Today in London rebel history: John Rety, poet, anarchist, publisher, chessplayer, dies, 2010

On February 3rd 2010, anarchist, poet and publisher John Rety died, aged 79.

Born Reti Janos to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.

His father Istvan, a theatre director, was interned on an island in the Danube, which also held sporting events and John, aged 12, snuck onto the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and persuaded him to escape. Istvan did get out: he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding. In the last years of the war as a young teenager John ran errands, taking packages around, later saying that he assumed it was for the anti-nazi resistance!

John’s grandmother had been looking after him during the war years, but she was later imprisoned. On the day the war ended, she approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. In response the guard murdered her.

Aged 16, John wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about in the last year of his life, in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.” 

The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He fled Hungary, apparently just a step ahead of the authorities. He arrived in London in 1946 and got a job as an apprentice for a publishing house.

He published a novel aged 21, called Super Sozzled Nights, and hung out in Soho, then teeming with a bohemian culture that sparked many creative and radical projects.

It led him into the magazine trade, and he founded the Soho underground paper, Intimate Review, with contributions from young writers including Doris Lessing, Bill Hopkins, Laura del Rivo, Frank Norman, Alan Owen, Cressida Lindsay & Bernard Kops. Réty was the first to publish Colin Wilson. The Intimate Review largely circulated among the customers of the coffee houses that were appearing in Soho. It was a parish magazine, a gossip sheet for a bohemian, literary in-crowd that attracted contributions from many coming names. John would hawk copies on weekend evenings to cinema queues.

The former Guardian journalist Harold Jackson, co-editor of the Intimate Review, recalled Rety’s astounding ability to persuade eminent people to contribute to the magazine for free. “Our covers,” he said, “were regularly produced at very short notice and for no money by Feliks Topolski. Ralph Steadman’s work appeared from time to time.”

When Intimate Review was forced to fold due to a threatened libel action, Rety started other papers – including the Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly. Then, as Private Eye began to take over his readership, he took the editorial chair of the anarchist paper Freedom for a couple of years.

John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street, Here, I think John met local squatters and got involved with supporting squatting around Camden and Chalk Farm. Resistance to the powerful property magnate Joe Levy in Camden Town ended in his own family’s eviction and loss of home and livelihood.

John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”

In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom. As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.

Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].” 

Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!” 

John was said to have been “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square at the anti-Vietnam War rally in front of the US Embassy in October 1968” and was among 13 protestors who soon after held a 13-day fast there… For may years he was a regular at Speakers Corner.

At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. The accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.

Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, to the SCH; the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on there was no gas or electricity, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They founded the Torriano Meeting House, and began to put on events, notably poetry readings.

It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.

The readings were an astonishing success, drawing in poets and public from all over the country. Many paid tribute to him in a festschrift, Torriano Nights (2009). Stephen Spender & Adrian Mitchell were among the hundreds of poets who performed there.

The most important of these were the Sunday evening poetry readings which began with aspiring versifiers spouting their own work, often at considerable length. But Rety, who had a quick temper and a ready laugh, was a strict master of ceremonies.

When contributions from the floor were no good, he would shout out in his Mitteleuropean accent that the writers should read more good poetry if they wanted to avoid writing rubbish, and remind objectors that if Shakespeare walked in he would have to wait two hours for a hearing. After the interval an invited guest, who occasionally was Sir Stephen Spender, Dannie Abse or John Heath-Stubbs, would read and be heard with respect. The result, it was said, was an atmosphere resembling the start of an Aldermaston march and a tea party given by Brendan Behan’s mother.

John’s ability to charm support from unlikely sources never deserted him. Camden council contributed £10,000 a year to support the Torriano Meeting House. When, eventually, funding cuts forced them to withdraw the grant, the council offered Rety an Epic (Eminent Persons in Camden) award. Typically, he indignantly refused, regarding it as a bribe to stop him complaining about the loss of his grant.

In 1987, he founded the Hearing Eye Press, this time with financial assistance from the Arts Council of London. For the publication of his celebratory volume, In the Company of Poets: An Anthology Celebrating 21 Years of Poetry Readings at Torriano Meeting House (2003), he found support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is a collection starting with Dannie Abse and proceeding, via John Arden, through names including Oliver Bernard, John Heath-Stubbs and Dilys Wood. Rety’s own work was modestly absent from the book. Hearing Eye Press ultimately published over 150 books.

This did not exhaust his amazing energy or his proselytising zeal for poetry. He became poetry editor of the Morning Star and edited an anthology of the work appearing there, Well Versed, with a foreword by Tony Benn. This was popular enough to go into a second edition. It is frequently asserted that the Morning Star saw a rise in its readership due to the verse Rety published there.

An originator of the idea of poetry on the London tube – although he did not sit on the panel that eventually implemented it – he later extended that idea to the telephone with a Dial-a-Poem service with British Telecom. At 25p a minute, the line received 750 calls in its first week of operation in 1988, and seemed on the route to success until Rety fell out with BT, “as so many do”, he stated happily. He did not win his arguments over presentation, and a percentage for the poets, and the venture sputtered out.

When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)

Watch video of John talking about his early political influences

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkcgwbzacIc&feature=related

This post was cobbled together from a variety of sources… We also remember John, mostly from meeting him wandering around the Anarchist Bookfair, ranting… carrying armfuls of poems and papers…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London publishing history: Johann Most arrested for celebrating the assassination of the Tsar, 1881.

“CHARLES HAGAN (Police Inspector). On 30th March, at 4.45 p.m., I went to the house of Most in Titchfield Street—I saw him in the printing-office at the back of the yard—I asked him if he was Johann Most; he said “Yes”—I told him in English that I was an inspector of police, and had a warrant for his arrest…”

Something of the history of the nineteenth century German anarchist newspaper Freiheit has already been recounted in a previous post. We briefly mentioned editor Johann Most’s 1881 nicking, for writing an article celebrating the assassination of the tyrannical Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Today is the anniversary of the police raid on the Freiheit offices and Most’s arrest. Below we reprint the text of his jubilatory editorial…

“At last! “Seize on this one, seize on that one, “‘Some one, nevertheless, will reach thee.’—C. BEEK.

“Triumph! Triumph! the word of the poet has accomplished itself. One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe, to whom downfall has long since been sworn, and who therefore, in wild revenge breathings, caused innumerable heroes and heroines of the Russian people to be destroyed or imprisoned—the Emperor of Russia is no more. On Sunday last at noon, just as the monster was returning from one of those diversions which are wont to consist of eye-feastings on well-drilled herds of stupid blood-and-iron slaves, and which one calls military reviews, the executioner of the people, who long since pronounced his death sentence, overtook and with vigorous hand struck down the brute. He was once more on the point of drivelling about the ‘God’s finger,’ which had nearly saved his accursed life, when the fist of the people stopped his mouth for ever. One of those daring young men whom the social revolutionary movement of Russia brought forth, Risakoff—with reverence we pronounce his name—had thrown under the despot’s carriage a dynamite bomb, which effected a great devastation on the conveyance and the immediate neighbourhood, yet left the crowned murderer to pray uninjured. Michaelovitch, a princely general, and others at once fell upon the noble executor of the people’s will. The latter, however, with one hand brandishes a dagger against the autocrat’s face, and with the other hand guides the barrel of a revolver against the breast of the same. In an instant he is disarmed, and the belaced, betufted, and by corruption eaten through and through retinue of the Emperor breathe again on account of the supposed averted danger. There flies a new bomb neat this time. It falls down at the despot’s feet, shatters for him the legs, rips open for him the belly, and causes among the surrounding military and civil Cossacks numerous wounds and annihilations. The personages of the scene are as if paralysed, only the energetic bomb-thrower does not lose his presence of mind, and is able safely to fly. The Emperor, however, is dragged to his palace, where yet for an hour and a half he is able, amid horrible sufferings, to meditate on his life full of crimes. At last he died. This in reference to the simple state of facts. Instantly the telegraph wires played up to the remotest corners of the earth to make the occurrence known to the whole world. The effect of this publication was as various as it was drastic. Like a thunderclap it penetrated into princely palaces, where dwell those crime-beladen abortions of every profligacy who long since nave earned a similar fate a thousandfold. For three years past has many a shot whistled by the ears of these monsters without harming them. Always and always again could they indemnify themselves in princely fashion for the fright endured by executions and regulations of the masses of all kinds. Nay, just in the most recent period they whispered with gratification in each other’s ears that all danger was over, because the most energetic of all tyrant haters—the ‘Russian Nihilists ‘—had been successfully exterminated to the last member.

