04 October 2019
Cable Street and after: memories of antifascism
Image courtesy of Richard Allen
The Battle of Cable Street took place 83 years ago today, on 4 October 1936. The ‘Battle’ was a huge confrontation between antifascists and police who were protecting a march of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) through London’s East End – provocatively intended to carry Blackshirts into the heart of the area’s Jewish community. A vast counter-demonstration gathered, barricades were erected and antifascists invoked the slogan Dolores Ibárruri had used in July that year to galvanise defenders of the Spanish Republic – ‘they shall not pass!’
The Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) narrative of leading the counter-demonstration might be contestable (its original plan was to rally in Trafalgar Square against Franco and only after that to protest the BUF; after pressure from East End members, fliers were amended to urge gathering at Aldgate instead). Nevertheless, the communists played a key role on the day and the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical Project, archived at the British Library, is a rich source for oral histories of communist antifascism. There are over 150 interviews in the collection, conducted in 1999-2001 by academics at the University of Manchester. I find it particularly useful for researching the motivations of communists of Jewish heritage, like my grandfather, who were attracted to the Party’s antifascism – were they primarily driven by class struggle or ethnic particularism in resistance to fascist antisemitism?
CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm', Wikimedia Commons
Despite the militancy of communist antifascism at Cable Street, there was some feeling among British communists that it was not enough just to ‘bash the fascists’. Instead, it was the role of the Party to address the socio-economic conditions that produced fascism – the kind of thinking behind communist initiatives like the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League (1937) which would support tenants against landlords even when tenants were BUF members, using this as an opportunity to prove that it was the communists and not the fascists who championed their rights. Hymie Frankel (C1049/50) observed BUF supporters at close hand and provided an explanation for fascist antisemitism when he remembered that, “they look[ed] lost – they had no jobs and no life...and Mosley whips them up and says Jews are to blame”. Here, he talks about the way the CPGB married resistance to fascism with its answers to the economic problems of the 1930s:
In contrast, it was the CPGB’s practical antifascism in the first instance, rather than its ideology, that first attracted Esther 'Hetty' Bower (C1049/22/01-02). Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Hackney in 1905, Hetty was to be decisively impressed by the manner in which communists helped her brother-in-law after his brutal treatment at the hands of BUF stewards at Mosley’s Olympia rally in 1934: “He joined the Communist Party without knowing anything about it except that these were communists who helped him and bandaged him.” Hetty, disaffected with what she saw as the failure of the Independent Labour Party to engage with militant antifascism, joined the CPGB the next year, in 1935.
For some communists of Jewish heritage, their personal experience of antisemitism fitted into a much larger picture. Here, Harold Rosen talks about how for him antisemitism confirmed the ‘general idea’ – an ideological interpretation of world injustice – and how internationalism and the Spanish Civil War, rather than the East End and the BUF, dominated his thinking:
In an interview archived at the Imperial War Museum, Lou Kenton (33028) remembered antifascism as, “the major thing in the life of most active political people in East London, certainly of my group”. He also explained his arrival on the Left as the “natural result of the social background of the period...it arouse naturally that you were either Labour or communist, and there was never a very sharp division, certainly not in my mind”. For Kenton, improving and changing society were motivations for joining the CPGB which transcended reaction to fascist antisemitism. Indeed, he remembered realising that the Battle of Cable Street “had to be a non-Jewish thing”; he emphasised not Jewish antifascism but the Battle’s display of working-class unity: “a certain togetherness, of warmth”.
Kenton had a long involvement in antifascism, from Olympia to Cable Street and then volunteering with one of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was interviewed for the CPGB Biographical Project in 2001.
Here, in a sound clip archived at the British Library and taken from an interview in the Labour Oral History Project, Kenton talks about going to Olympia to heckle Mosley. It’s a wonderful extract, complete with a section of Mosley’s speech and the clamouring of the appreciative fascist crowd, as well as Kenton’s memories of the violence meted out to antifascist hecklers by the BUF stewards:
Independent Labour Party commemoration of Cable Street, © Independent Labour Publications
My doctoral research explores motivations for postwar British antifascism, concentrating on the extent to which this was shaped by Holocaust consciousness. My interview with Monty Goldman, a communist of Jewish heritage, revealed some of the tensions between ideological and ethnic particularist motivations for antifascism that also surface in memories of interwar antifascism. Goldman was born into a Jewish family in the East End in 1931. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1949, aged 18. While still at school, Goldman got to know the militant Jewish antifascist ‘43 Group’. Here, he talks about the Holocaust as justification for the 43 Group’s violent tactics, although emphasising the Soviet, rather than the Jewish victims of Nazism (and conflating the wider war, the occupation of the USSR and the Holocaust):
He remembered that communists were talking about the Holocaust in 1949 but as part of wider Nazi violence, as was consistent with the norms of the time: “You spoke about the atrocities; you didn’t speak about the Holocaust”. And when Goldman discussed Nazi antisemitism, he tended to follow this with immediate reference to the Nazis’ political victims, with reminders that the concentration camps were originally meant for communist prisoners.
All 154 CPGB Biographical Project interviews are available for listeners at the British Library. For more information on this and similar collections please see the collection guide to Oral histories of politics and government.
Dr Joshua Cohen has recently completed his PhD entitled ‘The Holocaust and British Antifascism, 1945-67’ at the University of Leicester.