When workers beat the fascists: how the left fought the antisemites at Cable Street

Submitted by AWL on 11 December, 2019 - 7:14 Author: Ruah Carlyle
Battle of Cable Street

IN OCTOBER 1936, the workers of East London stopped police-protected fascists marching through the
Jewish areas of the East End. The Battle of Cable Street was an epic, and is now a myth-enshrouded
event in British working-class history. The far right is on the rise in many countries. The fight against fascism may once more become a matter of life and death to the labour movement. What lessons for this work can we learn from the anti-fascist struggle in East London? Did ‘objective conditions’ and, after 1934, Establishment disapproval kill off Mosleyism, or was it direct action on the streets? What are the lessons for today?

The 1929 Wall Street Crash lurched the world economy into chaos. Companies collapsed and millions of
jobs were lost in the Great Depression which then set in. In Britain, too, conditions were severe though
not as cataclysmic as in Germany and the USA. The pound was taken off the Gold Standard in 1931, but,
in contrast to many private and state banks in other countries, the Bank of England was never in danger
of collapse. British unemployment was high, peaking as 23 per cent (nearly four million). Elsewhere, in the
USA and Germany, for example, it was much higher.

In May 1930, Sir Oswald Mosley, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster — a Labour minister charged with
helping to solve the mushrooming unemployment problem and seen as a possible future party leader —
made proposals that were radical for the time. When they were rejected he left the Labour Party to form a
‘New Party’. Within two years the New Party, shedding some of its leaders such as John Strachey, had
evolved into a fascist organisation. Mosley, the radical Labour MP, had become the Fuhrer of the British
Union of Fascists. Britain’s biggest ever fascist party was founded in October 1932.

Mosley’s economic proposals had been basically ‘Keynesian’. He thought that the best way out of the
economic depression was reflation. The government should spend its way out of the depression. The
financial boost to the economy would have a positive knock-on effect. These ideas would be bourgeois
economic orthodoxy ten years later. But, in 1930, the Establishment held to a traditional and conventional view, demanding strict control of expenditure, deflation and cuts in public services such as the dole. (As many conventional economic views do again today). Mosley was thus opposed to what the ruling class saw as its best interests.

Mosley’s ‘Keynesian’ economics — he was by no means the only person to advocate these ideas — were
also rejected by most of the Labour leadership. They too thought it necessary to cut rather than spend.
Despite this comparatively radical stance, Mosley at his best was an elitist reformer, an aristocrat who had
come to Labour from the Tories.

COMMITTED TO OLD-STYLE economics, the ruling class as a whole was certain to oppose Mosley, unless it felt, as had the German and Italian Establishment with Hitler and Mussolini, a need for fascism. The mainstream British Establishment never came to that pass.

However, there was indeed a small section of the Establishment who thought, as had the desperate liberal Giolitti in Italy and the Junker monarchist von Schleicher in Germany, that the might have a use for the fascists. Most notable of these were the Tory press lords Rothermere and Camrose, the British Rupert Murdochs of the day, both part of the Empire Free Trade faction of the Tory Party.

They expected a major social crisis, and hoped to make the rabble-rouser Mosley an auxiliary of the Tory Party: their support for
Mosley was in part a gambit in their factional war against the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin.

They made financial contributions to the British Union of Fascists, and more importantly, they gave it
support in their newspapers — notoriously in Lord Rothermere’s personally-written front-page Daily Mail
article and headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ on 8 January 1934. They were keeping their options
open. If the economy worsened and social discontent grew, the fascists could be on hand to silence
working-class protest by crushing the labour movement in the most brutal way. By late 1934, the BUF had lost this ruling-class support.

The explanation normally given is that they were horrified by Mosley’s Olympia rally of June 1934, where dozens of anti-fascists were publicly beaten up by fascist stewards, while Mosley looked on. These atrocities were no different from numerous previous assaults by fascists at BUF meetings. But Olympia was a deliberate, public display of savage violence.

