joined the Communist Party, attracted by the Russian Revolution. At the same time, many also joined trades unions.
In Bill Fishman’s political eulogy, by the 1920s anarchists were ‘already an anachronism, shadowy ghosts of another era’– and, post-war, never recovered its adherents faced with ‘the triple pull of Zionism, Orthodoxy and Communism’ (Fishman, 1979).
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