The ruling class openly flirted with fascism from the start; with the class system under threat on all sides, it’s easy to see how attractive the idea of obedient, conservative-minded workers marching about in uniforms was to the bosses. In 1920’s Italy, after two years of wildcat strikes, land and factory occupations by socialist and anarchist workers, landowners and industrialists funded Mussolini to recruit a scab army of Blackshirts to evict the workers and break up union meetings. They were supplied with arms and vehicles, the army supported them with training and logistics, and firearms permits were selectively granted to right-wingers. The state relied on the fascists for strike-breaking until they got out of control, then rolled over and asked them to form a government. When the official unions eventually organised armed resistance it was too little, too late.
Fascist tactics have changed little over the years. They set about to discourage and confound working class organisation through violent intimidation. Meetings were disrupted, premises and individuals targeted for attack. As they grew in numbers and resources, beatings gave way to assassinations, arson and kidnapping. The left politicians made the fatal mistake of relying on the law to protect their rights, to no avail. The courts gave the Blackshirts preferential treatment so that the violent clashes they provoked resulted in the imprisonment of antifascists. In a routine that will be familiar to present day antifascists, the police usually turned on whichever group appeared numerically smaller on the day.
Some of the stiffest resistance came from the anarchist groups and the syndicalist U.S.I. union, and they would bear the brunt of the violence. In the summer of 1921, these militants formed antifascist fighting squads ‘Arditi del Popolo’, organised along paramilitary lines. Each unit had autonomy and operated according to the political composition of its locality. Alongside anarchists and union organisers they attracted First World War veterans, republicans and members of the official Socialist and Communist parties. Rivalry between these two parties prevented them from offering support however, neither having any use for an organisation beyond its control. In August the Socialist Party signed a non-aggression pact with the fascists, requiring its members to withdraw, and P.C.I. activists were pulled away to do their own thing. The ‘Pact of Pacification’ amounted to class collaboration between industrialists and Socialist functionaries claiming to represent the working class. It conferred an air of legitimacy on the fascists, allowing them a foothold in areas where they could otherwise not have operated. The Arditi understood as clearly as the bosses that both fascism and antifascism are outside the law. After twenty-plus fascists were killed at Sarzana, their commander lamented that the Blackshirts had got used to confronting people who ran away or offered feeble resistance, and had never actually learned to fight.
The following year, the Socialists called a legal general strike, which the fascists were largely able to circumvent with scab labour. In August 1922, three hundred and fifty Arditi successfully defended the city of Parma against twenty thousand Blackshirts who laid siege to it for six days after the police abandoned their posts. Putting their differences aside, workers built barricades, dug trenches and prepared to fight for every street with petrol bombs and axes. Eventually the fascists, who were still unprepared to take casualties, drifted away in disarray. Alarmed by such a display of working class autonomy and unity, the army occupied the town and took down all the barricades. In October Mussolini marched on Rome with a slightly larger force and the politicians capitulated. The Socialist leader Turati appealed to the King to uphold the constitution, but due to persistent lobbying by the General Federation of Industry and the Banking Association, he handed power to Mussolini, who at that time had only 35 out of about 600 deputies in Parliament. The fascists still didn’t have it all their own way, especially in the industrial North, but over years, the antifascist movement succumbed to assassination, imprisonment and exile.
“The Italian Socialists, blind as ever, continued to cling to legality and the Constitution. In December, 1923, the Federation of Labour sent Mussolini a report of the atrocities committed by fascist bands and asked him to break with his own troops. (Reference: Buozzi and Nitti, Fascisme et Syndicalisme, 1930) The Socialist Party took the electoral campaign of April, 1924, very seriously; Turati even had a debate at Turin with a fascist in a hall where Black Shirts guarded the entrance. And when, after Matteotti’s assassination, a wave of revolt swept over the peninsula, the socialists did not know how to exploit it. ‘At the unique moment,’ Nenni writes, ‘for calling the workers into the streets for insurrection, the tactic prevailed of a legal struggle on the judicial and parliamentary plane.’ As a gesture of protest, the opposition was satisfied not to appear in parliament, and, like the ancient plebeians, they retired to the Aventine. ‘What are our opponents doing?’ Mussolini mocked in the chamber. ‘Are they calling general strikes, or even partial strikes? Are they trying to provoke revolts in the army? Nothing of the sort. They restrict themselves to press campaigns.’ (Speech, July 1924) The Socialists launched the triple slogan: Resignation of the Government, dissolution of the militia, new elections. They continued to display confidence in the King, whom they begged to break with Mussolini; they published, for his enlightenment, petition after petition. But the King disappointed them a second time.”
