LONDON — The “Battle of Cable Street,” as it has come to be called, represents a rare moment of shared pride for many British Jews and the country’s left.
On October 4, 1936, between 100,000 and 300,000 people — Jews, Irish dockers, trade unionists, socialists and communists — gathered in the East End of London determined to prevent a planned fascist march through the city’s main Jewish neighborhood.
Barricades, including a bus and a tram, were used to block Cable Street. Improvised weaponry — sticks, rocks, chair legs, rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots — were readied, and children were deployed to roll marbles under the hooves of the police horses. And the slogan “they shall not pass,” echoing that of the Spanish republicans’ fight against Franco’s coup earlier that summer, was chanted.
Despite baton charges and strenuous attempts by the police to clear the streets, fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley was eventually forced to accept the inevitable and order the 5,000 Blackshirts of his British Union of Fascists into a humiliating retreat. Police escorted them back towards central London.
“This was almost unprecedented in British political history — and testified to the radicalism of the Jews who carried with them the memories of persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe,” historian Colin Schindler has argued.
The left wing and Jewish press united in joy at the outcome. “Battles Stop Mosley March,” declared banner headlines on the Labour-supporting Daily Herald, while the Communist party’s Daily Worker led its report with: “Mosley Did Not Pass: East London Routs the Fascists.” The Jewish Chronicle was barely less exuberant. “The People Said ‘No!’” its story of the events in the East End was headlined.
Today, the Battle of Cable Street is frequently cited as the moment at which British fascism was decisively defeated, and held up as an example of both the historical ties between the left and the Jewish community, and as a model for how a resurgent far right can be similarly vanquished.
“The Battle of Cable Street was a turning point,” suggested the BBC in an article commemorating the event’s 75th anniversary, while Israel’s ambassador, Mark Regev, has lauded it as a “milestone in the struggle against fascism and antisemitism.” For Hope Not Hate, the UK’s much-respected anti-extremism campaign group, Cable Street is nothing less than “the greatest anti-fascist victory on British soil.”
This narrative received a further boost last month when the British government’s heritage body, Historic England, designated Cable Street as one of the country’s top 100 places which “bring to life England’s rich history.” The landmark was picked by historian David Olusoga in a category designed to identify England’s 10 most important sites showing the “history of power, protest and progress.”
“Although this was a violent protest, as a nation we should be more aware and proud of the Battle of Cable Street,” Olusoga argued. The protest, he argued, heralded “a victory for the Jewish community, the people of the East End, and anti-fascists everywhere.”
The landmark designation is no mean feat. Cable Street shares the accolade alongside the Palace of Westminster — which houses the British parliament — and such iconic locations as the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, where the first trade unions were formed, and the military bunker in west London from which the Royal Air Force’s battle against Hitler’s attempt to invade the UK in the summer of 1940 was directed.
The archetype for the Brits’ trouncing of Fascism
It is not hard to see why the Battle of Cable Street has gained renewed significance in recent years.
With far-right populists gaining ground across Europe over the past decade, the lessons of how and why Britain failed to develop a successful, homegrown fascist party in the 1930s are important ones.
Two years ago, when London marked the 80th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, argued that it offered a “roadmap” in how to defeat extremists.
“It’s so important to recognize that history tells us there are people who would divide our communities — and history tells us the roadmap to defeat them,” he told the Jewish News.
The mayor’s sentiments were echoed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who told a commemorative event attended by politicians and the community leaders that “it was here that we learned the lesson of the power of unity. So many individuals, groups and families gained added strength from the numbers of people who poured on to the streets.”
Hope not Hate agrees. “Cable Street,” it has argued, “showed how important it was to forge common unity in the face of organized hatred, and to stand up alongside vulnerable communities.” It has even produced a special multimedia website detailing the story of Mosley’s humiliation.
Indeed, such is Cable Street’s mythic status that it has been held up as a model by the American “antifa” movement.
“For many members of contemporary anti-Fascist groups,” the New Yorker’s Daniel Penny has argued, “the incident remains central to their mythology, a kind of North Star in the fight against Fascism and white supremacy across Europe and, increasingly, the United States.”
