Battles over Cable Street

The Cable Street Mural in Shadwell in East London. Design by Dave Binnington. Image: Wikipedia

JVL Introduction

On 5th July Jewish News published a bizarre blog misleadingly entitled Why the left were nearly not at the Cable Street march against Mosley’s fascists.

Based on a perverse misreading of the role of the Communist party in particular, in the buildup to the day, author Miriam Mirwitch makes it look as though large parts of the left weren’t really interested in fighting fascism.

It was quite the reverse.

The truth is, as the article fails to mention, it was the communal Jewish leaders – the Board of Deputies, the Anglo-Jewish Association, the Jewish Chronicle – who were telling Jews to stay indoors, away from demonstrations. The left was out in full force.

We asked David Rosenberg, author of Battle for the East End (Five Leaves Publications) and convenor of Cable Street 80, to set the record straight.

David Rosenberg writes:

The Battle of Cable Street was such a dramatic victory for the left against fascism that its significance has been a continuing target for those who want to promote sectarian agendas rather than explore its history in good faith. But few of these attacks have been as ill-informed and distorted as the latest incarnation from Miriam Mirwitch in her blog in Jewish News (5th July 2021).

The devastating economic crash of 1929 brought mass unemployment and mass hunger in America and Europe and a loss of faith in mainstream politicians. The decade that followed saw the rise of fascist movements led by wannabe dictators. In Britain a charismatic young politician, Sir Oswald Mosley, who spent the 1920s initially as a Conservative then joined Labour, seized the moment. He launched the New Party in March 1931 – a hybrid political party and menacing street group – that combined left of centre economics with authoritarian ultra-nationalist politics.

In October 1932 he suddenly closed the New Party and announced the birth of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). By 1934 it had 500 branches around the country and open support from Viscount Rothermere who published the Daily Mail, the country’s largest circulation newspaper, but it over-reached itself that same year, engaging in appalling violence. Relations between Rothermere and Mosley became strained (though Rothermere faithfully supported Hitler through the whole decade). Losing support from his earlier backers, Mosley then concentrated the BUF’s efforts in a few particular working class areas, especially in London’s East End, and placed antisemitism at the centre of its ideology.

By 1936 it had four huge branches in the East End that formed a horseshoe around the enclave of Aldgate and Whitechapel where 60,000 Jews – mainly tailors, shoemakers and cabinet makers – were living in one square mile. It was in the East End on the afternoon of 4 October 1936 that the decade’s most iconic clash between fascism and antifascism took place.

Fierce fighting erupted at three different locations in the East End that day, which history records as “The Battle of Cable Street”. Many words have been written about this clash but I cannot recall an article about it that demonstrates such breathtaking ignorance as the one by Miriam Mirwitch that was published by the Jewish News on 5 July 2021. She has taken a couple of comments by a historian I knew well and greatly respected, the late David Cesarani, and used them to construct a crude left-baiting rendition which insults the memory of those who participated not just on that day but throughout the 1930s, especially members of the Communist Party.

Different anti-fascist alliances were made in different areas, whether in Stockton in 1933, Belle Vue in Manchester and Olympia (west London) in 1934, Leeds in 1936, Bermondsey in 1937, but the Communist Party was central to each one of those successful anti-fascist mobilisations among working class communities. You do not have to agree with every political position taken by the Communist Party in that decade to acknowledge their central role in British anti-fascism in that era.

The clashes in East London on 4 October 1936 involved huge numbers. Estimates ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 people on the streets. Only 4,000 of those were accounted for by the fascists themselves. Another 7,000 were police, sent by the Home Secretary with the express orders to ensure the safe passage of fascists seeking to invade the area’s most-heavily populated Jewish streets.

Posters that went up just a week earlier promised “Four marching Columns. Four Great meetings.” Just a few days later, a militant, local, left-wing body, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC), whose committee included several leading members of local Communist Party branches, collected nearly 100,000 local signatures for a petition to Home Secretary, John Simon, calling for the march to be banned. Many non-Jews as well as Jews signed.

