One of the biggest anti-fascist victories in British history is recounted and placed in its historical context. This is based on a talk by rs21 member John Walker, given to Oxford Retired Members Branch of Unite the Union.

The crowd in Cable Street.

If you’d gone to Stepney on the evening of 4 October 1936 you’d have witnessed the biggest knees-up in Whitechapel that anyone could remember. People there were celebrating because together, they had inflicted a huge defeat on Oswald Mosley’s fascists.

Why were the population of Whitechapel so delirious? And why is it important for us now?

Sir Oswald Mosley was a former Labour minister who went on to found the British Union of Fascists, following the example of Mussolini’s Fascist movement in Italy. Mosley was not alone amongst European politicians in making that move, and the Battle of Cable Street was a decisive defeat for fascists amidst the rising wave of fascism in the early 20th century.

Interwar period: fascism rises in Europe

Fascism initially appeared in response to the threat to the ruling class posed by the Russian Revolution. Its growth was fuelled by the crisis of capitalism during the Depression caused by the 1929 Wall Street crash.

The fascists’ mass base of support was among the petty bourgeoisie, in the leafy suburbs of the urban middle classes, and among the peasantry who were still of major importance in most European countries. However, it was ruling class panic at the threat of working class insurrection that had thrust the fascists into power in country after country. In Italy, the crisis after WW1 led to what became known as the ‘two red years’, when workers occupied their factories en masse. Big business, terrified of communism, rallied behind Mussolini’s Fascists.

Initially, the Fascists were a collection of street gangs of former soldiers. Under Mussolini, they were turned into a formal political movement. In the streets, the Fascists had become so successful at physically smashing up socialist and trade union activities that in 1922, in the context of the threat of communism, businessmen like typewriter-mogul Olivetti persuaded the King to appoint Mussolini prime minister. Mussolini then used the political power of the state to crush the workers’ movement and, with the approval of big business, to assume absolute power.

After the 1929 Wall Street crash, Germany’s working class were handed mass unemployment. Its lower middles classes faced bankruptcy and severe debt. In consequence, Nazis – like the Italian Fascists, initially gangs of street fighters – electorally replaced conservative MPs in the countryside. In the towns, on the other hand, the communists increased their vote, largely at the expense of the Social Democrats. Right-wing voters shifted right, left-wing voters shifted left. Overall a conservative coalition dominated German politics. The ruling class remained content.

As the Depression in Germany worsened, the political balance shifted even more. When the Communist Party vote surged in the November 1932 elections and the conservative coalition lost its majority, in fear the conservative politicians turned to coalition with Hitler and his Nazis. This was something they had previously rejected, mainly because they didn’t want to be associated with the street-fighting tactics of the Nazi Stormtroopers. But now they needed Nazi votes to get a majority in the Reichstag.

Hitler refused to join a coalition unless he was made Chancellor. Eventually the conservatives conceded, and Hitler used his new authority to ban the left and persuade the other right-wing parties to dissolve. And so he too established a fascist dictatorship.
There were more victories for the fascists, though they started to come less easily. An attempted fascist coup in Austria in 1934 had to fight its way to victory through the suburbs of Vienna. In Spain, an attempted coup by a coalition of conservatives and fascists failed. The fascists only achieved power after a three-year civil war.

The Spanish Civil War was little more than two months old when, in Britain, Mosley decided to march his forces through Stepney. The idea behind the march was to demonstrate the strength of the fascist movement in Britain, and to demonstrate that he, Sir Oswald Mosley, was the man to lead Britain out of the Depression.

Who was Mosley?

Mosley had begun his political life in 1918 as a Conservative MP, before resigning the Tory whip in protest against the use of the Black and Tans, the British paramilitary force, in Ireland during its war of independence. In what would later become ironic, he denounced the Black and Tans as ‘fascist’.

After a period as an Independent, Mosley joined the Labour Party and became a member of its largest subsection: the Independent Labour Party. Alongside the trade unions, the ILP had been the moving force in the formation of the Labour Party itself. By the 1920s it was the base of Labour’s left wing.

