PETER FROST remembers one of the greatest working-class victories in London.
ON October 6 1936 self-appointed British fascist leader Oswald Mosley planned to marry his long term mistress Diana Guinness, one of the Mitford sisters.
Their secret marriage would take place in Germany, in the Berlin home of Germany’s minister of public enlightenment and propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Adolf Hitler would be the guest of honour.
How was Mosley to impress both his new bride and, far more important, the pompous strutting leaders of Germany’s evil anti-semitic Nazi Party?
What could be better, thought Mosley, than to goosestep his blackshirt bully boys through London’s nearest thing to a Jewish ghetto — and to do it just two days before his nazi wedding?
He could imagine boasting about his triumph to the assembled fascist guests. Not least to Hitler himself at the Berlin wedding.
So the set piece scene was set. The date October 4 1936, just two days before the wedding. The battleground would be London’s East End.
Mosley’s blackshirts had been harassing the sizeable Jewish population in the East End all through the 1930s. By 1936 anti-semitic assaults by fascists were growing and windows of Jewish-owned businesses were routinely smashed.
Firebomb attacks and anti-semitic graffiti were commonplace.
This was just part of a more pervasive, more established, anti-semitism. It was not uncommon for people to be denied rented accommodation or jobs specifically because they were Jewish.
Against this background Mosley planned his grand march. Many voices called for it to be banned. A petition of over 100,000 signatures demanded the march to be banned.
Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government ignored such calls, stating that a ban would be undemocratic.
Disgracefully, Labour leaders, Labour’s Daily Herald newspaper and the Board of Deputies of British Jews all urged people to keep away from the march — to let Mosley march through the East End unopposed.
The working class of London thought differently. They knew that Mosley and his march had to be stopped and only direct action would do that.
Over a quarter of a million activists rallied to the call. Among them were Jews, Irish, communists, dock workers, trade unionists and anti-fascist Londoners of all persuasions.
On that Sunday morning they packed the streets and back alleys of east London, defending their neighbourhoods and their right to live in them.
The Communist Party of Great Britain and its local leader Phil Piratin played a leading role in organising the protest. The following year Piratin would become the first Communist to be elected to Stepney Council and, in 1945, to be elected as a Communist MP for Mile End.
Mosley assembled perhaps three or four thousand blackshirts. The Metropolitan Police presence numbered 6,000. The police announced their mission was to facilitate a democratically sanctioned march.
As the blackshirts started to line up, they were confronted by local people who had adopted the Spanish civil war slogan “No pasaran” (They shall not pass).
Improvised barricades using overturned lorries and building materials were thrown up to block streets and corners. Anti-fascist tram drivers stopped their vehicles to block routes too.
Women, men and even children fought the police with rocks, broken paving slabs and chair legs. Marbles were rolled under the hooves of police horses.
Piratin (pictured below speaking at a Communist Party Rally) remembered the day: “It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.
“The Battle of Cable Street is known for this reason. It was there that the police really had to fight for themselves, not for the fascists.”
Every police horse in London had been mobilised and countless mounted baton charges were made but the police could not clear the route for Mosley to march his blackshirts through Stepney and Tower Hamlets.
The scale of the operation was unprecedented. The Daily Worker — predecessor of the Morning Star — reported: “The police called every modern device into action to help them in their activities.
“Dozens of wireless vans were stationed at strategic points. Two planes were maintaining an aerial reconnaissance, while from every police-box plain-clothed men, who were as conspicuous as they would be inconspicuous, were keeping in touch with headquarters.”
In a last desperate attempt to allow Mosely to achieve their aim, the commissioner of police suggested a route along Cable Street. That too was soon blocked and, finally defeated, the commissioner called the march off and redirected a furious Mosley toward Embankment.
The blackshirts had been stopped. They did not pass! Spontaneous celebrations and street parties erupted all across the East End as working people celebrated together.
Around 150 demonstrators had been arrested but many were freed from police custody by fellow demonstrators. 175 anti-fascists suffered injuries and were treated by volunteer doctors and nurses from local hospitals.
Perhaps strangest of all, several policemen were arrested and temporarily imprisoned by the local people.
On the next Monday morning, fascist leader Mosley and his soon to be wife Diana, slunk away to Berlin and the wedding organised by Joseph Goebbels.
Sadly, history does not record what the Mosleys told Adolf Hitler about the march in London the previous weekend. We do know that Diana talked to Hitler about the possibility of establishing a pro-nazi radio station in Britain. When war came one of Mosley’s right-hand men, William Joyce — Lord Haw-Haw — would indeed broadcast nazi propaganda to British listeners.
It was truth however that triumphed in the end. The victory over racism and anti-semitism on Sunday October 4 1936 became legend as the Battle of Cable Street. It became the lasting inspiration for the continuing British fight against the fascism that was spreading all across Europe and would eventually engulf the planet in a terrible world war.
Even today when fascist groups such as Britain First and the English Defence League attack and invade immigrant communities, the spirit of Cable Street is still invoked by those determined that even today No pasaran — They shall not pass!
This article appeared in the Morning Star on the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street 4 October 2016.