Staged to impress an audience which included many MPs and other well-off middle-class and
Establishment figures with the ruthless efficiency of BUF fascism, it had an opposite effect. It seemed
gratuitous, and the BUF came to be seen as thugs. Olympia took place at about the time of Hitler’s ‘night
of the long knives’, in which the ‘left-wing’ Nazis were slaughtered, and this increased the resonance.

Mosley had demoted himself from a serious politician to a gutter thug. So the legend goes.

But there were other reasons for people like Lord Rothermere to withdraw their support. Although the
public atrocity at Olympia, and the BUF’s tentative but increasing anti-semitism, did much to alienate the
once sizeable Establishment support, mostly they withdrew support because now they felt confident that
they did not need Mosley. The economy was steadily improving by 1934. There was mass unemployment and devastation in some
areas of the country, and there would be another slump in 1937, but the economic depression was not as bad as people had feared in the early ‘30s.

Politically, too, the crisis of the early 1930s was resolved. The National Government, under the nominal leadership of Ramsay Macdonald but actually dominated by the Conservatives, had created and maintained relative political equilibrium. Rothermere, Camrose, and the car manufacturer William Morris (the future Lord Nuffield) concluded that they were not going to need Mosley’s fascists after all.

They may or may not have been horrified by the fascists’ violence, but if they felt that they needed the
fascists then they would have stomached it, just as the Imperial German politician Karl von Schleicher
was willing to stomach the Nazis. Writing to a friend in March 1932, he stated:
“I am really glad that there is a counterweight [to the Social Democrats] in the form of the Nazis, who are
not very decent chaps either and must be stomached with the greatest caution. If they did not exist, we
should virtually have to invent them.”

This is what Rothermere, Camrose, Morris and the others would have said, if necessary. For them it did not prove necessary. The plebeians Hitler and Mussolini started on the political fringes and, with growing ruling-class support,
moved towards government; the “aristocratic coxcomb” Mosley began in government and moved steadily
towards the political fringes. The BUF began with seemingly great prospects and the support of a number
of national newspapers, and retreated to the margins of politics, becoming primarily a movement of racist
demagogues in the East End of London.

IT WAS ONLY in its period of relative decline that the BUF (known after 1936 as the British Union of
Fascists and National Socialists) turned its attention to East London and there built the only truly mass
base fascism ever built in Britain. It was as late as July 1934 that the first BUF East London Branch was
set up in Bow. It was November of that year before the second East End branch was started, in their
future stronghold of Bethnal Green. Yet they grew quickly and steadily, until by 1937 they were a powerful
force in local government elections.

After the defection of the newspaper barons and the end of the BUF’s initial burst of support, the East End
branches of the BUF became, by spring 1936, the centre of BUF activity. Why? What was it about East
London that focused BUF attention? The Jews of the East End provided the fascists with a unique target.

East End Jews were concentrated in small areas: in 1929, 43 per cent of the national Jewish population
were concentrated in Stepney alone. So, too, could the attack on them be geographically concentrated.
Although its population had been declining from the turn of the century, East London in the 30s was still
one of the most densely populated areas of England, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Stepney were
ranked as the second, third and fourth most populated of the London boroughs. The ‘New Survey of
London Life and Labour’ found 18 per cent of the people of Shoreditch, 17.8 per cent of Bethnal Green,
and 15.5 per cent of Stepney living in poverty.

In East London there was none of the mass unemployment of the industrial North. Most people had work,
but it was insecure work, often in small factories, ‘sweatshops’, prone to disruption and bankruptcy — low
pay, long hours and a pervasive sense of insecurity for the lucky, hunger and destitution for the rest.

East London had been an immigrant gateway for centuries. In the 17th century, French Protestants,
Huguenots, sought refuge there from Catholic persecution. The mid 19th century saw a big influx of Irish
immigrants. After 1881, when systematic pogroms set Russian and Polish Jews to begin their exodus to
the west, large numbers of them settled in the East End, first in Whitechapel then fanning out towards
Stepney and Mile End.

