The Battle of Cable Street and the Communist Party

October 4 is the anniversary of the famous ‘Battle for Cable Street’, in which over 100,000 anti-fascist demonstrators prevented Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists from marching through the East End of London. Countless books, articles and blogposts have been written about ‘Cable Street’ and its legacy, especially as the 75th anniversary of the battle was commemorated in 2011, so I advise hunting them down. The following is a short excerpt from my PhD thesis on the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and its significance in the anti-fascist activities of the 1970s against the National Front. Most of this excerpt was included in this 2008 article for Socialist History Journal.

Cable Street demonstration

The anti-fascist work of the CPGB between 1934 and 1939 is one of the Party’s highest achievements. In her history of the CPGB, Noreen Branson reminded the reader that at the beginning of 1934, the BUF had around 40,000 members, which dwarfed the number of Communist Party members that stood around the number of 5,800 at the same time.[1] At the heart of the Communist Party’s anti-fascist legacy is the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, when on October 4, 1936, around 100,000 blockaded the East End of London against a march by the BUF through Cable Street and Gardiner’s Corner, where a large Jewish population lived. The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and the CPGB’s anti-fascist work during the 1930s became part of the mythology of the British left, as well as that of British Jews. For the Communist Party, it was a demonstration of the Popular Front in action, when a Party that had only 11,500 members in October 1936[2] could mobilise 100,000 people in mass anti-fascist action. In his article ‘Necessary Myth or Collective Truth? Cable Street Revisited’, Dave Renton emphasised that the Party saw it as a popular mobilisation and quotes the following day’s Daily Worker: ‘Jew and Gentile, docker and garment worker, railwayman and cabinet maker, turned out in their thousands to show that they have no use for Fascism’.[3] In his study of Mosley and British fascism, D.S. Lewis wrote of the importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the history of British anti-fascism and the vital role the Communist Party played:

On the day itself the CP divided responsibility for different streets amongst its members, as well as establishing first-aid posts, information posts, and runners to carry messages to other sectors of ‘the front’. The rest, of course, is history.[4]

The narrative of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ is largely based on Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red, which was first published in 1948, while he was a Communist MP for Mile End and is recognised for creating the ‘most lasting legacy of Communist mythology of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.[5] Piratin used the Communist Party’s anti-fascist legacy in his 1945 electoral campaign, with his successful election as well as that of ten CPGB members to the Stepney Borough Council in the same year, marking the ‘peak of the triumphalist use of the “Battle” for party political purposes’.[6] The book was republished in 1978 to reinforce the legacy of the CPGB’s anti-fascist traditions, at a time when the Party was being surpassed by the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League. Piratin tried to minimise the connection between the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and the actions of the SWP, claiming that their ‘interpretations and conclusions on the anti-fascist struggle were distorted in order to bring them into line with the outlook of that party’.[7] In the traditional narrative of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, reinforced by Piratin’s account, the Communist Party was central to the anti-fascist actions against the BUF.

A dissenting account of ‘Cable Street’ can be found in Joe Jacobs’ memoir, Out of the Ghetto, which argued that the Communist Party were latecomers to the call for an anti-fascist mobilisation at Cable Street and that the Party leadership only supported the mobilisation at the eleventh hour after members of the local Stepney branch coaxed them into doing so.[8] In her history of the CPGB, Noreen Branson described Jacobs’ account as ‘manifestly untrue’,[9] while Trotskyists have used it to show how the apparent reformism of the CPGB’s Popular Front strategy encroached upon their willingness to be involved in militant anti-fascism. Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson have written, ‘It was not that the Party’s leaders were lacking in either courage or anti-fascist feeling, but the Popular Front line predisposed them to respectable protest rather than direct militant action’.[10] However in her article, ‘But What Did They Do? Contemporary Jewish Responses to Cable Street’, Elaine R. Smith declares, ‘whatever the truth’ of Piratin’s and Jacobs’ differing accounts, ‘there is no doubt that the Communist Party played a leading role at Cable Street’.[11]

The legacy of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and militant anti-fascism

The legacy of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and the CPGB’s anti-fascist work of the 1930s was discernable in three main areas. The first was the use of direct militant action to stop fascist organisations assembling in public areas, a precursor to the ‘No Platform’ tactic of the 1970s against the National Front. The second is the use of the state to prevent fascists from organising in public, despite the state’s hostility towards the left. The state’s reaction to ‘Cable Street’ was the introduction of the 1936 Public Order Act, which allowed the state to use the Act to contain public demonstrations by the left, much more than against the far right. Lastly, the CPGB emphasised that to prevent support for fascist organisations, the Party should tackle the socio-economic pressures that drove people to fascism.

