A Tribute to Rudolf Rocker (1873–1958)
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Rudolph Rocker."]
It was in the fall of 1978, a few months after I had joined the staff of a small-circulation monthly magazine called The Libertarian Review, that my friend Roy Childs — the editor of the magazine, the man who had lured me away from all-news radio and freelancing for newspapers by offering me a job on the magazine — walked into my office and handed me a thick book. "You will love this book," he told me. "It's one of the most important books written about political philosophy in the 20th century, but far too few people — too few libertarians, in particular — know it. And you are exactly the right man to introduce it to a new generation of libertarians." Roy wanted me to write a 2,000-word article for our "Liberty's Heritage" department on a new edition of the book, which had just been brought out by Michael E. Coughlin, a small libertarian publisher in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I took a look at the book. Coughlin had done a good job with the design and manufacture. But what was the text all about? Nationalism & Culture seemed to be the title. The author was someone called Rudolf Rocker. I had never heard of either title or author. So I read the front matter of the book, and from the author's "Preface to the English Edition," written in 1936, and the "Translator's Preface," written in 1937, I learned a few things about Rudolf Rocker. It seemed he was a European-style anarchist, an anarchocommunist. He was born in Mainz, Germany, in 1873, just eight years before, some 800 miles away, in Eastern Europe, in what is today the Ukraine, Ludwig von Mises was born.
Rudolf Rocker's parents died when he was a boy, and he spent some years in a Catholic orphanage before his uncle Carl, his mother's brother, became financially able to take him in and see to his further education. Carl Naumann, the uncle, was a typographer and a self-taught learned man with a large personal library. He was also a socialist and a frequenter of radical meetings and lectures. He stimulated an interest in radical politics in his nephew, and for a time the boy aspired to follow in his uncle's professional as well as intellectual footsteps by becoming a typographer himself.
In the end, Rocker did not pursue this course, but still the apple didn't fall far from the tree. His father, whom he scarcely remembered, had been a printer; his uncle and teacher had been a typographer: very well, he would be a bookbinder. In his teen years, Rudolf Rocker served an apprenticeship with a bookbinder and learned the trade. He practiced the trade professionally for several years, but it wasn't long before radical politics took over his life.
In 1891, at the age of 18, he had been converted to anarchism, having already found the Marxists who dominated the socialist politics of the time too rigid and doctrinaire for his tastes — too quick to denounce people with similar views that involved some heresy or other, people they might have been able to work with toward common goals if they hadn't been so busy issuing denunciations. At 19, Rocker had begun writing for the anarchist press and had found it necessary to leave Germany in order to escape police harassment. After living for a couple of years in Paris, he settled in London in 1895, at the age of 22.
Ludwig von Mises at this time was 14 years old. He now lived in Vienna, in a prosperous home kept by family servants. He was already something of a scholar, having spoken fluent Yiddish, German, Polish, and French since he was around 12. He also read Latin, and could understand spoken Ukrainian. Now enrolled in an expensive secondary school designed to educate the top five percent or so of each generation, he was painstakingly working on adding Greek to his collection of languages.
Rudolf Rocker, meanwhile, now in London, spent three more years as a bookbinder, then learned of an opportunity for a writer and editor that was going to open up a few months hence on a Yiddish-language anarchist paper published in London's then largely Jewish East End. Theologically speaking, the young Rudolf Rocker was an atheist. By background, he was a German Catholic who spoke not a word of Yiddish — and read not a word of it either. Still, Yiddish wasn't all that far removed from modern German, and Rocker, like Mises, had a talent for language. He taught himself Yiddish, got the job on the Jewish anarchist paper, moved into the East End, set up housekeeping with a Jewish girl he met there, and stayed with her for the rest of his life.
The connection with the Jewish anarchist paper didn't last as long. But when the paper went under, Rocker was invited to take over as editor of a rival Jewish anarchist paper, and when that paper fell on hard times, he jumped to yet a third Jewish anarchist publication, this time a monthly. He stayed in the East End for 20 years all told, earning a modest and always precarious living as a writer, editor, lecturer, and all-around radical intellectual. Bookbinding he left permanently behind him.