– Daniel Guerin: ‘Fascism and Big Business’
Inspired by Mussolini, a Conservative Party faction known as ’British Fascisti’ along with the National Citizen’s Union (formerly the Middle Class Union) prepared for organised mass scabbing in the event of a general strike. This led to the formation of the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (O.M.S.), described by the Daily Mail as “defence against the reds” and announced on the letters page of the Times by the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks. The O.M.S. claimed to be non-political and had the backing of the government, who were initially uncomfortable with B.F. involvement; nevertheless many individual fascists joined and occupied prominent positions. The ‘British Fascists Ltd’ as they had become in 1924, were asked to change their name and generally tone it down a bit, they refused, though a small split complied. As the general strike approached, however, fascists swarmed into both the O.M.S. and the special constabulary.
Churchill spelt out the establishment’s position:
“Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces which can rally the masses of the people, properly led, to value and wish to defend the honour and stability of civilised society. She has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against the cancerous growth of Bolshevism.”
– Winston Churchill: speaking in Rome Jan. 20, 1927.
Quoted in: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization. by Nicholson Baker 2008.
No one came out of the General Strike looking good; the Labour Party and T.U.C. had betrayed the miners, all the politicians had displayed cowardice and the far right became confirmed in its self-appointed role of defending whatever-it-was against an imagined Jewish-Communist conspiracy. The fascists’ anti-union position brought them into immediate and violent confrontation with the left; they also hoped to recruit the unemployed, as Mussolini had done, in direct competition with the National Unemployed Workers Movement.
Socialists, communists and anarchists lost no time in organising against them. They were hampered by the reluctance of the party leaders to work together as they competed for the allegiance of the working class. The most militant workers’ association, the Communist Party, was of course directed from Moscow, and faithfully followed the meanderings of the Comintern, unhelpfully labelling anyone who declined its control as ‘social fascists’. This policy had disastrous consequences in Germany, where the party focussed on its rivalry with the Social Democrats, leaving the way open for the Nazis, whom it refused to regard as a threat. The Labour Party sought electoral respectability, rendering it useless in what would become a street-level battle for control of territory. The original ‘Independent Labour Party’, distinguished by its opposition to WW1, and its more militant antifascism, remained affiliated to the parliamentary Labour Party until 1931.
Nevertheless more or less informal coalitions appeared at local level, driven by events. The uneven treatment of the two sides by the law is quite revealing; antifascists were typically charged with riot and sentenced to hard labour, whereas four fascists who hijacked a newspaper van at gunpoint were bound over for a year. The latter stunt was pulled by a splinter group, the National Fascisti who were more explicitly violent and racist than the B.F. and included the fanatical anti-Semite Arnold Leese and William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce.
Of course Leese was just a paranoid obsessive, wherever did he get it from?
“The part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistic Jews … is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from Jewish leaders … The same evil prominence was obtained by Jews in (Hungary and Germany, especially Bavaria).
Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing. The fact that in many cases Jewish interests and Jewish places of worship are excepted by the Bolsheviks from their universal hostility has tended more and more to associate the Jewish race in Russia with the villainies which are now being perpetrated”.
– Winston Churchill: Illustrated Sunday Herald 8th February 1920.
In 1931 fascism became the latest vehicle for the ambitions of Oswald Mosley, an opportunist Parliamentarian who had enjoyed electoral success as Conservative, Labour and independent candidate before travelling to Italy and meeting Mussolini. The B.F. had appealed mainly to the establishment, landed gentry and the right of the Tory party, and its ideology was confused even by fascist standards. One of its policies was to reduce unemployment by cutting taxes to the rich so they could hire more servants! With his roots firmly in the aristocracy, a military career behind him, and having like Mussolini wandered the political spectrum, Mosley set about concocting a platform populist enough to rival the Communist Party; based on nationalism, anti-Semitism, Keynesian socialism, economic protectionism and defence of the empire. Mosley’s target was not the workers as such, but aspiring middle classes, self-employed, managerial grades, farmers, market traders and so on, basically anyone who had a stake in preserving the status quo, but didn’t have the ear of the political establishment.