Despite two dedicated parliamentary debates in March and July 1936 in which local MPs detailed a sickening spiral of violence by the fascists in the East End, the Home Secretary decided that free movement and free speech for Mosley’s fascists trumped the freedom from fear that the local population demanded.

Fortunately, the JPC had a Plan B. Soon after the Home Secretary rejected the petition, the JPC produced a leaflet calling on “Citizens of London” to take action. It argued that if the Home Secretary wouldn’t ban the march, then the people of London would. It ended: “This march must not take place!”

The key political forces that united on 4 October 1936, were the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Jewish People’s Council and the Labour League of Youth (in opposition to the national Labour Party hierarchy who wanted people to stay indoors and desist from demonstrating.) Many thousands of grassroots trade unionists ignored similar injunctions from their union leaders and were present too, among them many ordinary Labour Party members. But while the JPC were mobilising Jews, the Jewish Establishment – the Board of Deputies, the Anglo-Jewish Association, the Jewish Chronicle – were telling Jews to stay indoors, away from demonstrations.

Mosley had made a particular pitch to win support from the district’s other large minority – the Irish – and with some success. A number of speakers recruited from the local Irish catholic community incited large crowds at increasingly threatening street corner meetings. They blamed Jews for taking jobs and homes, being racketeering landlords, price cutters undermining local shopkkeepers’ livelihoods, running prostitution rackets and a range of criminal activities. After renaming themselves “The British Union of Fascists and National Socialists”, their rhetoric became more zoological and genocidal as speakers labelled their Jewish neighbours “rats and vermin from the gutters of Whitechapel’; “Oriental Sub-humans”, “an incredible species of sub-humanity”; a “cancer” and a “pestilence”. But an anti-fascist movement was growing too, including the most unionised sectors of the local Irish community – dockers and railway workers.

On 4 October, fascists assembled in Royal Mint Street, close to the Tower of London, where they had to try to repel physical attacks by anti-fascist militants. The biggest concentration of anti-fascist forces though was at Gardiners Corner in Aldgate where the main roads of the City and East End met. Mosley’s plan was to march to Gardiners then split into four columns. But tens of thousands blockaded the roads all around holding firm against ferocious violence from mounted police. The third location was at the entrance to Cable Street.

The anti-fascists guessed correctly that if Gardiners was blockaded then the fascists would try to enter at Cable Street. The Communist Party’s daily newspaper, the Daily Worker, published a special London supplement 24 hours before the clash, with a map indicating where demonstrators should gather in numbers. One of these was at Cable Street.

The first two thirds of Cable Street was almost entirely Jewish, the last third mainly Irish Catholic. On the day many Irish residents came down to the Jewish end of Cable street to help Jews build barricades. That day showed that Mosley had lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish community. An old alliance of dockers and tailors forged in joint trade union struggles going back to 1889 held firm. Among a row of shops about 30 yards before the first of three main barricades in Cable Street, was a stationer’s run by Harry and Olive Lefcovitch. They and their children lived above the shop. Harry Lefcovitch, was my grandfather’s cousin.

The people of the East End – Jew and non-Jew – who took to the streets that day, were fighting together for a better future. They wanted the East End to be a place where working class communities could win better conditions in housing, education and jobs, and not fight each other.  The fight for a better future is always a noble struggle, and while we must interrogate received wisdoms, welcome new insights, and retrieve hidden or obscured histories, the fight for a better past must be carried out with honesty and integrity.

Staggeringly, Mirwitch doesn’t even mention the Irish community! She says “Jewish, Black and socialist East Londoners stood together and stopped the march of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.” She claims that “Without Left-wing Zionists and Jewish socialists” in membership, and branch leadership positions, in both the unions and the Community Party, the organised Left would have been in Trafalgar Square instead” at a  rally “in solidarity with the Spanish Republic”, which was cancelled “at the last minute” when the party “told its members to rally instead in the East End… Had they not, Britain’s Jewish and Black community would have been alone.”

