“None shall pass! […] I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. ” –Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
The next 4th. of October will commemorate 77 years of the Battle of Cable Street in East-End London. Such event contains valuable lessons for today.
A lot of battles in our history were fought by anonymous men and women of great number who went to the streets to protest in public over matters of unmatchable importance; in repayment for opprobrium, against rapaciousness political leaders, or in anger, sheer, desperation, or in defense of liberty, equality or just to obtain a better living!
Fascism emerged for the first time as a serious force in Britain in the shadow of the 1929-1933 world slump, and with 3 million people unemployed. At the same time, Mussolini had cemented his fascist rule over Italy and Hitler took power in 1933 without so much as a whimper from the German labour movement.
Then, in 1932, an ambitious politician named Oswald Mosley (in future the British government will be so kind to him that he will be granted the title of “Sir“) –fresh from a trip to see Mussolini’s regime in Italy– founded the BUF (British Union of Fascists); its ideology was anti-communist and anti-Semitic, and grew to some fifty thousand members at its height.
The British government recognized in the BUF -known as the Blackshirts due to the political uniform worn by its members-, a useful tool that could be used to cow and intimidate the working class in times of crisis. That is why this fascist organization was able to operate under the protection of the state, receiving support and lot of finance; aided in its growth by the funds of prominent British capitalists and aristocrats, and the backing of papers such as the Daily Mail and Evening News. Mosley, himself from a wealthy aristocratic background, boasted that: “A number of industrialists in the north who hitherto had given the movement secret support, fearing commercial boycott, are now stating openly that they are on the fascist side“. (Quoted in News Chronicle, 19 October, 1936)
What was the main cause of the famous street battle? Mosley had planned to celebrate the fourth “happy” birthday of his fascist party by sending thousands uniformed blackshirts divided in four marching columns through London’s East-End streets where a beleaguered community of 60,000 Jews eked out a living. Previously, for many weeks the Jews were physically terrorizing and assaulted verbally even spit in public; their shops were smashed up and even firebombs were thrown inside.The blackshirts operated a reign of terror in the area prior to the march, with thugs roaming the streets beating people up: A clear tactic they learned from Mussolini’s Squadristi.
Leading fascist ideologues, they started to elaborate speeches promising a “Greater Britain” at the expense of their Jewish neighbors whom they blamed for all society’s ills. Doing this, they began to gain some pockets of working class support. They achieved this not just through the anti-Semitic prejudices of some workers but by offering a demagogic program that appealed to workers living in the squalid conditions of slum housing in the East End.
With fascism spreading across Europe, the BUF and its anti-Semitic campaign sparked very real Jewish fears; but they also sparked defiance; in their meetings throughout East London there was huge solidarity for the Spanish Republican cause, mainly also by the British communists, and indeed, later on, many Jewish men who were involved in Cable Street battle went on to fight in Spain.
Come the morning of 4th. October, an estimated 300,000 demonstrators turned out to block the path of the fascists. Why so many anti-fascist if Jews were only 60,000?
A wider population made a human wall blocking every entrance to the East-End; diversity of those present was testament to an interracial solidarity that ran deeper than social tensions. What really made such mass mobilization possible were the bonds of solidarity between the Irish people and the Jewish East-Enders.The blackshirts saw how the impoverished Irish community that Mosley tried to turn against the Jews, sick of their filthy insults and jibes, came out to stop the fascists too. These bonds were cemented with the help of the trade unions, East Asians, Catholics, hospital-workers, and housewives, and even off-duty policemen, the CPGB, Independent Labour Party, Young Communist League members, Trotskyists and many other people. Reflecting the international character of the struggle against fascism and in solidarity with the Spanish fighting with their lives to prevent the fascists from taking Madrid, the slogan “They shall not pass” was adopted but also waving banners worded with slogans such as “No Nazis Here” and “East End Unite“.
Desperate to avoid the inevitable violent confrontation that such a march would produce, five east London Mayors went to see the Home Secretary to beg him to ban the march. He refused. Even the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and anti-Semitism launched a petition to ban the march which received over a hundred thousand signatures in a few days, yet still the Home Secretary refused.
