Seventy-five years on, the Battle of Cable Street still holds a proud place in anti-fascist memory, considered a decisive victory against the far right. In fact, the event boosted domestic fascism and antisemitism and made life far more unpleasant for its Jewish victims, explains Daniel Tilles.
On October 4th, 1936, following days of frantic, last-minute organisation, a crowd of over 100,000 protesters congregated in London’s East End. Their single aim was to prevent the passage of 5,000 black-shirted supporters of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), who a week earlier had announced plans to march through the area to mark the fourth anniversary of his party’s formation. Despite the best efforts of the police to clear a path for the procession, the protestors stood resolutely firm. Left with little other choice Mosley conceded defeat and disbanded his followers. Around 80 anti-fascists had been arrested, at least 73 police officers injured – but most importantly, the Fascists did not pass.
The demonstration has come to be seen, particularly on the political left, as the moment London’s working class united en masse to reject fascism’s hateful ideology once and for all: ‘The spectacle of the workers in action gave the Fascists reason to pause’, claimed Ted Grant, a participant in the demonstration and later an influential socialist thinker. ‘It induced widespread despondency and demoralisation in their ranks ... [and] the East End Fascist movement declined.’ Cable Street is still invoked in today’s fight against the extreme right, with the Unite Against Fascism pressure group describing it as a ‘turning point in the struggle against Fascism in Britain’. The battle also holds a proud place in the collective memory of the Anglo-Jewish community, described by one historian as ‘the most remembered day in 20th-century British Jewish history’.
Like Mussolini’s Fascist Party, upon which it was modelled, the BUF had initially paid little attention to what it described as the ‘irrelevant’ Jewish question. Although the movement contained individuals who favoured an antisemitic policy, Mosley’s aim was to create an outwardly reputable political party. As such, he permitted violence only when it was ‘defensive’ and eschewed racial prejudice. His approach reaped some success, with party membership reaching 50,000 within two years.
This all changed over the summer of 1934 when a wave of organised anti-fascist disruption struck BUF events around Britain, prompting a violent response. Disorder at a mass meeting in June at London’s Olympia Hall, where Mosley’s stewards brutally ejected hecklers, was especially damaging to the Blackshirts’ reputation. With its façade of respectability stripped away and Britain’s gradual recovery from the Great Depression rendering Mosley’s sophisticated economic programme increasingly obsolete the BUF collapsed, its membership falling to around a tenth of its peak. The party was left in desperate need of a new ideological impetus. Following discussion with his senior lieutenants Mosley resolved to incorporate antisemitism into official policy, announcing the decision in late September. This proved particularly popular in the East End, a district with a long history of tension between Jews and gentiles. It had been the principal point of first settlement for the 150,000 or so Eastern European Jews who had arrived in Britain since the 1880s, increasing competition for housing and jobs in this deprived part of London. By the 1930s, with Britain’s largest concentration of Jews still to be found in the area, it proved fertile territory for the BUF’s racial incitement and between 1935 and 1937 the party committed the majority of its resources to campaigning there. In addition to the offensive and inflammatory language employed by his street-corner orators Mosley’s followers were also responsible for a growing number of physical attacks on Jews.
Unsurprisingly local Jews felt compelled to retaliate. They came to play a central role in Britain’s anti-fascist movement through growing participation in existing organisations opposed to the BUF, such as trade unions and the Communist Party, and via newly formed Jewish defence bodies, most prominent of which was the Jewish People’s Council (JPC), founded in mid-1936. Mosley’s announcement of the October procession, which was to include many Jewish neighbourhoods on its route, caused particular outrage. With the Communist Party’s leadership initially reluctant to support a proposed counter-demonstration for fear of association with the inevitable disorder – only relenting at the very last minute – much of the responsibility for its coordination fell on the JPC and other Jewish organisations.