Anti-Jewish agitation, loud or muted, active or latent, had existed in the East End since the time of the first
large Jewish settlements. ‘The Jews’ were long an issue in the East End labour movement. Some labour
leaders sometimes joined in agitation against ‘the Jews’, while others attacked the anti-semites. In the
early 20th century, the British Brothers’ League and the Londoners’ League organised systematic anti-
semitic campaigning. Although those organisations declined after the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act,
which restricted Jewish immigration, anti-semitism continued. In 1917 there were riots in Bethnal Green
against recently arrived Jews, who were not subject to conscription.

IN THIS WHOLE PERIOD of British history, liberal humanitarianism did not have the authority it enjoys
now. “Bashing” and stereotyping ‘the Jews’ was a common part of social and literary discourse. For
example, in 1920, Winston Churchill wrote: “This (Jewish and Communist) world-wide conspiracy for the
overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development... has
been steadily growing.” Anti-Jewish prejudice was deeply ingrained, even on the left.

The leading left-wing and anti-fascist periodical, the New Statesman, could, while condemning the BUF, write in 1936 of the conflicts in East London: “The average poorish Jew has a different glandular and emotional make-up...Jews are often much more ‘pushful’...there is a widely spread, rough, rarely expressed, smouldering anti-semitic resentment much resembling the feeling our native squirrel might have towards the grey interloper...the shouted insults, window-breaking and beard-pullings to which
decent law-abiding-but-money-seeking-at-any-price-to-others Jews have been subjected”. It was a
different, pre-Holocaust world.

The material basis for East End anti-Jewish feeling was the discontent of a materially deprived and angry
“native” population, living side by side with a large number of immigrants and their descendants, whose
cultural distinctiveness cast them easily in the role of scapegoat. All that was needed to make this
resentful scapegoating erupt into an aggressive force was a political formation seeking to exploit anti-

Mosley the ex-minister could speak louder than the traditional East End anti-semite. What he said was not
new, but it struck a strong chord in the East End.

From its inception the BUF had displayed flashes of anti-semitism. In speeches and articles, some of its
secondary leaders, such as William Joyce and A K Chesterton, showed themselves as the hard core anti-
semites they were. But Mosley himself at first showed signs of wanting to eschew ‘extreme’ anti-semitism.
The British Nazi, Arnold Leese, of the Imperial Fascist League, dismissed Mosley as a ‘kosher fascist’.
In 1934 anti-seimitism became central to both the BUF’s propaganda and its activities. Its turn to intense
anti-semitic campaigning after October 1934 was an outright ‘declaration of war’ on the Jews. That was
central to building BUF support in the East End.

They had a profound effect, but they never ‘captured the East End’. The large Jewish minority which provided them with the opportunity through scapegoating of winning grassroots support, also, by its presence in the neighbourhoods and on the electoral roll, prevented them from winning control of whole districts and confined fascist local street dominance to smaller areas.

The story later propagated by the Communist Party, of an East End united against the anti-semitic
Blackshirts, does not tally with election results. Nor do eyewitness accounts — from people unconnected
with the BUF of Mosley on informal evening walks through East End streets surrounded by a ‘forest’ of
arms raised in the fascist salute.

In the 1937 LCC elections the fascists stood in Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. They lost
everywhere but proved the existence of a substantial body of support, coming second in Bethnal Green.

In East London fascism set the agenda for political life. In school playgrounds the game of ‘cowboys and
Indians’ was replaced by ‘Jews and Blackshirts’. Streets, estates, and ‘patches’ were marked off as either
fascist or anti-fascists (Jewish or Communist or both), and were off limits to members of the other side.
Indeed for some time an unofficial state of warfare existed between the two factions. Such a conflict could
not have been maintained without substantial local support for the fascists.

It was against this background that, in September 1936, Mosley announced that the BUF would march
through the East End on 4 October. It was to be the biggest show of fascist strength ever, in this their
strongest area. It could have developed into a pogrom. For Jewish immigrants and their British-born
families, refugees from persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, it meant that the Nazis were coming.

