This week sees the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street in London. Gary McNally argues against a recent trend among historians to dismiss the antifascist demonstration as counterproductive. A commemoration march for the Battle of Cable Street’s 80th anniversary takes place on Sunday 8 October, assembling in Altab Ali Park, London E1, at 12 noon.
In all the time I’ve been active in the antifascist movement, not a year has gone by without someone arguing along the lines of: “If we confront the fascists head on, we reduce ourselves to their level. Wouldn’t it be better if we just ignore them?”
For every seasoned antifascist activist, the 1936 Battle of Cable Street was the perfect response. It has stood for 80 years as the prime example of what could be achieved when working class people unite in solidarity to face down persecution from fascists.
Recent research, however, has tried to cast doubt over whether the Battle of Cable Street was really of benefit to the Jewish population of London’s East End. The historian Daniel Tilles points to a rise in violent crime targeted against Jews in the Stepney area subsequent to the Battle, as well as increased levels of British Union of Fascists (BUF) organisation. He consequently argues that the Battle of Cable Street was harmful to the local Jewish population.
This research was used five years ago by the campaign group Hope Not Hate in a pamphlet commemorating the 75th anniversary of the battle. The pamphlet paradoxically tried to commemorate acts of community self-defence – while at the same time implying that such actions increased the levels of abuse those communities suffered.
But further investigation into the lead-up to and aftermath of Cable Street suggests a very different story. The reasons that fascist activity and racist violence rose in the Stepney area are far more complex – and more interesting – than “because they fought back”. They also tell us something quite illuminating about how the BUF operated as an organisation.
On the day of the Battle
To mark the fourth anniversary of the formation of the BUF, fascist leader Oswald Mosley planned to lead a march of Blackshirts, the organisation’s uniformed military, through the streets of the East End. This was a working class district with a high proportion of Jewish residents. The BUF was an overtly antisemitic organisation, with a reputation for extreme violence against its political opponents.
Marching through Stepney was an act of aggression against the local Jewish population. Jewish residents of the area, along with communist and socialist activists, began preparations for a counter demonstration almost as soon as the march had been announced.
Just as today, there were those who called for people to avoid confrontation with the fascists in Stepney. A now-forgotten rival antifascist demonstration was organised for Trafalgar Square in central London on the same day.
But local residents won the argument. The groundswell of popular anger against the BUF could not be ignored. So on Sunday 4 October 1936, up to 300,000 people attended the counter demonstration to directly oppose the BUF and stop the march from taking place.
Due to the sheer numbers of people present, the demonstration spread over a huge area of east London. Activists soon learnt that the flashpoint would be at Cable Street. Residents built blockades, while drivers parked trams, buses and trucks in the road, in order to block the BUF route. Antifascists attacked any Blackshirts that came close, and residents pelted other fascists from their windows.
Under advice from the police, Oswald Mosley called off the march. The Blackshirts were unable to complete the route and failed in their attempt to enter the East End and terrorise the Jewish population there.
Daniel Tilles argues that the BUF used the violence directed against them by Jews at Cable Street to lend credibility to its antisemitic propaganda (see his October 2011 article The Myth of Cable Street in History Today). He points to the fact that in the week after Cable Street the BUF had the most successful series of meetings that the movement had ever had. They pulled in 2,000 new recruits in London – previously membership had stood at only 3,000.
The Special Branch monthly bulletin on extremist political activity said that October had shown “abundant evidence that the Fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground in many parts of London”. There was an increase in violence towards the Jewish community culminating in what became known as the Mile End Pogrom, where Jewish homes and businesses were attacked by fascists.
But there’s a major flaw in this line of argument. It draws an unverified causal link from Jewish antifascist self-defence to the rise in BUF activity and antisemitic violence. This ignores three major issues that taken together provide a much more coherent and compelling explanation for the rise in violence and BUF membership in the area.
Money from Mussolini
First, the BUF was receiving regular and significant donations of money from Mussolini’s fascist Italian state for the purpose of building the fascist movement in Britain.
Mosley always denied that the BUF received foreign funds and insisted it relied entirely on membership subscriptions and newspaper sales. However since his death in 1980, secret MI5 and Special Branch files relating to the BUF have been released. They make clear that the Italian state was most likely the chief financial backer of the BUF . From 1933 to 1935, the BUF received £5,000 per month from Mussolini (see the 2008 book by Christopher Andrews, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, pages 193-194).
In July 1936, it was reported to MI5 that incoming funds from Italy had dropped from £3,000 per month to just £1,000. This was a lower but still significant amount being directed from the Italian state to the BUF just three months before Cable Street.
Second, Mosley believed that marching through Stepney would be a fantastic leap forward for the BUF. Because of this he directed a significant amount of the BUF’s resources, both financial and organisational into antisemitic propaganda in the Stepney borough to build for the 4 October demonstration.
After the clear and open defeat of Cable Street, Mosley felt obliged to step up the level of antisemitic activity in area, diverting even more of the national resources of the BUF into what ultimately amounted to not much more than middling success in the immediate – what MI5 described as a short lived resurgence.
This included the creation of an entire new fascist newspaper, the East London Pioneer. Launched in October 1936 it circulated in the boroughs of Bethnal Green, Bow, Hackney, Shoreditch and Stepney – the areas in which the rise in antisemitic activity occurred.
The use of this propaganda resource was clearly designed to fan the flames of antisemitism in the area. In the November issue, the first one since the Battle, it heavily argued Cable Street was the success of an “alien” campaign of Jews to bring violence to the East End. The paper was peppered with antisemitic cartoons.
Minor and temporary growth
Third and finally, though the brief boost in BUF membership and activity was significant, the benefits for the organisation were limited to the East End of London, with only minor growth experienced elsewhere in the UK.
Membership levels nationally did not reach the peak that the BUF had reached in mid-1934 (see Craig Morgan’s 2008 paper The British Union of Fascists in the Midlands, 1932-1940). The spike in activity was notably short-lived, with membership levels nationally returning to 6,500 active and 9,000 non active members by November.
There is evidence of a small increase in BUF paper membership in other UK regions in the aftermath of Cable Street. But these increases are modest and coupled with evidence of a decrease in activity for branch members. Birmingham BUF, for example, placed a self-imposed cooling off period in the aftermath of Cable Street, ceasing all street activism for the entire duration of October. It felt that any further public clashes with antifascists would serve no useful purpose for the BUF.
Taking this all into account it becomes clear that the short-lived boost in activity and violence from fascists in Stepney was the result of an antisemitic organisation using massive levels of funding from the Italian Fascist state to pump racist propaganda into a tiny corner of east London.
I can think of few political organisations that would struggle to grow with that much assistance. In fact, when viewed in this light, it is striking that the BUF failed to convert this level of funding and focus into long term success. The critical factor stopping them was the humiliation heaped on that organisation on 4 October 1936 – and the credit for that goes to the 300,000 people that defied received opinion and came out on the streets to stop them.
Gary McNally studies Modern European History at Staffordshire University and is secretary of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism.