The Battle of Cable Street: 75 years on
On 4 October 1936, 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 only to find their 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 violently disperse the anti-fascists. When their attempt to force a way through for the fascists failed, the police tried to find an alternative route for them through narrow residential streets, only to find that these were blocked by barricades including an overturned lorry. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game told Mosley, "You must call it off." Mosley was forced to lead his supporters through the Sunday streets, finally dispersing near Charing Cross.
Cable Street was the second of the two key moments in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s. The first had taken place at Olympia in 1934. For two years prior to Olympia, Mosley had set out to win the support of disgruntled Tories. Mosley's best-known backer was the press baron Lord Rothermere, whose Daily Mail printed pro-BUF headlines ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") and publicised Mosley's meetings.
By the summer of 1934 the BUF had reached its peak membership of 50,000. Most of its members were middle or upper class. The aim at Olympia was to put this organisation on show in a mass rally of tens of thousands of Blackshirts. Anti-fascists who disrupted the Olympia rally by attempting to heckle Mosley 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. BUF membership collapsed. Mosley then turned to seek working class support in the East End, targeting 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 fascist plans for Cable Street were announced just a week beforehand. The London District of the Communist Party had intended for some time that on the 4 October there should be a youth rally in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with anti-fascist struggle in Spain. The London Communists still insisted that their event should go ahead as planned. But Communists in Stepney had other plans. 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 afterwards Labour's message was again that it had been the work of troublemakers, with Labour shadow home secretary Herbert Morrison denouncing both left and right, and calling 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. The Communists targeted estates seen as no-go areas for the left. 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. The two families ripped up their BUF membership cards. This kind of political struggle, as much as the physical victory a year earlier, isolated the BUF.
Defeating the fascists politically was slow work. The BUF's national membership grew in the aftermath of Cable Street by 2,000, with most of the recruits being picked up in London. This fascist revival continued until local elections in spring 1937, when BUF candidates won 19 percent 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 strongholds as Leeds, Manchester and Southampton, and reports of BUF branches ceasing to exist all over southern England, outside London.
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. Second, the fascists were cannibalising their own organisation in order to 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.
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.
By Dave Renton, from this month's Socialist Review