Her ignorance of the make-up of the East End is incredible. There were indeed some non-white communities – who settled in the 19th century from East and west Bengal, Somalia and China, living economically precarious lives and experiencing racism – but they were tiny. There are anecdotal suggestions that some Somalis were among the anti-fascist crowd. I would love that to be true. And there were a very small number of Black left-wing activists like Chris Braithwaite of the Seamen’s Union living in the East End. But Mosley’s propaganda in the mid-1930s was directed almost entirely against the 60,000 strong local Jewish community and against Jews nationally.

It was in the late 1950s, some 10 years after the Windrush arrived, that Black Caribbean communities were battling against organised fascism in Notting Hill, and in the 1970s and ‘80s Black communities, and especially the growing Bengali community of the East End, were by far the principal targets of the street violence of Mosley’s political grandchildren, the National Front (who also targeted Jews and gays telling their inner core membership that the very presence of Black people in Britain was because of the machinations of Jewish financiers and communists). But not in 1936.

Mirwitch would love it to be true that Zionists played a key role in 1936. They didn’t. Although Zionists were beginning to make headway in more middle-class Jewish areas in 1930s London, and starting to gather more support within the Board of Deputies (led at that time by upper middle-class non-Zionists and anti-Zionists) they were a marginal force in the overwhelmingly working-class East End. To the extent that members of Poale Zion were there, they were present as trade unionists and Labour Party members uniting in a working class front of Jews and non-Jews against fascism. It was nothing to do with Jewish nationalism. The mass of Jews among the crowd that day were asserting their right to live harmoniously in the East End, and in the country at large, alongside other communities, in full equality and free from harassment.

Why did Mosley choose 4 October? Principally because October 1936 was the fourth anniversary of the formation of his British Union of Fascists in October 1932 – but he may have done so as a spoiler too. The Young Communist League had already called a demonstration that same day in Trafalgar Square around the slogan of “Aid Spain” and had been busy mobilising for it. Franco had launched the Spanish Civil War in late July. Every day the Daily Worker was reporting atrocities from that war on its front page.

Mosley’s mobilisation, announced at barely a week’s notice, presented a logistical problem for the Communist Party, on which it initially made a bad call. Aware that it could not be in two places at once, its first response was to keep the Trafalgar Square rally, then march afterwards to the East End to show their opposition to Mosely’s march, and then in the evening hold a rally with speakers on anti-fascism in Spain and the East End, in Shoreditch, which the fascists considered a particular stronghold. But members of local East End branches – Jewish and non-Jewish – rebelled, claiming that Mosley would already be marching through the East End by the time people reached there from Trafalgar Square. They argued forcefully that the best way to help anti-fascists in Spain was to defeat fascism in the East End.

Under mounting pressure, on the Wednesday night before 4 October (a Sunday), the Party’s central committee conceded. Leaflets calling people to Trafalgar Square were printed over with “Alteration: rally to Aldgate 2pm”. Instructions were sent to local party secretaries, cancelling the Trafalgar Square rally and calling for a massive mobilisation over the next 72 hours to ensure that Mosley would be stopped. Thousands of leaflets were distributed. Pavements and walls were whitewashed with “They shall not pass” (translated and borrowed from the fighters in Spain). On the day, the Communist Party was out in force alongside the other local anti-fascist groups. Mirwitch’s suggestion that the change of tactics was because of “left wing Zionists” is, like her version of East End demography, pure fantasy.

The “Battle” of Cable Street was, just that, a battle. The war against fascism in the East End continued and was won by a movement considerably larger than the Communist Party or the other parties involved on 4 October. This was the Stepney Tenants Defence League which united East Enders against the slum housing all communities suffered. From 1937-39 it held more than 20 rent strikes, winning real gains for those tenants. It brought together especially the Jewish and Irish communities that Mosley tried to set against each other, and made the area a hostile environment for fascists to organise within. The Communist Party, including Jewish and Irish members, were its key organisers and several Labour Party figures were involved too.

To add insult to injury, Mirwitch’s shoddy piece was illustrated with a photo of an arrest on 4 October. This was the caption: A demonstrator is taken away under arrest by police officers after a mounted baton charge, in East London, on Oct. 4, 1936, to stop fighting between anti-fascists and Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.