His last venture into electoral politics, the New Party, performed dismally in the 1931 general election, henceforth he embraced the fascist principle of taking power by force. In Germany the Nazi party was gaining ground by such means, and emboldened by the ambivalence of the state, the movement became increasingly violent. The New Party and other assorted groups were combined into the British Union of Fascists; they followed the continental fascists’ fetish for physical culture and paramilitary drilling, and adopted a uniform based on a black fencing shirt.
The German situation was like a slow-motion replay of the Italian one; since the Kaiser had been overthrown in the Spartacist uprising of 1918/19 the German bourgeoisie had been forced to compromise with the working class to prevent a Bolshevik style revolution, and they hated it. The balance of power was held by the Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.) with its gradualist, inevitablist conception of socialism. The most powerful labour movement in the world was integrated into the capitalist state; the Communists referred to this as ‘social fascism’ whereas the Nazis regarded any combination of workers as Marxist, and therefore part of a Jewish conspiracy.
“After Hitler had been released from Landsberg the National Socialist Party was refounded early in 1925. Once more he addressed his followers in the Biirgerbrau cellar: “To make a struggle intelligible to the broad masses, it must always be carried on against two things: against a person and a cause. Against whom did England fight? Against the German Emperor as a person, and against militarism as a cause. Against whom do the Jews fight with their Marxist power? Against the bourgeoisie as a person, and against capitalism as its cause. Against whom, therefore, must our movement fight? Against the Jew as a person, and against Marxism as its cause…” He considered it necessary for psychological reasons to have only one enemy, the Jews; his opinion had not changed.”
– Francis L. Carsten: ‘The Rise of Fascism’.
He could have been paraphrasing Churchill from five years earlier. Because the Nazis had no constituency among the workers (never more than five percent of votes in the workplace committees) the Communists and Social Democrats ignored them, preferring to squabble amongst themselves. They remained a tiny, anti-union terrorist and propaganda group, sustained financially by the industrialists and landowners.
“If the enemy had known how weak we were, it would probably have reduced us to jelly. It would have crushed in blood the very beginning of our work.”
– J. Goebbels, 1934.
So the delicate flower of fascism was nurtured and held in reserve until the start of the depression. The slump threatened to impoverish the German middle class, who resented the position of the industrial proletariat with its powerful embedded unions and negotiated guarantees; in September 1930 the National Socialists polled six million votes. Fearing revolution, the capitalists lavished money on them; by 1932 they were up to twelve million. Hitler courted the middle classes, making them all manner of unrealistic promises to break up big business and support individual enterprise, in fact the reverse happened, the Nazi government would fiercely concentrate capital into a military-industrial oligarchy.
During this period the U.S.S.R.’s own re-armament programme was heavily dependant on the goodwill of the German industrialists, who felt threatened by the pacifism of the S.P.D. The 1922 Rapallo Treaty, in which both parties waived reparations from the Great War, permitted Germany to test its military hardware in Russia as it was prohibited from doing at home by the Treaty of Versailles; this allowed both countries to benefit from the latest technology. Stalin paid for arms in hard currency, funded by wheat exports from the collective farms at the price of mass starvation, the German Communist Party must have seemed a small sacrifice. In 1931, the Comintern instructed the K.P.D. against its wishes, to vote with the Hitlerists in a referendum to unseat the Social Democrats in Prussia. Turnout was pitiful and the proposition was defeated, but this combination of complacency and sheer idiocy left the door wide open. At the 12th Plenum of the Comintern, Osip Piatnitsky boasted that the blind obedience of the German Party was second only to the Russian one.* Nazism took hold in the universities, where the students found themselves stranded with little hope of reward for their academic achievements. As unemployment rose to six million over the next two years, the paramilitary S.A. ‘storm troopers’ provided food and shelter in their barracks and recruited a private army of three hundred thousand. The German working class was ready to fight, but its leadership capitulated again and again, preferring to ridicule the barbarians.
