As the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street approaches, Chris Bambery looks at the events that took place in 1936 Britain and the lessons we can take from them
For most people fascism is something alien to Britain. Britain, after all, is the country which stood up to Hitler and the Nazis, in defence of democracy.
Yet this represents a rewriting of history. Fascism was very evident on the streets in the 1930s, especially in London’s East End, home to Britain’s biggest Jewish community. In Stepney, Dalston and other Jewish working class areas, blackshirted uniformed thugs attacked Jewish homes, shops and passersby. They stood guard as fascist speakers hurled anti-semitic abuse and lauded the achievements of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
They believed that if they took control of the streets they would be an unstoppable force, able to repeat the success of the two fascist dictators. They counted on the sympathies of the police, anti-semitism was widespread in the force, and on funding from business. They were also aware that there was considerable sympathy for Hitler in the upper classes, where he was seen as a bulwark against Bolshevism, extending up to Edward VIII, before and after his abdication in 1936.
The British Union of Fascists was launched in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley, an upper class politician who had sat in parliament first for the Tories and then crossed the floor to join Labour. After a tour of Italy he became convinced that fascism was the only cure for a Britain caught in the Great Depression of the 1930s, with its mass unemployment, and for its obvious imperial decline.
After its launch the BUF enjoyed widespread sympathy among Britain’s elite. Mosley addressed a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon, and debated leading political figures, including the former prime minister, David Lloyd George. This support among the great and the good reached its apex with an alliance between Mosley and Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. In an editorial under the headline 'Hurrah For The Blackshirts', Rothermere explained the BUF was ‘Britain’s only safeguard against such insanity’ [communism]. The BUF’s supporters included the industrialist, Lord Inchcape, and the carmaker William Morris.
By the early summer the BUF boasted 40,000 members. This was a paramilitary party that marched the streets in military rank and inflicted violence on anyone who opposed them.
The reality of fascist violence was shown at a monster rally Mosley held at London’s Olympia which drew a lot of ruling class attendance. Whenever anti-fascists heckled Mosley he stopped and a searchlight picked out the hecklers who were then set upon by BUF thugs and beaten.
Among the upper classes there was a realisation that Mosley was going to launch a war on the left. They had no moral objection to violence, no objection to Hitler, until he threatened Britain’s position in the world and often shared Mosley’s anti-semitism, but they realised, firstly, that Britain was not facing such a severe crisis as Germany had in 1933 and Italy a decade earlier that it required such a drastic solution. Secondly, the working class – having seen fascism take power in both countries with little or no resistance – was not going to let that happen in Britain. Bringing Mosley to power threatened civil war and the end result of that wasn’t certain.
The alliance with Rothermere broke down. Mosley responded by upping his anti-semitism and targeting the Jewish population of East London.
The crucial moment was on Sunday, 4 October 1936 when Mosley announced the BUF would march through Stepney. The Labour Party and the Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away from any counter-demonstration. Initially too, the Communist Party, the central anti-fascist force, urged people not to go to Stepney but to a rally in support of Republican Spain, when the Spanish Civil War was a few months old. They only changed their minds at the eleventh hour, but then threw their all into mobilising against the fascists. Meanwhile the Independent Labour Party and Jewish youth had been out building opposition to fascism in the East End and beyond.
There was no Twitter, Facebook or internet and the anti-fascists were excluded from the mainstream press and the BBC. They built through word of mouth, mass leafleting and by chalking notice of the counter-demonstration on the pavement.
A young Communist, Reg Weston, later recalled that day:
The fascists were assembling by the Royal Mint and police started to make baton charges, both foot and mounted, to try to clear a way for them to escort a march. They did not succeed. A barricade started to go up. A lorry was overturned, furniture was piled up, paving stones and a builder’s yard helped to complete the barrier. The police managed to clear the first, but found a second behind it and then a third. Marbles were thrown under the hooves of the police horses; volleys of bricks met every baton charge.
A Communist Party activist and later MP, Phil Piratin, wrote in “Our Flag Stays Red” that the police were
...met with milk bottles, stones and marbles. Some of the housewives began to drop milk bottles from the roof tops. A number of police surrendered. This had never happened before, so the lads didn’t know what to do, but they took away their batons, and one took a helmet for his son as a souvenir.
Faced with this the Police Commissioner understood they could not clear the way for the fascist march. He ordered Mosley to turn his blackshirts around, and to march west, away from Cable Street. It was a humiliating defeat for the fascists.
What was significant was that the mobilisation of 300,000 people against Mosley involved not just Jewish people and anti-fascists but Irish workers and dockers, many of whom had expressed anti-semitic views previously.
Reg Weston recalled, “Back in Stepney and the East End there was almost unbelievable delight. We had won. The fascists had been defeated and humiliated. The police too… had been proved unable to protect them.”
The Mosleyites were not finished but any chance of them coming to power was gone. In the East End Piratin understood that they needed to follow up this victory by winning over working class people who’d been won to the BUF:
The Communist Party went into areas which were known to be strongly influenced by the fascists. They took up the very little issues like repairs, rents, lighting, etc., and organised the tenants to fight collectively around them… The Communist Party proved to ordinary working people that, over tiny issues which really mattered, the Communist Party’s politics and militancy could deliver the goods, make a real difference to their lives, while the fascist had nothing to offer but rhetoric.
A year on from Cable Street, at Paragon Mansions in Mile End, two families faced eviction but were not in touch with the tenants group there. Piratin discovered that was because they were BUF supporters and they had been promised the blackshirts would stop the eviction, a promise which had come to naught.
Instead the tenants group barricaded the block and armed themselves with mouldy flour and buckets of water to stop bailiffs enforcing the eviction. Meanwhile, outside Piratin held a non-stop street meeting alerting local people to what was happening. Faced with a growing hostile crowd outside Paragon Mansions and determined resistance from within, the bailiffs withdrew. The victory cut away any support the BUF had had in the area.
This blueprint for stopping fascism, combining mass, physical resistance to them with work in local areas to undercut their support was used by the Anti-Nazi League successfully in the 1970s and 1990s. It retains its validity today.
Fascism took power through constitutional means in both Italy and Germany. We cannot rely on the police or the judges to stop it if it threatens once more, as it does in France and Hungary. In both Italy and Germany what was lacking was unity in action, bringing together Jews and non-Jews, trade unionists, leftwingers and residents who together blocked the road the fascists wanted to march down. That is the lesson from Cable Street.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.