IT was 1936 and fascism was spreading across Europe. Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany. Benito Mussolini had seized control in Italy. Franco was on the march in Spain. And the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was trying to do the same in Britain.
The BUF, led by Oswald Mosley, planned to march through the East End of London on 4 October 1936. It wanted to strike fear into the hearts of the thousands of Jewish people living in the area at the time.
Mosley was friends with Hitler and wanted to be his British equivalent. He wanted to march his fascist Blackshirts (see box) through the streets of east London and stamp terror upon the local population.
But they did not pass. Jewish people, Communists, Labour Party members, trade unionists and others stood up to the BUF on that sunny Sunday afternoon.
The arguments on the left about how to stop Mosley’s thugs—and the tactics that were eventually adopted and won—offer rich lessons for the movement today.
Anti-fascists barricaded the streets of east London that day and fought the police to ensure that the Blackshirt march could not take place.
Some 7,000 fascists tried to march through the streets of Whitechapel to a rally in Victoria Park. They had the protection of 10,000 police, some 4,000 of them on horseback.
The BUF assembled at Royal Mint Street in the City of London with the intention of marching east.
But the Communist Party (CP), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), local trade unions and grassroots Jewish organisations had called for resistance at key points along the BUF’s proposed route.
Hundreds of thousands responded to the call and blockaded Aldgate on the outskirts of Whitechapel.
The organised working class came out in droves. Dockers arrived from Limehouse and Poplar. The National Unemployed Workers Movement also mobilised in large numbers.
Miners came from as far away as Wales. They were joined by masses of Irish and Jewish workers.
Reports soon filtered through that the fascists were planning to march down Cable Street as a route into Whitechapel—so the anti-fascist masses flocked there too.
By the early afternoon, anti-fascists assembling at Aldgate reported a crowd so thick that latecomers got nowhere near Cable Street itself.
But the police were determined to forcibly clear a passage for the fascists. They attempted round after round of baton charges on protesters—but to no avail.
Anti-fascists replied to the police charges with a barrage of rocks torn up from the street. People used their own furniture and even upturned trams and trucks to blockade the roads.
Cable Street residents opened their windows to throw rotten vegetables, boiling oil and the contents of chamber pots onto the swarms of police below.
Each time the police managed to breach a barricade, they would be confronted by another behind it.
Mounted officers attempted to charge the crowd—but marbles were thrown under the horses’ hooves,
sending them tumbling to the ground.
Police commissioner Sir Phillip Game conceded defeat after several hours of struggle. The local opposition had proved too strong. Sir Phillip declared that people would have been killed had the fascist march gone ahead.
Instead the BUF had to parade through the empty streets of central London into Trafalgar Square, where they were left to scuffle with police.
The fascists were humiliated—and the working class of east London was overjoyed.
The anti-fascist victory did not materialise from thin air. The fascists had been undercut through persistent campaigning, especially by the CP.
Reports from the time suggest that in August, September and October of 1936, there were around 600 anti-fascist meetings a month in east London.
The Jewish People’s Committee collected a petition signed by 100,000 residents to ban the fascist march. The home secretary refused this request.
But the strategy that won on the day was mass mobilisation. And this was the subject of fierce controversy in the run-up to 4 October.
The Communists were the central force in the anti-BUF movement throughout the 1930s.
But there were arguments within the party over what tactics should be used to defeat the fascists.
The Labour Party was deeply hostile to the idea of confronting the Blackshirts on the streets.
George Lansbury, Labour’s leader until 1935, wrote in the workers’ Daily Herald newspaper on 1 October, “What I want is to maintain peace and order, and I advise people who are opposed to fascism to keep away from the demonstration.”
The CP national leadership were desperate to appear “respectable” to the Labour bureaucracy. Frank Lefitte, the party’s east London organiser, argued to members, “If Mosley decides to march, let him. Don’t attempt disorder.”
And there was also a warning against protesting from the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The Jewish Chronicle argued, “Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping antisemitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew-baiters, keep away.”
But these warnings did not wash with most Jews or Communists—or with Labour Party members.
The left wing Independent Labour Party—which had walked out of the Labour Party proper four years earlier—and Jewish groups in east London attracted widespread support for a counter-protest. Many CP members campaigned alongside them.
Housing estates were leafleted. Anti-fascist propaganda was chalked onto the roads leading into factories and other large workplaces.
Cars were driven through neighbourhoods with loudspeakers attached calling on everyone to join the anti-BUF demonstration.
The CP leadership had to catch up—and so resolved to take a compromise position. Their Daily Worker newspaper initially called on workers to assemble in Trafalgar Square for a protest against the rise of Franco’s fascists in Spain.
Workers were then to march to the East End “to show their hatred of Mosley’s support for the fascist attack on democracy in Spain”.
This call had been made on 31 September. But just two days later the leadership shifted under the pressure from the party’s extensive working class roots.
“The London CP and the Young Communist League, reacting to the urgency of the situation… have decided to concentrate all their forces in support of the east London workers on Sunday,” the Daily Worker now reported.
“There is no doubt that from two o’clock onwards the roads will be crowded with people intent on opposing fascism.”
CP members and supporters now threw themselves into mobilising for the demonstration. They stood alongside local workers, fighting the police and blocking the fascists.
It was the full force of the working class movement that won the Battle of Cable Street. It broke the confidence of fascists to attempt such invasions of Jewish areas.
As CP activist Reg Weston would later recall, “Back in Stepney and the East End there was almost unbelievable delight. We had won. The fascists had been defeated and humiliated. The police too… had been proved unable to protect them.”
This was a result that could not have come through a state ban, let alone by telling people to stay at home.
The victory empowered the working class, which had shown that it would not tolerate fascists marching through their streets.
This was not the first nor the final battle against Mosley’s aspiring stormtroopers. But it was a critical event in resisting Blackshirt attempts to spread fascism in Britain.
The Battle of Cable Street holds vital lessons in the fight against fascism today. Revolutionary socialists must organise in the broadest possible way within the working class.
We must also be prepared to physically stop the fascists from gaining control of the streets.