*’The Communist International 1919-1943 documents selected and edited by Jane Degras Volume III 1929-1943’
The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Hitler came to power in the spring of 1933, and the Rapallo accord held until January 1934, when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with Poland. The Comintern abruptly changed tack and decided it would work with the other antifascist parties after all, however in Britain the C.P.s street fighting image did not appeal to those with political ambitions and the united front failed to get off the ground. In fact the antifascist front was originally Trotsky’s idea and had only the year before led to mass expulsions of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ from the party for advocating it. Three years later, at the next congress of the K.P.D. (in exile, naturally) the blame would be laid squarely at the door of the German leadership; two absent members Neumann and Remmele were especially singled out by the Comintern delegate Palmiro Togliatti for “underestimating fascism, and their failure to make a real effort for a united front with the Social Democrats.”*
Harold Harmsworth, the proprietor of the Daily Mail and briefly the Mirror, a personal friend of Mussolini and Hitler, made his papers a mouthpiece for the B.U.F. along with General Franco and Nazi Germany. This probably accounted for the fact that a quarter of the Blackshirts were women, the majority of the Mail’s readership have always been female. The erstwhile King Edward VIII was likewise a friend and admirer of Hitler who would have had Britain on the other side in the coming world war.
“I should like to express the appreciation of countless Germans, who regard me as their spokesman, for the wise and beneficial public support which you have given to a policy that we all hope will contribute to the enduring pacification of Europe.”
– Adolf Hitler to Harold Harmsworth, 7th December 1933.
“At this next vital election Britain’s survival as a great power will depend on the existence of a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed” …
– Harold Harmsworth: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’,
Daily Mail 15th January 1934.
“Young men may join the British Union of Fascists by writing to the Headquarters, King’s Road, Chelsea, London, S.W.”
– Harold Harmsworth, writing as ‘Viscount Rothermere’: ‘Give the Blackshirts a helping hand’, Daily Mirror 22nd January 1934.
“… the Blackshirts, like the Daily Mail, appeal to people unaccustomed to thinking. The average Daily Mail reader is a potential Blackshirt ready made. When Lord Rothermere tells his clientele to go and join the Fascists some of them pretty certainly will.”
– “A Spectator’s Notebook”: The Spectator, 19 January 1934.
“My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country.”
– Harold Harmsworth, to Adolf Hitler, 27th June 1939.
“Despite her flaws, the only responsible vote in France next Sunday is one for Marine Le Pen.”
Richard Waghorne: Daily Mail Online, 20th April 2012.
“The German slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.
-Dominique Jackson: Daily Mail Online, 13th August 2012.
No change there, then. The Express also advocated appeasement until the last minute, and Edward was such an embarrassment they had to make him governor of the Bahamas to get him out of the way.
Because physical superiority was central to fascist ideology, the only effective means to halt their progress was to beat them at their own game, so physical resistance developed out of necessity, a plethora of antifascist associations were formed for this purpose, some with their own uniforms. Left and union events were invaded and had to be stewarded, Jewish interests and individual Jews were subject to assault, so they either joined existing groups or organised independently. Up and down the country, political meetings were turning into pitched battles. With working class communities under attack, everything the B.U.F. did became fair game so violence accompanied them wherever they went. In 1933 16 year old Ubby Cowan went along with a group of friends to oppose a meeting addressed by William Joyce:
“I heard Joyce speaking and it was too much to bear. So I charged the stage and threw him off the platform.
When I realised that this was going on week after week in Stepney, and I remember grabbing Joyce and just saying to him, get out of it, you lying bastard. I sent him flying,
Partly because of the disinterest shown by other political parties in what was happening to Jewish people in the East end, I joined the Communists.”
– Ubby Cowan, antifascist, to Islington Tribune 29th September 2011
What was glaringly obvious to working class Jews may have escaped their wealthier fellows however.
“On New Year’s Day 1934 was formed the January Club, whose object is to form a solid Blackshirt front. The chairman Sir John Squire, editor of the London Mercury said that it was not a fascist organisation but admitted that ‘the members who belonged to all political parties were for the most part in sympathy with the fascist movement’.“
– The Times, 22 March, 1934
According to Ted Grant,* Members of the January Club included Ralph D Blumenfeld, founder of the Anti-Socialist Union, former editor of the Daily Mail and Daily Express, and the prominent Zionist Major Harry Nathan, Liberal MP for Bethnal Green North East.
*’The Menace of Fascism. What it is and how to fight it.’ By Ted Grant: June 1948. The January club’s published records contradict this. It could be that the B.U.F. subsequently expunged the names of Jewish members, or maybe Grant was trying to make a point. Either explanation is plausible; truth is the first casualty of war. Please get in touch if you can shed any light on this.