“Then comes such a hit! William, Prince of Prussia, the now Protestant Pope and soldier Emperor of Germany, got convulsions in due form from the excitement. Like things happened at other Courts. Howling and gnashing of teeth prevailed in every residence. But the other rabble, too, which in the other various countries pulls the wires of the Government mechanism of the ruling classes, experienced a powerful moral headache and melted in tears of condolence, whether it consisted merely of head lackeys on the steps of an Imperial throne or of Republican bandits of order of the first class. The whimpering was no less in France, Switzerland, and America than in Montenegro or Greece. A Gambetta carried through the adjournment of the Chambers, and thereby put an insult on France from which even Austria was saved by the then President of the Reichsrath. Public opinion is startled, and seeks in vain for the reasons of such a miserable attitude. One thinks of diplomatic motives and the like, but one misses the mark. Much, perhaps, may indeed have contributed here snd there which resembles mere political hypocrisy. In the main the grounds lie deeper. The supporters of the ruling classes see just in the destruction of an autocrat which has taken place more than the mere act of homicide itself. They are face to face with a successful attack upon authority as such. At the same time they all know that every success has wonderful power, not only of instilling respect, but also of inciting to imitation. From Constantinople to Washington they simply tremble for their long since forfeited heads. This fright is a high enjoyment for us; just as we have heard with the most joyful feelings of the heroic deed of those social revolutionaries of St. Petersburg who slaughtered the tyrant on Sunday last. In this time of the most general humility and woe, at a period when in many countries old women only and little children yet limp about the political stage with tears in their eyes, with the most loathsome fear in their bosoms of the castigating rod of the State night-watchman, now, when real heroes have become so scarce, such has the same effect on better natures as a refreshing storm. Let some say behind our backs we are carrying on a ‘game with Nihilists’; let others blame us as cynical or brutal; yet we know that in expressing our joy at the successful deed we were disclosing not only our own feelings, but were also giving utterance to what millions of men, down-trodden and tyrannised over, thought with us when they read of the execution of Alexander. To be sure it will happen once and again that here and there even Socialists start up who, without that any one asks them, assert that they for their part abominate regicide, because such an one after all does no good, and because they are combating not persons, but institutions. This sophistry is so gross that it may be confuted in a single sentence. It is clear—namely, even to a mere political tyro, that State and social institutions cannot be got rid of until one has overcome the persons who wish to maintain the same. With mere philosophy you cannot so much as drive a sparrow from a cherry-tree any more than bees are rid of their drones by simple humming. On the other hand, it is altogether false that the destruction of a Prince is entirely without value because a substitute appointed beforehand forthwith takes his place. What one might in any case complain of is only the rarity of so-called tyrannicide. If only a single crowned wretch were disposed of every month, in a short time it should afford no one gratification henceforward still to play the monarch. Moreover, it is certainly a satisfaction for every right-thinking man when such a capital criminal is done away with—i.e., is punished according to his evil deeds. It does not occur to the jurists of civil society to hang no murderer or to lock up no thief because it is proved that these punishments do not remove murder and theft (both institutions of this society) out of the world. When one has entirely to do with such a subject as Alexander Romanow was, then one must accept his destruction with double satisfaction. If one could believe newspaper writers, then one must, according to their chatter, take it that the exterminated Czar was a real pattern of benevolence. The facts prove that he belonged to the worst doers of abominations that have ever disgraced humanity. Some 100,000 men were banished to Siberia during his reign, dozens were hanged after they had suffered the cruellest tortures. All these victims the Russian Crown Moloch claimed only because those concerned were striving for the improvement of society, wishing for the general welfare, perhaps had only passed on a single forbidden book, or written one letter in which a censure on the Government was expressed. Out of the war abominations which this tyrant conjured up we take but one scene from the last Turkish war. Alexander was celebrating his name-day, and wished a warlike spectacle. He ordered a storming of Plevna. The generals ventured to call to mind that such an one would not only fail, but would cost an enormous number of men. In vain! The order stood good, and in order to witness the slaughter with more gratification the tyrant caused a special stand with a kind of Imperial box to be erected for himself, whence he might watch the storming without himself falling into danger. The result corresponded with the predictions of the generals. The storming was repulsed, and 8,000 dead and wounded covered the ground outside the walls of Plevna. But the ‘little father’, as the despot by preference caused himself to be called, had amused himself cannibalistically. All petitions, all wishes for the introduction of ever so slight reforms which were almost daily laid at his feet, he only answered by fresh meannesses of an Asiatic Government barbarism. Genuine dragonades followed every warning or threat, attempted but unsuccessful attacks on his person increased his baseness to the monstrous. Who is scoundrel enough really to bewail the death of such a beast? But it is said, ‘Will the successor of the smashed one do any better than he did? We know it not. But this we do know, that the same can hardly be permitted to reign long if he only steps in his father’s footsteps. Yes, we could actually wish that it should so happen, for we hate the hypocritical, mock-liberal monarchs no less than the despots sans phrase,’ because the former perhaps have still greater power of retarding the development of civilisation than the latter. In addition, the persistence of the new Czar in the old principle of government must forthwith double and treble its enemies, because in Russia there are a number of people of that sort which has believed in the Crown-Prince legend usual in all countries, and at all times, according to which the successor spoken of only awaits the moment when he may be able to pour over the people a whole horn of plenty, full of blessings. All these enthusiasts are forthwith converted when they see that the new ukases smell as much of Russian leather as the old. Meanwhile be this as it may, the throw was good, and we hope that it was not the last May the bold deed, which—we repeat it—has our full sympathy, inspire revolutionists far and wide with fresh courage. Let all think of Herwegh’s words—

” ‘And where tyrants still exist ” ‘Then let us boldly seize them, ” ‘We have loved long enough, ” ‘And we wish at last to hate.’ “

The Russian government applied pressure on the British authorities to arrest Most (the German government was already on their case about him and his propaganda) and Most was arrested and prosecuted. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

In solidarity, a short-lived English-language anarchist paper also entitled Freiheit was published, reprinting an English translation of Most’s article, but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Socialist Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held. The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech (although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial recommended mercy to the Jury, “in consideration of this being the first paper of his which had such matter in it,” hilariously adding, “being a foreigner, and probably smarting under some wrong, real or imaginary.”

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until they did it again, publishing an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was again raided and its plant seized. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where it continued under Most’s editorship until a few years after his death in 1905.

Read an account of Most’s Old Bailey trial

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s radical history: Jewish anarchist club opens in Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, 1906.

“The Jubilee Street Club played a great part in East End Jewish life because it was open to everyone. Anyone could use our library and reading room or join the adult education classes without being asked for a membership card…” (Rudolf Rocker)

In the late nineteenth century, a powerful Yiddish speaking working class movements evolved among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion, though it soon became associated with anarchism. More on the history of Arbeter Fraint here

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement, one of the largest sections of which took on a strongly anarchist character. The group around Der Arbeter Fraint was associated with a number of meeting places in Whitechapel – the international club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, and most famously the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel (the building has since been demolished – it’s now under Jarman House). In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

“The club had a main hall that could hold 800 people, and a number of smaller rooms and halls. One hall on the ground floor was used as a library and reading room. A smaller building adjoining the club served as the editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint.” (Rocker)

The opening night, 3rd February 1906, was packed – hundreds attended, and large numbers were locked out as there was no more room. “Almost every Jewish trade union in the country had sent us messages of congratulation. There were also messages from Malatesta, Louise Michel and Tarrida del Marmol. I was reading out the messages when a storm of cheering and clapping cut me short. Peter Kropotkin had arrived. His doctors had warned him not to appear at any more public gatherings, because of his heart. But this was an occasion from which he felt he must not stay away.

I begged him not to speak. He waved me aside. He spoke for over half an hour…” (Rocker)

The club was destined to play a central role in the political, social and intellectual life of the Jewish east End for a decade. It had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist who by now was at the heart of the group, spoke regularly. Rocker’s view was that workers who could think for themselves were in a much better position to combat their bosses, and escape the clutches of political parties and religious leaders, which exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses.

Cultural activities were a major part of the Club’s appeal, “in a world where there was a thirst for modern culture alongside a deep attachment to tradition.”

However, the lack of an official membership, while allowing a freer access to many, did have its drawbacks, as it “made it impossible for us to sell drinks in the club, from which most of the other clubs got the greater part of their revenue. For the law restricted the sale of intoxicants in clubs to club members. We sold only tea and coffee and food. So we had to fins other ways of meeting our running costs.”

Rocker recalled that the groups who met there regularly included trade unions, the Jewish Workers’ Circle (an important workers society), a Russian Social Revolutionary party branch, and English anarchist groups.

Descriptions of the Jubilee Street Club can also be found in police records, this time because suspects and witnesses of the 1911 Sidney Street gunfight frequented the club. Nicolai Tockmacoff was a seam-presser born in Moscow who was interviewed by the police. He played the balalaika at the Workers Friend:.

“I used to go to the [Workers’ Friend] Club for entertainment and theatrical performances… There is a hall there and refreshment room for tea and coffee. Anyone can go in. There are all sorts of people there, English and Russian… There is a library which anyone can go into… There was a Lettish [Lithuanian] Concert on one occasion… Men and women go to the Club to borrow books.”

William Fishman’s oral history interviews provide other glimpses of the Club. Millie Sabel recalled her kitchen duties, preparing gefilte fish, chopped liver and pickled herring, and that Lenin would drink Russian tea when he came by. Rose Robins recalled synagogue-going Jews on days of fasting sneaking into the Club to eat the extra food the Club had to prepare on holy days .

On the one hand the club was very much based in the mass movement of the East End, but it was also frequented by the celebrities of the left. Anarchist guru Kropotkin spoke at its opening night. Among those who hung out at the Club were Tsarist secret agents, future Soviet ministers (such as Chicherin) and terrorists (including the Latvian revolutionaries involved in the Siege of Sidney Street). A non-Jewish anarchist close to Rocker, John Turner, leader of the shop assistants’ trade union, took the young Guy Aldred (then writing for anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour paper, which Turner edited) to the Jubilee Street Club, where Rocker asked him to speak one night when Kropotkin couldn’t make it. Ironically Aldred used the occasion to criticize Kropotkin for abandoning revolutionary Bakuninism and becoming a respectable suburban intellectual – which didn’t go down well with the Club regulars.

The Club was also a centre of Yiddish culture: the Yiddishists and cultural nationalists Chaim Zhitlovsky and Ber Borokhov both spoke there; many of the great Yiddish poets read there. Fishman records that there was a great deal of interaction between the Jubilee Streeters and Poale Zionists (labour Zionists) in the years after the 1906 tailors’ strike: people like radical Zionist journalists Kalman Marmor and Dr Wortsman.

The Arbeter Fraint group was throughout its existence very much involved in the struggles of the Jewish tailoring workers, in their strikes, struggles against sweating and other poor working conditions. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. In 1889 and 1906, huge strikes that united 1000s of East End tailors saw mass solidarity; but a 1912 strike in both East and West End tailoring ended with victory on all fronts, largely due to Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group’s activities. The groups was also central in organising solidarity for dockers’ strikes, especially in 1912, where Jewish workers supported dock families facing starvations and took over 300 dockers children to be looked after in Jewish homes.

The strong Jewish labour and anarchist movements faced immediate repression when World War 1 broke out. The Arbeter Fraint group opposed the war from the start. The Jubilee Street Club was forced to close down. Rudolf Rocker was arrested in December 1914, and spent the war in internment camps.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint continued to publish, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by the state. Rocker moved eventually to the USA, where he became influential in the Jewish anarchist movement there.

If you want some seriously inspiring reading, check out:

The London Years, Rudolf Rocker.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William Fishman.

Citizenship and Belonging, Ben Gidley

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Italian restaurant workers union hold first meeting of London Italian restaurant workers union launched, 1901.

Ironically as it may seem in these times, in the nineteenth century, Britain was a popular and open destination for political exiles and others forced from their countries for their beliefs, or because of their race or creed…

This was due to a relatively liberal asylum policy, unique then among European countries. A tradition of free access to the country had long roots, linked as it was with the idea of free trade and based on the knowledge of the advantage of learning skills from foreigners. Work that one out Theresa.

Of course this isn’t to say that there had never been discrimination, distrust of and attacks on ‘foreigners’ – there had been and would be again.

But 19th century British government’s largely did not pass any legislation in order to regulate immigration, except under very particular circumstances, so that from 1826 to 1905, apart from a gap due to the revolutions of 1848-50, all migrants, either refugees or not, enjoyed complete free access to the United Kingdom.

British legislation on extradition also made England safer than other countries for political refugees. Indeed, British law did not authorise extradition for discussing political ideas or holding unorthodox opinions. (British policy toward immigration would change completely with the introduction of an Aliens Act in 1905.)