Then came World War I, and the English government decided that Rocker, a German, was an enemy alien. He was locked up, then, after the war, deported to the Netherlands. From there, he made his way home to Germany — but not to Mainz, rather to Berlin, where he spent the '20s editing the works of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin for publication in a new German-language edition, writing a biography of the German anarchist Johann Most, and writing speeches, articles, manifestos, constitutions, declarations of this, that, and the other — whatever was needed, really — for a large association of German trade unions.
It was probably a bit like being a political writer for the AFL-CIO in the America of the 1950s — except that in a decadent period like the era of the Weimar Republic, when experimentation of every kind was in the air and newly acceptable, a large national association of trade unions might actually be willing to put its imprimatur on something as out-of-the-mainstream as the syndicalist economic theories Rocker was promoting at the time. When he and his Jewish common-law wife decided, early in 1933, just after the Reichstag fire, that it would be prudent to leave Germany and, probably, Europe, Rudolf Rocker was 60 years old.
Ludwig von Mises was 52 years old in 1933 and still resident in Europe. During the first three decades of the new century, when Rudolf Rocker was editing Yiddish and German publications, writing hundreds of articles and a book or two, and addressing audiences in three languages on two continents from the lecture platform, Mises was first studying, then teaching, at the University of Vienna, while writing a book or two of his own on the side. There had been The Theory of Money and Credit in 1912, Socialism in 1922, and Liberalism in 1927. Within a year, in 1934, he would leave the University of Vienna to accept a position in Geneva as a visiting professor of international economic relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies. He would maintain two apartments — one in Geneva, one in Vienna — for the next four years. But after German troops marched into Austria in 1938, Mises fled Vienna to live full time in Geneva.
And within two more years, by the end of 1940, Mises, like Rocker seven years earlier, had arrived in New York. Mises lived in Manhattan for the rest of his life, 33 years all told, teaching at New York University and writing the great books of his later years — Human Action, Theory & History, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science.
From time to time, during those 33 years, Mises traveled up the Hudson River around 25 miles or so to a small town called Irvington, where he lectured or did editorial work for the Foundation for Economic Education. If, when he made those trips, he had stayed on US Highway 9 for another 17 miles or so, he'd have come to the tiny hamlet near Peekskill where Rudolf Rocker lived out the last quarter century of his life. The two men, each in his way one of the leading spokesmen for libertarian ideas in the 20th century, lived that close to each other for nearly 20 years. So far as I know, there's no evidence of either of them ever reading the work of the other, or commenting on it, or even acknowledging its existence.
This is doubly a pity. It's certainly a pity Rocker never read Mises, who was, after all, the first to explain why socialism could never possibly work. Rocker was a lifelong socialist; his early rejection of the Marxists for being doctrinaire and inflexible and intolerant should not be misinterpreted as meaning that he saw through their economic fallacies. He didn't. He described his own preferred economic system as "a kind of voluntary Socialism." And he wrote in his magnum opus, Nationalism & Culture, that
the most important problem of modern economics is not continually to increase production and make it more profitable by new inventions and "better working methods," but to see to it that the achievements of technical ability and the fruits of labor are made equally available to all members of society.
As Rocker saw it, we should be concerned not about "the profit of individuals" but rather about "the satisfaction of the needs of all." Arrgh. One winces. One gnashes one's teeth. This is the book Roy Childs wanted me to introduce to a new generation of libertarians?
Rudolf Rocker thought of himself, and is thought of today, as an advocate of something commonly called "anarchosyndicalism." Whenever I see that term, I am put in mind of Murray Rothbard's caustic comments in his essay written for the Volker Fund in the mid-1950s called "Are Libertarians Anarchists?" Rothbard began by noting that the doctrine in question has been called by various names, including "collectivist anarchism," "anarchosyndicalism," and "libertarian communism." He suggests, in the interest of simplicity, that we "term this set of related doctrines 'left-wing anarchism.'" He notes that
the principal feature of anarchist communism is that it attacks private property just as vigorously as it attacks the State. Capitalism is considered as much of a tyranny "in the economic realm" as the State is in the political realm.