Either way, British capitalists were busy re-arming Nazi Germany; in March 1934 the merchant banker and Chairman of Vickers, General Sir Herbert Lawrence, refused to deny it:
“I cannot give you an assurance in definite terms, but I can tell you that nothing is being done without complete sanction and approval of our own government.”
– Herbert Lawrence, Quoted by Henry Owen in ‘War is Terribly Profitable’
In Gateshead the fascists attacked the I.L.P. May Day rally outside the labour exchange and were seen off by the unemployed workers. This incident prompted the formation of the ‘Greyshirts’ Anti Fascist League, which effectively shut down fascist activity in the area. In June, Mosley addressed a triumphalist rally at Olympia and the fascist stewards ran amok, beating protesters and anyone who got in their way while the police turned a blind eye, then as antifascists scuffled with the Blackshirts outside the venue some were arrested; Stepney communist Marks ‘Barney’ Becow received the first of several terms of hard labour.
In the days and weeks after Olympia, B.U.F. meetings were attacked and disrupted in London, Leicester, Glasgow, Plymouth and Brighton. By the end of 1934 the continual violence had deprived the B.U.F. of any semblance of respectability and most of its middle class membership; Rothermere ceased his public support for the group, complaining bitterly to Hitler that his hand had been forced by Jewish businesses threatening to take their advertising elsewhere.
On the 4th of October 1935 Mussolini sent his armed forces into Ethiopia and fired the opening shots in the conflict that would shortly tear up three continents. He also had his eye on the strategic Balearic Islands while Hitler coveted the ores and mineral deposits in the Iberian Peninsula and Western Sahara. Spain and Portugal had long ago lost their political and economic independence and were no longer counted amongst the great European powers; a circle of vultures looked down, waiting to deploy their natural resources in the next imperialist kick-off. Events in Spain were going to have a transformative effect on the antifascist movement and European history.
“Before embarking on the Ethiopian venture, Mussolini analysed the composition of the British population in terms of age, noting that it included 24 million women against 22 million men. Some 12 million male citizens were over the age of 50, the limit for men liable for military service in wartime. Outcome: the static masses outweigh the dynamic masses of young people. The quiet life, compromise, peace. He told me of an episode which is not without piquancy: in order to press on with his reading of a detective story Baldwin simply could not be bothered for one whole Sunday with the envelope containing the instructions concerning the Laval-Hoare Plan. The delay was enough to fuel the controversy in France and to lead to the foundering of the plan.”
– Gian Galeazzo Ciano: ‘Diaries 1937–1943’ 3rd September 1937.
Ciano was Italy’s foreign minister during the Spanish Civil war, explaining that the Italians had no fear of British interference with their blatant piracy in the Mediterranean. The Laval-Hoare Plan to carve up Abyssinia, provoked public outcry in Britain and France.
In London, Douglas Jerrold, editor of the far-right Catholic ‘English Review’, member of Mosley’s January Club and the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship, was approached by Luis Bolin, London correspondent of the Spanish monarchist ABC newspaper. Bolin wanted to transport General Franco in secret from the Canary Islands to Morocco, where he would launch a military coup; Jerrold in turn hired British secret agent Major Hugh Pollard. On the 11th July their chartered De Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft took off from Croydon aerodrome piloted by Cecil Bebb, who may or may not have been a spook as well, with Pollard as navigator. Pollard’s daughter Diana, and another woman, Dorothy Watson, went along to make the trip look a little less suspicious. International flights were uncommon at the time and were closely monitored by Special Branch. Pollard was a senior figure in the intelligence community, who had worked for the British in Ireland, Mexico, and Morocco. It’s inconceivable that his bosses didn’t know about and approve the project. Bolin became Franco’s press officer and chief censor, and Pollard the chief of the MI6 station in Madrid, Bebb received an assortment of medals from Franco. Jerrold was a tireless propagandist for the nationalists during the Civil War, and later also worked for MI6.
Having failed to intimidate the left in the regions, the B.U.F turned its attention to provoking the Jewish community in East London. The fascists had a considerable following in Bethnal Green from which anti-Semitic incursions would take place; the area became a daily battleground.
