Radical Books

Cable Street – What Kind of Victory?

David Rosenberg, Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s; The Cable Street Group, Battle of Cable Street 1936 (originally published 1995); Roger Mills, Everything Happens in Cable Street; Alan Gibbons, Street of Tall People (originally published by Orion in 1995) Frank Griffin, October Day (originally published by Secker and Warburg in 1939) – all published by Five Leaves, 2011.

red plaque commemorating the battle of cable street

On October 4th 1936 a march of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, entered the East End of London where its progress was stopped at Cable Street by an organised crowd of anti-Fascists. A battle ensued between the anti-Fascists and the police, who had been drafted in to protect the Fascists, which ended in Mosley abandoning the march.

In an article published in 2011 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, Daniel Tilles challenged the common view that Cable Street was a decisive victory for antifascism. Referring primarily to contemporary accounts from police and British Union of Fascist sources, he claimed that;

‘contemporary records, in contrast to the romanticised recollections of those on the anti-fascist side, tell a different story. Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months the BUF was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success.’

‘The Myth of Cable Street’ in History Today, October 2011

Readers of Battle for the East End will gain the strong impression that the conclusions reached by Tilles perhaps miss the point. David Rosenberg makes extensive use of contemporary documents from all sides to examine the relationship between British fascism and anti-Semitism.  He shows how – despite opposition by some members – anti-Semitism became central to the strategy of the BUF which sought to win working-class support by racialising the key Depression issues of jobs and housing and whipping up racist attitudes that were always latent.  The possibility that the fascists could win over key sections of the East End working class – particularly in the docks – was real.

Rosenberg also tracks discussions within and between Jewish organisations – as reflected particularly in the Jewish Chronicle – to show the widening gulf between the Jewish establishment and working-class East London Jews over how fascism should be confronted. On the one hand, the Board of Deputies of British Jews – led by wealthy members of the ‘older’ Jewish communities – saw Jewishness as a religious identity.  Their view – expressed through the JC’s leading articles – was that anti-Semitism was alien to liberal British values and not necessarily intrinsically linked to fascism.  Antifascist political action would only inflame racism and Jews should rather appeal to the better nature of British people.  They opposed direct action on the streets and in some cases even blamed Jewish activists.

Jews living on those streets, however, saw things very differently. Fascists were attacking them as an ethnic group. The Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Antisemitism – made up of activists who belonged to the ‘new communities’ of Jews born in Britain who saw themselves as part of the wider working class and asserted their absolute right to equality – expressed views which were increasingly reflected in letters to the JC and some of its articles.  For them, as for community organisations such as the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League – which included Communist Party activists but was broadly based – Mosley’s anti-Semitism was central to the BUF ideology and strategy.  Fascism was an enemy that threatened Jewish and non-Jewish workers alike.  So when, for example, the BUF focused on ‘British’ families being evicted by Jewish landlords, the grassroots movements organised rent strikes bringing Jewish and non-Jewish tenants in common cause.

Rosenberg’s highly readable and well-referenced account narrates the build-up to 4th October and its aftermath with care, showing the shifting ground of all parties (including the Communist Party who abandoned at the last moment their plan for an alternative anti-Franco rally in Trafalgar Square, having finally decided to focus their attention on the East End march).  His case is that the ‘sophisticated and effective strategies of resistance’ – not only the barricades and street resistance but the community activism that had brought East Enders together in common cause – resulted in united action on estates where Jews and non-Jews encountered each other frequently, faced common difficulties and could be engaged in joint campaigns to deal with their common problems.  While the inhabitants of the western end of Cable Street were largely Jewish, the eastern end was overwhelmingly Irish Catholic:

The Communist Party had wrestled with the fascists for support from the dockers, but on this day it was clear that the Communists had the upper hand … As Jewish and non-Jewish anti-fascists were completing the erection of barricades and fighting police charges, they were reinforced by dockers marching to their aid from the “Irish” end of Cable Street.

It is true – as Tilles points out to support his thesis – that racist attacks on Jews in the East End increased for a time after Cable Street as did the fascist vote in the local elections.  But the left actually won seats in those elections; Jewish communities (as eyewitnesses describe in interviews) felt strengthened by the wider support they had received; and the BUF began to fragment as many of its leading members pulled away, with a rift developing between its military and political wings and

… it was clear to any fascist foot-soldier who had eyes to see that, on that day, they faced a massive turnout of ordinary men and women of all ages, determined through collective action, solidarity and sheer force of numbers rather than random acts of thuggery to defend their area from incursion and intimidation.

The controversy continued.  The next issue of the JC included both – on the one hand -a leading article attacking the antifascist action for ‘(enabling) Mosley to pose as a martyr to the cause of civil liberty and … win new recruits’ and – on the other – a report by a special correspondent describing the action as ‘the greatest blow (Fascism) has had yet in this country.’  As Rosenberg states:

Underlying these contrasting responses were conflicting sets of ideas about the nature of the Jewish community and its actual and desired position in relation to the wider society … The more encompassing responses of the “new community” were consistent with an understanding that anti-Semitism was a threatening domestic product operating against an exposed minority. They rested on a much more equivocal evaluation of British society and a more vulnerable self-image, which more closely reflected reality for the bulk of British Jews in the 1930s.

An assessment of the extent to which the Battle of Cable Street was a victory should be based not on the short-term impact on the BUF but on its deeper, longer-lasting achievements.  It showed that fascism could be successfully resisted and that a class-conscious understanding of racism could enable a community to unite across ethnic divides to face a common enemy.  It should be remembered, too, that the actual street battles were between protesters and the police – many of whom openly supported the BUF – and that the state’s response to Cable Street was a Public Order Act that worked against the left far more than it did against the right.