Thus "the left-wing anarchists … wish to abolish the State and capitalism simultaneously." By way of alternative, the left-wing anarchists
uphold syndicalism as the ideal. In syndicalism, each group of workers and peasants is supposed to own its means of production in common and plan for itself, while cooperating with other collectives and communes. Logical analysis of these schemes would readily show that the whole program is nonsense. Either of two things would occur: one central agency would plan for and direct the various subgroups, or the collectives themselves would be really autonomous. But the crucial question is whether these agencies would be empowered to use force to put their decisions into effect. All of the left-wing anarchists have agreed that force is necessary against recalcitrants. But then the first possibility means nothing more nor less than Communism, while the second leads to a real chaos of diverse and clashing communisms, that would probably lead finally to some central Communism after a period of social war. Thus, left-wing anarchism must in practice signify either regular Communism or a true chaos of communistic syndics. In both cases, the actual result must be that the State is reestablished under another name. It is the tragic irony of left-wing anarchism that, despite the hopes of its supporters, it is not really anarchism at all. It is either Communism or chaos.
As Rothbard saw it in the mid-1950s, leftwing anarchists had "made a point of rejecting logic and reason entirely," so that "irrationality indeed permeates almost all of [their] views." And he saw little hope of educating them. "Of economics," he wrote, "which would show them the impossibility of their system, they are completely ignorant, perhaps more so than any other group of political theorists." All this is true, unfortunately, of Rudolf Rocker, except the part about rejecting logic and reason entirely until almost all his views were permeated by irrationality.
Actually, when Rocker stopped writing and thinking about economics — and he ignores economics entirely for most of the more than 500 closely printed pages that make up Nationalism & Culture — he became lucid and insightful as well as logical and rational. Get him off economics and onto history, say, or political philosophy, and you'll see a miraculous transformation. In this sense, you might call him the Jekyll and Hyde of left-wing anarchism.
You might also call him, I suppose, the Rodney King of anarchism. He was constantly addressing his fellow anarchists, including most emphatically the American individualist anarchists, saying, in effect, "Why can't we all just get along?" In his last book, Pioneers of American Freedom, written during World War II and published shortly after the war's end, Rocker wrote, typically, that the various economic ideas advocated by various anarchists of various stripes, including "mutualism, collectivism and communism represent only different methods of economy, the practical possibilities of which have yet to be tested." It seemed to Rocker "that the first objective is to secure the personal and social freedom of men no matter upon which economic basis this is to be accomplished." Anarchists, he believed, would do best if they did not
condemn every other [economic] tendency [than their own] as archistic [what today we would call "statist"] but only reserved for themselves the right of expression, to go their own ways and let others do the same.
There is much more than merely this kind of libertarian ecumenism in Rudolf Rocker's work, however; especially in Nationalism & Culture. For example, there's the way he takes on Marx in the very first sentences of the very first paragraph of his very first chapter. "The deeper we trace the political influences in history," he wrote,
the more are we convinced that the "will to power" has up to now been one of the strongest motives in the development of human social forms. The idea that all political and social events are but the result of given economic conditions and can be explained by them cannot endure careful consideration. That economic conditions and the special forms of social production have played a part in the evolution of humanity everyone knows who has been seriously trying to reach the foundations of social phenomena. This fact was well known before Marx set out to explain it in his manner. A whole line of eminent French socialists like Saint-Simon, Considerant, Louis Blanc, Proudhon and many others had pointed to it in their writings, and it is known that Marx reached socialism by the study of these very writings.
As Rocker saw it,
the will to power which always emanates from individuals or from small minorities in society is in fact a most important driving force in history. The extent of its influence has up to now been regarded far too little, although it has frequently been the determining factor in the shaping of the whole of economic and social life.
This is so, because the will to power leads to the establishment of the state, and wherever the state goes, culture is undermined, held down, even crushed out of existence.
