‘The notorious Daily Mail headline, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, is just one chilling indication of the very real threat Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) posed in the mid-’30s. Inspired by the successful rise to power of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, Mosley sought to galvanise support via a combination of naked anti-semitism and brute force. By 1936 he was attracting both well-heeled establishment support and thousands of ordinary people to his rallies. Any counter-protests would be dealt with violently by Oswald’s supporters, and the police scarcely intervened. On 4th October, Mosley planned the BUF’s biggest and boldest initiative yet. His uniformed Blackshirts would march through London’s East End, home to one of the country’s largest Jewish communities. The intention was clear: to cause fear and stir up hatred.’ They did not pass
On the day, more than a hundred thousand East Enders, of any faith or none, turned out to protect their community.
Cable Street mural © jo marshall/wikimedia commons
Through tireless mass work, the growth of fascism in 1930’s Britain was stymied. The community actions at Cable Street in Stepney, East London were the culmination in a decisive fight against Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt thugs. The British struggle was part of a worldwide battle against fascism and war.
After a long period of decline, Stepney was largely slum property. It had a population of 200,000, the same as Leicester or Plymouth, ‘housed’ in an area a fraction of their size. The main issues were bad housing and rampant unemployment.
Anti-semitism flourished in these conditions; it was calculated to influence backward sections in the community – folk ready to seek out scapegoats, to blame easy and wrong targets.
Under the guise of allowing ‘free speech’, the Labour Home Secretary supported the Tories and Liberals, enabling Mosley to re-establish his poisonous movement.
On a memorable Sunday in October 1936, East London was at fever pitch. A campaign of propaganda and preparation had been organised against a provocative Blackshirts march.
Steps were taken to bar the fascists from all the roads leading to Stepney. Scores of rousing meetings were held. Thousands of posters and leaflets were produced and distributed. Hundreds of gallons of whitewash were used in advertising the counter-demo. The Communist Party was the prime mover in these activities. Approaches were made to the British Legion, trade councils, trade unions, Labour Party branches, religious organisations, dock workers, residents and many others: a broad church was mobilised for participation. Motor cyclists, cyclists, bands, contacts and observers were organised. Though other sites were full of protesters ready to block the march, the aim was that Cable Street be the focus of activity against the fascists. It was a narrow street with alleys and side roads, ideal for building barricades. Timber and furniture were utilised. Trams, buses and lorries were abandoned by sympathetic drivers or commandeered to block other routes, to funnel the Blackshirts down Cable Street.
The day began as it would continue when the right of British Legion ex-servicemen to march against fascism in their own borough was challenged by the police who ripped their Union Jack to shreds. Thus began the establishment of ‘law and order’ by the authorities that day. Six thousand foot police were on duty. A police observation aeroplane flew low overhead. An immense human barricade of 50,000 anti-fascists gathered at Gardner’s Corner. The police charged, catapulting folk through shop windows. Failing to clear a path for the fascists through such a massive crowd, the police turned their attention to Cable Street, as expected. Resistance there was so strong that some policemen surrendered, to the surprise of the counter-demo organisers. Several East London homes proudly displayed batons and even a souvenir helmet on their mantelpieces that night.
There were many arrests and multiple injuries. The first-aid depots that had been organised and opened in shops and houses were kept busy. The police carried on their battle as the fascists lurked in the background, waiting for a signal to begin their march. It never came. The preferred route went uncleared, the march was forbidden by the police commander on the ground near Cable Street, and Mosley’s thugs retreated to disperse on the Embankment. Mosley was to have staged a rally in Victoria Park Square: instead a jubilant victory demonstration was held there.
Cable Street showed the world how to oppose fascist forces in a community. The recipe was unity: the ingredients made for strange bedfellows – orthodox Jews had joined with Catholic Irish dockers, for example. Comrades on the barricades went on to join the International Brigades fighting fascism in Spain. The slogan issued at Cable Street had been ‘The fascists shall not pass’. This slogan was inspirational for the Madrilenos at that time as they defended their city against the rebels at the start of La Guerra.
Mass action on the streets isn’t so common nowadays – think CND marches, Poll Tax demos, Iraq war protests, and community-driven anti-fracking activities. State agents still react with similar tactics – remember the massacre of 200 Algerian workers by French police in Paris on October 17th 1961, the advent of kettling at the anti-Vietnam war demo in Grosvenor Square (1968), violent attacks by the police on striking miners at Orgreave and the Peace Convoy at Beanfield (1985).
In these dark days of ‘post-truth’ psychosis and ‘alternative facts (lies)’, often we are failing to confront narratives, let alone march – think immigration and racially motivated attacks, Trident and jobs, the lies revealed by Chilcot, corrupt bankers, explaining ‘neoliberalism and austerity – the alternatives’ in concise terms, detailing a Scottish currency post-independence, and exposing the folly that is Hinkley Point.
Reading: ‘Our flag stays red’, Phil Piratin’s 1948 book from which much of this article is sourced and edited.
‘Yesterday’s Witness’, BBC TV documentary.
Theatre: ‘Chicken soup with barley’ – Arnold Wesker play.
‘Received-ideas-of-racism-and-nationalism’ – Simon Hardy ‘No credible study published shows any correlation between immigrant labour and a reduction in jobs or a reduction in wages.’ Simon is a trade union activist and a Momentum member. In this article he highlights the distinction between ‘common sense’ (widely-held, received ideas) and good sense (empirical ideas, backed by evidence).
Bob Cooney joined the International Brigades in August 1937. Bob Cooney, Spain. Article and photo in forviemedia gallery. Published for the first time, Proud Journey is Bob’s memoir of those times. It takes us from clashes with the Blackshirts on the streets of Aberdeen to the battlefields of Spain and the heroism and sacrifice of Cooney and his comrades facing the forces of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Written in 1944 with the Second World War as a backdrop, this is a rousing personal account of one man’s part in the long and bloody fight against fascism that helped define this key period of history.