The Battle of Cable Street: Myths and Realities
Richard Price and Martin Sullivan
OCTOBER 4, 1936, remains a landmark in working class history – the day when the East End stopped Mosley’s Blackshirts and dealt British fascism a blow from which it never fully recovered. With the same area once again targeted by fascists, the Battle of Cable Street contains valuable lessons for today.
The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was formed in 1932 by the aristocratic adventurer Sir Oswald Mosley. Mosley’s early career as an MP had traversed the political spectrum: Tory (Harrow, 1918-20); Independent Conservative (Harrow, 1920-23); Independent (Harrow, 1923-24); Labour (Smethwick, 1926-31). In 1931, having failed to win Labour to a radical programme of state "socialism", Mosley formed the New Party. With its vague platform of "action now!", state intervention and populist calls for strong leadership in the face of the acute economic crisis, the New Party initially attracted a number of prominent intellectuals. At the general election of October 1931, however, the New Party polled disastrously, winning only 36,777 votes in 24 constituencies, and losing the seats of four MPs including Mosley who had defected to it.
Mosley’s growing interest in authoritarian solutions was fuelled by the debacle, and following a trip to Italy he launched the BUF, modelled on Mussolini’s fascist movement. In a circular to potential recruits, Mosley wrote: "Our object is no less than the winning of power for Fascism, which we believe is the only salvation for our country."1
The BUF made a definite impact, with its full-time blackshirted Defence Force, its aristocratic and Tory sympathisers, and, for a period, the backing of Lord Rothermere and the Daily Mail. Its meetings – notably the Olympia rally in June 1934 – were ruthlessly stewarded, and it spread the fascist message through provocative demonstrations and a range of publications. The police treated the fascists with the utmost leniency.
But after this initial push, which took its membership to 40,000,2 the BUF faltered. As some of his early backers fell away, alarmed by the violence surrounding BUF activities, Mosley focused his attention on building up a base in working class areas. Anti-semitism, although previously present in BUF propaganda, became its central feature from the autumn of 1934 onwards. By linking the questions of unemployment, housing and racism Mosley was able to win young workers demoralised by the slump, repelled by the retreat of the official labour movement and looking for action. But his strategy also had its limitations. Many of the hardest hit "distressed areas" in the 1930s not only had very little immigration; they were often strongholds of the Communist Party.
The East End of London, however, offered the fascists definite possibilities. Although the 350,000 Jews in Britain were only 0.7 per cent of the total population in 1936, nearly half lived in the East End – 60,000 in Stepney alone. Then, as now, it had some of the worst living conditions in Britain. It had also been a seedbed of anti-semitism and racist propaganda in general. The British Brothers’ League, founded by ex-army officers in 1900, claimed 45,000 members in the East End. Organised on a semi-military footing, it campaigned against "alien" and especially Jewish immigration from eastern Europe, influencing the passing of the Aliens Restriction Act in 1905.3
Mosley’s East London campaign began in earnest in the summer of 1936 with a big rally in Victoria Park in June. Through endless street-corner meetings, fire-bombing and smashing the windows of Jewish shops, racist abuse and physical attacks, the fascists worked overtime to create an atmosphere of siege.
In late September 1936 the BUF announced its intention to mount a show of strength on the afternoon of Sunday October 4, designed to intimidate the organised working class and in particular the local Jewish community. Uniformed fascists were to gather in military formation at Royal Mint Street, where they would be reviewed by their führer, before marching in separate contingents to four meetings in East London.
The Jewish People’s Council responded to this provocation by organising a petition calling for the march to be banned. Having received 100,000 signatures in 48 hours, the petition was presented to the Home Office on Friday October 2 by a deputation consisting of the Labour MP for Whitechapel, the secretary of London Trades Council, a priest and two leaders of the JPC. But the Home Secretary refused to stop it.
News of the demonstration provoked enormous anger: "Crowds gathered wherever a bill poster halted to paste up a notice, but order was preserved by the police", reported the Daily Herald. "It was expected that every Fascist advertisement in the East End would be defaced or ‘removed’ by this morning."4 The CP’s Daily Worker reported the hatred expressed by East London workers for Mosley. One was quoted as saying "We must give them such a reception that they will not march down here again".5
However, rather than preparing to confront Mosley’s thugs, the CP initially called on its members and supporters to attend a Young Communist League rally in solidarity with the Spanish Republic, which was to be held in Trafalgar Square on the same afternoon as the fascist demonstration. On September 30, the Daily Worker only carried a small article on the BUF march, tucked away at the bottom of page 6, reporting that the CP’s London District Committee had issued a call "for workers to go in their thousands to Trafalgar Square, and after the demonstration to march through East London’s streets to show their hatred of Mosley’s support for the Fascist attacks on democracy in Spain".