Clearly the paper made no effort to find out who that demonstrator was. He had a name. It was Charlie Goodman. I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with him on several occasions in the 1980s and ‘90s. He died around 25 years ago but I’m still in touch with members of his family. He was one of 79 anti-fascists arrested that day and spent three months in prison.

He remembers being visited there by Mr Prince, a Jewish chaplain connected with the Board of Deputies who was supporting Jewish prisoners. Most of Charlie’s fellow Jews there were in for petty thefts – crimes of poverty. Mr Prince assured them of support. When Charlie told him that he was there for “fighting fascism” Prince tore a strip off him shouting that people like him were “giving Jews a bad name”.  Charlie made a plan to tour round Jewish communities on release to expose this as typical of the Board of Deputies’ response to fascism. He never did, because shortly after being released he headed for Spain to fight Franco’s forces as part of the International Brigades. He understood that the fight against fascism in Spain was intimately linked to that in East London.

Some 200 East Enders fought in Spain, around half of them Jewish. Thirty six of them never came back. And while Jews like Charlie Goodman who had no time for the Board of Deputies and no interest in Zionism were fighting in Spain, back here the Board of Deputies were stepping up their activity – against  the Jewish People’s Council who had the temerity to criticise their utter complacency in the face of real threats to Jewish people’s lives in the East End. Meanwhile, in 1937, the Jewish Chronicle, which had ignored and played down the fascist threat to Jews from the early 1930s, echoed the accusations of other Jewish communal leaders that Jews themselves were “responsible for antisemitism” through “materialism, vulgarity and ostentation”, while also claiming that Jews were prospering under Italian fascism.

David Rosenberg is the author of Battle for the East End (Five Leaves Publications) and was convenor of Cable Street 80 – the last major commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street held in 2016 and attended by 3,000 people.


Comments (22)

  • Dorothy Macedo says:

    It is vital the record is set straight, David’s article deserves the widest possible readership!

  • Mary Davies says:

    BoD historically cowardly.

  • Carel Buxton says:

    Great article David, thank you.

  • Lynne Walsh says:

    Excellent piece.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Thanks David – a terrific rebuttal, careful, thoughtful, nuanced and precise. The thing is – it needs to be in the Jewish News!

  • Margaret E Johnson says:

    A very illuminating piece. I had heard of the battle of Cable street of course but not the detail. It was good to read something from someone who has real connection with families involved in the area and in the events. Thank you.

  • Great stuff, Dave. It sounds as if the article you’re criticising has taken Joe Jacobs’ book as gospel. I gave my copy to my dad who read it and said that the problem with the Jacobs’ book was that it turned the CPs switch in plan into part of his overall argument with the CP. My parents’ line re the CP in the 1930s was that they were the ones with organisation and strength to bring out people for demos on Spain, street meetings, rent strikes and when it came to it, Cable Street. (My parents were 17 in October 1936 and both were there. It was their first date!) The point of the organisation and strength is that if the CP hadn’t switched tack, it’s doubtful if the day would have been so successful for the left. The way my parents put it is that in other circumstances, the left might congratulate the CP for having been flexible enough to change tack. Given that one of the arguments against the CP was its inflexibility (following the party line etc) then their willingness to move with the mass movement of the day could be a reason for applauding them. (btw as I’ve written and said before, the family joke was that my parents got stuck on the wrong side of the Cable Street barricade! Literally. They were down one of the side streets and instead of being behind the barricade (put there as Dave says to prevent Mosley’s ‘army’ from marching there) they were in front of the barricade. Some mounted police started coming towards them, and they had the long ‘night stick’, Indian army-style batons so that they could whack people. Luckily for them, someone opened a door and pulled my parents inside. There was a lot of solidarity about that day! )

  • Jack T says:

    If not for excellent articles like this from David Rosenberg, factually incorrect articles such as the one from Miriam Mirwitch could easily become the dominant narrative in years to come. The truth is precious and must be protected.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Rewriting history and turning reality on its head is what propagandists do!

