Cable Street – from petitioning to street barricades

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Eighty years ago today the working class in the slum housing of the East End of London rose up and stopped British fascism in its tracks at the Battle of Cable Street. This is an excellent account of the lead up to that historic day and of what happened on it.

It is from the site of the “Cable Street 80” committee, which is organising the major commemorative events in Whitechapel this coming Sunday.

Cable Street is well remembered on the British left. It is something that all of us feel rightly proud of, particularly if we have lived in or been associated with the East End of London. It provided a reference point for later bursts of intense anti-fascist activity: from stopping the National Front at Lewisham and the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s, again at the Battle of Welling in the early 1990s, and into this century.

Cable Street is rich not just in inspiration but in political pointers for the anti-fascist movement still. Its relevance is all the greater when we consider some of the aspects which may be detail to the overall story, but which will resonate with activists today.

British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley announced his intention to converge on the East End of London and rampage through the heart of the Jewish area only at the very end of September 1936.

It is important to see how things felt at that time. There had been repeated attempts at fascist incursion on the fringes of the East End. In areas bordering Bethnal Green on the northern boundary of the large, Jewish working class community there had been frequent physical attacks. People had been killed.

The overall situation in Europe looked grim indeed. General Franco had issued his pronunciamento announcing a fascist uprising against the Spanish Republic on 18 July. Just two months later, as Mosley announced his plans, Franco had managed to advance at great speed from Spanish-occupied Morocco, through western Andalusia to within 80 km of taking Madrid. He was halted. But at the beginning of October 1936 it looked as if another country was about to fall imminently to fascism, joining Italy and Germany. The Berlin Olympics in August had just projected depressing news footage of Hitler firmly in power.

The people of the East End who were about to engage in a major fight were in no sense looking for one. They were far from optimistic in their assessment of where Europe and Britain were heading. They were indignant at the threatened march. But all accounts record that there was also great fear.

Communist activists through the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, which they had initiated, launched a petition calling on the Home Secretary to ban Mosley’s march. Within 48 hours they got 100,000 signatures. It was an incredible feat, not exceeded since the days of the Chartist agitation in Britain a hundred years earlier.

They handed it in on Friday 2 October. The Tory Home Secretary refused to ban the demonstration – just two days before it was to take place.

As they petitioned, the Stepney branch of the Communist Party had been making the argument to block Mosley even if the Home Secretary would not. The Labour Party’s position was to rely only upon the petition, and if that failed for people to clear the streets on Sunday and let Mosley pass.

The government’s refusal to respond to the mass petition sent shockwaves. The agitation to stop Mosley took off like a rocket.

The Young Communist League in London had been building for a rally in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with the Spanish Republic on 4 October. They had called it well before Mosley announced his plans.

Remember – Franco was almost at the gates of Madrid, which seemed about to fall. Rallying for Spain in central London was far from some ritualistic action. It was to be the first big mobilisation for Spain. It too was an emergency.

Understandably, people did not want to call it off at six days notice and still with the possibility that the government would have to yield to popular pressure. How would comrades in Spain feel that the first protest in their support in London had been cancelled?

The thinking was also that if it was called off then Mosley would be able to force the cancellation of any big event just by announcing a demonstration at short notice. He would have a veto on left wing activity. Anyone who has been part of organising a major event in such circumstances knows these kinds of dilemmas.

In the six days running up to Cable Street there was intense debate between Communist activists in the heart of the East End and the London-wide leadership.

The first position was for people across London to go to Trafalgar Square and afterwards to east London to support the anti-fascist mobilisation called by the local party and others.

But it became clearer as the few days rolled on that what was happening in east London was a massive groundswell, reported by the local activists who could see and feel it. Then the shock on the Friday of the rejection of the petition swung the argument right over. Trafalgar Square was cancelled that afternoon and leaflets and posters amended calling everyone to Aldgate East on the Sunday.

The result was the epic day in working class history described so well on the Cable Street 80 page linked to.

That is the big story. So why the pettifogging details?

Strategies, tactics and living struggle

In the course of many decades of retelling sometimes Cable Street has been shorn of its vital and lived reality and turned into a simplistic political homily. A straightforward clash of tactics – broad campaigning versus direct action. Broad campaigning: conservative and bad; direct action: militant and good.

Now some key features of what happened do reveal a straightforward strategic clash of good and bad. The official leadership of the British Jewish community was useless throughout. It was separated in all sorts of ways from the working class community of the East End: by class; by geography (it was based in better off parts of West London); by politics (it was anti-left); by status and origin – it was much more established from older Southern European immigration and not recent refugees from Eastern Europe; and even by patterns of religious observance. Its advice was just to ignore Mosley.