Memoirs of the period attest to the pride felt among Jews at their participation in the occasion, a sense that they, standing side by side with their non-Jewish neighbours, had driven the Fascists out of east London: ‘The sound-hearted British working-class had given ... a clear message,’ Morris Beckman, at the time a teenager living in Hackney, later recounted; Jews had shown ‘they were sick and ashamed of keeping their heads down’. Like Ted Grant, he remembered that day as ‘the high water mark of the British Union of Fascists’ hubris and arrogance, the very moment that ... the tide began to recede’. Bill Fishman, then a 15-year-old witness to the protests and subsequently a prominent historian of East End Jewish life, recalled that ‘Oswald Mosley’s popularity began to wane after his setback in Cable Street.’
Yet such perceptions bear little relation to the actual repercussions of the event. Contemporary records, in contrast to the romanticised recollections of those on the anti-fascist side, tell a different story. Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months the BUF was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success and to justify a further radicalisation of its anti-Jewish campaign.
Within days the party’s newspaper, Blackshirt, was boasting that the incident had given Fascism ‘an immense impetus’. The BUF regularly exaggerated the strength of its support, but this particular claim was more than spurious bravado. In its monthly report on extremist political activity Special Branch observed in October ‘abundant evidence that the Fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground in many parts of east London’. Its sources suggested an influx of over 2,000 new recruits in the capital, a considerable boost given that party membership in London had stood at less than 3,000 earlier in the year.
In the week after Cable Street the BUF ‘conducted the most successful series of meetings since the beginning of the movement’, attracting crowds of thousands and little opposition. Mosley made an ‘enthusiastically received’ address to an audience of 12,000 at Victoria Park Square, which was followed by a peaceful march to nearby Limehouse. By contrast the Communists’ efforts to consolidate their victory had ‘met with a very poor response’. ‘A definite pro-Fascist feeling has manifested itself’, the Special Branch report concluded: ‘The alleged Fascist defeat is in reality a Fascist advance.’
The reason the BUF was able to profit so handsomely from what had initially appeared a setback was that, at this stage, it thrived off the publicity that violent opposition produced. The national media, under pressure from the government, largely avoided reporting on Fascist activity other than when disorder occurred. A leading Mosleyite lamented the ‘total silence’ in the press when BUF events passed without incident, complaining that only after disruption by opponents did newspapers show any interest.
When such incidents took place the party was able with some success to portray itself as a victim. It claimed that its efforts to exercise free speech legally, through organised meetings and police-approved processions, were being systematically suppressed by left-wing extremists. Whatever the truth of such allegations – and it was certainly the case that anti-fascists were responsible for the majority of disorder, albeit often in the face of Fascist provocation – the Blackshirts elicited a degree of sympathy in certain quarters. After the Olympia meeting, for example, although respectable supporters abandoned the BUF in droves, there was also a short-term influx of new recruits angry at attempts to silence Mosley.
In many ways the Fascists came to rely on the interaction with their opponents to sustain interest in the movement. One member in the south-west expressed his optimism that, ‘now we have active opposition in Exeter I think we shall make great progress there’. In this context Cable Street simply thrust the BUF back into the limelight after two years of relative national obscurity and provided it with a stage on which to play out its claims of victimhood. This, Mosley argued, had been a perfectly lawful procession, sanctioned by the authorities. The East End housed the core of his supporters. They had every right peacefully to express their political beliefs, yet had been forcibly prevented from doing so by a disorderly mob. This portrayal of events clearly struck a chord with many locals. In an internal document the Fascists observed that the ‘strong sense of local patriotism’ in the East End had been ‘gravely offended by the rioting of Jews and Communists last October ... [which] was felt as a disgrace to the good name of east London’.
The reference to Jews was particularly telling, for their prominent involvement at Cable Street was also eagerly exploited by the Blackshirts. Mosley’s adoption of antisemitism in 1934 was from the outset portrayed not as a choice but as a move forced upon him by Jews themselves. ‘Small’ Jews had attacked the Blackshirts in the street and invaded their meetings, while ‘big’ Jews financed the anti-fascist movement and used their wealth and influence to turn the media and government against the BUF. It had also become clear, Mosley alleged, that Jews were the power behind Fascism’s two chief adversaries: international finance and Communism.