“An informal anti-fascist bloc had developed in the East End. It spanned the political spectrum from left to centre and included Jewish anti-fascist bodies. On the left of the bloc stood the CP the YCL, the ILP, the NUWM, various trade union bodies, and the Labour League of Youth. The LLY continued to organise with the YCL despite the disapproval of its parent body. At its Manchester conference in April 1936 it agreed that ‘the possibilities of war and Fascism looming ahead of the workers demand a united front of all working-class youth organisations.’”
– Dave Hann, antifascist: ‘Physical Resistance. A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism.’
On the 4th of October 1936 the East End rose as one to stop Mosley’s Blackshirts marching from the City of London to Bethnal Green. The extraordinary cohesion, in particular the solidarity between the Jewish and Irish communities, that made this possible had been forged during the Great Unrest that preceded the First World War, when striking dockers and tailors had supported each other’s families. The Ex-Servicemen’s Anti-Fascist Association already had police permission to hold a march and meeting that day, but the cops insisted they make way for the fascists. Both the official Labour Party and the Board of Deputies of British Jews opposed the counter-mobilisation. The Communist Party initially opposed it then jumped on the bandwagon when it became clear its members were going to do it anyway, the instrument of’ Stalin’s foreign policy being powerless without its rank and file, who had a taste for self-organisation and wanted to bring the revolution home.
“This attitude clearly reflected what I already knew was the London District Party leadership’s position on Mosley. I was furious. I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had been fighting their ideas for years. Here was the confrontation and I could not withdraw. On the contrary, I knew that if the DPC line was carried, a heavy blow would fall on the workers of East London and workers everywhere. It would also be the end of me. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting these pernicious tactics. …
… We in the CP were supposed to tell people to go to Trafalgar Square and come back in the evening to protest after Mosley had marched. The pressure from the people of Stepney who went ahead with their own efforts to oppose Mosley left no doubt in our minds that the CP would be finished in Stepney if this was allowed to go through as planned by our London leaders.”
– Joe Jacobs, antifascist: ‘Out of the Ghetto’ London 1978.
In the East End, materials were being collected for barricades and missiles, runners and spotters were recruited and fifteen first aid posts set up. Seventy years before the Internet and text messages, with few telephones and no television, the whole thing was organised in less than a week. The planned route along Whitechapel road was blocked on the day by a vast crowd, the only alternative, as antifascists had anticipated, was via Cable Street.
“Now because we’d suspected that the police might try to use this route as a secondary means of getting Mosley to his destination, we went round there the week beforehand to see what was cooking. We found a very convenient builder’s yard on the corner of Christian Street and, on several evenings leading up to October 4, the dockers came along and dumped little parcels there. It was agreed beforehand that the dockers would be responsible for preparing barricades in Cable Street should they be required. We sent a team with the dockers so that it was all organised.”
– Ubby Cowan, quoted by Dave Hann (op. cit.)
Most of the fighting was not with fascists, but with the police, who had orders to drive the B.U.F.’s paramilitary columns through at any cost. It was nothing more or less than a demonstration of state power in the face of the organised working class, it failed.
“The pavements were packed, the whole street – Aldgate High Street – was packed solid. Crowds were everywhere as far as we could see. It was impossible to make any progress. Parked in the middle of the street, towering over the crowds was a line of tramcars – marooned and empty. They could not have moved, even if anyone had wanted to move them.
The rumour went that the first tram in the line had been deliberately driven to the point by an anti-fascist tram driver, placed there to form a barricade against the fascists … My comrades and I never had a chance to get within a mile of Cable Street on that afternoon. In between us and Cable Street was a solid mass of people. Estimates afterwards said there was anything up to half a million people out on the streets of the East End that day. But no one could possibly have counted them … we gathered that the first protesters had been up early in the day and had been preparing a reception for both the police and the fascists long before either had arrived.
The fascists were assembling by the Royal Mint and police started to make baton charges, both foot and mounted, to try to clear a way for them to escort a march. They did not succeed. A barricade started to go up. A lorry was overturned, furniture was piled up, paving stones and a builder’s yard helped to complete the barrier. The police managed to clear the first, but found a second behind it and then a third. Marbles were thrown under the hooves of the police horses; volleys of bricks met every baton charge.”
– Reg Weston, antifascist, London, North Africa and Italy: from Libcom.