By the following day, the Daily Worker’s line had changed only slightly. "To the Square on Sunday at 3.30pm", a front page article read. On page 5, a further appeal to attend the march to Trafalgar Square and the subsequent return leg was printed.6 In other words, the CP was going to assemble its forces near to where the BUF was rallying, and then march them off in the opposite direction! By the time the CP’s "anti-fascist" march returned to the East End in the early evening, the fascists would have succeeded in carrying out their provocation without serious resistance from the CP.
Although the CP did give its backing to a demonstration by the Ex-Servicemen’s Committee Against Fascism, which was to assemble in Stepney on the Sunday morning, the party’s main emphasis was to rally support for the JPC petition calling on the state to defend workers against fascism. As one study of CP history observes: "It was not that the Party’s leaders were lacking in either courage or anti-fascist feeling, but the Popular Front line predisposed them to respectable protest rather than direct militant action, which could only antagonise those they were so anxious to influence among the Tories, Liberals and ‘Progressives’."7
In the meantime, a smouldering argument between rival groupings in the CP had broken out into an open dispute. The "leftists" led by Stepney CP secretary, Joe Jacobs, advocated so-called "street work" – directly confronting the fascists. The other tendency around Phil Piratin favoured more cautious "trade union work" in keeping with the Popular Front line.8 Jacobs was appalled at the prospect of the CP marching away from the battle: "The pressure from the people of Stepney who went ahead with their own efforts to oppose Mosley left no doubt in our minds that the CP would be finished in Stepney if this was allowed to go through as planned by our London leaders."9 On September 29, Jacobs received a note from East London CP organiser Frank Lefitte, which included the following advice: "If Mosley decides to march let him. Don’t attempt disorder."10
Not until Friday October 2, by which time it had in any case become clear that the Home Office had no intention of stopping the BUF march, did the Daily Worker announce the cancellation of the Trafalgar Square demo and issue the call for mass opposition to the BUF in the East End itself: "Workers’ contingents from various parts of London will march to the rally in Aldgate, Commercial Road, Cable Street, Minories and Leman Street", the paper reported. "There is no doubt that from 2 o’clock onwards the roads will be crowded with people intent on opposing Fascism."11 Leaflets advertising the Trafalgar Square event were hastily overprinted "Alteration! Rally to Aldgate 2pm".
In spite of the evidence to the contrary, the CP has continued to claim the lion’s share of the credit for stopping Mosley.12 In contrast, the role of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) has been written out of many accounts of Cable Street. But it undoubtedly played a prominent part. The East London Advertiser actually referred to "the ILP demonstration against the fascists". Like the CP, the ILP supported the JPC’s petition. But it too came out in favour of mass mobilisation when it became clear that the march would go ahead. On Friday, October 2, an ILP meeting at Hackney Town Hall issued a call for "an overwhelming demonstration against the Fascist march".13 The ILP "announced in the Press that it had called to the East End workers to mass in Aldgate in such numbers that the march would be impossible.... For hours at the Head Office duplicated copies of the leaflet were run off, and soon they were being distributed in thousands throughout East London".14 The Star ran the headline "ILP Call to the Workers" on its front page, and printed the ILP’s statement in full.15
On October 4, the Socialist League’s London Area Committee distributed a pamphlet written by Trotskyist Reg Groves which opposed the Stalinists’ Popular Front line.16 Otherwise, although Trotskyists took part in the events, they do not seem to have made any distinctive intervention.17
Labour leaders, both nationally and locally, acted disgracefully. East London’s Labour councils supported the JPC petition for an outright ban on the march, but George Lansbury, the Labour MP for Poplar and former party leader, could not even bring himself to demand that. He merely called on the Home Secretary to re-route one of the four BUF marches through a less "congested" area. "What I want is to maintain peace and order", Lansbury stated, "and I advise those people who are opposed to Fascism to keep away from the demonstration." This was "sound advice", counselled an editorial in the official labour movement paper, the Daily Herald. "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."18 "If the procession does take place", the Mayor of Stepney told the local press, "I appeal to all East Londoners most earnestly to stay away."19
The East End Erupts
"Many of the side-streets ... were cordoned off by police long before the march was due to start. No one was allowed to go through unless he could satisfy the cordon officer that he had legitimate business there. The inhabitants were scarcely permitted to leave these streets at all.... The police called every modern device into action to help them in their activities."21