Substantial communities of migrants grew up in London, notable among them political refugees, fleeing from persecution, arrest, imprisonment and sometimes torture and execution in their home countries. Exiles from European countries formed the vast majority – Germans, Italians, French, Russians, Poles often forming the largest groups, and all shades of political opinion among them. Nationalists working against the large empires which then ruled much of Europe (or to unite countries then divided), republicans, liberals and later socialists, communists and anarchists… These colonies often settled in London, for many the first port of call, and having access to work, intellectual life, and usually having groups/communities of their compatriots already established…

The first significant groups of Italian refugees moved to London during the 1820s, as government repression followed the failure of the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1820-21. At this time, Italian refugees together with the Poles were the largest community of exiles in London.

Successive governments, from before Italian unification (when Italy was split into a number of rival states), and after it, put into practice repression in order to repress the activities of various political movements. As Italy became unified, focus shifted from the nationalists and republicans who had plotted unification for years, to the more radical social and political groupings…

By the 1830s, this community of Italian refugees became one of the most active and influential in Europe. Some of these Italians eventually integrated themselves into English life, and obtained important positions within society.

In January 1837, leading Italian nationalist republican, Giuseppe Mazzini, a central figure in 19th century Europe, arrived in London. For thirty years he played a crucial role in Italian refugee and migrant community during the first half of the nineteenth century. These activities were only briefly interrupted when Mazzini left for Italy in order to take his part in the revolutions of 1848, but he was forced to return to his refuge in London after the fall of the Roman Republic, of which he was president, in 1849. The number of political refugees who escaped to the United Kingdom from the European reaction reached probably its height in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolts.

From the 1870s, socialists and anarchists became the most marked out groupings for repression in Italy, the latter especially. This strategy of repression was based on several special measures taken by the different governments in power, both of the Right and of the Left, and carried out by the police and security forces. The most effective measures were preventive detention, which compelled some anarchists to spend many months in jail before trial, laws against the press, and finally, the most threatening among them, the domicilio coatto (forced domicile) and the ammonizione (admonishment). 

During these recurrent periods of severe repression, for the Italian anarchists “the only way to escape […] was to go underground or flee into exile”.

The countries where most anarchists found refuge were France, Switzerland and Belgium, but some of them emigrated to the United States while others established small communities in the Balkans, in the Levant and in South America.

Originally, the laws concerning forced domicile and admonishment were promulgated against common criminals, in particular to fight brigantaggio (banditry), but, after the Left gained power in 1876, they were directed especially against the anarchists. Indeed, the government did not grant the status of political activist to the Internationalists; instead, it regarded them as an ‘association of malefactors’.

Substantial numbers of Italian political exiles grew up in Holborn, Soho and Clerkenwell, the areas where the Italian community traditionally settled. The Italian colony in those years was generally very poor, although their poverty was alleviated by mutual aid due to the existence of a long standing and supportive community. The first Italian immigrants who moved to London for economic reasons, particularly during the period 1840 -1870, were mostly unskilled workers and their activities were mainly itinerant: most of them were organ-grinders, street peddlers, figure makers or ice-cream sellers. At the end of the century, catering became the main sector in which Italian people were employed, particularly in the Soho area. Tito Zanardelli, one of the first Italian anarchists who arrived in London, addressed his propaganda to these categories of workers in 1878.

A significant section of the anarchist community was itself active in the catering trades (a record of anarchists by trade in the late Victorian period lists 4 working as dishwashers, 14 waiters, and 5 cooks). Some of them opened their own restaurants.

The anarchists tried numerous times to organise the workers of the community. During the 1890s a large number of Italians were employed in the catering trade, especially as cooks and waiters who worked in the restaurants in Soho. At the turn of the century, with the expansion of catering services in London, the number of Italian cooks and waiters increased steadily. They lived mainly around Soho and Holborn. The employees in restaurants and hotels were unorganised; they often had to take work under any conditions and were subject to a harsh sweating system. “The German, Swiss, of Italian waiter usually did not receive any wages, but, on the contrary, he had to pay his employer a percentage of 6d. or more in the pound of his gross takings in tips.”

The catering sector became the one of the centres for organised Italian exile politics. However, unions often didn’t last long, and the campaigns were said alter to have “had few tangible results”. The hotel trades and catering were ‘so much fragmented in small units and so often temporary and seasonal’ represented a major obstacle. As with other ‘casual’ or seasonal work, the nature of the job made it hard to maintain consistent organisation (for instance, the tailoring and building trades also found it hard to keep networks alive). On top of this, much of the Italian anarchist migrant community was constantly caught between their lives in London and their orientation towards their homeland, and activists were liable to return to Italy when they could…

In July 1893, leading Italian anarchist exiles Malatesta, Gori, Merlino, and Agresti, referred to the establishment of a new workers’ association in opposition to the Circolo Mazzini-Garibaldi in a letter to the director of the newspaper Londra-Roma, Pietro Rava, and raised the issue of poor working conditions in the restaurants. In 1901, the Italian anarchists announced in their newspaper, L’Internazionale, the first meeting of the Lega di Resistenza fra i lavoratori in cucina in Londra. The meeting was to be held at the headquarters of the Circolo Filodrammatico, at 38-40 Hanway Street. This meeting took place on 20 January, according to the L’Internazionale; several orators spoke in front of a large audience, and a British worker urged the waiters to join the Amalgamated Waiters Society. The meeting ended with the endorsement of a resolution urging the waiters to fight for ‘l’abolizione delle mance e un adeguato salario’. This was “not intended to be another friendly society but focused on economic struggles: reducing working hours, for increasing wages, especially focusing on Italian bosses who “took advantage of the miserable conditions and adaptability of their exploits them.”

L’Internazionale dedicated many articles to the anarchists’ attempt to organise the waiters and dishwashers employed in the restaurants of the capital. The newspaper also published the correspondence of a waiter, Vincenzo Mayolio, who described the harshness of working conditions in restaurants.

I am not sure what happened to this union, but a few years later in 1905, an Italian anarchist, named Bergia, launched a campaign against employment agencies. These agencies were the main way Italian workers in the West End restaurant trade got work (not much has changed in many so-called casual trades, in 100 years, it seems). Bergia opened a rival ‘free employment agency’ based in his own restaurant in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and called a meeting on December 2nd 1905 for Italian cooks to discuss the formation and structure of a ‘Lega di resistenzia’. The restaurant’s address was also used for the correspondence of the secretary of the Caterers’ Employees Union. Indeed, in order to reach the catering workers, Bergia founded, with the English activist, M. Clark, the newspaper, the Revue. International Organ for the interests of all Employees in Hotels, Restaurants, Boarding-Houses, etc. The articles in the newspaper were written in English, German, and French. The campaign among the Italian waiters gave rise to some results. Inspector Frosali reported that, at a meeting organised at the German Club where the French anarchist, Gustave Lance, spoke about the trade union movement. Another Italian anarchist involved in the organisation of waiters was Giacinto Ferrarone, who, like Bergia, came from the north Italian town of Biella (and signed his articles in anarchist newspapers as Giacomino Giacomini). Ferrarone exercised some influence among Italians employed in hotels and restaurants, most of whom were from Piedmont too. For this reason, in April 1905, he was chosen as a speaker at meetings to campaign for the abolition of the employment agencies. Ferrarone later joined the socialists but continued his organisational work. He promoted the creation of sindacati di resistenza (trade unions) that, in his view, represented the workers’ real interests.

He was also the tenant of the headquarters of the Lega di Resistenza dei lavoratori della mensa, constituted as the Sezione Italian adella Caterer’s Employees Union, at 55 Frith Street, Soho. But his career as a labour organiser for the anarchists or socialists ended abruptly when he left London at the beginning of August 1907, after stealing the funds of the club, Nuovo Sempione, of which he was the secretary.

However agitation among the catering workers continued and in 1909, the mobilisation of workers in restaurants and hotels, led especially by the socialists, resulted in demonstrations against the ‘Truck system’, the system used by employers for sharing tips among their employees. Abolition of all Registry offices and Employment Agencies and a weekly day of rest were the main aims of the protest. In February 1909, the French group and the editors of the newspaper the Revue met at the International Club to maintain the campaign and plan a demonstration in April. The demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square on 18 April.

The anarchists’ involvement in the catering workers’ struggles drew worker into their orbit politically. In the wake of the repression of a popular uprising in Barcelona in 1909, the Spanish authorities executed libertarian educationalist Francisco Ferrer. This led to widespread protests across Europe. In the months following the rising in Barcelona and after Ferrer’s arrest many meetings and rallies were organised in London. They were all well attended. Many Italian waiters and scullery-boys were present.

This post owes pretty much everything to Pietro Di Paola ‘s excellent thesis

later published as The Knights Errant of Anarchy

Another (first-hand) account of organising West End restaurant workers in a slightly later period can be found here.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s media history: exiled German socialist/anarchist paper Freiheit begins publishing, 1879.

The German-language socialist (later anarchist) paper Freiheit (meaning Freedom) was first published from London, though mainly aimed at distribution in Germany, on 4th January 1879.

Here’s a good account of the paper’s early years and the context that gave birth to it, from ‘The Slow Burning Fuse, The Lost History of the British Anarchists’, by John Quail.

“There had been German political refugees in London since the events of 1848, one of the better known of them being Karl Marx. For the most part these refugees were men mostly ‘past middle age and already long-standing members of some English trade union or another, and their meetings were mainly social affairs where politics were discussed as part of a pleasant chat over a drink. There was, however, a steady influx of younger men with more activist tendencies. This influx was to turn into a flood as a result of the German Anti-Socialist Laws; yet the quickening of the German political atmosphere to which these Laws were something of a response had already affected the German exiles by 1877. One consequence was that at an informal gathering after the Cleveland Hall meeting Kitz describes how he was ‘urged by my comrade Johann Neve’ (of whom more later) ‘to form an English section of the Socialist party. I succeeded in getting together a number of comrades including those of the British Federation whom I have already referred to and thus was started an English Revolutionary Society, which, working with the foreign element was to take its part in the International Socialist movement ( … )’ This English Revolutionary Society was a part of the Social Democratic Club which met in pubs in Soho from its foundation in August 1877 until it found permanent premises in Rose Street ( now Manette Street ) in 1878. There were some five sections according to nationality with Frank Kitz as secretary of the English section. The move to club premises was important because now discussion and organisation could go ahead without the interference of landlords; and without the expense of hired rooms, says Kitz,’we were enabled to hold public meetings with greater frequency’.

