On 4 October 1936, fascists and anti-fascists clashed as 1,900 supporters of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to march from the City of London through London’s East End. Mosley himself was driven to the scene in a bullet-proofed Bentley; he wore a peaked cap, an SS-style jacket, jodhpurs and knee-length jackboots. On arrival, he inspected his supporters and took the fascist salute from them. His way was blocked by a crowd of more than 100,000 anti-fascists at Gardiner’s corner, the main route into East London.
Up to 6,000 police officers tried to disperse the anti-fascists, with mounted officers hitting indiscriminately at the heads of demonstrators with wooden batons.
When their attempt to force a way through for the fascists failed, the police attempted to find an alternative route for them through the narrow, residential streets to the east of Gardiner’s corner, only to find that these were blocked by barricades, including an overturned lorry.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game spoke to Mosley. “If you fellows go ahead from here, there will be a shambles”, Game said, “You must call it off.” “Is that an order?” Mosley asked; Game answered, “Yes.” Fascists cried out in disappointment when they realised they would not be allowed to march. Mosley led his supporters through the Sunday streets. He would not even address them at the end. The BUF procession finally dispersed near Charing Cross.
To understand Cable Street it must be remembered that this was the second of the two key moments in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s.
The first had taken place at Olympia, on 7 June 1934. For two years prior to Olympia, Mosley set out to win the support of disgruntled Conservatives. Mosley’s best known backer was the press baron Lord Rothermere whose Daily Mail printed pro-BUF headlines (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts”), publicised Mosley’s meetings, and ran competitions offering free holidays to those who joined the BUF.
By the summer of 1934, the BUF reached its peak membership of 50,000. Most of its members were middle- or upper-class. The idea of Olympia was to put this organisation on show in a mass rally of tens of thousands of Blackshirts.
Anti-fascists disrupted Olympia by attempting to heckle Mosley. They were picked out with electric lights and beaten by the BUF stewards. Yet the violence of Olympia deterred Mosley’s passive supporters. Rothermere himself initially applauded Mosley for Olympia, before one month later ending his support for the BUF.
By October 1935, the BUF’s membership had fallen to 5,000. It was in this same month that Mosley settled on a new tactic, of seeking working-class support in the East End. The members recruited in the twelve months leading up to Cable Street were poorer than their predecessors. They included large numbers of workers in declining trades such as clothes-production or furniture-making, some of whom were in direct competition with Jewish labourers working in the same industries.
The BUF used force to silence its opponents. Storm Jameson was a journalist present at Olympia. He described watching Mosley repeatedly pause his speech for intervals of up to six minutes so that the crowd could watch anti-fascists being kicked and punched without restraint. “Slowly”, Jameson reported, “we all understood that it was done to allow the Blackshirts to make a mess of the interruptor.” Violence against the left was not accidental; rather it was a defining purpose of fascism.
Again, after Cable Street was over, members of the BUF were found to have discarded iron bars, broken bottles and chair legs wrapped in barbed wire. Newsreel descriptions of Cable Street suggested that the East End had only narrowly been saved from “bloodshed on a scale more terrible than London has ever witnessed”.
Police reports state that 73 police and 43 private citizens required medical treatment afterwards, although this appears to have been a dramatic underestimate, with many anti-fascists relying on help given at field medical stations staffed by volunteers.
Yet despite the violence of the BUF; the target of the police was anti-fascism. Of the 85 arrests made by the Hackney police, 79 were of anti-fascists.
Days before Cable Street, Commissioner Game boasted to a friend, “I expect there will be some fun and a few broken heads before the day is out. I shall be glad if it brings things to a head as I hope it may lead to banning demonstrations all over London.”
For the best forces of the left, Cable Street was never just a London or a British struggle. Rather it was an expression, at close hand, of a worldwide war of ideas.
In July 1936, four months before Cable Street, units of the Spanish Foreign Legion under the leadership of General Franco had begun an uprising against the elected Republican government in Madrid.
Workers took collections for the Republican side; exiled Spanish children were welcomed into working-class homes. Many young workers volunteered to fight in Spain. The slogan of Cable Street, “They shall not pass”, was borrowed consciously from Spain.
The fascist plans for Cable Street were announced just a week before the march was due to take place. The BUF’s plans caught off guard those socialists and Communists whose eyes were focussed on events in Madrid.
The London District of the Communist Party had intended for some time that the 4th October should be a youth rally in Trafalgar Square for Spain. The London Communists responded to the news of the BUF march by insisting that their event should go ahead as planned; Mosley could be well opposed by a demonstration some three miles away from his.
But Communists in Stepney had other plans. A petition was launched calling for a ban on the fascist march, which was signed by some 70,000 East End workers. The “official” Communist leaflets continued to circulate, but now overstamped with instructions calling upon activists to assemble not in Trafalgar Square but in the East End.
