Why would young people, worried about their studies, income, availability of work and the pressures of friends and family, care about a struggle — the Battle of Cable Street — which took place 84 years ago?
The Battle of Cable Street is a distant memory even for our grandparents and very much an unknown for those of us born in more recent years. But some events stand out as turning points and deserve to be recorded in popular memory and in the history of the working class.
At the time, Cable Street dealt a decisive blow to anti-semitism and fascism in Britain — but today my generation find themselves confronting it again, albeit under different circumstances and in different guises.
On Sunday October 4, 1936 thousands of people in London turned out to block the path of Oswald Mosley and his political party, the British Union of Fascists. His aim was to drive a wedge between the different generations of immigrant and indigenous communities, ahead of local elections.
Their stated path was to start at Royal Mint Street, swing across the mouth of Cable Street and Dock Street, where they would turn north towards Gardiner’s Corner and into Leman Street heading for the Commercial Road and at the end hold four rallies.
Except for the landmark Gardiner’s Corner all of these streets exist today — and Cable Street itself has a wonderful mural depicting the battle painted on the side of the former St George’s Town Hall in Shadwell.
It’s a matter of record that despite a massive police escort, which even included use of a spotter plane, the fascists were never able even to start their invasion.
Between the two world wars, the East End of London was a meeting point of different cultures and religions — quite distinct working-class communities. “East Enders” lived in cramped, poor housing on tenement estates, with employment dominated by textiles, the London Docks and small workshops. Wages were low and work closely followed trade cycles.
The Labour Party and increasingly, in the 1930s, the Communist Party (CP) and its youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), were an essential part of the cultural and political life of this dynamic area — and it was the CP which could see that the way to defeat rising fascism was by bringing communities together in struggles around issues on which communities shared the experience of exploitation.
From 1934 onwards, CP campaigns to unite communities focused on housing struggles and unionising workplaces.
When workers from different backgrounds are united, they generate a force which changes lives. Struggles to tackle poor housing and high rents and to reduce local council taxes were a common occurrence in areas such as Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green, going back to WW1, and from the early 1920s, the CP-organised National Unemployed Workers Movement took up collective struggle and individual benefit cases to combat poverty and evictions.
By the 1930s they were able to do more. The party developed an alliance of town-hall surveyors, architects, town planners, university researchers and door-to-door canvassers to focus on collective campaigns and grievances. Amongst these was a struggle for slum clearance and the building of new high-quality council-funded housing. This led to the formation in 1937 of the powerful Stepney Tenants’ Defence League.
The same lesson was applied to organising workers into trade unions. Unity became the watchword in important recognition struggles in bastions such as the Billingsgate and Smithfield markets, which employed many Jews. Textile factories were organised and – where possible — strikes for higher wages took place. The communists even sought to bring small traders into the struggle.
Consistently the CP and YCL worked to broaden its alliances with ex-servicemen’s organisations, sending groups of young activists into sports and cultural centres frequented by supporters of Mosley in order to win them over, as well as with local Labour Party and community groups.
It sought left unity, worker’s unity and unity within the community. It was this unity that was on display that historic Sunday morning in October 1936.
These lessons should shape the way we work to defeat racism and fascism in the current period. There are no effective quick fixes or stunts which replace a well-researched, well-argued and patiently conducted battle of ideas, to win all workers to take up a united class position.
There is no substitute for taking up the struggle for working-class unity in a person-by-person, community-by-community, well-planned way. Shouting at, abusing or stigmatising those who have fallen prey to racist ideas will not win them round.
All but the most dyed-in-the-wool racists can and must be won round, for no one is born with racism: it is developed through material conditions and their misunderstandings of them.
It’s up to us to change and challenge their understanding, to help them interpret the world in a way which allows for their material conditions to be altered.
Strategy is key and sound judgement is key: along with careful marshalling of arguments yes, a preparedness to use force in a disciplined way to meet provocations, is required.
Equally important is the question of context and the interrelation of events. The Battle of Cable Street took place against a backdrop of repression and then an attempted coup by Franco in Spain: it is linked to the rise of fascism in Italy, Portugal and Germany.
It followed the battles in Austria which were lost by the left and Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Workers then drew confidence from the Soviet Union and were itching to have a go at fascism. It was well-known that Mussolini funded Mosley’s party and that his loyalties lay abroad – many, way beyond the left, were outraged that fascism was allowed to stalk the streets of Britain.
Today we have an international context too in the fight against racism and a pressing need to defend all communities in Britain. We must win the arguments about the position of refugees forced from their homeland by economic desperation, neoliberalism and war.
The years leading to and beyond the Battle of Cable Street are rich in lessons learned and new challenges. We must all study this epic victory, to find out more about our proud heritage and draw our own conclusions for the battles ahead.
Joe Weaver, is Secretary of the YCL’s East of England Branch