When a wave of refugees arrived in London from Germany after the passage of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1878, the Rose Street club became a central point for defence and aid. The general publicity given to the Laws also attracted attention to the thing they were designed to repress. ‘Shortly after this influx of refugees,’ writes Kitz, ‘the sections jointly issued a pamphlet by J. Sketchley, entitled The Principles of Social Democracy thus taking advantage of the interest awakened ( … ) Many thousands of this pamphlet were sold, the German section bearing the major portion of the cost, in order to aid propaganda among our own working class. The English section undertook the reissue of two pamphlets on Communism by H. Glasse; they also published an address to the amnestied Communists of Paris and 50,000 copies of this leaflet were distributed’. (Sketchley, incidentally, was an old Chartist. ) In order to understand the reasons for and the consequences of the Anti-Socialist Laws it is necessary to explain in more detail what was happening in Germany in this period.

A German Anarchist movement had existed since the mid-1870s. Their propaganda was spread by wandering agitators and smuggled newspapers. It was a small movement, in isolation, yet it began to have some influence on the left wing of the Social Democratic Party. This influence grew because of the anomalous position of the party. It was rapidly increasing the number of seats it held in the Reichstag ( and displaying all the tendencies towards respectability which such positions seem to entail ). On the other hand, however, even a majority of seats held by the SDP in the Reichstag would have given it no real power. The Reichstag was able, under the constitution, only to advise the Kaiser and his Chancellor; and the latter were able to ignore this advice, constrained only by a wish to preserve the forms of government by consent. The extent to which the Anarchists began to have influence among the party’s left wing was the extent to which it began to see that even quite modest reforms might only be achievable by revolutionary means.

Yet there was no revolutionary turbulence among the German workers, as the general lack of response to revolutionary propaganda seemed to prove. At this time the Anarchists were developing ideas as to how such working-class passivity could be overcome. It was suggested that a new kind of propaganda was needed, a propaganda of deeds rather than words. Kropotkin, for example, writing at about this time, asked what separated ‘the argument from the deed, the thought from the will to act’. He answered his own question by saying : ‘It is the action of minorities, action continued, renewed without ceasing, which brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of self sacrifice are as contagious as cowardice, submission and panic.’

And he goes on to say that this action will be ‘sometimes collective, sometimes purely individual’ but that it would neglect no ‘means at hand …to awaken audacity and the spirit of revolt by preaching by example’. This preaching by example was later to be better known as ‘propaganda by deed’. The theory of propaganda by deed seemed to invite the most spectacular actions and in Germany it led to two attempts on the life of the Kaiser. In May 1878 Emil Hödel, and in June of the same year Carl Nobiling, shot at the Kaiser as he was driven through the streets in an open carriage. Both attempts failed. The failed assassins both had links with known German Anarchists and Hödel declared himself an Anarchist at his trial. He was beheaded. Nobiling died of self-inflicted wounds. No revolutionary upsurge accompanied these attempts, any such thing being pre-empted in any case by the frantic reaction of the German authorities. Bismarck, the German Chancellor, irritated by the growing electoral strength of the SDP, constitutionally circumscribed and severely legalistic though it was, seized upon the assassination attempts as an opportunity to smear the party. The result of his efforts was the Anti-Socialist Laws of October 1878.

After the second assassination attempt Berlin became an armed camp. All known socialists had their homes raided. Even before the passage of the Laws over 500 people had been arrested and sent to jail for ‘insulting the Kaiser’ or ‘approving’ of the attempts on his life. Some of the cases would have been laughable had it not been for the suffering involved : “A drunken man received two and a half years in prison for murmuring ‘William is dead, he lives no more.” A woman talking about the Emperor’s wounds was sentenced to a year and a half for saying “The Kaiser at least is not poor, he can afford to care for himself.” A worker, while sitting on a bench along Unter den Linden was heard to say that “Hödel is a dumb-bell but Nobiling planned his attempt well.” This slip of his tongue cost him four years of his freedom. The results of the repression were twofold. Firstly, as far as the left-wing socialists were concerned the mask of the democratic process was ripped away to reveal black reaction. Secondly, socialist agitation of any sort was made both doubly difficult and very much more dangerous. A wave of socialist refugees left Germany and many came to London. Frank Kitz described the situation : ‘Thousands were expatriated, hundreds of families broken up, hundreds imprisoned; seizures and confiscations were the order of the day. Of those torn from their families a number went insane and others were irretrievably ruined; a great number sought refuge in London and our club in Rose Street presented at times the appearance of an arrival or departure platform at a station with luggage and cases of prohibited literature and the bewildered emigrants going to and fro.’ The bitterness caused by the repression and the AntiSocialist Laws probably made more Anarchists than the German authorities had been able to silence by their measures. For some years London was to be the major centre for the production of German revolutionary and Anarchist propaganda and the organisation of its secret distribution.

Into the embittered society of the German exiles in London came Johann Most, later to be the central figure in a case which was to prove a rallying point for the new socialist movement. When he arrived in London, Most was a dissident left-wing Social Democrat who had been forced out of Germany. No theoretician, as a bitterly sarcastic and humorous speaker and journalist who was popular with working-class audiences, he had earned himself some notoriety and a string of jail sentences. He had been elected to the Reichstag, which he found frustrating, until another jail sentence for a speech on the Paris Commune put an end to his political career. On his release he edited a Berlin Social Democrat newspaper whose circulation he boosted from 2,000 to 18,000 in a year. Further activities in this direction were abruptly halted after Hödel’s attempt. Most spoke about it at a meeting and though his comments were not approving he was arrested and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment. When this term was up he was sentenced to a further five months, which he spent in solitary confinement. In December 1878 he was released and given twenty-four hours to leave Berlin. He went to Hamburg, where the local party leaders, their nerve completely shot, advised him to emigrate to America. Most did leave Germany but went instead to London, arriving just before Christmas 1878.

Most’s energy was unaffected by his prison sentences and expulsion. With the financial and practical help of members of the Rose Street club, the first issue of Freiheit, a paper designed for illegal distribution in Germany, was published on 4 January 1879. At first it described itself as a Social Democrat paper but from February 1879 onwards it steadily downgraded the importance of electoral activity; and in 1880 it began printing specifically Anarchist articles. At this time, too, fairly formal links were alleged to exist between Most and ‘the younger generation of Bakuninists in Paris, the group that publishes the Révolution Sociale’. Once the paper was established a number of successful networks were set up for smuggling the paper into Germany. Large numbers were sewn into mattresses in a factory in Hull and exported. Sailors carried quantities of it from England to Germany via Hamburg. Each issue of the paper was given a different title so that the authorities had to first find out its name before banning it. Naturally German police spies were sent to try and infiltrate the smuggling networks and the group round the paper. Kitz relates that on several occasions ‘we were puzzled by the fact that the German Government was aware of the new titles before the paper reached Germany, and thus forestalled us. Johann Neve and I set out to find the cause. Suspecting a member who had recently joined we supplied him with a specially printed copy of the paper bearing a title different from the one we actually intended to use. The bogus title was prohibited but the other escaped. I regret to say that this member met with a serious accident when attending a fête held in support of the Freiheit.’ The spy was shot and seriously wounded on Hampstead Heath.

The mixture of political ideas in Freiheit at this time represented fairly accurately Most’s own ideas, which took parts of left Social Democracy, Blanquism (i.e. putschist republicanism ) and Anarchism but which were marked by strident calls for revolutionary violence that grew out of a wild and bitter response to the repression in Germany. His itch for vengeance found an exemplary object in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by Russian nihilists in 1881. Freiheit published an article by Most entitled ‘Endlich’ ( ‘At Last’ ) which enthusiastically supported their action. The Russian government applied pressure – pressure from the German government can be assumed to be constant – and Most was prosecuted by the British authorities. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

His arrest and sentence caused something of a stir in London Radical and socialist circles. A short-lived English-language paper also entitled Freiheit was issued by the English section of the Rose Street club as the organ of a Defence Committee. Frank Kitz was the editor. The paper printed an English translation of Most’s article but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held, some successful as at Mile End Waste in April, some less so as at Peckham where ‘the Radicals combined with Tories; opposed the speakers and were only prevented by force from seizing the platform…’ The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech ( although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial asked that he be treated with some mercy since he might be suffering from violent wrong done to him in Germany.

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until further publication in London was stopped as a consequence of an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was raided and its plant seized. Johann Neve narrowly escaped arrest and two compositors were jailed for six and nine months. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States. In its short but eventful London career it had ‘produced a number of important incidental effects. Through dissensions within the German exiles a split had taken place, the orthodox Social Democrats removing to new premises in Tottenham Street. The progressively Anarchist supporters of Most remained at Rose Street until they formed a distinctively Anarchist club in St Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place, some time around 1883…”

Freiheit continued to be distributed clandestinely in Germany, but suffered a serious blow when police spy Theodore Reuss was able to trace Johann Neve in Belgium and have him handed over to the German police. “Neve was one of the most wanted men in Germany. A truly heroic figure, modest and careful, he had chosen a life of exile on the Belgian/German border organising the secret distribution of Anarchist literature, arms and explosives in Germany. His arrest was a major triumph for the German political police. Johann Neve died – or was murdered – in prison.”

Freiheit, however, carried on production in the US. With Most, at the helm, the paper was not shy about criticising fellow anarchists, and work published in Freiheit often fomented controversies in anarchist circles. Splits and rows with other groups were common. For instance, Most’s arguemnts with Joseph Peukert led to the founding of a rival journal, Der Rebell; and Most and Benjamin Tucker carried out a long-running spat through the pages of their respective journals.

A few years later, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became involved with the Freiheit group, but left, after arguing with Most. When Berkman, inspired by Most’s theory of the attentat, was imprisoned for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, Most criticised Berkman’s action. Incensed, Goldman publicly attacked Most with a horsewhip at one of his lectures.

The journal’s publication occasionally faltered when Most was imprisoned—at least once, for writings he published in Freiheit —but fellow anarchists kept the journal afloat during those times.

When its charismatic founder and editor died in 1905, Freiheit went into a decline, and ceased publication in 1910 after 28 years.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

 

Today in London’s radical history: Anarchist Tom Cantwell, publisher of Freedom, dies, 1906.

This post was totally nicked, tis hard this time of year, and Nick Heath basically wrote what needed to be said…

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“Cantwell was neither a great writer nor speaker, yet he did both well whenever he made the attempt. His specialty was spade work. He often comes to my mind when I listen to the excuses of those who think they cannot be useful without genius. The arranging of meetings, distribution of hand bills and the hundred and one things incident to the revolutionary movement, where hard knocks and privation prevail, without the compensating advantages of glory or notoriety were his speciality”. obituary of Tom Cantwell by Harry Kelly, Mother Earth, February 1907.