The Communist Party saw that the BUF was using violence to intimidate opponents and incite anti-Semitic activities and as Piratin explained, ‘the authorities…did not deal with the fascists’, instead they deployed police ‘by the score and the hundred to protect them from the growing opposition of both Jew and Gentile alike’.[12] Under the slogan ‘they shall not pass’, the decision to block the streets against the BUF march allowed the Communist Party to portray itself as ‘capable of leading the working class in keeping the fascists off the Stepney Streets’.[13] As James Klugmann wrote in the Morning Star in the days after the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977, the ‘main lesson’ of Cable Street ‘stood out a mile’, that ‘Fascism could be deflected, but not by “keeping off the street,” not by appeasement, not by retreat before their threats’.[14]

For the SWP in the 1970s, when in their own words, they were ‘waging a continuous battle against the fascists’ of the NF,[15] the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was seen as the ‘decisive battle to smash the fascists…which has rightly passed into history as a crucial victory for the British working class’.[16] The SWP used the CPGB’s anti-fascist campaign of the 1930s in its justification for ‘direct action against the fascists,[17] although the CPGB attempted to distance its history from the tactics used by the far left. In late August 1977, National Organiser Dave Cook wrote in the Morning Star:

To equate the SWP’s tactics in Lewisham with what happened at Cable Street… is dangerous nonsense.

Mosley was stopped by the mobilisation of a quarter of a million Londoners brought into action as a result of a tremendous, sustained campaign by their mass organisations. A few militants didn’t suddenly make fiery speeches and, overnight, mass unity sprang into action.[18]

In the preface to the 1978 edition of Our Flag Stays Red, Piratin wrote that ‘trying to identify the current struggle against racism with the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s’ was ‘a mistake’, which would ‘result in setbacks for the democratic movement’.[19]

Before the CPGB endorsed the blockade of Cable Street, the London District Committee supported a petition with 100,000 signatures that was presented to the Home Office, which urged the banning of the BUF march.[20] The Communist Party appealed to the state to ban fascist activities, which became the basis for their strategy against the National Front. In the key 1978 CPGB pamphlet A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook declared that socialists who do not co-operate with the state in banning racist and fascist organisations ‘should do well to read the account of Phil Piratin in Our Flag Stays Red’ which argued that even if defeated, a call for a ban is a powerful piece of propaganda, in case of counter-demonstration.[21]

Richard C Thurlow saw the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, which acted as a ‘trigger mechanism for the decision by the National Government to introduce the Public Order Act’.[22] Although the Act curtailed the BUF’s highly provocative marches through London, it also severely hindered popular action by the left.[23] In Anti-Fascism in Britain, Nigel Copsey wrote that the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was ‘not a clash between fascists and anti-fascists, but between anti-fascists and the police’.[24] It is worth noting that there were around 6,000 police present that day, compared with the BUF members and supporters, who numbered around 3,000. ‘Cable Street’ represents the beginning of the contradictory nature of the CPGB’s anti-fascist strategy, using the state to intervene in combating fascist activity. However the state was not sympathetic in this struggle and therefore used its power just as much against the left as it did against the far right.

The everyday issues that affected people during the economic crises of the 1930s created the socio-economic conditions in which fascism could thrive. The Communist Party in Stepney turned the Party from a ‘mainly propaganda organisation into a campaigning body, working closely with, and rooted deeply among, the local people in factories and streets’.[25] In struggles such as the tenants’ movement, the CPGB was able to demonstrate to those sympathetic to fascism amongst the lower classes, that the Party was willing to act at local level, which in turn gave them greater support against the fascists. As Piratin wrote in Our Flag Stays Red, Mosley’s BUF ‘struck a chord’ with the working class in East London, because the people ‘were living miserable, squalid lives’, either unemployed or in low-paid jobs and living in slums.[26] The Communist Party urged that they ‘should help the people to improve their conditions of life, in the course of which [they] could show them who was really responsible for their conditions, and got them organised to fight against their real exploiters’.[27]