    Funny, isn’t it, how no-one had ever twigged that Jeremy Corbyn was an anti-semite until AFTER he became leader of the LP! Yep, he managed to keep it hidden from EVERYONE for 32 years!

  • Mike Brogan says:

    The Leopard doesn’t change its’ spots, as we can see by the activities of the BOD, Jewish Chronicle et al today, trying to rewrite History.

  • George Wilmers says:

    Miriam Mirwitch’s article affects such stunning ignorance of history that it would not be worth commenting on were it not for the fact that it is clearly intended as propaganda directed at the ill informed. As for the role of the Jewish establishment, remarkably the Jewish Chronicle in November 2018 published an obituary of Max Levitas, a communist councillor for Tower Hamlets and a participant in the battle of Cable Street, who died aged 103. The obituary ends with the following quote:

    “We had asked the Board of Deputies to represent us to the government, asking them to ban the [fascist] march. And they wouldn’t.
    They said all the Jewish people should stay at home. We disagreed entirely. The more you stay at home, the stronger they get.”

    This quote by a contemporary participant was published by the JC before the more recent desperate attempts by pro-Israel propagandists to mask the unpleasant odours arising from zionist history, using a patent extract of fascism, islam, and socialism merged into a hallucinatory toilet scent diffuser, seductively labeled ‘antisemitism’.

    On the other hand I find somewhat distasteful David Rosenberg’s implicit glorification of the Communist Party apparatus, as opposed to to the disparate variety of leftwing militants, including many communists and unaffiliated ordinary workers, who fought off the fascists. He writes above:

    “You do not have to agree with every political position taken by the Communist Party in that decade to acknowledge their central role in British anti-fascism in that era.”

    Written in 2021 this is just rose-coloured sentimentality, and frankly dangerous obfuscation. We should have the utmost respect for the ordinary communist militants who in many cases gave their lives fighting fascism. However to whitewash a party apparatus which in that very period slavishly followed the international political policies of a monstrous dictator who was busy murdering vast numbers, including a whole generation of revolutionary socialists in the USSR and in Spain, cannot be excused with the benign-sounding words “You do not have to agree with every political position…”.

    Moreover according to some sources the cautious initial position of the central committee of the British communist party over not confronting the fascists at Cable Street was quite deliberate and in line with the Stalinist “popular front” policy of the period: not wishing to upset western bourgeois liberals by disturbing their peace – ironically a position in this case not that far removed from that of the Board of Deputies. The fact that this position was overturned by pressure from below was indeed a real democratic triumph for communist militants over apparatchiks, but in the history of a party organised on Leninist principles whose general policies were ultimately determined from Moscow, it was a rare event.

    I understand the emotional attachment which some people of my generation and older have to the USSR and to “communist” parties of 57 varieties organised according to Leninist principles, but at the same time I am dismayed by the emotional reluctance to come to terms with history and to admit the undemocratic and ultimately totalitarian nature of these formations. A remarkable example of this blindness is provided by Dorothy Zellner’s recent article republished by JVL:

    The astonishing part about this article is the surprise and disappointment experienced by the author (and in some comments by others) on learning that the “communist left had failed the Palestinian cause” at the creation of Israel. How is this naivete possible in the 21st century? As if this were somehow the only betrayal, the worst of Stalin’s crimes against humanity? As if the purges and gulags never happened, the massacres of workers in Hungary, in Poland, and in East Germany, all an invention of US propaganda? As if in 1949 any Western communist party showed the slightest independence from the national policies of the USSR?

    Truly the dead tradition of generations weighs like an incubus on the minds of the living.

  • Good strong stuff. Lets have more, we all need it. Thanks, comrade. A groysn dank

  • Danny Speight says:

    I remember hearing a radio interview of one of those arrested, many years later of course. He had been a Jewish apprentice tailor and talked about having to do hard labour. It wasn’t an easy stay in prison.

  • David Hurley says:

    Thank you David, I thought I knew the Battle of Cable Street but your wonderfully detailed piece brings it to life!