After initial confusion, the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, together with Jewish anti-
fascist organisations, prepared to do battle with the fascists and the police, the defenders of the fascists.
Cable Street coincided with the siege of Madrid. The anti-fascists, overwhelmingly working-class, painted
the slogan ‘No Pasaran’ (‘They Shall Not Pass’) all over East London, linking Mosley’s march with
Franco’s rebellion in Spain. They took the workers of Madrid as their model and inspiration. But would
they be able to stop Mosley?

THE LABOUR PARTY and the trade union movement were against the fascists, but they also opposed
direct action — physical force — to stop their activities. Like the Liberals, they instructed people to rely on
the police to prevent disorder. But unlike the establishment the labour movement feared destruction at the
hands of the Nazis, not just discomfort. Even those who opposed direct action helped arouse the working
class. The Labour Party and TUC research department published many pamphlets and leaflets which
compared the BUF to Italian and German Fascism. This was no futile activity. Though it could not prevent
fascist activities, the literature, along with meetings, created a climate of educated opposition to the
fascists in the labour movement and in the broader working class. Thus it helped prepare a united front in
action between labour movement militants, revolutionary socialists and unaffiliated workers. In this
climate, the militant ‘actionist’ opponents of fascism gained support for physical opposition, even from
normally non-militant Labour Party and trade union members.

Naturally the national leaders of the Jewish community also opposed the fascists. In an area where the
‘Jewish question’ was the very centre of politics, the attitude of the Jewish leadership on what to do about
fascist harassment was important. In 1936 the Board of Deputies set up a Jewish Defence Committee.
Yet, though the Board vehemently opposed the fascists, it told the East End Jews to rely on the police and
on no account to oppose the fascists physically. That, the Jewish leadership insisted, would only add fuel
to the fires of anti-semitism.

Individual members of the British Establishment were, of course, sympathetic to the BUF, or even its
supporters, but the state, the civil servants, the police, and the industrialists, all those elements of British
society which held to the social status quo, collectively condemned them. The government consistently
opposed the fascists, and this too helped create a powerful climate of resistance to fascism ‘on the

Yet the National Government, with unconscious irony proclaiming itself custodian of the law and of
‘traditional British liberties’, found itself defending the fascists’ right to ‘free speech’, and, in practice,
championing their ‘right’ to make life miserable for East London’s Jews. To many in the East End, in
particular to many Jews faced with fascist harassment, this was indistinguishable from Government
defence of the fascists as such. In practice, that’s what it was. According to the East End Labour MP
George Lansbury, it was widely believed in the East End that ‘ordinary people’ would not have had the
same liberty as the fascists. The police were defending the right of people who aped Hitler, who waved his
emblems, and were believed to be in receipt of his money, to march through the Jewish areas in a blatant attempt to terrorise Jews.

The fascists would march through markets abusing Jewish store holders and kicking them. They would
bellow anti-semitic propaganda over loud-hailers late at night in Jewish areas and chalk foul abuse on the
pavement outside Jewish stops, including the slogan ‘P J’ (Perish Judah). They assaulted and incited
assaults on Jews. In the ‘Mile End Pogrom’ of October 1936 — in the week after the battle of Cable Street
— Jewish shops had their windows broken, Jews were beaten in the street, and a pre-school-aged girl
and an old man were thrown through a plate glass window. The list of such incidents is enormous. In this
context the fascists’ ‘right to free speech’ became something else: police defending the right of pogromists
to spread terror in Jewish streets.

To many young Jews, political or not — and large numbers of Jews were members of the Communist
Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party, and of Jewish left-wing groups like Hashomer
Hatzair and the Workman’s Circles — the proper response to fascists marching through Jewish areas was
simple: don’t let them! Sign petitions, try to get the marches stopped, but if all else fails, collect the bricks
and build the barricades: that was their attitude. It was in this climate that the ground was prepared for the
united action by anti-fascists which stopped Mosley at the Battle of Cable Street.

THE TWO MAIN ORGANISATIONS that practised physical force opposition to the fascists were the
Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, and it was their activities — notably
their part in the Battle of Cable Street — which most people today think of as the opposition to the

A Stalinist myth surrounds the Communist Party’s role in the Battle of Cable Street. The CP had a grand
anti-fascist reputation, but an increasingly spurious one.