In spite of the fact that the East End has often – in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s – provided apparently fertile ground for extreme racist and fascist politics, especially at times of economic decline, the tradition of ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ established in 1936 has been successfully defended against the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League.  Cable Street established a tradition which, though often challenged, has been maintained. Not only did it boost confidence at a dangerous time but it continues to inspire antifascist activists to this day.

Five Leaves are to be commended for publishing Rosenberg’s book alongside four others: read together they provide a fascinating insight from a range of perspectives.  Battle of Cable Street 1936 is a short introduction to the event which was first published by the Cable Street Group in 1995.  Aimed at the general reader, it provides a historical, economic and social context and is rich in accounts from people who were present on the day, which provide support for Rosenberg’s thesis.  Walter Coleman, son of a Cable Street bootmaker, talks of there being very little anti-Semitism until it was stirred up by the fascists. Charlie Goodman remembers that;

One of the hardest jobs we had was to try and get the Jewish establishment to try and understand what was going on. In the Jewish Chronicle previous to the Sunday there was the central page which we all remember … it says ‘Don’t go. Shut your doors. Don’t get involved.’

Mrs Jones, a baker’s daughter, remembers non-Jewish neighbours giving her family things to throw; while Jim Wolveridge, a teenage delivery boy at the time, recounts:

Then…someone called out “the dockers are coming” and they swarmed into the street in their hundreds. Many of them carried pick-axes and they used them to pry up the paving stones – some they broke into pieces to use as missiles and some they used to build a barricade…

Joyce Goodman recalls how, as a 12-year-old, it was the violence of the police that terrified her.

Everything Happens in Cable Street by Roger Mills, a longstanding local resident and community activist, is a largely anecdotal but consistently rewarding ramble through the characters and history of Cable Street which deals partly with 1936 but mainly with the many changing identities of the street since then.  Mills loves Cable Street and the fondness shows, whether he is describing larger-than-life characters, telling stories, mapping out the ‘kind of frontier territory’ between the Jewish and Irish ends of the street in the 1930s, or recounting with mixed sadness and fascination the seediness of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Remarkably, the street has seen several cultural flowerings: the Cable Street Studios, Alternative Arts, the Tower Hamlets Arts Project and – perhaps most importantly – the Basement Writers group that grew from Stepney Words, the collection of poems by children at Sir John Cass School that resulted in the suspension of their teacher Chris Searle and became a key moment in the development of community presses publishing oral histories, poetry and stories by local people.

Mills tells the story behind the Cable Street mural, too, and how its original artist Dave Binnington withdrew from the project after the mural was vandalised in the 1980s; in an interview he expresses regret that the final work shows the Communist Party playing a central role when he claims that his interviews with participants had shown that this was not the case.

Image of the Battle of Cable Street Mural

The final two books are both novels.  Street of Tall People (first published 1995) is a children’s book by the celebrated author Alan Gibbons.  Set around the events of October 1936 it centres on two boys whose ‘brotherhood’ crosses ethnic and political divides.  Brought together by boxing, Jewish Benny and Gentile Jimmy become close friends but their relationship faces crisis when the families meet at Southend: when Jimmy’s mother’s boyfriend turns out to be a Blackshirt Benny feels betrayed.  At the heart of the tale are values of solidarity and loyalty and it is the Battle of Cable Street that seals their friendship and makes Jimmy’s mum feel able to confront her abusive lover.  As the characters work through the issues surrounding their values and relationships the boys are surprised to see Irish dockers joining the barricades:

“But why do you want to stop Mosley?” asked Benny. “You’re not a Jew.”
“A lot of reasons,” said the docker. “Mosley’s no friend of working folk. Besides, we owe the Jews a debt … Forty years ago we were out for the docker’s tanner, on strike for a living wage. … There were the Jews, fresh from Europe and dirt poor, and they collected money for us. You don’t forget things like that.”

October Day by Frank Griffin is a real treasure: Five Leaves are to be congratulated on their reprint of this 1939 novel by a writer close to the events of October 1936. As Andy Croft says in his introduction:

October Day is a novel about political process, about the relationship between the individual and the crowd, the private and the public. Like Chaplin in Modern Times, the novel’s characters are swept along by historical forces they cannot see.

It is also a good read: a page turner, no less successful in its plot and characterisation than many bestselling popular novels. Seen at the time as an example of ‘cinematic’ fiction, it would make a good script for a TV drama.  At the heart of the novel are three relationships: between a lonely bus conductor and a young woman whose friend has just killed herself; between a policeman and a fascist-sympathising wealthy widow; and, centrally, between an unemployed worker who hates trades unions and the events of 4th October.  All the characters’ lives are linked and they are all sucked into and changed by the battle, most notably Joe the unemployed worker who – after being beaten up by fascists who think he is Jewish and meeting young Communists at the barricades – comes to realise the importance of solidarity. If plot and character are at times predictable and a little contrived, the writing is at its very best when Griffin is describing the protest itself:

He was there when the police rushed up, truncheons drawn, their round metal buttons glinting in the sun, their bodies arched forward as they ran, as if bent by the force of a storm. And there he stayed, hurling the stones and the bottles which darkened the sound torn air, and then, seizing a plank in his frenzied hands, he lashed out again and again until the police ran back faster than ever they had come, sorely battered by that volley of stones and bewildered momentarily by that grim and ferocious resistance.

The release of these five titles is timely and fitting, not only to help our understanding of that period but also for the perspectives they offer us at a time when organised protest is again a major political force, and the need to consider united community resistance at a time of crisis is once more pressing.

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