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    Excellent response. The Mirwitch piece demonstrates that the culture war being waged by the Tories finds its echo in the Jewish press – with the same weapons: lies, cover-ups, distortions…

  • Meic Birtwistle says:

    Thoroughly absorbing piece. Will be getting the book. Did a programme on fascism and racism in London for the Welsh Language channel S4C in the 1980’s. Cable Street’s history is fascinating. (Also took part in the unsuccessful attempt to stop the NF from marching through Cardiff in 1983.) Could I draw your attention to the mass-mobilisation at Tonypandy in the Rhondda, also in 1936 ,where Moseley was also prevented from marching. There is a plan to turn the old synagogue in Merthyr Tudful into a Jewish cultural centre by the way. I hope that the events at Tonypandy will receive suitable coverage in it. Ta.

  • Caroline Carney says:

    My father told me about Cable Street and so when I read the Mirwitch article I recognised nothing. It did not resemble a word my father told me about the community that lived there and the generosity of neighbours. My father was 20 in 1936 having been born in Knock, Co Mayo Eire in Easter 1916. He was always somewhat of a rebel. Instead of working on the farm or becoming a teacher or business owner like the rest of his family, he came to England at the age of 17 and lived in digs in the East End around the corner from Cable Street. He got an apprenticeship with a Jewish cabinet maker. It was a rare thing then but my father went to the cabinet maker and asked for the apprenticeship after a long discussion about why he wanted it the cabinet maker said yes. He told me how he and his friends were attacked by fascists on a night out to the cinema and that the threat was always there but most of the Irish community who were not in unions or politically active were given the impression by the Catholic Church it was a not a thing to worry about as it was just the “old war” English vs Irish and they were just thugs. he said it was hard to make them go against the church but as more and more of the young people were assaulted or threatened the community started listening to the trade unionists. I remember him telling me about the day and the chaos also how you left one area it was a nightmare to get back in. He told me there were undercover police and right-wing agitators that had infiltrated the Irish groups. They were easily spotted because they were obviously new to it and wore new shiny shoes and big expensive overcoats. One man was discovered by the fact he had offered an Irish docker a cigarette, from a silver monogrammed cigarette case. He told me about the celebrations and the sore heads and how he played a jam session with a Jewish Fidler, Irish banjo player my father on the accordion and an assortment of people on everything you could pluck and bang from the lyre to the dustbin lid and the stew pot. I thoroughly enjoyed Davids article as it accurately places my community in the middle of the melee and the history.

  • Stephen Tiller says:

    Listen to the 1936 documentary – not at all on the side of the protestors – calling them ‘Communists, Labourites and Jews… resisting the peaceful efforts of the outnumbered police’ who we later see riding their horses into crowds, trampling people underfoot and cracking heads…

  • With reference to Alan Howards comment on how no one “realized” that Corbyn was a antisemite until he became Labour Leader. Neither did anyone “realize” that the Labour Party was antisemitic until 2015 when Corbyn became Labour Leader. How odd that news outlets had been in total ignorance of the antisemitism of Corbyn and The Labour Party for 120 years, in Labours case and 35 years in Corbyns case. No doubt some crazed propagandist could explain it.

  • Leonard Weiss says:

    O in Stepneyn the original article…there were two CPGB members elected as MP’s in 1945…Phil and Willie.
    My father (Manny Weiss) social secretary in the Young Communist League, in Stepney, gave an account of the battle on BBC2 many years ago.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Jay, they all rushed to join the LP as soon as JC was nominated to contest the leadership. And although no-else had ever picked up on the fact, either THEY knew instinctively that Jeremy was an existential anti-semite, or he relayed the fact to them somehow. I suspect the clue was that he intended to nationalise the railways. A dead giveaway if ever there was one!

  • Mark Francis says:

    The same old canard. The CP had organised a “Hands off Spain” rally at Trafalgar Square some time in advance. When they heard of the Mosely march they cancelled it and re-directed comrades to Cable Street. Joe Jacobs book on fighting the fascists in the East End has a reprint of the leaflets showing the cancellation and re direction. The idea that the CP organised the Trafalgar Square rally as a diversion is the inverse of the truth and still put about as a deliberate lie by falsifiers of history on the left and the right.

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