Up to 1934 the CP had been in the throes of the Stalinist policy known as the ‘third period’, when, so they
said, revolutions were just about to happen everywhere. This was nonsense, and in Germany led the CP
to play into Hitler’s hands, but it had meant that the British CP was willing to throw itself physically — as at
Olympia in 1934 — into fighting fascism, perceived as the last-ditch defenders of a dying capitalism.

By 1936 this view had changed dramatically. The CP’s central concern became ‘anti-fascism’. They were
the anti-fascists par excellence. In fact, ‘anti-fascism’ meant opposition to Germany and support for USSR
foreign policy, to whose interests the CP was subservient. It would alter its relationship to the fascists, as
to everything else, in line with what the rulers of the USSR saw as their needs.

Stalin was pursuing a policy of creating a ‘democratic anti-fascist front’ of the USSR with the capitalist
powers France and Britain against the German Nazis; the British CP, like CPs everywhere, was now
advocating a Popular Front. This meant allying with non-working-class organisations opposed to German
fascism, and in Britain by the late 1930s this would include ‘progressive Tories’.

The British CP was trying to gain respectability, aping mainstream politicians in the hope of allying with
them. As a result, the CP did not always oppose Mosley militantly, because they feared that continued
militancy would make it impossible to ally with ‘respectable’ politicians. By 1936 they were shying away
from physical confrontations. Abandoning class politics, they more and more attempted to compete with
the fascists as British nationalists, and even as protectors of religious freedom against ‘compulsory
idolatry’ in Germany. They were loudest in demanding blanket police bans on the fascists, and
counterposed campaigning for bans to organising on the streets. That was their initial approach to what
became the Battle of Cable Street.

The Stalinists’ reputation as the foremost anti-fascists of the 1930s has been glamorised in history as a
result of the CP’s untruthfully taking almost all the credit for the Battle of Cable Street. The reality was

THE CP ONLY THREW THEIR considerable weight behind the East End anti-fascist mobilisation when it
was clear three days before that they had lost control of their own local members and sympathisers, who
would follow the Independent Labour Party’s call on workers to block the route of the fascist march. At first
they told workers not to oppose the fascists in the East End, and instructed CP members to go to the
Embankment and then Trafalgar Square instead.

Joe Jacobs, a local CP branch secretary, who later broke with the party, was instructed by his superiors
four days before the fascist march not to get involved and instead to build for a demonstration, miles away
in Trafalgar Square, in support of the Spanish Republic against the Spanish fascists.

His instructions were clear: “Keep order, no excuse for the Government to say we, like the BUF, are
hooligans. If Mosley decides to march, let him. Our biggest trouble tonight will be to keep order and

So, while the CP was to concentrate on demonstrating against foreign fascism, Britain’s actual fascists
were to be allowed to march through Jewish streets unopposed! In his posthumously published
autobiography, Jacobs explains the reason for the eventual change of line very clearly: “The pressure
from the people of Stepney, who went ahead with their own efforts to oppose Mosley, left no doubt in our
minds that the CP would be finished in Stepney if this was allowed to go through as planned by our
London leaders.”

Thus, as a result of the CP’s efforts to gain respectability, the better to serve Russia’s foreign policy, anti-
fascist mobilisations became disunited and less effective. After Cable Street, they continued on their
course. At the July 1937 Mosley rally in Trafalgar Square, the CP refused to help block the way to Mosley,
leaving the job to the ILP (along with some CP rank-and-filers disgusted with their own leadership). The
CP issued ridiculous pseudo-patriotic literature reminiscent of the early 30s German CP’s suicidal attempt
at mimicking the Nazis by way of ‘National Bolshevism’.

