Wednesday, October 04, 2006

October 4 1936: They did not pass!

Seventy years ago 300,000 anti-fascists fought the police and stopped Mosley's Blackshirts marching through the East End of London. The 'Battle of Cable Street' dealt British fascism a blow from which it never fully recovered.

The united front of Jewish organisations, trade unionists, communists members of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and individual working class people that routed the police and humiliated the strutting Blackshirts remain an inspiration to anti-fascists to this day. And it really was a 'battle': Thousands of Blackshirts assembled at Royal Mint Street, intending to pass through Whitechapel and on to four seperate street meetings in Shoreditch, Limehouse, Bow and Bethnal Green (all, at that time, areas of Jewish settlement). But they never even got started. Nearly a quarter of a million working class people stopped them in their tracks.

The 6,000 police (a third of the entire Metropolitan force) failed to cut a pathway through the anti-fascist forces and, instead, attempted to force an alternative route for the Blackshirts, around Wapping and along Cable Street. It was at Cable Street that the anti-fascists built their barricades of furniture, paving stones and abandoned vehicles. English, Irish and Somali dockers fought in police in hand-to-hand combat. Pretending to retreat, the anti-fascists lured the police forwards, then took up positions from behind secondary barricades while from the windows on tenements on either side, residents threw bricks, stones, bottles, marbles (for the horses) and boiling water onto the police. Some cops were even captured and taken prisoner! For a short while, the working class ruled in East London!

After a three hour battle, the Commissioner told Mosely that he could not be held responsible for the Blackshirts' safety and the march was cancelled.

That glorious day has, quite rightly, entered leftist and labour movement mythology. But "mythology"is, unfortunately, also an accurate description of the many untruths and misrepresentaions that have grown up around Cable Street.

Probably the biggest myth concerns the role of the official Communist Party of Britain, which to this day quite falsely claims to have lead and organised the physical force opposition to the fascists that day. The Stalinist Morning Star, today claims "And when the British Union of Fascists announced its plan to terrorise the East End by parading its uniformed thugs in military formation, the Labour Party and the Board of Deputies of British Jews urged non-resistance.

"It was local organisations, supported by the Communist Party, that adopted the Spanish slogan No Pasaran and declared that the Mosleyites would not be allowed to intimidate east London".

As is their wont, the Stalinists are being more than a little economical with the truth here (as well as getting in one of their frequent little digs at Jewish leaders): by 1936, the CP had largely renounced physical confrontation with the fascists and was pursuing the policy of the 'democratic anti-fascist front', or Popular Front. This meant building alliances with non-working class forces, up to and including 'progressive' Tories. They were desperately trying to gain respectibility and therefore shied away from physical confrontation: instead, they demanded state bans on the fascists, and that was their initial approach to the events that lead up to Cable Street.

In fact, the main left wing organisation building for physical opposition to the Blackshirts before Cable Street was the Independent Labour Party. But the ILP's role has been effectively written out of most accounts of events, because of the CP's massively greater weight on the left and its unscrupulous willingness to simply lie about events (see, for instance Phil Piratin's dishonest book Our Flag Stays Red - still widely accepted as the best account of Cable Street).

In fact, the CP only thew their weight behind the East End mobilisation a few days before the fascist march, when it was clear that rank and file CP'ers and sympathisers were rallying to the ILP's call to block the march. Up until then, the CP (like the Labour Party, most union leaders and mainstream Jewish organisations), urged their members and other people to stay away from the East End on that day, and instead to attend a Young Communist League rally in solidarity with the Spanish Republic, to be held in Trafalgar Square at the same time as the fascist march (see the memoirs of former CP branch secretary Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto).

However, despite the lies and distortions of the Stalinists, past and present, Cable Street was, and remains, an inspiring victory for our class, and in particular for the beleagured East End Jews. Nothing can detract from that.

NB: In preparing the above, I have made very extensive use of this and this.


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