Cable Street in Stepney looks like any other street in London’s East End. But in October 1936 it was the scene of events that marked a generation.
In the 1930s, the East End contained nearly half the total Jewish population in Britain. A large proportion were immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. The worst living conditions in the country were in Stepney, with poverty, overcrowding and unemployment stunting people’s lives.
Fascist organisations were set up in all countries in Europe at the time. In the UK, Sir Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932. The organisation reached a peak in 1934, when it claimed a membership of 40,000. It started attempting to build a base in the working class. A major prong of this was an anti-Semitic campaign focused on the East End. Mosley linked questions of unemployment, housing and racism in his attempt to influence local workers and gain their support.
From the summer of 1936, the BUF intensified its anti-Semitic campaign, marked by fire bombings and racist abuse as it attacked Jewish premises and assaulted individuals in the street. By the end of September, it was ready for a show of strength and announced a major march planned for 4 October. By marching through Stepney, the fascists hoped to intimidate the organised working class and the Jewish community and swing individual workers to their arguments.
Those who opposed the BUF had just one week to organise. Their efforts led to the mass show of resistance that has become known as the Battle of Cable Street.
The initial response came from a new umbrella organisation, the Jewish People’s Council, which petitioned the government to ban the march. When this didn’t work, a counter-demonstration was called and built by activists from Jewish groups, unions and socialist organisations. Without the extraordinary efforts at this local level, there would have been no resistance to the fascists. Generally, the Communist Party is given the credit for having led the counter-demonstration. But it, along with the leaderships of virtually all the organisations, initially opposed any action.
The Jewish Board of Deputies, for instance, urged Jews to stay away. Already for several years they had established a strategy of ignoring the BUF’s actions. They told Jews not to heckle at Mosley’s meetings. The president of the board said, “The Jewish community, not being a political body as such, should not be dragged into the fight against fascism”. The leadership of the breakaway Labour group, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), also took some time to support the counterdemonstration.
Mainstream Labour behaved disgracefully. George Lansbury, a Labour Party MP, avoided mentioning anti-Semitism, and called on the home secretary to re-route the BUF march through “less congested” areas. “What I want is to maintain peace and order”, Lansbury said, “and I advise those people who are opposed to fascism to keep away from the demonstration”.
An editorial in the official labour movement paper, the Daily Herald, called this “sound advice”. It dithered: “Fascist meetings are in themselves dull … The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands”. The mayor of Stepney appealed to all East Londoners “most earnestly to stay away”.
The Communist Party was for fighting fascists – in Spain. It already had a rally, in solidarity with the anti-fascists fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, planned for that day in Trafalgar Square and continued to call on its supporters to join this event.
Rank and file Communists were appalled by the party line, and lobbied desperately within the party for it to change. They continued to build the counterdemonstration. Only after several days did the CP cancel the Trafalgar Square demonstration and call for mass opposition to the BUF in the East End. The Daily Worker printed a special supplement calling for “the biggest rally against fascism that has yet been seen in Britain”. The party stamped over its earlier posters with the new location.
The anti-fascists didn’t wait for the change in direction by their leadership. Local rank and file leaders and militants from those very same organisations – local Jewish groups and even Zionists, trade unions, Communists, ILP members, socialists, Labour Party members, community activists – worked feverishly to build a mass rally aimed at denying the fascists entry to the East End. The Spanish slogan, “They shall not pass”, had become an English slogan.
The building of the event is fascinating and inspirational to read about. Several people who were teenagers at the time have given their accounts. Max Levitas, a CP member, commented: “In the 1930s, we didn’t have the internet! But we did have street meetings and loudspeaker tours. We leafleted thousands of houses every week”.
Reg Weston, a Communist journalist, described the build-up to the rally:
“This was also a time when few people had telephones or access to them, except by public call boxes. There was no TV. Radio was still almost a novelty. So our communications were through knocks on doors, notes through letter boxes, the post, meetings in the street, or at work, and by word of mouth. A main source of information was the newspaper, and once the CP Daily Worker had come out in support, was read by thousands in the factories and workplaces such as the bus garages and the rail depots.
“On the Sunday morning we took this round the streets of the small, council estates in Southgate. We sold them at almost every other house. Our main propaganda medium then was by chalking slogans on walls and in the roads. There was much less traffic in those days … We chalked thoroughly all the entrances to the great Standard Telephones cable factory in New Southgate where 10,000 went to work every day.”