The crowds showed what they thought of the Labour leaders’ pacifist advice: "At 1.30 two lone Blackshirts appeared at Royal Mint Street. They were told to stand against the wall and six policemen were detached to stand in front of them, hiding them from the crowd. Shortly afterwards a covered vanload of Blackshirts appeared. As the first two men dismounted the crowd was on them before the police could intervene, and in another second both were stretched out unconscious. Then the police activities started in earnest. From all quarters foot and mounted police appeared on the scene. Within ten minutes, there were three baton charges in Royal Mint Street, and all the while crowds were being pushed back and more streets cordoned off. Eventually the Minories was closed entirely and the crowd pushed back down Cable Street. By this time Royal Mint Street itself was emptied of workers and was occupied by 500 police and the assembling fascist forces which came up mostly in closed vans."22
The Daily Herald found its pleas similarly ignored: "Outside Mark Lane station the crowd closed in on six of Mosley’s men, and before the police could do anything three of the Fascists had been knocked down and were bleeding profusely from head-wounds. One of them had been hit on the head with a bottle. Several men and women were hurt in a fierce exchange of blows.... But the police precautions enabled the rest of the Fascists to assemble unmolested. They formed in military formation, a column of 3,000 stretching for half a mile, with over 200 black-bloused women in the centre.... The Blackshirts jeered back at distant booing. ‘The Yids, the Yids, we are going to get rid of the Yids’, they chanted, or, ‘M-0-S-L-E-Y, we want Mosley’, to which the crowd shouted back, ‘So do we, dead or alive’. New detachments arrived in the steel-protected Fascist vans, behind steel-wire meshing."23 Police attempted to clear the streets close to Royal Mint Street with repeated baton charges. Workers responded with stones, fireworks and marbles hurled under horses’ hooves chanting "They shall not pass!".
The confrontation between police and anti-fascists was concentrated on Cable Street, through which the fascists were intending to march. Some of those arrested were liberated, and several policemen themselves "arrested". The brutality of the police only succeeded in spurring on the anti-fascists: "Barricades were built in the street, and packing cases, a lorry and a couple of carts, to say nothing of the contents of a builder’s yard, were called into service to build it. Paving stones were tom up and broken into convenient sizes to serve as ammunition, glasses and bottles were broken and the splintered glass ground into the road to impede the passage of the mounted. The police tried to stop these operations but were powerless to do so."24
Having retreated, the police later returned with reinforcements, cleared the street with a baton charge, and set about dismantling the barricades. Several hours later, the scene still resembled "the aftermath of a battle in Spain", according to one eyewitness.25
The demonstrators showed an admirable gift for organisation – some of it planned, some improvised. Local headquarters were established to direct the struggle. Motor cyclists and cyclists were organised to carry messages, and both the CP and ILP established first aid stations to treat those injured.
Mosley finally rolled up in a black sports car around 3.40pm – over an hour late, and ten minutes after the march was due to set off. "Union Jacks on decorated poles rose in the air and a forest of hands above the black-coated ranks went up in salute as Sir Oswald, wearing the new Blackshirt uniform, with a peaked cap, drove down the ranks with two other officers of the movement."26
Shortly before this, the police had begun preparing to clear a route towards Houndsditch for the BUF march. But by the time Mosley spoke to the Police Commissioner these plans had been abandoned and Mosley was told that the march could not proceed because of the threat of disorder. The intervention of ILP leader Fenner Brockway, who phoned the Home Office, may have had some influence on the Police Commissioner’s U-turn.27 But, as the Herald reporter pointed out, "it was obvious to him, as it was to everyone, that any attempt to force a way for the Fascist column would have meant serious riot and bloodshed".28
At 4pm the Blackshirts were escorted out of Royal Mint Street by thousands of police and diverted down the Embankment – away from East London. As the fascists skulked off towards the West End, "everyone of Jewish appearance was insulted and in some cases they were spat upon".29 When they reached Trafalgar Square the fascists tried to hold a meeting there but were prevented from doing so by the police. They were forced to disperse, having been comprehensively humiliated.
Lessons of the Battle
The Communist Party drew the lesson from Cable Street that it was necessary to intensify the campaign against non-intervention in Spain: "Neutrality must go! Spanish democracy must be saved!"31 It weathered the internal storm, and recruited heavily on the strength of its role in the struggle against Mosley. Party membership doubled between 1935 and 1937. Joe Jacobs was expelled from the CP in 1937 for advocating a more militant line. Phil Piratin went on to become MP for Stepney from 1945-50, although it was on a programme to the right of Labour.