In 1929 Mosley became a minister in Ramsey MacDonald’s government, with responsibility for solving the problem of unemployment.

Mosley argued that the problem causing unemployment was that an excessive proportion of Britain’s energies and resources was expended on the production of goods for shrinking foreign markets, when manufacture should be focused on the home market. It was the home market, he argued, that was in need of development. In this analysis he was backed by the Labour Left, including Nye Bevan and the leadership of the ILP.

But Mosley failed to get backing for his plans from either the Labour cabinet or the Labour Conference, and he resigned from both the cabinet and the Labour Party. He brought his closest supporters into a new formation, the New Party. Bevan predicted that the New Party would become fascist, and refused to follow him.

Oswald Mosley

The New Party initially sat as a rump in the House of Commons. It failed to gain any seats in the 1931 general election. After a visit to Mussolini’s Italy, Mosley did, in fact, turn to fascism. Ten years after rejecting fascism for Ireland he began to advocate it for Britain.
The British Union of Fascists (BUF), the party he set up, was a merger between the New Party – shorn of its left-wing supporters – and an organisation calling itself the British Fascists, along with some small fascist fragments. The British Fascists had been a largely upper-class crew. Their main activity in the ten years since they were formed had been to organise strikebreaking during the 1926 general strike. The street fighters of the BUF were initially provided by the New Party’s youth wing (which Mosley had affectionately christened his ‘Biff Boys’). Mosley dressed these latter in black uniforms and given them the title ‘Blackshirts’.

The BUF had some initial successes, such as the January Club where its upper-class supporters could simultaneously dine and hear fascist speakers. At the other end of the social scale, it launched a Cotton Campaign in Lancashire, where the Depression had created mass unemployment amongst cotton operatives. The BUF demanded restrictions on cotton imports to protect the Lancashire cotton group industry. Famously, it gained support from the Daily Mail, with the famous ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ headline on 15 January 1934, an article written by the newspaper’s owner Lord Rothermere.

These initial successes came to a sudden halt with the BUF’s June 1934 Olympia rally. This was its first attempt at a high-profile meeting. Mosley was advertised as the main speaker, and the BUF focused on getting upper class attendees. Mosley’s plan was to solidify his support amongst the British establishment.

1934: big rally of the BUF

Opposition to the first Fascist mass meeting of this scale in London was organised by the Communist Party and others working with it. The anti-fascists marched from Stepney to Olympia, and then surrounded the building where the fascists were gathered. The police, who were out in force to protect the fascists, tried to stop them from entering the meeting. But some anti-fascists hecklers did get in. They were dealt with brutally by Mosley’s blackshirted stewards. This was pre-planned by Mosley and his associates, and the brutality was public. It was not a question of the stewards taking the hecklers out of the meeting and beating them up out of public sight. The hecklers were beaten up in full view of the audience, with the hall’s floodlights turned to illuminate them.

The upper class supporters were shocked by such a public display of violence. The British ruling class has never been opposed to violence, inflicting the most extreme kind against those that they ruled to maintain their Empire. But Mosley had made a misjudgement. The British ruling class don’t mind violence being used to keep the masses down, but they don’t like to see it in front of their faces. That is ‘distasteful’. The meeting was a victory for the anti-fascists, albeit a temporary one. Mosley was drowned out by anti-fascist heckling and his support dropped among the upper class.

Following the Olympia rally, Mosley turned to anti-semitism as a means of recruiting support. Initially, as had been the case with Mussolini, Mosley had not emphasised anti-semitism as a factor in his programme, preferring to focus on his economic programme and his anti-communism.

Fascist graffiti

Anti-fascists get organised

The turn to anti-semitism meant, in the first instance, letting loose the Blackshirts into the Jewish areas of East London and elsewhere, where they attacked people and businesses. Most of the confrontations between Blackshirts and anti-fascists saw the Blackshirts emerge the worse for wear. Where the Fascists came out best it was often because of police protection.

