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(en) Britain, Freedom* Octoberr 2011 - “LISTEN TO THE SOUND OF MARCHING FEET” - Celebrating the 75th anniversary of Cable Street

Date Thu, 08 Dec 2011 13:51:39 +0200

For the left, The Battle of Cable Street is a unifying feature. This was a battle that we won. We saw off the fascists. Among the Jewish community or those whose families included London dockers, you can still hear people claiming their father or mother, or a grandparent was at Cable Street. This is hardly surprising as on 4th October 1936 hundreds of thousands of people – Jewish tailors and Irish dockers to the fore – turned out to block Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) marching through the Jewish East End. ---- At the time, the London anarchist movement was at a low ebb. It would revive as the Spanish Civil War developed but though individual anarchists were at Cable Street [1] the only group of significance, it appears, was the remnant of the pre-WW1 Yiddish-speaking anarchist scene involved with the Workers’ Circle/Arbeiter Ring.

The history of the Battle can be simply described. Initially the BUF had significant support from leading industrialists, and the Daily Mail, though that dwindled in the face of increasing anti-Semitism and BUF-initiated violence. There was increasing conflict with the Jewish community and Mosley planned to march his uniformed men and women through Stepney – then largely Jewish, then largely poor, then largely overcrowded.

The Jewish People’s Council (JPC), which comprised the Jewish left and Jewish trade unions, collected 100,000 signatures calling for the march to be banned but the Home Secretary refused. When it was obvious the march would go ahead there was intense debate on how to respond. The formal leadership of the Jewish community, the Board of Deputies, called on people to stay at home. The then-powerful Communist Party was mobilising for a demonstration in support of the Spanish Republic in Trafalgar Square and ignored the call to oppose Mosley. It was only at the last minute, and after many appeals from local party organiser Joe Jacobs [2] did they print over their Trafalgar Square leaflets with encouragement to go to the East End instead, falling in behind the JPC and what was the obvious community response, and which was supported from the beginning by the Independent Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth.

Such was the throng of people in the East End that the police saw only one way through, which led to barricades in Cable Street and street battles around Gardiners Corner. Over 7,000 police, many mounted, tried to force a passage for the BUF to march, and failed. There is no doubt that Communist Party organisation was crucial in resisting the invasion, with, for example, first aid posts being set up. Later Communist Party Cable Street veterans would travel to Spain, form the backbone of the Stepney tenants’ movement and, though the Jewish population of Stepney was in steep decline, elect Phil Piratin to Parliament in 1945.

The Battle was vicious, with many injured and arrested. It might seem surprising to see people having so few qualms about fighting with the police but Bernard Kops, a child participant in the Battle, said “We in the East End had no doubt that the police were loaded against us… I grew up with a healthy hatred of the law.” His experience was not shared by community leaders who were primarily well-heeled and living in better parts of town. Though there were tensions between the Irish and Jews, much of this had been mitigated by Jewish support for the dock strike of a generation before, and the pre-WW1, anarchist led, Jewish strike against sweatshops and undercutting wages.

The BUF did not get to march. This was not the end of the story, but the BUF was seriously damaged, as it was when the Government banned political uniforms.

The day is something we can look back to with pride, though it would be hard to replicate – social conditions, not least in population density, have changed. The number of veterans of Cable Street are now few, but enough to celebrate the Battle as living history. To that end the small independent Nottingham publishers, Five Leaves, has brought out five books to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street and the people whose lives were affected by it.

Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s by David Rosenberg who does walking tours of the East End and is speaking about Cable Street at this year’s London bookfair
The Battle of Cable Street 1936 by The Cable Street Group. A peoples history told through the voices of those who took part, and examines the political, economic and social conditions of the time.
October Day by Frank Griffin, a forgotten working-class novel written about the eventful day
Street of Tall People by Alan Gibbons, a children’s book about a friendship between a Jewish and Gentile child in the run-up to the Battle.
Everything Happens in Cable Street by Roger Mills, which reveals the day to day lives of people living in the area at the time
All available at Freedom bookshop.

Details of this year’s Cable Street celebrations are on www.battleofcablestreet.org.uk.

[1] Albert Meltzer describes attending Cable Street, at a period when the anarchist movement comprised elderly veterans
[2] Joe Jacobs, East End anti-fascist, later a member of the libertarian group Solidarity, describes the debates he had with the Communist Party in Out of the Ghetto (Phoenix Press).
* Anarchist journal
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