The ILP drew more radical conclusions: "As in Spain, Fascism must be opposed not by appeals for the defence of Capitalist Democracy, but by a call to united working-class action for Workers’ Power and Socialism."32
The Trotskyist Red Flag, paper of the Marxist League, called upon militant workers to follow up their victory and "swing the entire organised working class movement into action. The effort of the Labour Party leaders to teach the workers reliance on the police must be exposed for what it really is – a policy which will secure the Fascists freedom to conduct their anti-Jewish, anti-working class propaganda, and engage in brutal attacks on workers in East London".33 It went on to link the fight against fascism to bringing down the National Government and the struggle for workers’ power.
Cable Street took place on the eve of the Labour Party annual conference, which unanimously passed an emergency resolution condemning "the tragic and deplorable events of yesterday in the East End of London". It condemned the Tory government’s refusal to ban the march, proposed the illegalisation of political uniforms and "militarised politics", and called on the Tories to organise a government inquiry into Fascism! Moving the resolution, London County Council leader Herbert Morrison placed the blame for the battle in the East End not only on the BUF but on the "threats of counter-demonstrations from the Communists and from the Independent Labour Party".34 The Mayor of Stepney meanwhile paid tribute to "the splendid behaviour and good humour of the police"!35
The ruling class took its cue from the Labour leadership, and with its support, rushed the Public Order Act through parliament. Although the act banned the wearing of political uniforms, it was primarily used against left-wing demonstrators and anti-fascists.36
What lessons can be drawn for the struggle against racism and fascism today? The most obvious conclusion is that to call on the state to defeat fascism is both futile and counter-productive. Far from defending workers and Jewish people, the state mobilised a huge force of police to defend the fascists. In fact, physical confrontation between anti-fascists and the BUF was very limited. The real battles took place between the anti-fascists and the police.
Cable Street demonstrates the one-sidedness of those who argue that all actions must take place through the official labour movement. If it had been left to the leaders of the labour movement, no mobilisation against the fascists would have taken place.
But it also disproves the facile arguments of those who claim that because the Labour leadership is so hostile to independent working class action its hold over the class as a whole will automatically weaken. There is no evidence that the treacherous response of the Labour Party leaders nationally and locally to the BUF provocation lost the party the allegiance of any but a small minority of the class.
Anti-fascist mobilisations, however militant, do not absolve Marxists from the task of breaking the mass of reformist workers from Labourism. After all, it was in this period that Trotsky argued for a turn to the Labour Party, anticipating a leftward movement in its ranks. A militant united front policy of opposition to all forms of racism and fascism is a vital component of revolutionary politics. But it is not a substitute for an all-round programme to take the class as a whole forward.
1. R. Benewick, The Fascist Movement in Britain, Allen Lane, 1972, p.83.
2. R. Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, Macmillan, 1975, p.331.
3. Benewick, pp.25-7; F.G. Clarke, Will-o’-the-Wisp, OUP, 1983, pp.26-7.
4. Daily Herald, October 1, 1936.
5. Daily Worker, October 1, 1936.
7. S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Two Steps Back, Socialist Platform, 1982, p.47.
8. See J. Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto, Janet Simon, 1978, and P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, for contrasting accounts.
9.Jacobs, p. 238.
10. Ibid., p.238.
11. Daily Worker, October 3, 1936.
12. For example, Piratin; N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-41, Lawrence and Wishart, 1985; N. Branson and M. Heinemann, Britain in the Nineteen Thirties, Panther, 1973. See also Arnold Wesker’s play Chicken Soup with Barley, and ‘Turning the Tide’, in Fighting Talk No. 1.
13. Daily Herald, October 3, 1936.
14. New Leader, October 9, 1936.
15. F. Brockway, Inside the Left, Allen and Unwin, 1942, p.271.
16. S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Against the Stream, Socialist Platform, 1986, pp.202-3.
17. Information from Daisy Groves and Arthur Shute.
18. Daily Herald, October 1, 1936.
19. East London Advertiser, October 3, 1936.
20. Daily Worker, October 5, 1936.
23. Daily Herald, October 5, 1936.
24. Daily Worker, October 5, 1936.
25. East London Advertiser, October 10, 1936.
26. Daily Worker, October 5, 1936.
27. Brockway, p.272.
28. Daily Herald, October 5, 1936.
30. Daily Worker, October 5, 1936.
32. New Leader, October 9, 1936.
33. Red Flag, October 1936.
34. Daily Herald, October 6, 1936.
35. Daily Herald, October 5, 1936.
36. See M. Turnbull, ‘The Public Order Act 1936’, in Labour Review, January 1978.