Over 10,000 police, including 4,000 horseback officers, were brought in to clear the counter-demonstration and to ensure the fascists could march “freely”. 7,000 fascists bussed in from all over the country were surrounded by a police escort for their protection with the whole of London’s mounted police regiment, but…, they could not clear a pathway through for the fascists.
The battle was in fact against the police who were in the front line trying to force the way through for the fascists, but the anti-fascists blocked the route by barricading the streets with rows of domestic furniture. Eggs, rotten vegetables and fruits, and all kind of rubbish including the contents of people’s chamber-pots were thrown at the police by women in houses along Cable Street. Some anti-fascist rolled marbles under the horse’s hooves and threw darts against them, which made them rear up. Most of the blackshirts had knives as well as knuckle-dusters and coshes, and a lot of people were getting hurt. But, eventually, due to the overwhelming numbers of anti-fascists, the blackshirts realized that they were losing the fight and began to run in any direction that they could, pursued by the crowd until they were out of sight.
Lot of bleeding people ended lying on the road and sitting on the sidewalks treating each others injuries, while others were organizing getting the badly hurt people to hospital. Mosley’s movement suffered a great blow at Cable Street, but soldiered on until 1940. Nowadays, the spirit of Mosley’s blackshirts lives on in Northern Ireland with its Orange Marches through Catholic areas amongst other things.
The BUF continued, with limited success, until the advent of the Second World War when Mosley and many other members were arrested for fear of their co-operation with Germany and Italy. But as a result of this event, the Government introduced the Public Order Act of 1936, which forbade the wearing of political uniforms. But, what people don’t remember was other events around that time in other parts of the world like the fascist Francist Movement and the Far-Right (Ligues d’extrême droite) riots in France that nearly brought the government down using violence to promote its activities, the Brazilian Integralists led by Plinio Salgado, or even the Seguro Obrero massacre of 1938 in Chile.
G.K. Chesterton spent so much of his career defending the rights of the common man, and opposing the foreign “-isms”, and ideologies that so often threatened English liberty. If ever there were a man for whom a battle has been, as it were tailor-made, it would have been Chesterton and the battle would have been this one. But it was not to be because he died four months before it took place; died, that is, with Mosley still a snarling fixture of public life in the country Chesterton loved so well; but shameless rewarding him by the government with the title of “Sir” ; for greater shame of those British soldiers and civilians, who died during the WWII for the cause of liberty, defending their homeland or during the London bombings.
The battle of Cable Street in the East-End of London, stopped the would be British Fuhrer: Oswald Mosley’s attempt to cow the people of Britain into obedience through fear and intimidation failed miserably. Cable Street has always been remembered as the place where fascism was beaten, but also has become mythologized, rightly, as an iconic example of non-sectarian solidarity, and has helped inspire successful campaigns by East London’s Indian-Bengali and Bangladeshi community whom have been targets for fascist violence and intimidation.
The Welsh rock band, Manic Street Preachers, committed to leftist politics -in 2001, became the first Western rock band to play in Castro‘s Cuba- got their first No.1 single from their fifth album with the song “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” which it was written about the Spanish Civil War and was inspired in parts by George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Miners Against Fascism by Hywel Francis and The Clash’s Spanish Bombs. Its really a great song, despite its political communist liner. However, maybe we should thanks them to remind us how lucky we are and how much worse things could be if we had to live under the heel of Stalin, Castro or Mao. Furthermore, to chose to idolize the main-characters that preached the barbarity of communist totalitarianism that has caused millions of death with its repressive regimes (the Red Holocaust=94 million victims, and counting…), they are too hypocrites and demagogues, because instead of the hammer and sickle or the monochrome profile of Marx and Che Guevara printed in millions of stickers and t-shirts (most youngsters don’t even know who were really those men), what about to merchandise the swastika, or the corpulent features of Herman Goering or his rather more gaunt counterpart in the Wehrmacht, “Sir” Joseph Goebbels? Certainly, if you tolerate this your children will be next… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX8szNPgrEs