Up to 300,000 people participated in what was a series of mass demonstrations. With the local population being approximately 60,000, it is clear that many people came from outside the area. They were Jewish, socialists, dock workers, housewives, Catholics – no distinction of work, religion or ethnicity.
“There were so many of us that you couldn’t move. I can remember the elation in the crowd that so many people were there”, Alice Hitchen, a participant, said. “The dockers came from Limehouse and Poplar – to my amazement, because they had a reputation for being anti-Semitic. There were cabinet-makers from Bethnal Green and tailors from Whitechapel. There were so many different accents. Miners came from Wales and communists from all over Britain. ‘They shall not pass’ was on everybody’s lips.”
The fascists had planned four separate marches. But the crowd was so dense that the police, approximately 10,000, had to beat a way through for their march. So the battle was between the anti-fascists and the police.
Earlier in the day, barricades were set up in Cable Street using corrugated iron, barrels, coal, glass and pulled-up paving stones. The streets were strewn with broken glass and marbles as a defence against mounted police charges. Stones and other missiles were thrown and a bag of pepper was burst in front of a policeman’s horse. The anti-fascists chanted slogans and gave clenched-fist salutes from behind the barricades in defiance. There was fierce fighting as the police attempted to clear them.
An attack also came from above as women in houses along the street threw rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots at the police. One participant recalled:
“[It] was even a surprise to us. All we could attempt to do was organise people who were on the demonstration. Obviously, we made no attempt … to organise people from their homes. It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse … onto the police. The Battle of Cable Street is known for this reason. It was there that the police really had to fight for themselves, not for the fascists.”
About 150 people were arrested and there were many injuries. But the crowd refused to give way. Eventually the police realised they could never clear the way and told Mosley to give up.
The anti-fascists then called an impromptu march and celebrated their success until early morning. Although Mosley organised other demonstrations, including in the East End, the BUF declined in influence after Cable Street. Most importantly, it never got a hold in the East End working class.
Most accounts of the Battle of Cable Street focus on the fascists being prevented from marching. This was a great achievement. But listening to the eyewitnesses, you can hear the level of euphoria on the day. “You should have been there to hear the cry, and see people jumping and shouting in joy”, Max Levitas said. “People who had never drunk beer in their lives, drank a glass of beer. We had won.”
“Everyone was cheering”, Alice Hitchen said. “Where I was people were dancing and singing and throwing their arms around one another.”
Another participant, Bill Fishman, related:
“The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism.
“There were parties, there was dancing in the streets. The cafes were full, the pubs were full. And there was a feeling of elation, a feeling of relief, particularly amongst the immigrant Jews.”
This achievement of unity wasn’t just “spontaneous”. First, we must recognise the extraordinary organising effort in the week leading to it by local militants and activists, carried out against the opposition of their bureaucratic leaders. Second, this was not the first time that Jews and others in the East End had united to fight against anti-Semitism and for their rights. The East End had a history of struggle during the 1930s to build upon. So much so that many Jews in the East End already looked to the Communist Party for political leadership.
Going back to earlier periods, there were many examples of mutual support, particularly between Jewish tailors and dockers. During the great dock strike in 1889, there was a call for a general strike. Responding to this, a group of Jewish tailors organised their own stoppage. They held mass meetings that included dockers’ leaders as speakers. The dockers’ strike committee, although short of funds, donated £100 to support the tailors. This was by far the largest single donation the tailors received and it helped them win their strike.
After their victory, the tailors’ union declared its hope that the “grand lesson of solidarity from the dock labourers’ strike” and the other strikes would “mark a new and splendid epoch in the history of labour”.
Later, in April 1912, Jewish tailors held another successful strike. Then the Jewish tailors supported a dockers’ strike, and huge joint meetings of dockers and tailors were held on the Mile End Waste. The Jewish trade unions and the local anarchists organised a support committee, which focused on helping the dockers’ children. During the strike, more than 300 were cared for by Jewish families.
So it is no coincidence that dockers were the militant vanguard of the fight against the fascists in 1936.
When we celebrate the Battle of Cable Street, we are celebrating a long tradition of Jewish radicalism that goes back to the 19th century. London Jews, mostly immigrants from eastern Europe, brought with them a working class tradition of struggle, militant action and socialist ideas. This included united action with non-Jews.
The jubilation of this victory has remained within the memory of the labour movement, not just because they successfully defeated the fascists on one day. With the creation of a united movement of the working class in its broadest sense, together with its allies, the people felt the possibilities and strengths that unity brings. That feeling has been passed down the generations and remains an inspiration to us today.
First published in Socialist Alternative magazine.