In his “Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook,” US academic and left-wing activist Mark Bray lauds the example of how the mass, united front shown at Cable Street effectively killed off the Blackshirts.
Last year’s clashes between white nationalists and anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville sparked immediate comparisons.
“The left has a history of breaking such contemptible political currents, and it is that history that we must tap into and learn from today,” wrote Douglas Williams in The Guardian. “As the battle of Cable Street proved in 1936, and the civil rights movement proved again and again across the south in the 1960s, the only way to defeat fascists and white supremacists is to meet them head-on in confrontation, with strong working-class social movements in the streets.”
Corbyn’s well-publicized personal connection
But it is not just the battle against the far right with which Cable Street is frequently associated. As the Labour party has been rocked by allegations of anti-Semitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left leadership, Corbyn has frequently raised his personal connection to events in the East End eight decades ago as a form of defense.
Questioned on television during the 2015 Labour leadership contest about his alleged links to Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, Corbyn leapt straight to this line. “My mother stood in Cable Street alongside the Jewish people and the Irish people,” he told Channel 4 News. “We all have a duty to oppose any kind of racism wherever it raises its head.”
A year later, the Labour leader delivered an uncharacteristically personal and emotional speech at the main commemorative event marking the 80th anniversary of Cable Street. Speaking of the “deep personal significance” the confrontation held for him, Corbyn declared: “One woman stood there along with many others and she told me all about it. That woman was my mother. She stood here with so many others because she wanted to live in a world, as we all do, that is free from xenophobia and free from hate. Those that stood here in 1936 did an enormous service.”
This appearance is oft-cited by Corbyn’s supporters. Thus, when the Labour leader was accused in March of having defended an anti-Semitic mural located not far from Cable Street, the pro-Corbyn Evolve Politics website argued: “Corbyn has campaigned tirelessly to try and eradicate all types of racism and discrimination in whatever form they come in, but his incredibly powerful speech at Cable Street in 2016 is possibly the best example to show that he is, in fact, the exact opposite of an anti-Semite.”
In the midst of the furor, Corbyn himself issued a statement arguing that “the Tower Hamlets mural I celebrate is the one which commemorates the mobilization of East London’s Jewish community in the anti-fascist demonstrations against Mosley’s Blackshirts in Cable Street in 1936.”
In fact, Corbyn’s references have now become a source of mockery and anger.
“Did you know that Jeremy Corbyn’s mother fought at the Battle of Cable Street?” The Times columnist Hugo Rifkind sarcastically began a column after March’s revelations. “I know it’s a well-kept political secret.” Others in the community have adopted a sharper tone, saying Corbyn “wraps himself in the flag” of Cable Street, and attempts to use his mother’s attendance as “moral armor.”
Regev has also noted the incongruity of those on the hard left who hail the manner in which fascists were confronted in Cable Street, while aligning themselves with anti-Semitic terror groups which seek to destroy Israel.
Referencing the Iran-imported, anti-Semitic Al Quds Day parade which takes place in London each year — and which Corbyn attended prior to becoming Labour leader — the ambassador noted: “It is one thing to savor the memory of marching down Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists 80 years ago. But if today you find yourself marching down Oxford Street in solidarity with the anti-Semitic Islamists of Hamas and Hezbollah, then you need to stop what you are doing, turn around, and start marching in the opposite direction.”
Not exactly the stuff of legends, but the font of many myths
Many historians believe that the principal problem with attempting to draw lessons and evoke the memory of Cable Street is the under appreciation of the events that followed it.
“Cable Street went down in history as a decisive check to fascism,” Martin Pugh argues in his study “Hurrah For The Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars.” “In reality it was nothing of the sort.”
Three principal myths surround Cable Street and its aftermath.
First, the confrontation which took place that day in the East End was not between the fascists and their enemies, but between the police and those who were determined to prevent the Blackshirts from marching. Thus, approximately 80 anti-Mosley protesters were arrested and at least 73 police officers injured.