By adopting an anti-Jewish stance, therefore, the BUF was simply taking up ‘the challenge thrown down by Jewry’. Moreover it was doing so on behalf of the real British people, who were also suffering at the hands of Jewish economic and political oppression. Such claims were of course disingenuous; some Jews had been involved in the early anti-fascist movement, but the vast majority were not, while a handful even joined the BUF. But they became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Fascists’ growing antisemitism prompted an increasingly hostile response from the Jewish community, which was in turn used to vindicate and harden the BUF’s position.
Cable Street – the most substantial manifestation of Jewish anti-fascism to date – fitted the BUF’s narrative perfectly. The internal publication mentioned above noted with satisfaction that ‘the impudent use of violence ... to deny east Londoners the right to walk through their own part of London ... [had] sent a wave of anti-Jewish resentment’ through the area. Speakers were advised that propaganda should take advantage of this fact.
The demonstration was immediately branded by the BUF as ‘Jewry’s biggest blunder’, while the police were accused of ‘openly surrender[ing] to alien mobs’. It was claimed that ‘financial democracy’ and ‘Soviet-inspired Communists’ had colluded to inhibit legitimate activity by ‘British patriots’ in the East End. As a result, the district had in effect been ‘handed over ... as the Jews’ own territory’. It was time, the BUF declared, for the true British people to reclaim their land. Such appeals were well received. Special Branch recorded that among the cohort of new Fascist recruits were a ‘large number of gentiles with grievances against the Jews’.
However Cable Street did not merely reinforce Blackshirt antisemitism – it exacerbated it. Just as Jewish involvement in anti-fascist activity had been exploited to justify the introduction of antisemitic policy in 1934, so it was now used as an excuse to elevate it to a new, more radical phase. A source within BUF headquarters – who, appalled by the BUF’s increasingly extreme direction, had begun leaking information to the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s representative body – revealed that the party was intent on using the events of October 4th as the basis from which to embark on ‘a renewed antisemitic campaign’. This was in any case made abundantly clear in propaganda, which rapidly became saturated with crude anti-Jewish rhetoric. In the six months leading up to October, around 21 per cent of articles in Blackshirt included antisemitic content; in the subsequent half-year the figure almost doubled to 39 per cent.
Even more worrying, words were increasingly being translated into action. In the immediate aftermath of Cable Street a Blackshirt speaker promised ‘by God there is going to be a pogrom ... [and] the people who have caused this ... are the Yids’. The very next weekend saw the most serious antisemitic violence of the interwar period, as a gang of 200 youths, some armed with iron bars and hatchets, wrecked and looted Jewish shops, set alight a car and threw an elderly Jewish man and young child through a window. This marked the beginning of a sustained period of harassment. The JPC noted with concern that early 1937 had witnessed ‘an intensification of Fascist Jew-baiting and hooliganism’. Over the summer this developed into full-scale ‘terrorism which appears to increase week by week’. Numerous Jews were assaulted and shop windows smashed, antisemitic graffiti proliferated and Fascist speeches became more vitriolic.
This fact was confirmed by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Philip Game, who observed, eight months after Cable Street, that the ‘abuse of Jews by Fascist speakers has shown a tendency to increase’. Compounding the problem, the BUF now increasingly held its events in localities inhabited almost exclusively by Jews, meaning that even those who attempted to stay away were ‘compelled to attend the meetings because the loudspeakers used are such that every word spoken percolates into the houses’, as Neville Laski, the president of the Board of Deputies, complained to Game.
The focal point of this campaign was two sets of local elections in 1937. At the London County Council polls in March Mosley put forward six candidates, all in East End constituencies. From the outset this was advertised as a choice ‘between us and the Parties of Jewry’ (meaning every other party), an indication that the BUF’s first ever election campaign would be fought on a primarily antisemitic platform. Its manifesto mentioned Jews or ‘aliens’ 22 times in two pages of text. Playing on the longstanding antipathy towards Jews in the area, the BUF claimed that it had come seeking the ‘expert opinion’ of local residents as ‘no one knows better than the people of east London the stranglehold that Jewry has on our land’. It wished to obtain from them ‘a mandate to carry through our National Socialist policy, especially as it concerns the Jewish question’.