The Independent Labour Party, not the CP, was the most consistently confrontational anti-fascist force in
the East End and beyond. The ILP had been one of the early constituent organisations of the Labour
Party. It had split from the Labour Party in 1932, moving to the left. By 1936, the ILP, though it was still a
hybrid political formation, in which bits of reformism, pacifism, and revolutionary socialism were
confusingly mixed, was much nearer to being a communist party in the old sense of the word than the
official ‘Communist Party’ was. Some of its members were Trotskyists. The ILP broke up fascist meetings
by way of massing opposition, heckling and fighting. They barred fascist processions, organised petitions,
and defended Jewish areas — particularly in the East End — from attack.

And, of course, not only political anti-fascists were involved. The Jewish community had its own ex-
servicemen’s anti-fascist militia, the Blue and White Shirts. British Jews, branching out from their orthodox
background, were often attracted to revolutionary politics, many joining the CP. There were also many
smaller, local anti-fascist bodies.

On 4 October, the thousands strong Blackshirt march was to begin in Royal Mint Street, pass along
through Gardiners Corner (now the top of Whitechapel road) and on to four separate street meetings in
Shoreditch, Limehouse, Bow and Bethnal Green. It never even got going! The march was stopped dead.
As many as a quarter of a million people, East Londoners and outsiders, jammed Gardiners Corner. Only
an army would have cleared the way for the Blackshirted thugs. An army of police tried and failed.
Tramdrivers abandoned their vehicles in the middle of the road. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Phillip Game, had drafted in a third of the London police force, 6,000 policemen, the whole of the mounted division, and had a primitive helicopter, a gyroscope, flying overhead.

Despite these forces, which made numerous charges at the anti-fascist crowd, breaking many heads, no
thoroughway for the fascists could be cut.

The Police Commissioner then proposed a diversion through the dock area around Wapping, and along
Cable Street. There a virtual war was fought between the police and the defenders of the anti-fascist
barricades. British, Irish and some Somali dockers fought the police. The anti-fascist barricade was
constructed of furniture, paving stones and a lorry. Pretending to retreat, the anti-fascists lured the police
forwards, and took up positions behind secondary barricades while from the upstairs tenements on either
side of the street other anti-fascists threw bricks, stones, bottles, marbles for horses’ hooves, and boiling water down on the bewildered police.

While the outnumbered and powerless fascist heroes waited in vain for a path to be cleared for them, the
police face chaos. Rare in British street battles, stray policemen were taken prisoner by the barricaders.

For those moments the rule of the British state in East London was suspended.

At about 5 pm, after a three hour battle, the Commissioner said to Sir Oswald Mosley that he would not
longer be held responsible for the safety of the fascists. Speaking as one knight to another he said: “If you
go ahead sir, it will be a shambles!” The beaten police cancelled the fascist march, and sent them off to
the Embankment. They did not pass!

The lessons of Cable Street

YET THE REACTION in the pro-fascist areas of East London to the fascists’ political defeat at Cable
Street did not everywhere produce the atmosphere that the CPer (later MP) Phil Piratin depicted in ‘Our
Flag Stays Red’, of disgusted BUF residents ‘tearing up their membership cards’. MI5 reported to the
Home Office that as many as 2,000 people — many, no doubt, transient recruits — joined the BUF in East
London after Cable Street.

However, despite its distortion by later Stalinist historians and propagandists, Cable Street was
tremendously important. It was a great morale booster for the hard-pressed East London Jews and for all
anti-fascists. While an open war, perceived as the working class versus fascism, was raging abroad in
Spain, in London workers, translating the Spanish anti-fascist slogan ‘No Pasaran’ into English as ‘They
shall not pass’, had indeed beaten back the fascists. In East London, they had not passed! The fact that
the fascists and anti-fascists never came to blows (the street war was entirely between anti-fascists and
police) or that the effect on fascist recruitment was favourable for them, was irrelevant to Cable Street’s
potent political symbolism.

Cable Street entered working-class legend. It is rightly remembered as something the working class and
its allies won against the combined might of the state and the fascists.

Any discussion of how well or badly the BUF did must judge it in both a national and local perspective.

