In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.
F is for Feigenbaum and the Federation
The organisers of London’s first May Day march in 1890 claimed that half a million had taken part. The Police halved that number, and press estimates were predictably closer to theirs than to the protesters. Some 130 years later we still see claims and counter-claims about figures on mass actions today. It is possible that in our enthusiasm to play up our prospects of revolt, we might sometimes count feet rather than heads, but the three-year period leading up to that first May Day march were extraordinary times when the disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed, the unrepresented began to feel their collective strength.
During two large and angry demonstrations in central London in November 1887, collectively known as “Bloody Sunday”, that Charles Warren, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had tried to ban, a 41 year old legal clerk, Alfred Linnell, an observer more than activist, was trampled to death by a police horse. Some 100,000 people were lining the streets and marching in procession from Aldwych to Bow Cemetery for his funeral. An open hearse with four horses was used. On top was a shield painted black with large white letters: “Killed in Trafalgar Square”. Behind it were three flags, green, yellow, and red, for the Irish, radicals and socialists.
The Commonweal, a radical newspaper edited by wallpaper and furniture designer, poet, writer, and libertarian communist, William Morris, with frequent contributions form Eleanor Marx and other Socialist League activists, captured the spirit and momentum of the movement in an editorial in January 1888:
“If rebellion is … our future, then we must look back at the past year with hope … no one who witnessed the sympathetic demeanour of the huge crowds that accompanied … Linnell’s funeral procession could … deny that the masses of London are on our side … men’s minds have been familiarised thereby with resistance to authority; the precariousness of livelihood under the capitalist has been brought home … the class war is becoming obvious to all.”
Those three years, 1887-1890, coincided with the period that an immigrant from Belgium, who had been born into an ultra-orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Warsaw, joined that rebellion here . He did his utmost to magnify and intensify it, especially within the struggling but vibrant East European Jewish quarter of London’s East End, where workers slaved 14-18 hour days in sweatshops, that Linnell’s funeral procession would have passed through. That immigrant’s name was Benjamin Feigenbaum (Simkhe-Bunem at birth).
By his early 20s, despite, or perhaps because of, his fundamentalist religious upbringing,
he declared himself an atheist, exiled himself from his background, and headed to Belgium, looking for work and revolutionary action. He joined the Belgian Socialist Party and began writing for its Flemish organ De Werker, while also contributing to a radical Russian Yiddish paper, Yidishe Folksblat. He was expressing his desire to develop a Yiddish socialist paper in Belgium, when he heard that there was one already – in London – called Arbayter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend). He corresponded with the editor Philip Krantz, who invited him to England to join the paper.
Feigenbaum had been following radical political developments here. When his first son was born, on Christmas Day, 1886, he and his wife Matilda named him William Morris Feigenbaum. In articles for Arbayter Fraynd from 1887 until he left for America in 1891 he specialised in satirising and winding up religious leaders. He knew his way round the bible thoroughly. Many readers recognised the religious idioms he referenced in political invective. He turned these idioms on their heads to encourage revolt in general, but also specifically against overbearing, conservative-minded religious authorities. Workers enduring super-exploitation in sweatshops did not need rabbis telling them how they should live their lives.
In 1888 he published a booklet Di Sotsialistishe Hagode shel Pesakh. The Passover hagode traditionally told the story of Jewish slaves’ oppression and rebellion in ancient Egypt. His version combined a parody of religion and ritual with serious commentary about contemporary struggles (In his version the slaves were in the sweatshops of the 1880s), and a call to arms.
He applied biting critiques to other holy-days too. The official Yom Kippur liturgy said: “Repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree”. He offered a more insurrectionary take: “Brutality, rebellion and force will avert the evil decree”. He took out: “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” and replaced it with a truth and a hope: “Mammon reigns – but not for ever!”
In his three years in London and Manchester, before he took his revolutionary ideas with him to New York, his most (in)famous piece of activism was a lecture he gave at 22 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane on Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy-days, in 1890. It was in Christchurch Hall – named after another Jewish boy who strayed from the orthodoxy he was born into. The lecture was entitled: “Is there a God?”
He didn’t hold back, but went the whole hog, so to speak. Thomas Eyges, an eye-witness to this extraordinary event, described Feigenbaum, as “of medium height with broad shoulders” who “gesticulated as he spoke.” According to Eyges, Feigenbaum parsed the philosophical questions for an hour with statements such as, “What is god? … an abstract word coined to designate the hidden forces of nature, while the belief in God is but a mechanical habit of childhood, a prejudice handed down from father to children”.
And then he cut to the chase: “… he shouted: ‘If there is a God and if he is Almighty as the clergy claims he is, I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot, so that he may prove his existence!’ Two minutes passed, Feigenbaum exclaimed: ‘See! There is no God!’ The band struck up a revolutionary song. Then he announced a Yom Kippur ball – where pork was to be eaten.”
Sadly, for the radicals, freethinkers, anarchists and socialists of the East End, Feigenbaum left for America in 1891, but continued to be active with their counterparts there. The tradition of Yom Kippur balls continued, though, on both sides of the Atlantic. And Feigenbaum continue to have several of his writings published in London by Barnet Ruderman, a radical Yiddish bookseller with a shop on the same street as that where Feigenbaum challenged God to reveal himself in 1890.
Feigenbaum’s sharp antagonism to religion was celebrated by some and attacked by others. That tradition followed him to America too. In 1912 a Jewish illustrator there, called Saul Raskin, depicted Feigenbaum in a cartoon as bowing to a gravestone of Karl Marx. The stone caption says “B. Feigenbaum, the most observant Marxist.” The Yiddish caption below says “Dedicated to the fanatic atheist B. Feigenbaum, who rejects all gods except his own, Karl Marx.”
But in his London years, he did not focus solely on religion. He agitated across ethnic divides to promote workers interests, best illustrated when he joined a prestigious platform of workers’ leaders at the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End, on December 28th 1889. It was an event designed to build on the extraordinary solidarity that Jewish and non-Jewish workers locally had demonstrated in the wave of strikes and militancy that swept that East End by inaugurating the Federation of East London Unions – a union of unions.
According to the Eastern Post “2,800 were present… speeches were made in different languages and translated”. The chair, Charles Adams from the Alliance Cabinet Makers Association, tasked with a special role to unionise and organise Jewish immigrants in that industry, told the meeting “…if ever labour is to rise successfully … it must rise as a whole … This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations”, and never let employers “exploit one against the other”.
In June 1888 the matchwomen had won a 2-week strike to defend and enhance their working conditions. In the spring of 1889, gasworkers became the first workers in London to win the 8-hour day, and from August the dockworkers were out fighting for the “dockers’ tanner” in a strike that spread like wildfire. Among more than 100,000–plus workers on strike in and around the East End, were more than 7,000 Yiddish-speaking immigrant shnayders (clothing workers). They won their strike with generous help from the dockers who were mostly Irish-Catholic heritage. That epitomised the workers unity and spirit of revolt that Feigenbaum was fighting for.