The main aim for the anti-fascist movement, Phil Piratin wrote in his 1978 preface, ‘must be to rally masses of people for a struggle which will eliminate the festering social and economic conditions in which can thrive’, which would encourage people to ‘understand that fascism, in all its various forms, is incompatible with social advance and must be destroyed’.[28] This was also recognised by the SWP, who used the CPGB’s anti-fascism of the 1930s as an example to follow, acknowledging the ‘crux of the matter… is of great contemporary relevance: to what extent should the fight against the fascist[s] be conducted by military means and to what extent should political work play a part?’[29] As Colin Sparks, the SWP’s most prominent writer on fascism, wrote in International Socialism in 1977:

The Communist Party went into areas which were known to be strongly influenced by the fascists. They took up the very little issues like repairs, rents, lighting, etc, and organised the tenants to fight collectively around them… The Communist Party proved to ordinary working people that, over tiny issues which really mattered, the Communist Party’s politics and militancy could deliver the goods, make a real difference to their lives, while the fascist had nothing to offer but rhetoric.[30]

The legacy of the CPGB’s involvement in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was important for the Party’s post-war anti-fascist/anti-racist activism. But this legacy of militant anti-fascism was inconsistent with the Communist Party’s actions against the National Front in the 1970s. Despite any internal dissent in the Party before ‘Cable Street’ in the 1930s, the CPGB established itself as a monolithic and important organisation that was central within the anti-fascist movement. By the 1970s, the internal disarray inside the CPGB had led to varied support by Party members to anti-fascism (and the Anti-Nazi League) and its role had been usurped by the Socialist Workers Party.

Piratin book

[1] Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1941, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1985, p. 159

[2] Kenneth Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, Allen Lane, London, 1969, p. 159

[3] Dave Renton, ‘Necessary Myth or Collective Truth? Cable Street Revisited’, Changing English, 5/2, 1998, p. 190

[4] D.S. Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1987, p. 125

[5] Tony Kushner, ‘“Long May Its Memory Live!”: Writing and Rewriting “the Battle of Cable Street”’ in, Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman (eds), Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-fascism in British Society, Valentine Mitchell, London, 2000, p. 138

[6] T. Kushner, ‘Long May Its Memory Live!’, p. 138

[7] Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978, p. ix

[8] See: Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End, Communism & Fascism 1913-1939, Janet Simon, London, 1978, pp. 235-269

[9] N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1941, p. 171

[10] Sam Bornstein & Al Richardson, Two Steps Back – Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1935-1945: A Study in the Relations Between ‘Vanguard’ and Class, Merlin Press, Monmouth, 2007, p. 47

[11] Elaine R. Smith, ‘But What Did They Do? Contemporary Jewish Responses to Cable Street’, in T. Kushner & N. Valman, Remembering Cable Street, p. 50

[12] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. 17

[13] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. 25

[14] Morning Star, 26 August, 1977

[15] Tim Potter, ‘Lessons of Lewisham’, International Socialism, 1/101, September 1977, p. 19

[16] Chanie Rosenburg, ‘The Labour Party and the Fight Against Fascism’, International Socialism, 2/39, Summer 1988, pp. 62-63

[17] Alex Callinicos, ‘In Defence of Violence’, International Socialism, 1/101, September 1977, p. 24

[18] Morning Star, 26 August, 1977

[19] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. x

[20] N. Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1941, p. 162

[21] Dave Cook, A Knife At The Throat Of Us All: Racism and the National Front, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1978, p. 17; Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. 19

[22] Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in T. Kushner & N. Valman, Remembering Cable Street, p. 74

[23] R. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back’, p. 74

[24] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan, London, 2000, p. 58

[25] Morning Star, 26 October, 1978

[26] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. 18

[27] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. 18

[28] P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, p. xi

[29] Colin Sparks, ‘Masses Against Mosley’, Socialist Review, December 1978/January 1979, p. 24

[30] Colin Sparks, ‘Fighting The Beast: Fascism – The Lessons of Cable Street’, International Socialism, 1/94, January 1977, p. 12

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