Second, Cable Street did not bring an end to fascist activity in the East End. Quite the opposite.
The Blackshirts’ retreat turned out to be a temporary, strategic one. In the aftermath of it, Mosley’s henchmen issued blood-curdling threats. “It is about time the British people of the East End knew that London’s pogrom is not very far away now,” warned high-ranking thug Mick Clarke. “Mosley is coming every night of the week in the future to rid East London and by God there is going to be a pogrom.”
In reality, Mosley did not come “every night of the week.” As his biographer, Robert Skidelsky, notes, it actually suited the Blackshirt leader to heed police advice and call off the Cable Street march, as he wished to be in Berlin the next day to secretly marry Diana Mitford at the home of Joseph Goebbels.
But Clarke’s words were grimly prophetic. The weekend after Cable Street saw the worst incident of anti-Jewish violence in Britain during the interwar period — the “Pogrom of Mile End” — when 200 Blackshirt youths ran amok in Stepney in the East End, smashing the windows of Jewish shops and homes and throwing an elderly man and young girl through a window. Though less serious, attacks on Jews were also reported in Manchester and Leeds in the north of England.
Mosley’s British Union of Fascists cleverly managed to turn defeat at Cable Street into a propaganda victory of sorts. They portrayed themselves as the innocent party whose rights to free speech had been denied by the “red terror” of “Communist-Jewish violence,” a police who had “openly surrendered to alien mobs,” and “a government that cannot govern.”
The Blackshirts ramped up the anti-Semitic content. Mosley held a series of large rallies across the East End (one attracted a crowd of 12,000 people), and membership in the capital jumped by 2,000 — part of a “definite pro-fascist” shift, reported Special Branch.
“However laudable the motivation of the Jewish participants that day,” the historian Daniel Tilles has written of Cable Street, “the primary consequence of their actions was to make life significantly worse for their fellow Jews in the East End, with their involvement used to justify the commencement of the most intensive phase of anti-Semitic activity in modern British history.”
Finally, the Blackshirts were not defeated on the streets, but by the resilience of parliamentary democracy and the main political parties which were committed to it.
Just over six months after Cable Street, Mosley attempted an electoral breakthrough in the East End, where the party’s support was highest. But, playing the anti-Semitism card ruthlessly — the choice was between “us and the parties of Jewry,” the Fascists claimed — Blackshirt candidates in local elections managed to pull only around one-fifth of the vote.
Moreover, the Fascists’ jibe that the government couldn’t govern rang rather hollow when — at the urging of the police, who did not much appreciate the invidious position they had been put in at Cable Street — a Public Order Act was swiftly pushed through parliament. Albeit imperfect, the legislation banned the wearing of political uniforms in public and increased police powers to prohibit marches (which were regularly renewed in the East End). Police also began arresting and prosecuting speakers at political events who directed grossly abusive language against Jews.
Over the next two years, as the drumbeats of war grew louder, Mosley reinvented himself as a peace campaigner. With a general election due in 1940 — which ended up being postponed due to the outbreak of war — it was a cause which offered far greater political dividends than Jew-baiting in the East End, even if anti-Semitism underpinned Mosley’s claims that it was the Jews who were pushing Britain inexorably into conflict with Hitler.
Nonetheless, Mosley’s campaign to put “Britain First” aligned him with the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain’s government and mined a rich seam of public opinion. Membership of the BUF rose and his peace rally at Earls Court in July 1939 attracted some 20,000 people.
When war came two months later, however, a party so closely tied in the public mind to the country with which Britain was by then engaged in an existential fight lost much of the little support it then had.
None of this should, of course, detract from the important sense of solidarity which many East End Jews gained from Cable Street.
“My mother said there were only two types of people in the world. Jews and Jew-haters,” Bernard Kops, who was 10 years old in 1936, recalled in a BBC documentary.
“Of course, when Cable Street came along, the Irish labourers and dockers came out and it was them that really made sure Mosley didn’t get through,” said Kops. “My mother and father really had to change their minds after that and accept that others did come to help us out.”