In September 1934, following his propaganda humiliation in Olympia, Mosley organised a rally in Hyde Park. This was going to emphasise to the world that his movement hadn’t been cowed by a few hecklers.

Anti-fascists across the board – Communists and Jews of all opinions – took it as a priority to build a counter-demonstration. A huge amount of effort went into publicity to get people to it. People climbed buildings – the Law Courts on Fleet St and the BBC in Portland Place – to hang banners giving details of the counter-demonstration. There was an (unofficial) appeal to join the counter-demonstration broadcast by the BBC on one of its popular live dance programmes, when activists grabbed the microphone, on air, and swiftly gave details before being hurried off-stage. The Communist Party issued leaflets in Yiddish, then a living language in the East End.

Over 150,000 counter-demonstrators turned up on the day, and the fascists in Hyde Park were completely surrounded by the police protecting them. The meeting was a complete fiasco for the Fascists. It began at 6pm, after the Fascists had been marched through the police lines, and it ended at 7pm, with nobody but the BUF faithful able to hear Mosley.

Anti-fascists did not just focus on the big events. Fascists were driven off the streets in a number of cities, including Manchester (where Mosley made a big effort, having personal connections there), Leeds and Carlisle. Demonstrations were also held outside local fascist meetings in the East End and elsewhere.

The Tories – a bulwark against fascism or fascism’s incubator?

In November 1935 a general election was held. The British Union of Fascists did not stand any candidates, thinking they needed to do more work before they could get credible results. The Tories, however, won a landslide victory, with Prime Minister Baldwin being re-elected under the slogan ‘Safety First’.

In Italy, Germany and other countries, fascists had come to power because the ruling class parties had not been secure. In both Italy and Germany, for example, workers’ revolution had been a credible possibility. This was not the case in Britain, where the Tory government was elected with a secure majority.

The security of the Baldwin government was based on it seeming to be able to control events. Britain seemed, all too slowly, to be coming out of the Depression, especially in the middle class areas of the Home Counties and other areas of the South-East. The picture would change if the economy suddenly took another downturn, or if difficulties occurred in foreign affairs. This might have led to splits in the Tory leadership, and Mosley hoped for this scenario so he could step into the breach.

It’s worth thinking about the current splits in the Tory leadership, and the accompanying cynicism about politics amongst much of the population. This is the kind of situation in which the far right flourishes. And we should thank those who have successfully destroyed the fascists and their ilk time and again in Britain. It’s a continual task in a capitalist society, but it’s what makes the present political situation, however dangerous and frightening it might be, not considerably worse.

Things did not seem so stable for those caught up in them in the mid-1930s.

Meanwhile, amongst the anti-fascists, there were major differences about strategy between ‘street activists’ and those who wanted to keep the work within trade unions. The Communist Party leadership backed the latter. Within Stepney, Phil Piratin supported the line ‘trade unions first.’ He was a businessman who had joined the Communist Party after the successful disruption of Mosley’s Olympia rally. He was later elected as Communist MP for Mile End and wrote a memoir, Our Flag Stays Red. On the other side, accused of ‘Leftism’, was Joe Jacobs. Jacobs was the Secretary of the Stepney branch and author, much later, of Out Of the Ghetto.

Piratin accused the Left of wanting to bash the fascists wherever they found them; Jacobs, himself an activist within the garment workers union, denied this, but wanted Jewish workers to be able to defend themselves when attacked. He accused Piratin, Sarah Wesker and others of wanting merely to use the union rule book to outmanoeuvre the right.

While Communists heatedly debated about how to defeat him, Mosley had the British state and the majesty of its law behind him. In 1936, an anti-fascist member of the Labour Party had given evidence on his own behalf that contradicted the police evidence. After hearing what the man was saying in the witness box, the Magistrate declared ‘I have a good mind, if you say anything further, to order a prosecution for perjury.’ Regardless of the facts, truth became whatever worked against the anti-fascists.

