In the 1930s when Hitler was on the rampage in Germany destroying working-class organisations, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were mobilising here to try to repeat his victories. They targeted Stepney in London's east end in their campaign because it was the centre of the Jewish immigrant community. The British fascists planned to divide local Jewish and non-Jewish workers by whipping up racism and then establishing a power base in the East End as a first step on their road to power. As a deliberate provocation, the fascists organised a march through the most densely populated immigrant areas of Stepney on 4 October 1936. The subsequent 'Battle of Cable Street' has many lessons on how to beat the far-right today.
To understand what happened at Cable Street, we need to look at the wider economic and political situation at the time. In 1929, a major world financial crisis led to economic collapse in the leading capitalist countries, causing mass unemployment and poverty for tens of millions.
Germany was particularly hard hit. As a result the workers, acting through their powerful political parties and trade unions, fought back and threatened the rule of the bosses. In response many leading capitalist firms gave money to Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, which wanted to physically destroy all organised opposition from the working class in German society. Due to the huge errors of the leaders of the main left-wing parties, the Social Democrats and Communists, Hitler was able to come to power and, tragically, to put his programme into effect. In 1932 in Britain, Oswald Mosley tried to copy Hitler's successes by setting up the British Union of Fascists (BUF), whose members became known as the Blackshirts. Initially, many establishment organisations, including the Daily Mail and big firms such as ICI and Courtaulds, backed him. But when Hitler seized power they pulled back as they began to realise that an aggressive Germany threatened British capitalism's interests.
Mosley then tried to whip up support with a directly racist campaign, and chose the Jews of Stepney as his target. Then as now, there was great deprivation and poverty in the area and the local working-class population was divided between Jews, who worked mainly in the rag trade, and dockers of Irish origin. The BUF calculated that resentments between the different groups, fostered by the conditions they faced, could easily be exploited by scapegoating the Jews, as Hitler had done. Mosley was well-financed from upper-class circles and threw significant resources into his East End campaign. This resulted in the BUF establishing a small base of support from some backward-looking workers, with a headquarters in Duckett Street Stepney, which led to a huge increase in racist attacks and the area being covered in fascist slogans. Their propaganda was virulently racist and anti-semitic, as bad as the Nazis'; for instance one of their leaders, William Joyce, wrote at the time that, "Jews....are an incredible species of sub-humanity" and that "we pledge ourselves to get rid of the Jews". These are some of their more moderate pronouncements, others are too disgusting to print. (Joyce finished his career at the wrong end of a hangman's rope after he became a leading propagandist for the Nazi regime in world war two).
The local community mobilised to physically confront what it saw, correctly, as a mortal threat to its existence. They were led mainly by the Stepney Communist Party and the Young Communist League, who were disregarding their party's policy of 'popular frontism', which allowed their policies to be dictated by 'respectable' capitalist opponents of fascism. According to police records, 60% of BUF meetings in 1936 were disrupted by anti-fascist demonstrators, with the YCL in particular organising audacious actions and propaganda stunts as part of the campaign. At the same time, the local Communist Party built support for direct action by tenants against super-exploitation by local landlords. This gave them a broad base of support that proved important in the anti-fascist struggle. Most leaders of the trade unions, the Labour Party and the official Jewish organisations, advised that it was best not to get involved in the fight against the BUF, and to leave it to the police to maintain law and order.
Mosley called for a major march through Stepney on 4 October 1936, with the aim of establishing control of the streets. The choice of date was not accidental. It coincided with historic events in Spain, where Franco's fascist troops had launched an assault on the capital Madrid, in which the workers were mounting a heroic resistance with the slogan No pasaran! He expected Madrid to fall to Franco soon, so the success of his march would reinforce the apparent unstoppable advance of fascist reaction on a European scale. Who would prevail - the organised working class or future Hitlerite barbarism? Workers of Stepney understood this question and mobilised accordingly to preserve their very existence, unlike the Labour and trade union leaders who advised their members to stay away. On the day, 250,000 thronged the area, blocking all the entrances to the East End. They used the slogan of the defenders of Madrid: They shall not pass! ... no pasaran! 6,000 police were on duty, plus the whole of the mounted division, and for the first time a helicopter was used for crowd control. The police repeatedly tried to force a way through the blocked roads, particularly Cable Street and were thwarted on each occasion.
Running battles developed, with the police, heavily outnumbered, being forced to 'surrender' to the demonstrators and hand over their truncheons. At 3pm Mosley arrived in his open top Rolls-Royce, expecting to drive triumphantly through the newly 'occupied' areas, but instead he was met with a hail of bricks and missiles, that broke his car's window. The bricks came not only from Jews in Cable Street but also from Irish workers on the barricade in Dock St to the south of the fascist assembly point. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner was forced to apologise to Mosley that it was impossible for the BUF to march and he would have to lead his motley band back the way it had come. Mosley's dream of ever being Britain's Hitler had been effectively destroyed. A great victory had been won - they had not passed.
There are many lessons to be learnt from the events in Cable Street 70 years ago. A key issue is the importance of building broad support in the community, not only through anti-racist work but through other consistent campaigning activity that addresses the problems working people face. In this way, unity in struggle can be built between different sections potentially divided by race or national differences. It is important to emphasise the common interests and unity of all workers fighting against a common enemy.
The organised working class led the Cable Street action, but during the struggle it brought behind its banner on the day many other sections of society, religious leaders, liberals and others. Support from all these was welcome, but experience showed that if these groups were allowed to influence the campaign's programme, it led to disaster, as was the case in the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. Today, the far-right BNP pose a threat to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, and this will unfortunately increase as economic and political crises develop in the coming years. In the early 1990s Militant Labour in Tower Hamlets (the Socialist Party's forerunner) emulated the work of the Stepney CP and the YCL in the 1930s. They played a key role in driving the racist BNP permanently from their provocative paper sale in Brick Lane in the heart of Tower Hamlets' Bangladeshi community. This showed the way to effectively organise against the far-right. The defeat of their 'paper sale' was a factor in convincing the BNP that trying to win 'control of the streets' was no longer a viable policy. In the future, many lessons of the victory at Cable Street and the 1990s campaign against the BNP will again need to be learned to challenge the far-right menace.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.