Cable Street 1936 – ‘They shall not pass and they did not pass’

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By Independent Working Class Association (IWCA)

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, where an attempted 3,000 strong march through the East End of London by the British Union of Fascists, under police protection, was forcibly prevented and broken up by thousands of fighting anti-fascists and upwards of one hundred thousand demonstrators. It remains the most significant single domestic episode in the history of British anti-fascism.

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Within the Communist Party itself, the leadership were hell bent on having a demonstration in support of the Spanish Republic at Trafalgar Square on the day, but rank and file pressure forced them to change plans at the eleventh hour to defend the East End.

Cable Street was not a spontaneous, apolitical revolt by salt-of-the-earth Londoners outraged at the presence of fascist provocateurs in their midst. The driving force was working class militants – largely, but by no means exclusively, within the Communist Party – armed with a class analysis, rooted in their own communities and often working against prevailing ‘left’ structures. Within the Communist Party itself, the leadership were hell bent on having a demonstration in support of the Spanish Republic at Trafalgar Square on the day, but rank and file pressure forced them to change plans at the eleventh hour to defend the East End. The Labour Party’s role in Cable Street is predictably shameful: its representatives at the time tried to persuade anti-fascists to stay away from the demo, and Herbert Morrison – then leader of London County Council, and Home Secretary four years later – afterwards condemned anti-fascists alongside fascists for causing the trouble, while praising the police for their actions.

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The Labour Party’s role in Cable Street is predictably shameful: its representatives at the time tried to persuade anti-fascists to stay away from the demo, and Herbert Morrison – then leader of London County Council, and Home Secretary four years later – afterwards condemned anti-fascists alongside fascists for causing the trouble, while praising the police for their actions.

Despite this, Labour are front and centre in today’s official Cable Street commemoration, along with their conservative ‘anti-fascist’ allies and non-political ethnic/religious grouplets: elements that oppose fascism not because it threatens the working class, but because it threatens the political status quo. One wonders what the activists of ’36 would make of this, or how the result might have turned out had the anti-fascist forces been so constituted back then.

L-R) Matteo Salvini – Italy’s Lega Nord; Harald Vilimsky, – Austria’s  Freedom Party (FPOe), Marine Le Pen – France’s National Front, Geert Wilders – Dutch Freedom Party (PVV); Gerolf Annemans – Belgium’s Flemish Vlaams Belang

Surveying the scene now, we see every possibility of Europe seeing the election of its first far-right head of state since 1945 in Austria in December, Marine Le Pen consistently leading the polling for the first round of the 2017 French Presidential election, UKIP eating into Labour’s core vote in England and Wales, the AfD as the biggest working class party in Berlin and the populist right climbing all over the furniture across northern, western and central Europe. The financial crash of 2008 and subsequent chronic economic crisis has stripped the political centre of its vestigial credibility, but it is the right who are filling the vacuum in working class political representation.

The antecedents of the IWCA – Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) – had as their mission statement ‘to oppose fascism physically and ideologically’. Cable Street was one of the inspirations for the physical struggle, a struggle that has been won – for now. If the current wave of populist nationalism is to be beaten back, the struggle now has to be political: no less than to reconstitute the working class as a political fighting force and the prime agent of radical political change, independent, democratic and beholden to no-one but itself. The challenge is considerable, but the risks of failing to meet it are clear.