Before Cable Street began; the Labour Party opposed the protest. In its immediate aftermath, Labour sought to claim the credit for its success. Soon after it had finished, Labour’s message was again that it had been the work of troublemakers.
On the Thursday before Cable Street, Labour’s newspaper the Daily Herald called on its readers to stay away, “Fascist meetings are themselves dull. The platform is dull, the speeches are dull. The message is dull. The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands.”
On the Monday after Cable Street, the Herald described the event as a popular victory, “Street battles stop Mosley March”.
The Battle of Cable Street itself took place just two days before the Labour Party’s annual conference. This would be an occasion, the Herald promised its readers, for Labour voices to denounced the police and the Tory Home Secretary. Censure will “be directed mainly against the actions of Sir John Simon in refusing to take action to avoid [Mosley’s] provocative demonstration.”
Labour shadow Home Secretary Herbert Morrison used the conference to denounce both left and right, and to call for a ban on political uniforms.
With Labour’s support, Parliament passed the Public Order act giving the police the power to ban all marches, not just racist or fascist ones. The Act was first used in June 1937 to ban demonstrations in the East End. The first event to be cancelled was a recruiting march for Bethnal Green Trades Council.
The most far-sighted of the Communists could see that defeating the BUF would require far more than just physical confrontation. The BUF had to be challenged in the areas where it claimed the greatest support.
For much of the 1930s, the Communist Party was smaller than the BUF. In 1930, the CP’s membership had stood at just 2,500, although this figure grew through the decade. In 1934, the BUF outnumbered the CP seven to one, and even in 1936 the BUF had more members than the CP in the East End.
The Communist response is described in Our Flag Stays Red the memoir written after 1945 by then the Communist MP for Stepney, Phil Piratin.
In June 1937, Communists living at Paragon Mansions in Mile End heard of the threatened eviction of two families who turned out to be members of the BUF. The Communists agreed to support them against eviction. The tenants barricaded the block against the bailiffs, who were held off for two weeks.
As Piratin wrote, “We were now supplementing our propaganda with positive action. The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learnt the facts overnight”.
The Communists targeted estates seen as no-go areas for the left. This political struggle, as much as the physical victory a year earlier, isolated the BUF.
Defeating the fascists politically was slow work. Just a week after Cable Street, 150 fascists congregated in the East End. They attacked Jewish shops, and two bystanders were thrown through a plate-glass window.
A number of BUF rallies were held, and the BUF’s national membership grew in the aftermath of Cable Street by 2000, with most of the recruits being picked up in London. The BUF’s Mick Clarke boasted, “Mosley is coming every night of the week in future to rid East London and by God there is going to be a pogrom.”
This fascist revival continued until local elections in spring 1937, when BUF candidates won 19 per cent of the vote in North East Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. Yet this result needs to be placed alongside derisory BUF votes in the same elections in such former fascist stronghold as Leeds, Manchester and Southampton, and of reports of BUF branches ceasing to exist all over non-Metropolitan Southern England.
Two processes appear to have been at work. First, the BUF’s increasing notoriety as the “anti-Jew” party won it some recruits in the East End while demoralising members elsewhere, for whom anti-Semitism was just a component and not the most important part of the fascist message.
Second, the fascists were cannibalising their own organisation in order the mask the scale of their defeat, pulling in members from all over England to shore up the East End organisation. In doing so, they were weakening their party everywhere else.
After Cable Street, British fascism was never as strong again. Seventy-five years later, the enemy has in some respects changed. The fascist model of the 1930s has splintered; there is no longer a single fascist type. In France, Italy and Austria, there has been a transition away from street politics. In Hungary, the dominant party on the far right is Jobbik, which employs street marches and uniforms and has an open ideological debt to the inter-war years.
The British National Party represents an electoralist path. The one public space which the BNP has attempted to occupy over the past decade has been its annual Red White and Blue festivals. These had to be abandoned following protests Codnor in 2009, when the BNP was outnumbered and besieged by demonstrators from Unite Against Fascism. The BNP did poorly in the 2010 and 2011 elections and is currently in retreat.
The BNP’s decline has opened up a space to its right, now occupied by the English Defence League. While the EDL claims to be a single-issue party, opposed just to Islamic Extremism, its demonstrations have attacked British Asians of every type, religious and secular, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu
One national newspaper The Daily Star has campaigned actively for the EDL, calling on its leaders to form the EDL into a political party. The police meanwhile have been no better than they were in the 1930s.
The lesson of Cable Street is that despite the press and the police, fascism can always be beaten. But that requires our side to get organised.
[A version of this was published in Socialist Review in October 2011]