Historically, if there is one organisation that is synonymous with anti-fascist activism in Britain, then it is the Communist Party (CP). In the turbulent thirties, the CP identified itself, and it was also identified by its opponents, as Britain’s pre-eminent anti-fascist organisation. As the driving force behind the mass opposition to Mosley, the party celebrated the events of 4 October 1936 as a momentous triumph for working-class solidarity, where the ‘whole of East London’s working-class rallied as one man (and woman) to bar the way to the Blackshirts’. 1
Yet from the very start, ownership of this momentous day was contested. Whilst we ordinarily think of Cable Street as a major triumph for anti-fascism, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) declared it one of the greatest days in their movement’s history. The Blackshirts claimed that the disturbances had broken the press boycott and delivered some 5,000 new recruits within 48 hours. For the BUF, Mosley represented the true patriotic East Ender, whereas the Communists had imported 10,000 hooligans into the East End, joined by thousands of young ‘alien’ Jews. 2 For sure, as the recent work of historians has shown, the traditional line that Cable Street dealt a hammer blow to Mosley’s BUF has become increasingly questionable.
Glossed over in official Communist accounts is another uncomfortable truth: within the party there were divisions over anti-fascist policy. Joe Jacobs, secretary of the Stepney branch would later claim the London CP leadership had been loath to organise a counter-demonstration in the East End on 4 October, 1936, and only did so because local party members, such as Jacobs, pressed for it. There were also other organisations that could (legitimately) claim credit for the counter-mobilisation, such as the Independent Labour Party, who quickly produced its own souvenir pamphlet of the ‘East London Workers’ Victory over Fascism’. 3
More interesting still is the way in which post-war anti-fascist groups adopted the myth of Cable Street as a weapon against the CP’s subsequent retreat from militant anti-fascism. One early example comes from 1948, from Ted Grant of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). As the Mosleyites re-emerged after the war, encountering street opposition in the ‘Battle of Ridley Road’, the Trotskyite RCP invoked the memory of Cable Street in order to condemn the CP’s discouragement of militant action which Grant argued came about after 1936 as a consequence of their adoption of the popular front – ‘a united front with Tories and Liberals’. So when the BUF held its largest indoor rally (at Earl’s Court) in 1939, London’s Young Communist League ‘organised a ramble in the countryside!’ instead. 4
Three decades later and it was the turn of another Trotskyite organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), to invoke the memory Cable Street – once again against the anti-fascist policy of the CP. In 1977, before a violent anti-NF mobilisation in Lewisham (dubbed the ‘Battle of Lewisham’) the SWP distributed ‘They Shall Not Pass’ leaflets. SWP militants then led the way in leaving the NF battered and bruised, ‘with fascists running in blind panic’. 5
The SWP would then become the mainstay of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). Later, in the 1990s, it would be militants from Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) who would decry the SWP/ANL for abandoning militant anti-fascism. For AFA, the key episode that embodied their dedication to the honourable tradition of Cable Street (which the SWP/ANL had betrayed) was the ‘Battle of Waterloo’, not the battle in 1815 but the one between AFA and ‘Blood and Honour’ skinheads at Waterloo train station in September 1992. 6
Jump forward into the present and this contested legacy is still very much with us today: for militant anti-fascists in the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN), Cable Street was a victory for working-class solidarity, mass direct action and community self-defence. Are these really the same principles that underpinned the recent anti-BNP strategy of organisations like Unite Against Fascism? 7
Any strategy that calls on people not to “vote Nazi” (or “anyone but the fascists”) is, as one radical left-wing critic put it, a ‘de facto appeal to support the status quo. It effectively calls on people to support the social conditions that have given rise to their radical discontent – to support the very same parties that have introduced and are pledged to maintain those conditions’. 8
And so back to the 1930s, and pause for a moment: was Cable Street really the key to beating fascism in the East End, or was it beaten only by addressing the socio-economic grievances that allowed the BUF to develop its appeal in the first place? Who owns Cable Street? The answer is clearly not as straightforward as it seems.
Nigel Copsey is Professor of Modern History at Teesside University. The second edition of his book Anti-Fascism in Britain will be published by Routledge in November 2016.
Image: The Cable Street Mural, London [via Wikicommons].
- Daily Worker 5/10/36. ↩
- See Special Supplement to ACTION, 10/10/36. ↩
- THEY DID NOT PASS: 300,000 Workers Say NO To Mosley. ↩
- Ted Grant, The Menace of Fascism, 1948. ↩
- See Anti-Nazi League – a critical examination. A Resistance pamphlet. ↩
- The ‘SPIRIT LIVES ON!’ AFA declared, *CABLE ST.1936**LEWISHAM 1977**WATERLOO 1992*. See Fighting Talk, issue 8. ↩
- Unite Against Fascism is the successor to the ANL. ↩
- see K. Farrow, “Anti-fascism isn’t working”, Red Pepper, Aug. 2009. ↩