The real lesson of Cable Street

Submitted by Newcastle on 5 November, 2009 - 11:25 Author: By Ira Berkovic

The SWP claims that in the earlier part of the 20th century, socialists “united with the Jewish community” to fight racism, and so their call to “unite with the Muslim community” today has good precedent.

In fact, far from straightforwardly “uniting with” the Jewish community (as if it were a homogeneous bloc), revolutionaries – both from inside the community and outside – attempted to fight for socialist politics within it, and to split it along class lines.

Before World War One, when anti-semitism was the biggest form of racism in Britain, and immigration controls such as the Aliens Act of 1904 were specifically directed against Jews, Jewish anarcho-syndicalists led by Rudolph Rocker in East London (then heavily Jewish) defiantly held annual balls on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a most important and solemn day in the Jewish religious calendar, and Saturday rallies outside synagogues at which they waved ham sandwiches.

In 1936, the Independent Labour Party and other socialists defied the right-wing conservatism of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle – who were advising Jewish workers to stay away from anti-fascist demonstrations and rely on the police – in order to build the famous Cable Street blockade that prevented Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists from marching through the East End of London.

Socialists united with religious-minded workers in struggle, of course, and used good sense to avoid having strikes or demonstrations disrupted by artificial the arguments over religion. But they also expressed an explicit and irreverent hostility to religion. The record stands in stark contrast to the SWP's recent activity. In 2004, the SWP promoted George Galloway, the figurehead for their Respect front, as a “fighter for Muslims”, with “strong religious principles” and teetotal.

The SWP claimed that their years of courting political-Islamist groups would enable them to win radicalised young Muslims over to socialism. In fact they have left the SWP helpless today when the conservative leaders of the Muslim communities counsel young Muslims to stay away from the anti-fascist demonstrations against the English Defence League.

In the 1930s there was a substantial and well-organised left within the Jewish community – people who had already reached socialist conclusions and who were prepared to struggle against the rabbis and their backward ideas.

With the chief exception of the small Worker-communist groups in Britain's Iraqi and Iranian refugee communities, no such organised element exists in the big majority of Britain's Muslim and Asian communities, and one cannot be “imposed” from outside. But there are workers and youth within Muslim communities open to radical and left-wing ideas. How will they gain the confidence to organise and expand their influence if the socialists they come into contact with on demonstrations constantly advise them to “unite” with the conservatives in their communities whom they are rebelling against?

• For more on Cable Street:

• Further reading: William Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2004.

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