1936: logistical background to the Battle of Cable Street

In September 1936, Mosley took the decision to lead a march of his followers through Whitechapel, to show his strength and to intimidate his opponents. The march would be followed by 4 meetings in the East End. The planned date, Sunday October 4, was the same as a march planned by Ex-Servicemen’s Anti-Fascist Association, who were asked by police to cancel theirs. It was also the same date as the Young Communist League rally in Trafalgar Square in support of Spain (the civil war had begun in July).

These clashes in the date caused the Communist Party national leadership to dither. They responded to Mosley’s announcement by calling a rally against Mosley’s Sunday march for the Friday evening preceding the march, not on the Sunday itself, and the East London organiser of the CP, Frank Lefitte, wrote a note to the Stepney CP Secretary, Joe Jacobs, saying ‘If Mosley decides to march let him. Don’t attempt disorder. (Time too short to get a “They shall not Pass” policy across…)’. The CP leadership defended this decision by saying Spain was more important than Mosley. Dissidents, on the other hand, thought they were the same question.

As a result of the differences with the Communist Party, a local meeting in Stepney was held on the Wednesday evening, four days before Mosley’s march, between the Stepney CP branch committee and the East London District Committee of the CP. The meeting was fraught, with strong opinions expressed both ways, as to whether to continue with the Trafalgar Square rally or to oppose Mosley directly.

The tenor of the meeting suddenly changed late in the evening when Pat Devine, a leader of the Communist Party, arrived from the CP centre bearing urgent news. The decision had changed; the CP would oppose Mosley’s march. Devine claimed that the CP leadership had not been aware of the real situation in East London until that day.

The real situation in East London was, in fact, that Mosley was going to be opposed anyway, in part because of CP’s earlier agitation. For three years the Communist Party, along with others, had been agitating in the East End, not just in the Jewish areas, to get people out to confront the Fascists. And now people wanted to do just that, regardless of whether the Communist Party was there or not. “They shall not pass” was the slogan of the anti-fascist defenders of Madrid and the message had got through to many British workers long before Mosley had announced his march.

The Friday march and rally would also go ahead.

Stepney CP members had agreed to meet up after the Wednesday meeting in a cafe they often frequented. Members of the branch committee rushed to the cafe to let them know the change of plan. At 11pm that evening they started building for the two marches, whitewashing walls (what people did in the days before they could get easily print posters) with details of Friday rally and Sunday counter demonstration. Jacobs says he did not get to bed until 4am.

Unfortunately, Thursday’s Daily Worker contained the wrong information, because it was printed earlier than the decision to oppose Mosley.

Planning for the counter-demo dominated the lives of Stepney and other anti-fascists for the next few days. Naturally, this involved intensive Stepney CP activity on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But the activity did not just involve Communist Party members. A lot of ‘apolitical’ people took leaflets to hand out, asked others to sign petitions, and so on. Behind the scenes, people worked to organise first-aid posts and prepare legal aid for those arrested.

Anti-fascists were to assemble on Sunday in Aldgate at 2pm. (The Fascists had been told to assemble in Royal Mint St at 2:30.)

The Friday march was to go from Tower Hill to Stepney Green, via Royal Mint St and other places in ‘enemy territory’, including past BUF HQ. The rally may have been intended by the national CP leadership as a gesture, but the local leaders of Stepney CP wanted it to be a threatening one.

Two thousand people assembled for the demo, and the numbers grew as the march proceeded. The lead banner read ‘they shall not pass’, echoing the anti-fascist forces in Madrid. There were few police in attendance initially, but they grew in numbers also.

The march walked past two sets of Fascists, selling their newspaper and protected by police, without incident. It was only then that the police attacked the demo. Joe Jacobs, by his own description a loudmouth, was arrested. The police only let him go when Phil Piratin came to the police station to bail him out. He appeared in the Magistrates Court the following morning and pleaded guilty to obstructing the police and insulting words and behaviour, so he wouldn’t be held in remand on the day of the demonstration.

To the disappointment of local activists, the Saturday edition of the Daily Worker did not contain details of the Sunday counter-demo either, nor did it tell people where to assemble. It just contained a report on the number of people who had signed the petition against Mosley’s march.