Tom Cantwell was born on the Pentonville Road in London on the 14th December 1864, the son of a map-mounter’s clerk. He worked first as a basket-maker and then as a compositor. It was while he was working as a basket-maker that he probably joined the Socialist League in 1886. It was there that he learned the basics of the compositor’s trade. He signed a notice of the North London branch and served on the committee to organise the Whit Monday outing. At this time he was living in Holloway. In February 1887 he served on the committee to prepare for the commemoration of the Paris Commune. He became a lecture secretary, served on the SL executive, and worked hard as a lecturer and propagandist. He had become an anarchist by at least 1887 which is indicated by a lecture he gave entitled “No Master”. That year he spoke with John Turner, Sam Mainwaring and H.B. Samuels at an anti-Jubilee meeting in Hyde Park. He played the part of the foreman of the jury in William Morris’s play The Tables Turned put on in the SL hall in 1887. He lectured at the Berner Street Club in the East End in 1888 on sweated basket-makers and was particularly critical of the Parcel Post department’s behaviour in its contracts for basket-making.

On the evening of May 1st 1891 he was a speaker on the Mile End Waste alongside David Nicoll, Yanovsky, Charles Mowbray and Arnold. The large crowds were mainly made up of dockers and other riverside workers. In attendance was a large force of police, both foot and mounted.

With the repression brought down on the movement by the Walsall affair in 1892 the Commonweal offices were raided. According to David Nicoll the Special Branch officers were told by Cantwell in jest that “We have been expecting you for some time, and do you think we should be fools as to keep anything here likely to get men into trouble”. This was contradicted by W. C. Hart in his highly sensational book Confessions of An Anarchist who says that a book – The Emancipator – which was an explosives manual being prepared by the provocateur Coulon had its type already made up. According to Hart Cantwell “ accidentally” dropped the formes of type during the raid. However this is contradicted by Inspector Melville, one of the police officers supervising the raid who was to construe Cantwell’s sarcastic comment as an admission of guilt but fails to mention the dropping of type formes.

Cantwell was one of the speakers who spoke at the protest meeting on Sunday April 24th at Hyde Park. A large crowd were amused by his imitation of the Scotland Yard inspectors Littlechild and Melville who had told him that they were anarchists.

He was one of those who restarted the Commonweal in May 1893 alongside John Turner, Carl Quinn, Ernest Young , Joseph Presburg and H.B. Samuels. On 5th December of the same year he wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police on behalf of the Commonweal Anarchist Group Publicity Committee giving notice of a meeting to be held in Trafalgar Square “for the purpose of obtaining a condemnation of your actions in suppressing Anarchist opinions and misrepresenting Anarchist principles”. He had received no intimation on the expected conduct of the police and wanted to know “if you adhere to the claptrap in which you indulged about a fortnight ago”. The letter was minuted as to be ignored and that no meeting would be allowed subject to a decision by the Secretary of State. Cantwell was described as a militant Anarchist who had been connected with The Commonweal for some time. In 1893 Cantwell produced the last issues of the original series of The Commonweal as well as the new series during 1893-4 – with only the six month break when he was imprisoned. He started printing it from 27th May 1893 at 4 Sidmouth Mews. On 29th June he and Ernest Young were arrested for flyposting a poster about the wedding of the Duke of York. The poster advertised an indignation meeting to be held in Hyde Park on 2nd July to protest against the “waste of wealth” expended on “these Royal Vermin”. Apparently Cantwell was behind the idea of the poster and of meetings around the theme. The case was finally dismissed, both Cantwell and Young remaining in prison until the trial, though the owner of the hoarding fined them both.

In 1894 Cantwell published an edition of Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State with a postscript from Max Nettlau.

On 29th June 1894 he and Carl Quinn addressed a meeting at the new Tower Bridge which was to be opened the following day by members of the royal family and politicians. They wanted to appeal to the workers who had built it and Cantwell had printed a placard which read : “Fellow workers, you have expended life, energy and skill in building this bridge. Now comes the royal vermin and rascally officials in pomp and splendour to claim the credit. You are taken to the workhouse and a pauper’s grave to glorify these lazy swine who live upon our labour”. The reaction to the two anarchists speech was violent. There were many professional anti-socialist hecklers around this speaking pitch, many of them retired soldiers. A mob of 400-500 attacked the anarchists, surrounding Cantwell and shouting “lynch him”, whilst others attempted to strike him with large pieces of wood. For this the police arrested Cantwell for disorderly conduct! As John Quail says “ being pursued by people who were trying to hit him with large pieces of wood obviously amounted to disorderly conduct”.

Quinn managed to escape but was arrested the following day when he went to the police station “to see fair play for Cantwell”. They were kept in prison for a month during various court appearances. Their subsequent trial was something of a travesty. The meeting had been like many previous ones, with no charges brought by the police but this time the charges were incitement to murder members of the royal family, seditious libel on the royal family, and two other incitements to terrorism, all rather flimsy. The judge showed much bias towards the defence. The police were doing what they could to get Cantwell and Quinn sent down, part of the ongoing State campaign against anarchism that had began with the attacks on free speech in Manchester in 1893. Despite many defence witnesses – including William Morris who declared as a character witness that Cantwell was “a good-natured man, perhaps rather rash” – the two anarchists received six months imprisonment with hard labour.

In the period after his release he was also involved in the publication of the anarchist paper The Torch which was set up by the well brought up young ladies Olivia and Helen Rossetti and their brother William. However Cantwell’s habits and character became sources of irritation for the rest of the group. The Rossetti sisters in their fictionalised account of the London anarchist movement of the time, A Girl Among the Anarchists, were to write in a derogatory fashion about Cantwell (disguised as Short in the novel). Geoffrey Byrne, another member of the group was to state that the Rossettis were driven away from the movement because of Cantwell’s behaviour, although there may well have been other reasons for their departure.

In spring 1895 Cantwell was invited by Alfred Marsh to join the Freedom Group, together with John Turner and Joseph Presburg to “reinforce” the ranks and to relieve William Wess who was seeking other employment. With occasional interruptions, when other people were available, Cantwell was in charge of the Freedom printing office from 1895-1902. Harry Kelly, an American anarchist who had moved to England, wrote that “Cantwell and I were the only simon-pure workingmen in the group”. However Cantwell had become difficult. It may be speculated that his imprisonment had affected both his physical and mental health. Harry Kelly was to remark that “he had never quite recovered from the six months hard labour”. He threatened the Italian anarchists Pietro Gori and Edoardo Milano with a gun and appears to have tried to dictate editorial policy to Marsh.

In April 1895 the printing of Freedom was re-started at Judd Street in Kings Cross, in a small building described as a “glass house”.

In April 1896 Cantwell moved with all the print type to 127 Ossulston Street in Somerstown. The printshop there was known as the Cosmopolitan Printery until 1902. In the next year all other anarchist papers closed down. From September 1898 A Belgian, F. Henneghien was able to replace Cantwell and this was a relief to many as he tended to fall out with comrades on a regular basis and was seen as very unreliable rarely producing anything on time. As regards Freedom George Cores noted that Cantwell “ had, as acting editor, a peculiar habit of censoring all contributions, making everything which appeared conform to the gospel according to Cantwell. This did not suit the comrades”. Marsh himself was to write in 1897 to Nettlau that “you cannot imagine what a time I had. 2½ years with Cantwell is enough to kill anyone” (Cantwell had left Freedom in November, at least temporarily). He was again responsible for the printing of Freedom after Henneghien left in 1900.

Cantwell had a heart complaint from at least 1894 and he was soon to have a stroke.

Cherkesov found him on Christmas Day 1902 with his head lying in the “ashes of the fireplace all but dead. He recovered and lived several years after but was never able to work and was never again the same man”. Apparently he had continuing heart trouble after the stroke. Freedom published an appeal for him in 1903 saying that he was “overtaken by a long and trying illness”. He died on December 29th 1906. He was buried at Edmonton Cemetery on 3rd January 1907, his funeral being attended by William Wess, Tom Keell, and Frank Kitz, among others.

Max Nettlau in a tribute to him wrote of his unfailing attendance of meetings, his regular publication of Commonweal after 1892 despite great difficulties and his night activities when he flyposted on prohibited hoardings.

Despite his many faults Cantwell had a long record of activism and remained loyal to his ideas until the end, unlike, say, Olivia Rossetti who ended as a sympathiser of Italian fascism and devout Catholic. He was still able to win the affection of an anonymous member of the Freedom Group who wrote :“We shall all miss poor T.C., in spite of his many crochets”, and Harry Kelly was to remember his old comrade with the final comment: “Farewell, Tom Cantwell! It was worth while meeting you”.

Nick Heath.

Sources:

Becker, Heiner. Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press 1896-1986. Raven 1. Freedom Press.

Becker, Heiner and Walter, Nicolas. Freedom : people and places in Freedom : A hundred years 1886-1986. Freedom Press

Cores, George. Personal recollections of the anarchist past. Kate Sharpley Library.

Meredith, Isabel (Helen and Olivia Rossetti) A girl among the anarchists. University of Nebraska Press.

Oliver, Hermia. The international anarchist movement in late Victorian London. Croom Helm.

Quail, John. The Slow Burning Fuse. Paladin.

Avakumovic, I , Saville J. BiEntry on Cantwell in Dictionary of Labour Biography Vol. 3

Old Bailey Proceedings, 23rd July 1894.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Yesterday in London rebel history: US embassy machine-gunned by 1st of May Group, 1967.

[Yes this post is Late. Busy, y’know.]

The First of May Group/International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement was an ‘armed struggle’ anarchist direct action group, which carried out bomb and gun attacks, attempted kidnappings and more in the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s (though sporadic activities continued after this point).

The various loosely allied groups and individuals that made up First of May/IRSM had grown out of/been influenced by the armed resistance to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain, which had come to power at the end of the Spanish civil war, defeating both a leftwing republican government and an attempted social revolution influenced by anarchist and syndicalist ideas.

The vicious and murderous repression Franco’s regime unleashed from the beginning of the civil war in 1936 up until his death in 1975 was resisted throughout… After the military defeat of the Spanish ‘republican’ side in 1939, a struggle was carried out by guerillas, often based in the communities of thousands of exiled anarchist, communists and socialist forced to flee abroad. Anarchist guerillas, civil war veterans, crossing the Pyrenees from France, carried out clandestine attacks on state targets. Although it continued for decades, by the early 60s many guerillas had been killed, captured, executed (often by ‘garrotting’), tortured and jailed. Dedicated as they were, this struggle became one of isolation despair in many ways, as more collective resistance was crushed and cowed. The exiled Spanish Libertarian movement became divided and its support for the guerillas became sparse.

