Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, October 02, 2009

A note on The Battle of Cable Street


4 October 1936 - The Battle of Cable Street in East London

Just before Gordon Brown's vacuous, turgid and reactionary speech to Labour Party conference (effectively his farewell speech which explains why he got a moderately warm reception), conference delegates were treated to a video highlighting the fact that it was 'fighters and dreamers that change the world' or some such cliche, reminding people about the historic and victorious struggles for trade union rights, women's suffrage, against slavery and apartheid in South Africa and so on. Tellingly, the video praised those who stopped Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists marching through London's East End (then a predominantly Jewish area) in 1936 at The Battle of Cable Street...

It is true of course that individual Labour Party members were at Cable Street in 1936, though to do so they had to go against their Party leadership. As two historians note, 'Labour leaders, both nationally and locally, acted disgracefully'.

East London’s Labour councils supported the Jewish People's Council petition for an outright ban on the march, but George Lansbury, the Labour MP for Poplar and former party leader, could not even bring himself to demand that. He merely called on the Home Secretary to re-route one of the four BUF marches through a less "congested" area. "What I want is to maintain peace and order", Lansbury stated, "and I advise those people who are opposed to Fascism to keep away from the demonstration." This was "sound advice", counselled an editorial in the official labour movement paper, the Daily Herald. "Fascist meetings are in themselves dull.... The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and Fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands." "If the procession does take place", the Mayor of Stepney told the local press, "I appeal to all East Londoners most earnestly to stay away."

Though it is good that the Labour Party today is willing and prepared to take a public stand against the British Nazi Party at the highest level, the fact that the Party not only continues to wrap itself up in the Union Jack and play the race card against migrant workers but is also willing to sanction Jack 'boot' Straw (a notorious racist who refused to talk with Muslim women constituents of him if they were wearing headscarves) to go and 'make an argument' against BNP Fuhrer Nick Griffin on Question Time highlights the danger of leaving 'anti-fascism' to the official leaders of the British labour movement (if the likes of Brown and Mandleson can even be so described today). Though the Labour Party today may like to bathe in the reflected glory of The Battle of Cable Street of over seventy years ago, the real lesson to remember from Cable Street is that mass direct action from below is critical to stopping fascist movements when they try and take to the streets.

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