The following excerpts are from accounts quoted by Dave Hann in ‘Physical Resistance. A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism’ .
“One of my jobs, because I had a motorbike, was to go around the periphery of the crowd and report what was happening to the committee. … We had one doctor who was member of the Communist Party, Doctor Faulkner, who dressed up smart and went to where the Blackshirts were assembling at the Minories. The Minories was the main thoroughfare between Aldgate and the City and the fascists were all lined up there, about three thousand of them. He infiltrated them and said he was there to help out, but in fact he slipped away and passed information on their plans to the committee … Well, Doctor Faulkner very sensibly managed to get word to headquarters of what the fascists were up to and I was immediately told to go around and tell people to go down to Cable Street, not everyone, but enough to help the people already down there.”
– Lou Kenton, antifascist: London and Spain. (op. cit.)
“When the police started to move towards Cable Street, one runner ran ahead to warn them while another came to tell us. When we heard what was happening, we made a dash for cable Street and, when we got nearer, we could hear the sound of shouting and smashing and Lemonade bottles exploding. The barricades were up. They were quite high and the police were trying to climb over them but couldn’t, because people on the roofs were throwing bricks and water and goodness knows what else at them. We all started throwing whatever rubbish we could find and after about three-quarters of an hour someone on the roof shouted “They’re leaving.” We said “Who’s leaving?” and they said “The coppers.” So we climbed up the back of the barricade and the street ahead of us was littered with broken bottles and stones and all the rest of it but we could just see the back of the police horses as they were turning the corner.”
– Ubby Cowan. (ibid)
“Barrow boys used their barrows to block the way. People were even throwing piddle pots out the windows. The main thing I can remember because I was only nine at the time, was all the people fighting with the police. Because, of course, the police came in first and tried to clear the way for the Blackshirts. I can remember my grandfather fighting the police and I was very frightened because I thought he would get arrested because being black he would stand out.”
– Betty Davis, antifascist. (ibid)
The police were forced to withdraw and re-route the Blackshirts along the embankment. With red flags flying the antifascists marched to Bethnal Green instead of Moseley and his reception committee fled before them. The following day he flew to Berlin to get married at Dr Goebbels’ house, returning a week later to Liverpool and another hail of bricks from the locals.
“Mosley was finished in the East End after Cable Street. You could see the change in the ordinary people going about their day-to-day business. People were no longer scared of the Blackshirts. They were still wary of course, but they weren’t terrified anymore. Fear had allowed fascism to grow in the East End but once everyone had seen the Blackshirts beaten and humiliated, the fear disappeared. It was still dangerous to be a Jew on your own in some areas, but there was no longer this awful fear of what the future might bring.”
– Lou Kenton. (ibid)
The battle of Cable Street sent ripples across Europe and down the years; it demonstrated that ordinary people could organise themselves in defiance of their political leaders and take on the state. The Public Order Act became law in January 1937, banning political uniforms and establishing the police power to enter public meetings and ban demonstrations. Many on the left were in favour; however the new legislation would be used more often against antifascists than the far right. Mussolini cut off his funding to the B.U.F. forcing Mosley to go cap in hand to Hitler; his anti-Semitism became ever more rabid as Gestapo agents delivered regular payments from Goebbels.
“One week after 4 October, 5,000 anti-fascists celebrated with their own march, which gathered more and more numbers as it wound its way from Tower Hill to Victoria Park. With police attention, as ever, directed towards the anti-fascists, the Mile End Pogrom took place. A hundred youths ran the length of the road assaulting individual Jews and smashing the windows of Jewish owned businesses. A car was set alight. A man and a seven-year old girl were thrown through a shop window.”
– Dave Hann: (ibid)
The Communist Party was briefly kicked off the fence; a short-lived anti-fascist alliance was formed with the Independent Labour Party, the National Unemployed Workers Movement and the left of the Labour Party, the latter subsequently caved in when threatened with expulsion. The C.P. drifted away from opposing fascism at home in favour of aiding the republican government in Spain, but notwithstanding the valour of the International Brigades volunteers, Stalin had long since given up the idea of world revolution and would eventually hand victory to Franco for the sake of the internal security of the U.S.S.R.
On the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street; consisting of excerpts from the chapter ‘Fascism and antifascism’ from a work in progress: ‘The Authority of the Boot-maker’ by Mal Content.