In the 60s, however, a new generation of activists, some Spanish, but others from other western European countries would take up armed struggle, inspired by the guerilla war against Franco. A new crop of armed groups emerged from both the mass radical movements of the 60s, but also grew from the disillusion with and apparent defeat of some of these wider struggles. Frustration with the seeming inability of mass protest to halt the Vietnam War, overthrow rightwing regimes or produce the urgent social change many desperately wanted both in developed and developing countries, and the harsh and deadly violence meted out by capitalist regimes against protest in Latin America, the US, and to a lesser degree Europe – groups of young activists and rebels felt clandestine armed action was the only effective way forward, or (some thought) could inspire mass action… Groups influenced by Maoism, by anarchism, nationalism, black power, in some cases a combination of some of these or other ideologies, some linked to each other, most targetting what they saw as legitimate targets of state repression, capitalist profitmongering, individual representatives of the oppressors…

The first known action of the First of May Group seems to have been a Mayday 1966 special, the kidnapping of a diplomat from the Spanish embassy in the Vatican. In 1967 their spokesman Octavio Alberola announced the failure of ‘Operation Durruti’, a plan to kidnap the US Commander of Chief in Spain…

The First of May Group were active in various countries; in Britain their first action was the drive-by machine-gunning of the US embassy in Grosvenor Square on August 20th 1967, accompanied by a communiqué:

“Stop criminal murders of the American Army. Solidarity with all people battling against Yankee fascism all over the world. Racism no. Freedom for American Negroes. Revolutionary Solidarity Movement.”

The IRSM went on a European tour in 1968; here their spree included attacks on the Spanish Embassy in Belgrave Square and the American officers’ Club at Lancaster Gate.

In March 1969, two anarchists, Alan Barlow and Phil Carver were arrested after the London Bank of Bilbao was bombed; a communiqué found in their possession claimed this as an ‘International First of May Group’ action:

“Sirs, the imprisonments, deportations, and murders suffered by the people of Spain since their subjection in the Civil War, the garrotted, and those who dies by the hand of Francisco Franco oblige us to respond. The blood of our brothers is as precious to us as all the money and the property belonging to Spanish capitalists and their Wall Street colleagues. Let them hear this week another noise other than the clink of bloodied silver. Cease the repression. If not expect more widespread reprisals. The International First of May Group.”

THE INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT: A study of the origins and development of the revolutionary anarchist movement in Europe 1945-’73 (ed by Albert Meltzer) is worth reading. It can be bought here

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Just Some thoughts… Not really intended as bigshot analysis. It’s a blog, Ok?

Violence is often necessary when fighting violence. Some people reading will disagree. For people in any number of dark and difficult situations collective resistance that breaks the bounds is necessary. I guess I would however question the fetishising of radical violence, even while celebrating many actions on this blog and elsewhere. To some extent I see a gulf between armed struggle as an all-consuming self-referential process, and collective acts as part of a wider social struggle. But it depends where you’re standing… Some disjointed thoughts follow.

The hugely unequal struggle between the violence of the organized modern capitalist state and the violence of leftists, anarchists and similar groups engaged in armed struggle pretty much resulted in most places as a disinterested observer might expect. A situation complicated by the widespread infiltration of state assets, informers, police spies into many armed groups, a process which led to both suspicion, divisions, internal feuds and to indiscriminate acts of terror which undermined what support armed actions did enjoy. This is reasonably well-documented in the case of Northern Ireland, the Italian Red Brigades… Intelligent directed operatives helped to foster the growth of armed struggle, which played a part in undermining and dividing the larger social movements these groups emerged from. But police/secret state penetration was not the only factor – many of the ideological bases of such groups offered a justification for seeing armed struggle as the only method of changing the world. The idea of a small vanguard leading the masses to enlightenment; that all the people of a powerful state are supporters of that state’s actions… it’s a short step to seeing yourselves as the only real ones fighting the Man. And from there to instituting your own repression against those not involved in your particular brand of radical armed revolution. To be continued when you seize power and need to keep the prisons open for the rebels who won’t obey.

To some extents, many groups attempted to substitute armed actions for what they saw as the inability of larger ‘peaceful’ mass movements to get results, but this also quickly became a game of Who’s More Radical: We’re the Real Revolutionaries and you Liberals are Just Playing or Afraid.

Although to some extent anarchist ideology refuses to abide by the concept of a vanguard who can act on behalf of the oppressed, in practice it’s often replaced by a sense of yourself as a super-radical, freer than the mentally enslaved masses who get up and go to work and thus prop up capitalist oppression. A cursory knowledge of the First of May Group/IRSM suggests a much more complex set of motivations, the fact that the oppression in Spain for example was somewhat more serious than a bit of Home Counties angst. None of the above discussion is intended to dismiss their actions, just to qualify what could otherwise just read like ra-ra cheerleading.

We’re not setting ourselves up as an authority, we just have a keyboard: there are as many ways of changing social relations as there are individuals and groups out there working out how to do it. Despite decades of thinking, arguing, doing actions, organizing this and that, I personally find my self scratching my head still about all of the above. A truly cataclysmic change in how the world is run economically socially and politically etc is needed, I still think, and that’s not solely going to happen by peaceful or legal means. If you can’t blow up a social relationship you can’t also gently expropriate the property of the rich, the corporations etc. If any use of ‘violence’ is problematic; it has to be said, the elitism of ‘armed struggle’ needs questioning.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Yiddish anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint founded, Whitechapel, 1885.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s. Oerwhelmib=ngly the majority of the jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

The famous Arbeter Fraint yiddish newspaper had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, the first socialist paper in Yiddish in London, which was based in Spitalfields. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel was founded by Morris Winchevsky, as a socialist paper, written in yiddish, the everyday language of the migrants. It had a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

16 issues appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of greeners, problems with bosses and landlords…

The precarious nature of the tailoring trade made it tough working: workers endured trade fluctuations, leading to busy times and slack times. In the busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, worked very long hours; in slack times, there was no work, great poverty and hunger. 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets.

The Poilishe Yidel encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English, and continually advised the formation of unions.

The ‘Yidel’, though, suffered a split in October 1884, and Winchevsky founded the Arbeter Fraint (Workers Friend), which was to outshine its predecessor.

Initially started as a non-partisan socialist paper in Yiddish, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”, the Arbeter Fraint always held a global view of socialism, advocating revolution; but Winchevsky remained committed to the Jewish poor. It was stern in its attacks on religion, constantly denigrating the ancient faith, and parodying religious texts. It also rejected jewish nationalism.

Philip Kranz was appointed its first editor, (until 1889 when as a social democrat he broke with the anarchists and left for New York); gathering a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, obsessed with debunking religion, who wrote anti-religious satires for the paper.

For a while, Kranz, Isaac Stone and other writers in the Arbeter Fraint attacked trade unions, opining (in common with many other socialists of the time) that there could be no real improvements under capitalism, and trade unionism was just soft soap, . Revolution was the only solution and it was imminent… Fairly soon, however, the local realities in the sweating trades forced them to concede the necessity of the Jewish workers getting organised… From 1886 the paper helped in the drive toward unionisation.

Arbeter Fraint went from a monthly to a weekly in June 1886, and came under the control of the Berner Street club (the International Workingman’s Educational Club) off Whitechapel’s Commercial Road, where it was based till the club closed in 1892. Amidst disputes between social democrats and anarchists, the paper moved towards anarchism. Occasionally irregular, with a circulation ranging between 2000 and 4000, the paper grew to have a huge influence in the East End, asdn wider afield, as copies were mailed out to yiddish-speaking jews in Britain, the US and beyond.

The anglo-jewish establishment regularly attacked the paper, denouncing it in print, accusing the writers of not being reals jews, and attempting to bribe the printer and compositors to sabotage it, (supporters collected cash to buy their own press). Partly the better-off and longer established jewish hierarchy feared being identified (by the British upper and middle classes they were so keen to join) with the poor jews of the East End; on class grounds the jewish establishment took a dim view of the radicals they saw as stirring up trouble. For its part, Arbeter Fraint took pot shots at respectable anglicised jewry, in particular attacking the Chief Rabbi, mainly for his refusal to intervene in the issue of the poverty of East End jews and the exploitation (‘sweating’) of poor Jewish tailors by rich Jewish employers.

Gradually the Arbeter Fraint group hardened into a more anarchist position, recruiting several libertarian writers and poets,

They were heavily involved in the agitation among East End jewish tailors that lead to a huge tailors strike in 1889… 6000 tailors struck for a broad range of demands – reductions in working hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours… 120 workshops were idle. The strike was won after much agitation, but the masters started to break agreements immediately, and the organisation that had grown up .

After the demise of the Berner Street club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings in the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included such anarchist luminaries as Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

Increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who bcame an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

According to Rudolf Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, mostly tailors: “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”
The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

Under Rocker’s leadership, Arbeter Fraint and the group around it were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes including a 3 week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered… The effects of this were not totally reversed till the seminal 1912 tailors Strike; when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a strike of West End (mainly non-Jewish) tailors, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel, which brought out 13,000 Jewish tailors. Demands for a 9 hr working day, day work not piece work, higher wages, unionised closed shops, an end to bad conditions at work, were in the end won by the superhuman energy of Rocker and many others, working day and night for the strike, which saw Arbeter Fraint come out as a daily strike sheet. Other Jewish unions supported the strike fully. Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions…

Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group also worked hard to unite Jewish workers and east End dockers (traditionally very anti-immigrant as a rule). The AF group encouraged Jewish working class support for the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers’ children into their homes during great poverty among the dockers in 1912… Links were made in these years that lasted decades, bearing fruit into the 1930s, the struggle against fascism, and to the Battle of Cable Street…

However the East End Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with the onset of World War 1. Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ throughout the war, as were a number of others. The Arbeter Fraint, from the start opposing the war, was suppressed by the British government. Heavy repression fell on jewish and other workers who opposed the war. And many Jews and other exiles returned to Russia with the 1917 revolution. Of those that remained, many anarchos and syndicalists joined the new Communist Party, enthused by the seeming success of the Soviet regime; others left the movement, emigrated to the USA, or moved to other parts of London. To some extent also, Rocker’s charismatic influence had become all-important to the maintenance of the Arbeter Fraint, and the wider movement, and without him it fell apart.

Much more on the brilliant and inspiring story of the Arbeter Fraint can be read in:

Rudolf Rocker, The London Years.

and

William Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Police raid Fitzrovia house looking for ‘French anarchist bombers’, 1892.