Sunday morning arrived. Local activists and others got up early to prepare for the confrontation ahead. They set up the previously organised First Aid posts and distribution centres for leaflets, posters and banners. Lacking mobile phone technology, runners were appointed to carry messages between sectors.

Mosley had not announced precisely which roads his proposed march would take, merely the assembly point and the locations of the four planned meetings. From the area’s geography, local anti-fascists thought that the most likely route Mosley would take would be down Cable Street. By midday, Cable Street was impassable; a tram got itself stuck there by 1pm.

The Battle of Cable Street begins

The crowds in Cable Street were roaring ‘They shall not pass!’ Frank Lefitte, the district organiser, was clearly wrong when he said there wasn’t time to get that slogan across.

The police tried to clear the way by means of periodic baton charges. Many were arrested, but as soon as anyone was grabbed by the police others in the crowd tried to rescue them, causing other policemen to leave their cordons. Jacob suggests that every ten arrests tied down a hundred policemen. And as a result, the arrests stopped. The police just conducted baton charges from a certain point on. The First Aid units were kept busy.

At some point barricades were erected on Cable Street. The police failed to clear the way, so the Metropolitan Police Commissioner decided to call off the BUF march. The mass mobilisation had succeeded in preventing Mosley and his fascists from marching through the East End. His show of strength had ended in abject failure, and he had to march his cohorts in the opposite direction.

Police charge the barricade on Cable Street.

The victory over the fascists came about because of a number of factors. First, and most importantly, the anti-fascist activity of the Communist Party and others over the previous three or so years had built a base from which people could be mobilised to resist Mosley. The vacillation of the Communist Party leadership for what might have been a vital half a week, while temporarily demoralising for its members, did not dissipate the mood of popular resistance that the CP itself had built. The history of the CP’s anti-fascist agitation meant that, when they finally got their shit together, they were listened to in terms of where and when to assemble.

A second factor was the radical tradition of the Jewish community in Whitechapel, which originated in its Russian diaspora. The revolutionary movement in Whitechapel in fact predated the formation of the British Communist Party. Before the First World War, Whitechapel was the only place in the British Isles to have a mass anarchist movement, based around the agitation of the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker. Related to this revolutionary tradition was the Jewish tradition of solidarity, mirroring the tradition of solidarity of many persecuted religious minorities.

A third important factor, not mentioned so far, was the dockers of Shadwell and Wapping, of Irish descent. Many of the dockers were personally anti-Semitic, but they responded to fascism on a class basis. They had a tradition of militancy going back to the Match Women’s strike of 1888 and the docks strike of 1889, both built in the aftermath of the Irish Home Rule agitation of 1886. The Irish lived to the south of Whitechapel and they assisted in the anti-fascist resistance, responding to the calls of the Communist Party and others. If Mosley had made inroads there, as he had done in other adjacent areas, Whitechapel would have been surrounded.

The next day (5 October), a victory march was held through East London. On Tuesday 6th, however, the Blackshirts went on a rampage through Stepney, beating up random people on the street. But people in Stepney were now confident enough to come out of their houses and chase the Blackshirts back to their HQ. Police had to be called to protect the fascist HQ from being destroyed.

The anti-fascists had won the battle but the war continued.

Daily Worker the following day

Reflections

Why was the victory important?

If the march had gone ahead, Mosley would have shown he could march anywhere. While the Fascists would not have become the equal of the major parties in Britain at the time – Conservative, Labour or Liberal – they would have moved from the political fringes and become an open influence on the right of the Conservative Party. Those who merely admired him, of which there were many amongst the ruling class, could have become open supporters, just as happened in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933.

Historical speculation is dangerous. Nonetheless, a growth in Fascist influence on the right of the Conservative Party, already committed to appeasement, may have pressured the British government not to oppose Hitler’s military move east. This would have made Britain a benevolent neutral in Hitler’s planned war with the Soviet Union.

A victory for Mosley on October 4th could have had important international, as well as domestic, consequences.

It is important to learn its lesson in building resistance to fascism. The key is to organise mass mobilisation, built through forging relationships over time.

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