By Aneurin Delmas
On Sunday 9th October the workers’ movement gathered in Altab Ali Park in East London in numbers of between 2,000 to 6,000. What prompted it? The celebration of the 80 year anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Comrades reading this will more than likely know of this episode of history and its importance so I shall give only a brief outline.
On 4th October 1936, 400 members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) determined to march through the East End of London (predominantly a Jewish Area at the time) and, despite facilitation and protection from around 20,000 police officers, were met by around 250,000 East Londoners, largely organised by Communists, Socialists and Anarchists. After a Day of hard street fighting, the workers’ movement emerged victorious and prevented the fascists from marching. The bulk of the battle itself taking place at Cable Street which marks the furthest point the fascists reached and where they were turned back.
There are many lessons we can learn from this which we are in danger of forgetting if we allow the liberals and reformists to colonise this episode of history as their own. As many comrades will have seen in the recent Channel 4 piece on the subject, this is not an idle fear. With a modern British government which officially oppose racism (at least as long as it is allowed to define racism in the most nebulous way possible), the establishment and particularly the so-called moderates (read traitors and liberals) in our movement are able to some extent to strip these events of their revolutionary history and claim them. We have seen Hilary Benn attempt to do as much with the International Brigades in order to justify his support for imperialist ventures in Syria.
In order to avoid this, a few facts must be remembered from that day. The first is that most of the street fighting that day was with the police, who far outnumbered the fascists themselves. This might seem a minor point to some but it holds in it a key truth. In a moment of crisis, the capitalist state will always call upon fascism as mobilised paramilitary force to sow disorder and disruption amongst our movement. The 1930s were a moment of great crisis for capitalism, as well as the revolutionary upsurge in Spain and Mainland Europe. Demand for change, although not yet articulated in revolutionary movements, had reached the United Kingdom on the back of the seeming impossibility of capitalism rejuvenating itself. This is why the police and state were so determined to allow the fascist gangs free reign to attack our communities in the East End. They hoped that by sowing division between Jewish and non-Jewish workers they might retard the growth and development of a workers movement.
Another piece to remember is that the action against them was organised in opposition to the offical stances of the community leaders (Jewish Rabbis generally telling locals to stay away from the fascists) and the trade union movements’ upper bureaucracy (who took the same position). Instead the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, local working class organisations, small independent Marxist groups and anarchists took the lead in organising the action to stop it. When remembering Cable Street we should remember this lesson! When the officialdom (even the social democratic officaldom) refuses to act, we must not be afraid as revolutionaries to organise amongst the rank and file for action to side step them.
However, we must also remember such organisation must be conducted upon the basis of genuine work in the communities and the workplaces. It cannot be merely a voluntarist brigade of revolutionaries fighting street battles, however much the anarchists might like to claim Cable Street as theirs it was not merely a group of radicals going over the heads of the officialdom. It was revolutionaries organising mass support from the community itself that mattered!