As we have already noted on this blog, late 19th century London was home to large numbers of exiled socialists, radicals, and anarchists.

In the early 1890s, French anarchists, very much inflamed against social injustice and repression, became obsessed with the idea of revenge and individual acts of terror against representatives of the bourgeois society that they hated.

Heavy repression against workers organising to improve conditions in 1891, including police shootins on demonstrations, resulting in nine deaths, and arrests, beatings and jailings of anarchists, sparked a campaign of bombings against members of the judiciary by the anarchist Ravachol. Ravachol’s arrest in turn led to further bomb attacks by other French anarchists.

Several of those involved were suspected of having fled to or have been based in London. Two French anarchist exiles, Theodule Meunier and Jean-Pierre Francois, were wanted for alleged involvement for a bomb attack on the Café Very, in revenge for the part a waiter there had played in informing against Ravachol.

A cabinet maker by trade, Meunier had joined the French anarchist movement during the early 1890s. It was said of Meunier that he was “…the most remarkable type of revolutionary illuminist, an ascetic and a visionary, as passionate for the search for the ideal society as Saint-Just, and as merciless as seeking his way towards it.”

On June 27th 1892, Inspector Melville of (Special Branch) and 30 officers raided the houses of Delbacque, a French exile who lived in 30 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, an area teeming with French political refugees and their projects. They smashed open doors and wrecked the place, but failed to find either Francois or Meunier. Further raids in July also netted no bombers… There were rumoured appearances by Francois (to the adulation of the faction that enthusiastically supported ‘propaganda by the deed’) at the anarchist Autonomie Club, though it was was supposed to be awash with police informers. This may or may not have resulted in the tip-off that led Melville to be seeking Francois in Poplar, where he was living in the name of Johnson. Unluckily he came across him in the street in October (it took Melville and four cops to arrest him; his wife grabbed for a gun when their lodging was raided in turn).

In fact there was little concrete evidence against Francois, although he was extradited to France.

Meunier was not nicked until 1894, when Melville grabbed him in Victoria Station. He was also extradited and sentenced to 25 years penal servitude. He died in penal colony in Cayenne in 1907, stating “I only did what I had to do. If I could start over again, I would do the same thing.”

I am not sure what happened to Francois…

Interestingly, in order to extradite Meunier to France, the British courts re-defined the idea of a political crime. To a certain extent Britain tolerated ‘political’ refugees, nationalists, socialists, so long as they fitted into certain ‘acceptable’ parameters – only operating against their own government, fighting for democratic reforms, only organizing military conflict against soldiers- broadly aiming to replace one group in power with another. Political refugees fitting in with this could often expect a reasonable hearing in the liberal British courts, and requests for extradition from abroad might well be refused.

Many anarchists however refused to abide by the ‘rules’ that liberal governments were prepared to accept: they considered all authority as an enemy, aimed at the abolition of all governments; also, increasingly in the 1880s and 90s, some active in those sections of anarchism which believe ‘propaganda by the deed’ would inspire the overthrow of hierarchical society, felt that targeting politicians for assassination was OK, and even bourgeois civilians generally were the source of oppression of the working class, so they were also fair game.

Governments could all get behind the idea that this was just not cricket. The extradition court in Meunier’s case saw the idea of a political offence re-drawn to except anarchists, who be rejecting politics, refusing to aim at the replacement of one form of domination by another, thus excluded themselves from being ruled political. And could thus be extradited without anyone’s sense of their own liberal fairness being bruised. QED.

Special Branch’s Inspector Melville was to become a leading thorn in the side of the anarchist scene in late 19th/early 20th century London. Apart from rounding up exiles where he could, he built a formidable spying apparatus which not only collected information on anarchists of various nationalities, but also sponsored fake bomb plots to get as much publicity and put away as many comrades as he could. The notorious Walsall anarchist bomb plot was thought up in his fertile mind. He later rose to head Special Branch, and then became the secret chief of what later became MI5.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Anarchist Malatesta jailed for ‘libelling’ police spy Belleli, 1912

As mentioned on before on this blog, late-19th and early 20th century London was home to a bustling community of exiles from various European countries, a fair proportion of who were radical activists of one stripe or another, driven from their homes for their political involvement. For many socialists and anarchists living in London, however, fleeing this repression to what was on the face of it a more liberal and tolerant regime in Britain didn’t necessarily mean they escaped surveillance by the police back home.

The active involvement of the exiles in supporting radical and revolutionary struggles from London inevitably meant that the secret services, the political police, of several major European powers had an interest in knowing what was going on in London’s radical circles, and in disrupting and dividing it if possible. Most of the socialist and anarchist groups, clubs, and meeting places were heavily infiltrated by spies of all nationalities. British Special Branch also got in on the act. Since many of the activists were expecting police infiltration, and some of the spying was less than competent, suspicion, paranoia and general distrust quickly became second nature among the exiled left scenes. This is in itself, is of course almost as good as spying on people, to make them think that everyone they know is a spy, especially if they aren’t. Anarchists were particularly targeted by the secret services, especially after some elements of anarchism took a shine to bombings and assassination in the 1880s-90s. The attraction of anarchism to loud-mouthed bombastic nutters, very hard to distinguish from agent-provocateurs, lent itself nicely to a climate of denunciations, accusations and back-stabbing. Which does the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. (See our entry for May 9th.)

In 1912, in a leaflet distributed to the Italian anarchist community in London, longtime Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta accused Enrico Belelli of being an informer of the Italian government, and challenged him to openly disclose the nature of his means of maintenance.

In April 1912, the Italian anarchists in London published a single issue to protest against Italy’s invasion of Libya: La Guerra Tripolina. Malatesta wrote the editorial for the one-off publication. Shortly after the appearance of this single issue, Enrico Ennio Belelli, a member of the anarchist colony, spread rumours that Malatesta was a Turkish spy. In reply, Malatesta issued a leaflet entitled Alla Colonia italiana di Londra (Per un fatto personale) and circulated it in the Italian colony. In that leaflet, Malatesta explained the reasons why he had ended all relations with Belelli, namely Belelli’s support of the Italian military invasion.

Malatesta challenged Belelli to attend a public meeting to explain where his funds came from and prove that he was not an agent of the Italian police. The publication of this leaflet represented the starting point of one of the most dangerous event that threatened Malatesta’s safety during the years of his long exile in London.

Initially Belelli issued a rebuttal to be printed by Giuseppe Pesci, who provided Malatesta with a copy of it. However, Belelli decided to withdraw the publication and not to distribute the leaflet in which he explicitly accused Malatesta to have taken part in the Houndsditch robbery. Instead, Belelli took proceedings against Malatesta for criminal libel. According to La Gogna, the single issue that exposed Belelli as a spy, Belelli reached that decision after consultation with Inspector Francis Powell of Scotland Yard.

Malatesta’s trial took place on 20 of May 1912 at the Old Bailey, in front of the Common Serjeant. Belelli’s interpreter was Enrico Bojada, the former informer of Inspector Prina. Belelli declared he was a bookseller and to have repudiated anarchist ideas a long time before the trial:

“…I am an Italian and have been trading in England about 10 years. Have known prisoner about 30 years, and have seen him many times since I have been in England… I was a personal friend of prisoner up to about six months ago, when the Italian-Turkish War started. I have sold a lot of books, some very ancient ones. I do not keep books of accounts as I pay in cash. I have no invoices or documents to show that I have sold any books, but I have sold many to various ladies and gentlemen. I make a profit of L250 to L300 a year. I have not banking account. I have not plate on my door showing I am a bookseller. I have two rooms and a Kitchen at my flat, and live there with my wife and six children, and carry on my business from there. I sell my books outside. I keep all my books in my flat. I have at present 700 or 800 francs worth. I may not have a large numbers of books as perhaps only one is a very valuable book…I did profess anarchy at one time, but after I saw that anarchist ideas were not fit for myself or others I gave up anarchy. That is … more than eight years ago, and I very seldom went to any other meetings. I did go to the International Anarchist Congress at Amsterdam in 1907 with prisoner’s brother, who is not an Anarchist, but only as a matter of curiosity… I have never been an Italian police spy, and have never received any money from the Minister of the Interior in Italy. I never sent money to the Anarchist Congress, and have only bought their newspapers; 15s. or 20s. is all I have ever paid towards anarchism in my life… I have never asserted that the defendant had sold himself to the Turkish Government as a Turkish spy. I did not write an article in reply to the challenge of defendant, and never gave such a thing to anyone to print for me… It may be that defendant and I have fallen out in consequence of the war, but my wife broke the friendship off at the time of the Houndsditch affair because the police were calling at my house asking me if I knew persons who participated in the murders… I take defendant’s circular to be an act of vengeance because I put him out of my house…six months ago because he said that whoever killed an Italian was his friend, and my wife would have given him some kicks if he had not gone…

Malatesta confirmed to have been close to Belelli; in fact, Malatesta used to visit him to give arithmetic lessons to his children. Malatesta added that Belelli posed as a bookseller, that in the previous five or six years he never saw him supply books and that Belelli owned only a few books for private use. In the cross-examination, Malatesta stated:

“When I published the circular I said that many people might think Bellili [sic] was an Italian police spy. When I say that he is not doing an honest trade as bookseller I mean to imply that he is getting his money as an Italian police spy. When I say he is a liar, I mean it. When I said I could show how I get every 6d. of my income I meant I was getting my living honestly. I challenged Bellili [sic] to do the same. I have been sentenced in Italy, but always for political offences – never to 30 years’ imprisonment or anything of the kind. I did not go to Bellili’s [sic] house on purpose to say that I disagreed with the Italian over the war. I did not say I was against all the Italians – I am an Italian myself. Bellili [sic] said at the Italian Colony that I wished all the Italian would get killed – or something of the kind – to influence the Italian Colony; but he has failed. Mrs. Bellili [sic] told me that she had a brother, who was a lieutenant in the Italian Army. I used no violent language, but Bellili [sic] was not ashamed to put his wife in the question. I do not like to quarrel with ladies. I did not say that everybody who murdered an Italian was a friend of mine, or that they should be crucified. I was a frequent visitor at Bellili’s [sic] house until his wife insulted me and then I went away. Afterwards I met Bellili [sic] at a shop kept by a friend of mine. I have seen Bellili [sic] on several occasions, but have had no conversation with him. It was in April I issued the circular and had it printed. It was printed in Paris. I had about 500 copies distributed.