That the party subsequently failed to win a single seat at the election has often been cited as a sign of the BUF’s post-Cable Street collapse. But in fact this ostensible failure masked a significant show of support. Standing against candidates from the three mainstream parties, the Blackshirts received votes from 7,000 residents (18 per cent of the electorate) in Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Shoreditch. This result was achieved despite only ratepayers being allowed to vote, disenfranchising many of the BUF’s disproportionately young supporters. Furthermore a large portion of the electorate was Jewish (around 20 per cent of Bethnal Green’s population, for example), meaning that the BUF may have won up to 30 per cent of non-Jewish votes in the constituency. The election indicated that the BUF could still claim the support of thousands in its East End heartland. Later in the year, at October’s borough council elections, the party attained a similar proportion of the vote in the same districts.
Given that BUF membership had fallen as low as 5,000 in 1935, the idea that the aftermath of Cable Street marked a low point for the movement can be dismissed. In fact it was a period of relative, if highly localised, success. Moreover the election results were interpreted by the BUF as confirmation that the people of the East End wished ‘Mosley to proceed with his anti-Jewish policy’. Consequently antisemitism remained integral to BUF campaigns over the remainder of its existence.
The movement did go on to experience a dip in fortunes in late 1937 and 1938, which some have claimed as an indirect triumph for disruptive anti-fascism. This was because Cable Street and events like it had fuelled public debate on the problem of political extremism, resulting in the passing of the Public Order Act (POA) designed to restrict such provocative activity. Yet its impact on the BUF was minimal. Though the Home Office was now accorded greater powers to prohibit political processions in the East End, this simply displaced BUF marches to other parts of the city. This brought some relief to the Jews of east London, but any benefits were more than offset by an increase in other forms of Blackshirt activity. In August to December 1936, for example, 508 Fascist meetings were recorded in the East End; in the equivalent period a year later, the number grew by a quarter, to 647.
The POA did introduce stricter directives on provocative racial language, which restrained Fascist rhetoric a little. But the new rules were inconsistently applied by police and in any case were often circumvented by the use of veiled terms such as ‘aliens’ or ‘Shylocks’. Additionally, these new legal restrictions were used to substantiate further the Blackshirts’ claims of persecution, with the government once more accused of ‘capitulation to Jewish power’.
Rather than the POA or anti-fascism, it was financial difficulties that accounted for the BUF’s temporary decline. The secret subsidies it had received from Mussolini had begun to diminish as Mosley drifted closer to the Nazis and their model of fascism over the mid-1930s, finally drying up altogether in 1937. This forced the party, in March of that year, to reduce expenditure by 70 per cent and lay off a large number of staff, including many leading figures. Inevitably, its ability to campaign suffered. Candidates standing in October’s elections, for example, did so with no assistance from party headquarters.
However, over 1938-39 the party’s fortunes were dramatically revived. The growing prospect of war with Germany prompted Mosley to launch a ‘Peace Campaign’, arguing that Britain had no interest in joining any European conflict. This tapped into genuine public misgivings regarding the necessity of war, drawing thousands of new supporters to the party. Moreover, Mosley’s claim that international tensions were being stoked by Jews, who were attempting to engineer a ‘war of revenge’ against Germany, guaranteed that antisemitism continued to play a prominent role in propaganda.
The demonstrators at Cable Street, and their successors in the anti-fascist movement, have understandably taken pride in their achievements that day. Yet far from signalling the beginning of the end for fascism in Britain, or even in the East End, the demonstration yielded a significant short-term boost for the BUF, and did nothing to hinder it in the longer term. True, it succeeded in demonstrating the strength of hostility to Mosley, confirming that his political ambitions would never be realised. But this had long been clear. By 1936 the BUF was a local irritant but a national irrelevance and destined to remain that way. Instead, Cable Street drew unnecessary attention and new adherents to the party. However laudable the motivation of the Jewish participants that day, the primary consequence of their actions was to make life significantly worse for their fellow Jews in the East End, with their involvement used to justify the commencement of the most intensive phase of anti-semitic activity in modern British history.