The state was from the very beginning the hindering force which opposed the development of every higher cultural form with outspoken misgiving. States create no culture; indeed, they are often destroyed by higher forms of culture. Power and culture are, in the deepest sense, irreconcilable opposites, the strength of one always going hand in hand with the weakness of the other. A powerful state machine is the greatest obstacle to every cultural development. Where states are dying or where their power is still limited to a minimum, there culture flourishes best.
By "culture," here, Rocker means a system of widely, almost universally held values, including the traditions and folkways those values lead to and the symbolic formulations those values are given in widely if not universally acclaimed sporting events and works of art. He is talking here about the basic glue that holds any human society together. "Culture," he writes,
is not created by command. It creates itself, arising spontaneously from the necessities of men and their social cooperative activity. No ruler could ever command men to fashion the first tools, first use fire, invent the telescope and the steam engine, or compose the Iliad. Cultural values do not arise by direction of higher authorities. They cannot be compelled by dictates nor called into life by the resolution of legislative assemblies.
So much, then, for the reference to "culture" in Rocker's title. But what about "nationalism"? "The old opinion," Rocker writes,
which ascribes the creation of the nationalist state to the awakened national consciousness of the people is but a fairy tale, very serviceable to the supporters of the idea of the national state, but false, none the less. The nation is not the cause, but the result, of the state. It is the state which creates the nation, not the nation the state. Indeed, from this point of view there exists between people and nation the same distinction as between society and the state.
Every social unit is a natural formation which, on the basis of common needs and mutual agreement, is built organically from below upwards to guarantee and protect the general interest. Even when social institutions gradually ossify or become rudimentary the purpose of their origin can in most instances be clearly recognised. Every state organization, however, is an artificial mechanism imposed on men from above by some ruler, and it never pursues any other ends but to defend and make secure the interests of privileged minorities in society.
A people is the natural result of social union, a mutual association of men brought about by a certain similarity of external conditions of living, a common language, and special characteristics due to climate and geographic environment. In this manner arise certain common traits, alive in every member of the union, and forming a most important part of its social existence. This inner relationship can as little be artificially bred as artificially destroyed. The nation, on the other hand, is the artificial result of the struggle for political power, just as nationalism has never been anything but the political religion of the modern state. Belonging to a nation is never determined, as is belonging to a people, by profound natural causes; it is always subject to political considerations and based on those reasons of state behind which the interests of privileged minorities always hide.
In the pages of his best known book, written in German in the late 1920s and early 1930s, translated into English in the mid-'30s, Rudolf Rocker provides what amounts to a one-volume introduction to European history from the point of view of this conception of nationalism and culture. Along the way, he digresses profitably on all sorts of tangentially related topics. One of my favorites among these instructive digressions is Rocker's ingenious discussion of the fundamental conflict between liberalism and democracy. "The point of view of liberalism," he wrote, "starts with the individual and judges the social environment according as its institutions are useful or harmful" to individuals.
National limitations play but an unimportant part for its adherents, and they can exclaim with Thomas Paine: "The world is my country, all men are my brothers!" Democracy, however, being founded on the collective concept of the common will was more closely related to the concept of the state and made it the representative of the common will.
It's an analysis I like to think Mises himself would have enjoyed and appreciated.
In the end, I discovered, my friend Roy Childs was right. Nationalism & Culture was a true find, a great 20th-century libertarian classic. But it proved devilishly hard to find a way to summarize its argument and work in some basic biographical information about Rocker and try to explain why it was worth looking beyond his obvious economic illiteracy and acknowledge the important place he really does occupy in the libertarian tradition — all in a couple of thousand words. It got put off month after month and wound up never getting done. I guess in a way, I've finally done it now, or something like it, anyhow.
Of course, The Libertarian Review ceased publication at the end of 1981. And Roy himself died in 1992, at the age of 43. So I'm a bit late — OK, about 30 years late. Scofflaw that he himself always was when it came to deadlines, I think Roy would have understood.