Giuseppe Pesci, Giulio Rossi, Alfonso Spizzuoco, Pietro Gualducci, Romeo Tombolesi, Giorgio Antibando, and Enrico Defendi stood as witnesses in Malatesta’s favour, confuting Belelli’s statements. The Common Serjeant refused to accept as evidence a copy of Belelli’s reply to Malatesta. Pesci, nicknamed Bologna, the printer of many anarchist publications in London, stated that he had printed three proofs of the reply to Malatesta that Belelli had handed to him. Spizzuoco and Antibando testified to have been told by Belelli that Malatesta was a spy of the Turkish government. Defendi, Gualducci, Tombolesi, and Rossi denied that Belelli was a bookseller. All of them admitted to have been Belelli’s friends. Ludovico Brida and Giovanni Moroni, to whom Belelli declared to have sold books for a large amount of money, rectified the figure of the purchase to the value of few shillings. The Russian anarchist Chaikovsky testified in Malatesta’s favour as well.

The jury held Malatesta’s allegation against Belelli not substantiated by the evidence available. Therefore, they found Malatesta guilty of criminal libel.

In a contentious decision, the Common Serjeant allowed Inspector Powell of the Special Branch to give evidence after the delivery of the verdict.

“…Prisoner has been known to the police as an Anarchist of a very dangerous type for a great number of years. He has been imprisoned in his own country and has been expelled from France. He has visited Egypt, Spain, France, Portugal, and, I believe, America, in the interests of Anarchy, and wherever he went there was a great deal of trouble. He is known as the leader of militant Anarchists in this country – in fact, in the world. Many of his formers colleagues have passed through this court and had penal servitude for coining. Gardstein, one of the Houndsditch …had been using prisoner’s workshop, or working with him for 12 months. A tube of oxygen that was used on that occasion was traced to prisoner, who stated that he had sold it to Gardstein. That is all that was known. He has never been in the hands of the police in this country, but on one occasion was fined for assaulting a school teacher who chastised his son at school… I do not know much in his favour…”

Clearly opinion in the courtroom was swayed by Powell’s description of Malatesta as ‘an anarchist of a very dangerous type’, who had links with forgers and the police murderers of Houndsditch: his pronouncements also prejudiced the sentence issued to Malatesta by the Common Serjeant.

Three months’ imprisonment; recommended for expulsion under the Aliens Act; ordered to pay costs of prosecutions.

The Common Serjeant’s decision of considering Malatesta as an undesirable alien and to recommend him for expulsion at the expiration of his sentence aroused broad indignation. Articles against the punishment appeared in several newspapers: the Manchester Guardian, The Nation, the Daily Herald, the Star, the Daily News, and the Leader, as well as in Conservative newspapers. Malatesta’s sentence was seen as an attack against the tradition of political asylum, an attempt ‘to repudiate a principle to which all Liberals and most Conservatives are sincerely devoted’.

“An even greater scandal has arisen by the appearance in the court of a detective from the Political Department of Scotland Yard. This man was allowed to enter the witness box after the jury had given their verdict and make an attack upon Malatesta…Malatesta is the victim of the despicable international secret police who wish to destroy the RIGHT OF ASYLUM for political refugees which has hitherto been the glory of Britain. Their victory would be our dishonour. If this plot to deliver Malatesta into the hands of the Italian Government were successful, it would also strenghten [sic] the hands of the enemies of freedom in this country.”

Prince Kropotkin defended Malatesta in a long letter published in The Nation. Kropotkin argued that Malatesta’s case had to be considered in its political aspect. The challenge, an appeal to the judgement of comrades, as the one addressed by Malatesta to Belelli, was a defence against the system of agents-provocateurs that had ‘lately taken an immense development’. Malatesta’s condemnation for libel was dangerous because it rendered impossible any appeal to a jury of honour.

A Malatesta Release Committee was immediately established to launch a protest campaign against the sentence and to stop the deportation order. Initially, the secretary and treasurer was Jack Tanner, but was quickly replaced by Guy Aldred. The official address of the committee was Recchioni’s shop, in 37 Old Compton Street.

In the following weeks the Committee distributed 120,000 leaflets and 100,000 postcards to be sent to the Home Secretary. Rallies were held in Finsbury Park, Peckham Rye, and Regent’s Park ‘for arousing public interest in the dark and low–down tricks of continental political police agents’. A massive meeting was held on the 9 June, the day before the hearing of Malatesta’s appeal. According to The Anarchist at least 15,000 people joined the demonstration. Four processions with bands and banners convened on Trafalgar Square from Highbury, Mile End, Hammersmith and Harlesden. A large number of trade unions and labour organisations participated: dockers, tailors, gas workers, railwaymen, shop assistants, iron and tin-plate workers, etc. Banners of the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party mixed with those of the anarchist groups. Many speeches were given from three platforms, among others by the secretary of the London Trades Council, James MacDonald, the editor of The Syndicalist, Guy Bowman, the Italo-Scottish anarchist James Tochatti, Guy Aldred, Mrs. Tom Mann, and Mrs. Agnes Henry.

The mobilisation demonstrated the deep esteem that Malatesta enjoyed, especially among the people of Islington, the area where he lived. Thousands signed the petition in Malatesta’s favour:

“Islington knows little and cares less about Malatesta’s “philosophical anarchism”. It only knows him as one who will give his last copper to the man who needs it, and who for more than twenty years has worked there, teaching useful trade to boys who would have drifted into hooliganism.”

Rudolf Rocker’s son, Fermin, retained a vivid memory of Malatesta in those years:

“Malatesta was one of the heroes of the movement, a veteran of many struggles on two continents, and his prestige, particularly among his countrymen, was equalled by very few. Oddly enough, there was little in his appearance and demeanour to suggest his exploits as a leader of strikes and insurrections, and to children in particular he seemed the very essence of benevolence… Despite his prominence in the movement, Malatesta lived a life of the utmost frugality, supporting himself as a machinist and metalworker, a calling he pursued in his own little workshop in Islington. Poor as he was, he invariably had a little gift for me whenever he would see me, either a little bag of sweets, a coin or a toy. In this regard he was not playing any favourites, for he had a way with children and was known and loved by all the youngsters in his neighbourhood.”

The Malatesta release campaign was a real tonic for the anarchist movement in London. Demonstrations were held in France as well. The anarchist newspaper, Les Temps Nouveaux, organised a successful meeting in Paris where ‘there was an overflow that would have filled the hall twice over’.The principal speakers were Charles Malato, M.Yvetot, and Dr. Pierro. Two hundred pounds were collected for the fund raised for the benefit of Malatesta. A large open-air meeting took place in Glasgow on Sunday 16 June.

On 10 of June, the appeal of Errico Malatesta against the sentence was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Darling, and Mr Justice Avory. During the proceeding Malatesta ‘lent his bushy iron grey beard upon his white arm and gazed about the court with keen, penetrating eyes. Throughout the hearing he took apparently a deep interest in the proceeding’. Malatesta’s appeal was refused. The motivations for refusing the appeal, apart from the legal questions, demonstrated the judges’ particular perception of the Italian colony:

“He wrote and published in Italian, the native language of a number of people living together as a colony in this country, among them many anarchists… it held up Bellilli [sic] to the hatred of this society, a society of a very peculiar character. If a man in such a society was to be convicted of being a police spy… it followed that that man would be, in a society like that, in a very dangerous position… The Common Serjeant had made perfectly plain that he did not recommended that Malatesta should be deported as an undesirable alien simply because he was an Anarchist… His deportation was recommended on the ground that Bel[elli] being an anarchist, and being accused by Malatesta of being an Italian spy, the accusation was a danger to Bel[elli]. It was probable that in consequence of the libel some crime would be committed, and it was not going too far to say that some assassination might take place and that crime would be produced in this country. The Court, having taken in consideration all the circumstances, could therefore see no reason for revoking that part of the sentence relating to the deportation of Malatesta.

The Manchester Guardian underlined the judges’ contradictions at the Court of Appeal and rested its hopes in the Home Secretary.

On 18 June, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, announced to the House of Commons that he: ‘had decided not to make an expulsion order against Malatesta but he saw no reasons to advise the remission of the sentence of imprisonment’.

Thanks to those mass demonstrations, Malatesta was therefore able to stay in England.

The trial put an end to Belelli’s career as a spy – he had for a while been suspected of being an infiltrator code-named Virgilio. Indeed, Malatesta’s allegations were sound. Belelli was born in the village of Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, on the 15 May 1860. The inaccessibility of prefettura and questura records held at the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, closed for building works for the last two years, made it impossible to consult further documents to determine when Belelli was recruited as an informer by Giolitti. The go-between Giolitti and Belelli was the police superintendent (questore), Vincenzo Neri. Neri had much experience in dealing with spies. It was in fact Neri, at that time a police inspector, who approached Domanico – a noted police spy among the anarchists – in Florence and put him in contact with the Ministry of Interior in 1892. Neri was appointed questore of Bologna in April 1896, but he took office only in the September of the following year. Belelli, after being a socialist, from 1892 became one of the leaders of the anarchist movement in Bologna. Although Belelli could have been a secret agent before Neri’s arrival in Bologna, it is possible to surmise that Belelli’s career as a spy began with Neri’s appointment in that city. Belelli was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libel in September 1897. In May 1898, Belelli was suddenly released, a decision that completely surprised the prefect of Bologna. Belelli was granted pardon thanks to the good offices of a senator. It is therefore possible to make a conjecture that Neri contacted Belelli while in prison and released him in exchange for his services. In the middle of 1900, Belelli moved to Paris. He was expelled in September 1901, when the Tsar visited France.

Apparently, serious suspicions against Belelli were aroused by the solicitations of the anarchist Siegfried Nacht. Nacht had applied for a position at the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome; the position had been offered to him on condition of interrupting all his contacts with the anarchists. From Rome, Nacht sent 45 lire to Giovanni Spizzuoco, Alfonso’s brother, to clear a debt that he had previously contracted with him. Some time later, Nacht was questioned at the Ministry of Interior about this transfer of funds and was rebuked for continuing to maintain contacts with the anarchists. In consequence Nacht urged his comrades in London to investigate the leak. Spizzuoco claimed that the only person acquainted with the transaction was Belelli, who had changed the lire into pound sterlings. Moreover, Felice Vezzani, from Paris, reported that, according to Belelli’s sister-in-law, Belelli received registered letters from the Ministry of Interior monthly. In any case after Malatesta’s trial, Belelli went back to Reggio Emilia where he died in 1926.

With Belelli’s departure, Virgilio disappeared as well. In fact Belelli was the person who for twelve years signed his reports with that cover name. But although Belelli was in direct contact with the Ministry of Interior he left no traces of Virgilio’s real identity in his correspondence between the Ministry and the embassy or the consulate, which was different from what happened with other spies. However, evidence has since emerged to verify that Belelli and Virgilio were one and the same person.