This year marks the 80th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street: The successful defeat of, Nazi Sympathiser, Oswald Mosley’s march through the east end of London, by people of a range of different backgrounds and beliefs. Cable Street has long reflected the diversity of the entirety of the UK. Even today it is home to people from a range of different backgrounds and nationalities. In the 1930s however it was home to a Jewish community whose stand against prejudice and racism has become famous. Across the street from the train station stands a huge painting of the battle, giving residents of Cable street a stark reminder of what happened in 1936. Despite racism and authoritarianism being issues which affect many people’s everyday lives, it is arguable that the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street could not have been recognized at a more timely moment. Since Britain’s vote to leave the EU, we have seen a rise in racist hate crime. At the same time, we have seen a spike in popularity for far right parties all over Europe. As such, it is important that we remember how previous generations have reacted to such intolerance.
What Happened At The Battle?
In 1936, the East End of London housed the largest Jewish population in the UK. Its 60,000 Jews had already been enduring mounting anti-Semitic violence and intimidation, largely organised by the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Having fallen out with the British government, the BUF turned to dirty politics, trying to drum up support by exploiting tensions between Jewish, Irish, and other groups who were all struggling for Jobs and decent housing.
This outpouring of racist campaigning by the fascists culminated when Oswald Moseley, The BUF leader, arrived in east London with 5,000 ‘Blackshirts’. Among the impoverished workers of the area, Oswald Mosley and other members of the British Union of Fascists, built their movement in a horseshoe around the Jewish community. Throughout the mid-1930s this group had moved closer to Hitler’s brand of fascism with Mosely Himself stating that ‘fascism can and will win in Britain’. Consequentially, the British fascists adopted a dangerously anti-Semitic stance, describing Jews as ‘rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel’. Prior to the Cable Street march, the BUF had engaged in multiple meetings and leafleting of the area in order to intimidate Jewish people and undermine community solidarity. Despite a petition signed by 100,000 people, the British government permitted the march to go ahead and designated 7000 members of the police force to accompany it. The Fascists felt prepared and ready to take their hateful message to the streets.
When the BUF arrived in East London they were met with a human wall, whose diversity was proof of an interracial solidarity that ran deeper than social tensions. Three hundred thousand people – Jewish tailors, Irish Dockers, Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, or just workers – had all come out to block the fascists’ entrance to their community. The counter protest was in defiance of the orders of the Labour Party and other prominent British Labour leaders. Despite this, it soon developed into the biggest riot the UK had seen in years. All provocations had been given not by governments or political parties, but by a unified opposition to racism and a faith in solidarity. Mosely’s march had been interpreted by Jews and workers alike as a challenge to battle. Famously confronting Blackshirts with the chant ‘they shall not pass’, the BUF march was successfully disbanded. The Battle had dealt a blow to British fascism. One that it would never recover from.
The battle took place when Fascism seemed to be on the rise in other European cities, led by Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. For many on the left Cable Street was only the beginning of wider struggles against fascism. Some would go on to devote their lives to anti-fascist activism while others would go on to volunteer in the Spanish civil war, as soldiers for the republicans.
The Battle of Cable street has rightly become mythologised as an iconic example of non-sectarian solidarity. However, the victory was also hard to digest for many Anglo Jewish establishment, as it exposed the divide between working class Jews and their political leaders. The mainstream response to antisemitism by heads of the Jewish church, The Labour Party and the communist party was that it was caused by Jews themselves, and that they should seek to keep a low profile and not interfere in politics. Part of the significance of Cable Street was that - for those Jews that came out on the streets to protest- it was a rejection of that view. As a result of this mainstream view however, for many years following the event, Cable Street was pushed to the margins of Anglo Jewish memory. After the Second World War, the Jewish community in the east end diminished as families were able to relocate to more appealing London suburbs. While becoming more middle class and less marginalised, for a long time British Jews repudiated their working class history. In spite of this, many younger Jews now seem to be embracing their radical past. On the frontier of this is Jewdas, a London based collective whose satirical publications and activism, has gloriously irritated the British Jewish establishment. Earlier this year, Jewdas threw a party on Cable Street, where the crowd dressed up as fascists, communists and working class Jews. It is important to note here that Fascism is not just about Jews; It is about minorities in general and how they are under attack. Celebrating cable street is part of asserting the right and the need to stand up to fascism.
Little is recognisable from that period on Todays Cable Street, apart from the faded street signs. Since 1936, the demographic of London’s East end has undergone multiple changes, yet the new residents have faced similar challenges. The area has become home to a large Bengali and South Asian community, which has faced racism incited by Britain’s far right. British politicians have already been criticised by the UN for allowing a rise in racist hate crime following Brexit. This is a trend that has been replicated across the continent as countries struggle to handle the influx of migrants from the middle east and Africa. The increasing intolerance displayed throughout Europe shows that the lessons from Cable Street are still relevant today. We are fortunate that the far right in Britain is small and fragmented, but you just have to look at France, Germany, Austria and Hungary to see much more powerful and organised right wing movements. Finally, although todays right might not adopt the same image as Mosley’s Black shirts, it poses just as much of a threat and deserves just as much opposition.