The Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre was founded in 2007, and operates out of the Old Market Autonomous Zone (A-Zone) in Winnipeg, Canada. Named after the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, and who lectured widely in North America (including dozens of talks in Winnipeg between 1913 and his death in 1958), “the Rocker” functions as both a gallery and multi-purpose venue for social, political, and cultural events of interest to the anarchist, activist, and wider Winnipeg community. Anyone interested in booking space or curating an event — including music, art and photo exhibits, film screenings, political speakers, poetry slams, theatre, activist and technical workshops, or any other type of content — is invited to contact us. The Rocker studio space is also shared by DadaWorldData (DWD), a radical documentary film production collective.
Rudolf Rocker: A Brief Bio
Rudolf Rocker was born on March 25th, 1873 in Mainz, Germany. Born into a working-class family, Rocker’s parents died early and he spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. As a youth, Rocker first joined the German Social Democratic Party, but became disillusioned with aspects of authoritarian Party politics, and was expelled in 1890 for failing to “tow the line.” He was a self-conscious anarchist before he was twenty. Before devoting himself full-time to revolutionary activity, oratory, and writing, Rocker was trained as a book-binder.
In 1893, Rocker left Germany and lived as an exile first in Paris, and then in London’s Whitechapel district, which was home to large Jewish and Irish immigrant communities during the Victorian era. It was while living among London’s Jewish community that Rocker met his lifelong companion and fellow anarchist Milly Witcop (1877-1953), taught himself Yiddish, and began to edit the Yiddish anarchist newspapers Dos Fraye Vort (the Free Word) and later the Arbayter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend). The latter paper became one of the principal Jewish anarchist newspapers of its day.
Rocker was interned as an “enemy alien” in Britain during World War I, either due to his German origin, political beliefs, or both. In 1918, he was deported, and eventually returned to Germany, where he continued his involvement in anarchist and labour agitation, and began to apply himself in a more systematic way as a writer. In 1933, Rocker is said to have fled Nazi Germany with nothing but the manuscript of a book — a book which was eventually published as Nationalism and Culture in 1937 and is widely considered his magnum opus.
Rocker’s other writings include the classic text Anarcho-Syndicalism (1938), a book of literary criticism called The Six (1938), as well as a survey of liberal, libertarian and anarchist thinkers in the United States called Pioneers of American Freedom (1949). He wrote countless shorter essays and polemics, on topics as diverse as the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39, Marxism and Anarchism, alternative education, the rise of Nazism, the nature and origin of power, authority, culture, and the State, the International Workingman’s Association (IWA), strategies of class struggle, the meaning of World War II, as well as numerous biographical and political sketches of figures such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Johann Most, Max Netlau, Francisco Ferrer, and others. Most of Rocker’s writings have never been translated into English, and the ones that have been translated, are mostly long out of print. Fortunately, anarchist publisher AK Press has been re-printing some of Rocker’s work, including a selection of his autobiography entitled The London Years (AK Press, 2004, originally published 1956).
As with Bakunin, Emma Goldman and many other anarchists, Rocker was primarily an activist and public speaker, not a writer — though the few full-length books he did publish were outstanding for their clarity and analysis, and all the more remarkable considering that Rocker had no formal education. A biography of Rudolf Rocker by Mina Graur, called An Anarchist “Rabbi” (1997), looks at Rocker’s life at the height of the “classical” anarchist movement, including his work as an anarchist agitator, and his friendships and relations with other well-known figures of the day such as Goldman, Malatesta, and Kropotkin.
Rocker in Winnipeg
Rocker’s first visit to Winnipeg was in April 1913, when he was invited for a series of lectures by local Jewish anarchists involved with Arbeiter Ring (local #169). Some of Rocker’s reflections on travel by train across the Canadian shield, and his arrival in Winnipeg (which he described as having “the air of a frontier post”), are recounted in his memoirs The London Years. In his memoirs Rocker also discussed his meeting with “Jaxon” — who was none other than Honoré Joseph Jaxon, Louis Riel’s self-described “major” who fled to Chicago after the “Northwest Rebellion” of 1885. Jaxon, who later became involved with the Haymarket anarchists, apparently acted as Rocker’s guide while in Chicago. [Sidebar: Rocker and other anarchists are mentioned in a recent biography of Jaxon by historian Don Smith, which was launched in Winnipeg at the Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre. See the event post on the “executions” section.]
Rocker returned to Winnipeg in November 1925 and gave a series of ten lectures in late November and early December, including a talk on nationalism and culture. His partner Milly Witcop also gave a series of talks at the alternative Peretz School, sponsored by the Jewish women’s Muter Farein.
In February 1934, Rocker was once again in Winnipeg, this time after his recent flight from Nazi Germany. He gave another six lectures between February 21 and March 4, on topics as wide-ranging as fascist (and even liberal) race theories, romantic literature, the rise of Hitler, anti-war campaigns, the revolutionary movement in Spain, as well as a comparative discussion of Marxism, Bolshevism, and Anarchism. Most of these talks were given at the Peretz School, although the one devoted to Hitler’s victory was held at a more public venue: the Palace Theatre. All of these talks had an admission price of .25¢.
Ultimately, Rocker’s lectures in Winnipeg, and throughout the world, were in many ways ahead of their time, and his willingness to put internationalism and social justice before patriotism remains a rarity to the present day. For example, Rocker denounced his own country’s authoritarianism and Nazi brutalities at a time when Western powers were still cozying up to Hitler. He even called for a world-wide boycott of German goods. His discussion of the revolutionary movement in Spain, two years before the outbreak of the “civil war” and the international call to defend “Republican” Spain from the fascists, was also unusual.
Rocker died in the United States on September 19, 1958.