Cable Street: an incredible show of unity
Saturday 30th April 2016
DAVID ROSENBERG, whose family fought at Cable Street, discusses its significance and calls on the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement to commemorate the 80th anniversary later this year.
• Why would we march to commemorate the Battle of Cable Street?
Because it was an incredible people’s victory that still has the power to inspire us in our present day struggles.
We should celebrate the unity across communities, and the collective courage and determination shown by women, men and young people that stopped Mosley’s fascists then, but we have to recognise that racism and fascism are still alive and kicking today in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
In the East End a group called Britain First — who borrowed their name from the standfirst on Mosley’s Blackshirt newspaper — have recently been intimidating the local Bengali and Somali Muslim communities in ways reminiscent of how Mosley’s BUF intimidated the Jews.
• Cable Street seems to be knitted into the fabric of our East End history — what is its special meaning?
This was the largest mobilisation in Britain against the fascists throughout the 1930s. Contemporary reports estimate that anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 were on the streets that day.
It is no accident that this happened in the East End, which was the cradle of so many struggles for better lives from the 1880s to the 1930s — where matchwomen, dockers, gasworkers and Jewish immigrant tailors had led strikes for better working conditions, Suffragettes fought for equality and political rights, and rebel Labour councillors went to prison for standing up for the interests of the poorest people. Everything they had gained was threatened by the advance of the fascists, and people understood that.
• How decisive was the Battle of Cable Street in turning the tide against fascism in Britain?
It was a very serious and unexpected blow to the fascists, who had been telling themselves that, like their counterparts in Europe, they would go from victory to victory, that the streets belonged to them, that the Jews would be too fearful to fight back.
They — and the police who protected and facilitated them — got much more than they bargained for on October 4.
The following Friday, the fascists’ own weekly newspaper admitted they had been “humiliated.” And while they continued, temporarily, to recruit young thugs up for a fight, there was turmoil among Mosley’s inner circle that filtered down.
Its key ideologues started blaming each other for the debacle at Cable Street, and a few months after the Battle of Cable Street the organiser of their powerful Shoreditch branch left and defected to the anti-fascists. He did excellent work in the late 1930s exposing Mosley’s party and their anti-semitism.
• And did it have an internationalist significance?
More than 200 anti-fascists from the East End went to fight in the International Brigades in Spain. An active Aid Spain movement had already started organising in the East End by the beginning of October 1936, but many who actually went to fight against Franco have stated in interviews that what inspired them to go was their participation in the great victory at Cable Street.
• What role do you think was played by police commissioner Sir Philip Game?
His sympathies were shifting. The orders to facilitate Mosley came from higher up and, on the day, it was eventually Sir Philip who called a halt and advised Mosley to march in the opposite direction and disperse.
Sir Philip later wrote an internal memo supporting a ban on the fascists while explicitly not calling for the same treatment of the organisations who were opposing them.
That said, there was rampant anti-semitism throughout the police in the same way we have institutionalised racism today, and there were frequent complaints by the beleaguered Jewish communities of the East End that the local police showed partiality towards the fascists.
Several veterans I knew recounted to me the anti-semitic abuse they received and heard at Leman Street Police Station after they had been arrested on the day.
• Do you feel the participants readily and quickly understood the significance?
Absolutely. Phil Piratin made a powerful statement about the immediate effect in his book Our Flag Stays Red, where he wrote: “The people were changed. Their heads seemed to be held higher, and their shoulders were squarer … The people knew that fascism could be defeated if they organised themselves to do so.”
The anti-fascists received a massive confidence boost, and the Jewish community saw that many of their Irish Catholic neighbours, who Mosley had tried to recruit, were truly on their side.
Also a local coalition — the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC) — had been created in late July 1936, partly in response to the complacency and conservatism of more established Jewish organisations in the West End who were telling Jews to keep their heads down.
The JPC were one of the key mobilisers for October 4, alongside the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth and local trade unions.
They mobilised a petition signed by nearly 100,000 local Jews and non-Jews calling on the home secretary to ban Mosley’s march.
And when he ignored it they published thousands of leaflets addressed to “Citizens of London,” stating: “THIS MARCH MUST NOT TAKE PLACE,” and urging popular resistance. The stature of the JPC in the local and wider Jewish community rose enormously with the street victory over the fascists.
• Have you read Granite and Honey: The Story of Phil Piratin, Communist MP published by Manifesto Press? To me that book comes closest to answering how Mosley was defeated: local community organising and non-sectarian organising. Do you agree?
Yes. Piratin understood that fascism, rather than people temporarily drawn to the fascist flag, was the enemy.
He believed that is was possible to detach those who had accepted part of Mosley’s hyper-nationalist and anti-semitic narrative, from the hard core who accepted it totally.
He knew that fascism would not be defeated by one big demonstration or through an accumulation of physical skirmishes.
The key to defeating it was exposing it to its own supporters and building a real unity between the communities that Mosley wanted to divide against each other.
The work that the Communist Party did, together with local campaigners such as Father Groser, in the Stepney Tenants Defence League up to 1939, was crucial in cementing the victory at Cable Street.
The Communist Party should be very proud of its role in these events, but we should celebrate too the role of other local forces.
We need to recognise that the people who blockaded Gardiner’s Corner, making it impossible for anyone to get through, and those who stood behind barricades at Cable Street, far exceeded the members and supporters of the organised political groups in the area. It was truly a people’s victory.
• David Rosenberg is the secretary of Cable Street 80 and is active in the Jewish Socialists’ Group. He is the author of Battle for the East End (2011) and Rebel Footprints (2015). He conducts walking tours of London’s social and political history, including one called Anti-Fascist Footprints. The next walk takes place on Sunday May 22. Details and online booking at www.eastendwalks.com.
• Phil Katz is a designer and author of Freedom From Tyranny: The Fight Against Fascism and the Falsification of History (Manifesto Books 2010) and a member of the Communist Party.
On Sunday October 9 there will be a march assembling at noon at Altab Ali Park, London E1, which will go to the Cable Street Mural in St George’s Gardens, for a rally with national and local speakers including Jeremy Corbyn.
Ask your union branch to support it. Bring banners.
From September 26 there will be a month-long exhibition about the Battle of Cable Street in the Idea Store at Watney Market E1, and a series of cultural events there relating to anti-fascist themes during that month.
Phil Katz recounts the working class’s firm stand at Cable Street in 1936. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, which took place on Sunday October 4 1936. At the Battle of Cable Street, the people of London’s East End rose to the challenge of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which was planning to invade the communities either side of Gardiner’s Corner: here.