Nationally, the fascists were an utter failure. The broad opposition to the fascists — the mainstream
Establishment after 1934, as well as the labour movement — in combination with the relative economic
improvement in Britain, blocked off short-term BUF prospects of taking power. After 1936, the BUF tended to be the sort of ‘Foreign Legion’ for Berlin that the Stalinist CP was for Moscow. If in the immediate pre-war period it grew easily — its biggest ever rally occurred in July 1939 — it was as a ‘peace movement’.

In local terms, in East London, however, the fascist failure was a qualified one. Here, even after the defeat
at Cable Street, they achieved and sustained a mass base of support which, if it could have been
repeated elsewhere, would have given them major political weight and at least the possibility of power. They polled a fifth of the vote in three districts in the 1937 London County Council elections. On being told
this, Mosley is said to have shouted ‘Better than Hitler!’, explaining later that four years prior to gaining
power Hitler had consistently polled under 20%. Of course, Hitler achieved that all over Germany, whereas Mosley only managed one-fifth of the vote in the three most favourable districts of London.

Yet, if war had not come, the East End might have been a base from which fascism could have expanded. Had
the ruling class again felt the need for them, as Rothermere had before 1934, East London would have
been a strong base from which to expand.

It has been plausibly argued that Mosley captured the support of large numbers of the non-Jewish youth,
and had they been old enough to vote he might have won the Bethnal Green council seat. Given the
intensity of the opposition mobilised against them, these fascist gains were remarkable.

THE BATTLE OF CABLE STREET led directly to the Public Order Act. Rushed through the House of
Commons, it became law on the 1st of January 1937. The Public Order Act is often and falsely seen by
reformists as a significant hindrance to the fascists, and by some as the thing that finally killed off
Mosleyism. This is an illusion. The Act banned political uniforms, gave the police added powers to ban
marches at will, and strengthened laws against racist abuse. Though it was an annoyance to the fascists,
the Act did not cripple them and did not “finish them off” as some too legalistic interpretations of its effect
seem to suggest.

It may have deprived the now plainly clothed fascists of some Blackshirt-uniformed glamour and prestige.

A handful of anti-semitic speakers were indeed arrested and charged. Where before the police had
‘defended free speech’, and thus the fascists, now they took on the role of regulating and supervising
them, within more restrictive laws.

Yet the POA was a broad blanket measure, designed more to help the police control left-wing opposition
movements, for example the huger marchers, than for suppressing the BUF. For decades after Mosleyism
had vanished down the great sewer of history, the POA was being used against the labour movement.

The POA did nothing to stop anti-Jewish harassment (despite a few prosecutions). It did not even stop the
large-scale violence. On 3 October 1937 there was great violence when the Mosleyites, no longer
Blackshirted, tried to march through Bermondsey, South London. Despite appeals by Doctor Salter, the
much respected local Labour MP, to let the fascists pass and ‘protect their free speech’, local people
erected barricades and there was serious fighting, not far from the scale of Cable Street.

The Public Order Act did not quell the BUF any more than the banning of nazi uniforms at one point
quelled Hitler. If it appears so in retrospect, that is only because the BUF went into decline soon
afterwards. The POA played at best a secondary and conditional role in that decline.

WHICH WAS PROVED to be the effective method of fighting fascism, direct action as advocated by the
ILP and the Trotskyists, or the policy of reliance on the police advocated by the LP, CP and the trade
union leaders?

On the ground, it is virtually certain, insofar as fascist actions were curbed and protection prvided for the
Jews, that the effective action taken against the BUF was that by local people and labour movement
activists, and their supporters from outside. In fact, as we have seen, the POA itself was a product of
militant anti-fascist action. Street action forced the authorities who had at Cable Street tried to assert the
right of the pogromists to march into the Jewish ghetto, to go through the motions of curbing them. The
truth is that, in the East End, despite the POA, legal fascist harassment of th Jews continued. The BUF
was not destroyed until war forced the state to suppress it, in late May 1940, as a Hitlerite agency. Though the fascists did well in the area, sustaining a fear of the pogroms amongst the Jewish population by continual harassment and virtual terrorism, they never came close to physically outnumberig their opponents, and without police protection the would-be marchers — if they had attempted to march — would have been scattered, and many of them possibly lynched.

