The 4th of October marks the anniversary of the day that Jews, communists, trade unionists, Labour party members, Irish Catholic dockers and the people of the East End of London united in defiance of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and refused to let them march through their streets.
Shouting the Spanish civil war slogan “No pasaran” – “They shall not pass” – the working class turned back an army of Blackshirts. Their victory over racism and anti-Semitism on Sunday October 4 1936 became known as the Battle of Cable Street and encapsulated the British fight against a fascism that was stomping across Europe.
The fascist threat in 1936 was much greater than the far right groups around today. Hitler was in power in Germany, Italy had been under Mussolini’s fascist jackboot for 14 years and the opening struggles had just begun in Spain where, despite the heroism of the Spanish working class, three years of bloody conflict ended in the victory of Franco
In Britain, one of the earliest fascist organisations, the British Brothers League, claimed around 45,000 members at the turn of the century. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) – the Blackshirts – which boasted a full time defence force, claimed 40,000 members and had the enthusiastic support of Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail.
The Blackshirts held a notorious rally at Olympia in 1934. 12,000 people attended, with 2,000 uniformed Blackshirts there to beat up any opposition that dared rear its head. From that point on, anti-Semitism became a central point of Mosley’s propaganda.
In 1936, it has been estimated that of the 350,000 Jews living in England, nearly half lived in the East End.
Mosley planned to send columns of thousands of goose-stepping men throughout the impoverished East End dressed in uniforms that mimicked those of Hitler’s Nazis. His target was the large Jewish community.
The Jewish Board of Deputies advised Jews to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle warned: “Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings.
“Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew baiters, keep away.”
Eye witness account.
Before his death at the age of 93,Professor Bill Fishman, recalled “the Jews did not keep away”, Bill Fishman was 15 when he became involved in the Battle of Cable Street, he was the son of an East End tailor who became a professor of social history and one of the greatest experts on the area where he was born.
In his youth Fishman took part in “the Battle of Cable Street”, the clash between Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and Jews and others in 1936. He recalled how, as the Blackshirts advanced protected by a phalanx of mounted policemen, “We all charged towards Cable Street. At the bottom end, an overturned lorry was used as a barricade and we blocked the road – Hasidic Jews with little beards and great strapping Irish dockers all standing together. People began to throw down their mattresses to block the street and a mass onslaught on the police ensued with two officers even being taken hostage. It all came to an end about 5pm when Mosley did an about-turn. I headed to Dubowzky’s pub on Cannon Street Road, where everyone was embracing.”
Bill Fishman who was 15 on the day, was at Gardner’s Corner in Aldgate, the entrance to the East End. “There was masses of marching people. Young people, old people, all shouting ‘No Pasaran’ and ‘One two three four five – we want Mosley, dead or alive’,” he said. “It was like a massive army gathering, coming from all the side streets. Mosley was supposed to arrive at lunchtime but the hours were passing and he hadn’t come. Between 3pm and 3.30 we could see a big army of Blackshirts marching towards the confluence of Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road.
“I pushed myself forward and because I was 6ft I could see Mosley. They were surrounded by an even greater army of police. There was to be this great advance of the police force to get the fascists through. Suddenly, the horses’ hooves were flying and the horses were falling down because the young kids were throwing marbles.”
Thousands of policemen were sandwiched between the Blackshirts and the anti-fascists. The latter were well organised and through a mole learned that the chief of police had told Mosley that his passage into the East End could be made through Cable Street.
“I heard this loudspeaker say ‘They are going to Cable Street’,” said Prof Fishman. “Suddenly a barricade was erected there and they put an old lorry in the middle of the road and old mattresses. The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on to the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism.”
Max Levitas, was a message runner and had already been fined £10 in court for his anti-Mosley activities. Two years before Cable Street, the BUF had called a meeting in Hyde Park and in protest Mr Levitas whitewashed Nelson’s column, calling people to the park to drown out the fascists. Mr Levitas went on to become a Communist councillor in Stepney.
“I feel proud that I played a major part in stopping Mosley. When we heard that the march was disbanded, there was a hue and cry and the flags were going wild. They did not pass. The chief of police decided that if the march had taken place there would be death on the road – and there would have been,” he said.
His experience of the possibilities of collective action undoubtedly informed his view of the 19th-century predecessors of the Cable Street defenders, in which he moved away from the common representation of the East End poor as a passive, downtrodden underclass. In works such as East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (1975) and East End 1888 (1988) he showed them as agents of change — people who, through cooperative and collective action, were capable of winning significant victories.
“It was a victory for ordinary people against racism and anti-Semitism and it should be instilled in the minds of people today. The Battle of Cable Street is a history lesson for us all. People as people must get together and stop racism and anti-Semitism so people can lead an ordinary life and develop their own ideas and religions.”