The Labour Party too was highly ineffective. It supported the petition. But once that failed it called on people to stay at home and not confront the fascists.

It was not just the party’s right wing, represented by Herbert Morrison. He held a big rally in Hackney Town Hall (just two miles from the East End) on the eve of Cable Street calling on people to stay away.

The leading figure of the left, George Lansbury, who was the most left wing leader the Labour Party has ever had, also called from his fastness of Poplar in east London, a short walk from Cable Street, for people not to mobilise on Sunday 4 October.

It is also true that on the radical, Communist left there was a major strategic divide. There was the official policy of the “Popular Front”, which emphasised trying to get unity of all classes in the defence of democracy against fascism. In contrast, was the “United Front” policy of the exiled Leon Trotsky emphasising a militant working class unity which would have to clash with “democratic capitalism” if it was to conduct the necessary fight against fascism.

Vital as that strategic debate still is today, it would be a mistake to shoehorn Cable Street neatly into some ideological mold. The reality of the struggle itself was more powerful than ideological debates, necessary as they are.

A petition handed to the Home Office by a Labour MP, a priest, the secretary of the London Trades Council and two East End Jewish community representatives might seem the height of respectable campaigning. If left at that, it is. And that is where the conservative bureaucracies of the labour movement and of the official Jewish community wanted to leave things.

But the act of petitioning had stirred people – agitated them – throughout the East End. And who had done that and organised others to gather the petition? Radical forces who put the argument to each signatory that whatever the government did, Mosley had to be stopped. The radical minority were clear that confrontational tactics would most likely be needed. They prepared people for them. But most people were not clear about that. A week before the day, the East End was boiling with indignation. But it is was not in its majority envisaging that they would be taking part in street battles the following weekend.

It is the beginning of wisdom to see that one tactic is insufficient and a more militant one necessary. But the genius of what happened 80 years ago was that a militant minority was able to help the majority to see the same thing very rapidly, and to act – moving from a respectable and very British tactic of petitioning, to a very French tactic of street barricades. That had happened on a massive scale with Chartism and the birth of the working class movement in Britain.

The movement from one to the other in 1936 was symbolised by the graffiti that appeared in the East End. In huge letters was painted: “Ban Fascism!” That contained an ambiguity. Who was to ban fascism? The government, or somebody else? The ambiguity was resolved as people moved to realise that it was they who had to impose a popular ban on the fascists’ activities because the government would not.

There was naturally great tactical debate among the Communist militants. That intensified in the months after Cable Street. Joe Jacobs is often identified as representing the “street fighting” or direct action pole of those debates, which became overlaid with other political and strategic arguments. Phil Piratin, who would become Communist MP for Mile End in 1945, is often taken as personifying the other pole, of the wave of agitation the Communist Party undertook throughout east London over housing and social conditions. That undercut the fascists – and the mainstream parties. It also tended towards clashing with big business interests, not appealing to them to join a “democratic front” against fascism.

But seeing Cable Street 80 years ago today primarily through the polarising prism of later political divergences or just as a playing out of an ideological clash over strategy within the Marxist left does not do justice to the lived reality of what happened. And it yields only the most perfunctory of lessons for us today.

It was the “street-fighting” Joe Jacobs, after all, who wrote to the local paper – then, as now, the East London Advertiser – not to play up the violent and wholly justified clash with the fascists, but to highlight the 100,000-strong petition and the callous disregard of a Tory Home Secretary who spurned it.

Cable Street, with all its rich shadings, was brought vividly to life for a number of us in east London five years ago. The racist thugs of the English Defence League announced that they would march through exactly the same area that Mosley had been blocked from. This time the march in 2011 was to intimidate and demonstrate supposed racial superiority over the Muslim Bangladeshi population now living in the same streets as Jewish immigrants had in the 1930s.

A Tory Home Secretary again refused our petition. Her name was Theresa May. She instead said that she would ban us and would impose merely a limit upon the EDL which still allowed them to gather in threatening numbers. They then hoped they would breach police lines or force a march to take place and to invade the East End. Once again, the mass agitation in east London turned to collective defiance as thousands blocked the Whitechapel High Street and Bangladeshi-led battalions protected the housing estates on the frontlines from fascist incursion. The radical independent then mayor of the area, Lutfur Rahman, and his councillors were on the Whitechapel High Street. The EDL did not set one foot into the East End.

Cable Street, with its images of Jewish seamstresses uniting behind barricades with Irish dockers, continues to inspire across the working class movement. For that reason alone it is a story which should be widely shared, given the circumstances we face today.

Additionally, for those who have set themselves on a path of socialist politics and agitation, it provides very rich lessons in dealing with strategic and tactical dilemmas which are never identical with those previously, but which do recur perennially.

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