Their need for police defence was an indication of the fascists’ weakness against the “Red Rabble” when
it went into action.

CONTRAST BRITAIN AND GERMANY, and you see clearly the “objective” reason why British fascism
failed at a national level. In Germany, the choice was: communism or fascism. In Germany, economic
collapse led to political collapse, which effectively, by 1930, even before Hitler, marked the death of the
country’s fledgling Republican constitution. The harsh social conditions polarised politics and society.
In Britain, after the crisis of 1931 and the creation of the so-called National Government, the centre
ground in politics held. This political bloc prevented serious political disturbance in the 1930s. Although
basically Conservative, it played a roughly similar role to that of the Weimar centre coalition whcih had
ensured the German Republic’s survival through the economic crisis of the 1920s.

In retrospect, it can be seen that in the broad “National” government, the Establishment had found the
effective bourgeois solution to Britain’s political crisis, one year before the BUF was founded. In the
General Election of the autumn of 1931, the Labour Party was reduced to under 50 seats, fewer than in
1918. For things to have developed along radically different lines, vast social unrest, or an immense
economic catastrophe, or both, would have been needed to destabilise Britain politically. Nothing like that
happened. After the crisis of 1931/2 objective conditions slowly turned unfavourable to fascism. The ruling
class did not feel threatened; the British establishment simply didn’t need the fascists.

The fundamental determining factors in the BUF’s political impotence were that economic conditions and
the political relations built on them did not favour a radical bourgeois revolution in Britain; nevertheless,
the action of fascism’s opponents helped lessen the damage it did to the labour movement and to the
Jewish communities.

Yet it was not “objective conditions” that stopped the police forcing a way for the British Hitlerites into
Jewish East London: it was a quarter of a million workers massing on the streets to tell them that they
would not pass, and making good the pledge by erecting barricades and fighting th BUF-shepherding
police. A year after Cable Street, it was the working class and the socialist movement which again put up
barricades in Bermondsey to stop the fascists marching.

Despite the official opposition of the Labout Parties and trade unions to a “United Front” against Fascism,
and their denunciation of anti-fascist direct action, members of the Labour Party and trade unions often,
as we have seen, acted locally in unison with CP and Jewish militant anti-fascists, enlarging the physical
opposition. As well as that, the denial of halls (private and public) for meetings, and the prohibition of
loudspeakers in parks enforced by many Labour councils, did great damage to the fascists, who by 1939-
40 were reduced to appealing in their press for rooms. The BUF’s relative success in the East End only
highlights thier manifest failure to create a mass movement anywhere else.

In the 1930s East End their “message” had tapped into exceptionlly favourable conditions. Essentially
similar conditions allowed fascism to be a force in the East End in the ‘70s. ‘80s and 90s, with the revival
of (predominantly anti-Asian) political and street racism organised by the National Front in the 1970s and
then by the British National Party. These fascists thrive in the same social conditions which provided the
BUF with their unique mass base in the East End: that of chronic poverty, an influx of distinctive and
equally poverty-stricken immigrants, and an underlying racist culture.

The great lesson for today is that the determination of the labour movement and Jewish community
limited the effects of BUF terror and opened the prospects of defeating the BUF, irrespective of what the
establishment did, including the labour movement Establishment.

Fascism’s opponents — ILP, Communist Party, and Labour Party — took note of recent European history
and learned the lessons from the defeats by fascism of foreign labour movements. Their attitude to
fascism was “catch it young and kill it quick”. That was vitally important then. It is no less important now. The Second World War really finished off the BUF. 800 fascists were interned. Now fascism abroad was the foreign enemy, and the BUF was increasingly viewed publicly as merely a satellite of the Nazis. They were now incontrovertibly “un-British”, an accusation which killed them. Mosely was seen — if Britain should fall — as an aspirant English stooge of Hitler. The would-be British Nationalist hero had turned into a Quisling in waiting. Hell roast him!

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.