They Shall Not Pass!
October 3, 2006 11:00 PM   Subscribe

Today is the 70th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street. On Sunday October 4th 1936, Oswald Moseley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, attempted to lead a march through Stepney, at that time a predominantly Jewish area. As the fascists met at Royal Mint Street, around 300,000 people barricaded the roads of the East End, chanting "No Pasaran" and "They Shall Not Pass". When the police attempted to break through the corden at Cable Street a riot ensued. The police were repelled and Moseley and his acolytes were forced to march in the opposite direction, into the empty streets of the City. With the Spanish Civil War at its peak, Cable Street saw communists, anarchists, Jews, dockers and many other ordinary eastenders fighting the fascists together and has a mythological place in East London folklore. Celebrations will be held this Sunday.
posted by criticalbill (26 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This is a terrific post - I was well aware of the battle but had no idea there were celebrations being held. I will try to go along.
posted by greycap at 11:12 PM on October 3, 2006

From today's Guardian in case anyone thought this sort of thing was history...
posted by criticalbill at 11:16 PM on October 3, 2006

Great post.
posted by Huw at 11:28 PM on October 3, 2006

I've never heard about this; thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:03 AM on October 4, 2006

Yay, communists and anarchists and Jews and dock workers and children throwing marbles and women throwing chamberpots!
posted by pracowity at 12:19 AM on October 4, 2006

This also seems to be the basis for the events of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Night Watch.
posted by smallerdemon at 12:28 AM on October 4, 2006

I just listened to an excellent Today programme report on this, putting together one of the anti-fascist veterans and Oswald Mosley's son. You should be able to listen again here, but note, when I looked just now the direct link for that segment wasn't up yet, and if you look on Thursday or later in the week you'll need to navigate back to Wednesday's show. Well worth it, though.
posted by imperium at 1:05 AM on October 4, 2006

News reel footage of the Battle of Cable Street, 1936: youtube
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:11 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Excellent post, and something I've never heard about before. Thanks.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 1:51 AM on October 4, 2006

Cable Street was undoubtedly a great victory for the forces of light over the forces of darkness (and I say this entirely without irony: Mosley was a truly nasty piece of work, and we must be thankful that he never got his hands on the levers of power). The trouble is that Cable Street is such an iconic moment in the history of the British Left that it is now very difficult to cut through the layers of mythology and reconstruct what was actually going on.

My impression is that the history of Cable Street has gone through two distinct phases. To begin with, it was presented as a great victory for the British Communist Party, and a vindication of the Party's policy of direct action, taking the battle onto the streets. Then. with the decline of the CPGB as a significant political force, a new interpretation emerged, in which Cable Street was seen as a great victory for the ordinary people of the East End, who had spontaneously come out onto the streets to fight fascism (or, in more recent versions, to stand up for multiculturalism).

I would love to read a proper, scholarly history of the Battle of Cable Street -- and if any such book or article exists, I'd be very grateful to anyone who can direct me to it. Unfortunately the only revisionist account I can find on the Internet comes from a right-wing site (which I won't link to), but this collection of essays sounds promising.
posted by verstegan at 2:23 AM on October 4, 2006

What I really like about this post is that it contains not a single Wikipedia link. Hurrah - in my book, that counts as serious, scholarly research these days.
posted by rhymer at 5:08 AM on October 4, 2006

Incidentally I live about five minutes from Cable Street. For somewhere that has such an interesting history it is (two shortish Georgian Terraces aside) a bit of a dump and a showcase for the banality of postwar british architecture.
posted by rhymer at 5:15 AM on October 4, 2006

Great link. Thanks.
posted by huskerdont at 5:30 AM on October 4, 2006

I had no idea - shame on me. Thanks for a terrific post.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:43 AM on October 4, 2006

I second everybody who says this is a great post - I must read all the links in full at home.

My impression of the 'battle', like verstegan, is that it has got a bit lost in the mythology. While it was clearly an important and powerful moment - symbolically as much as practically - the presentation of it can seem to make it a bit too neat, two sides directly facing off against each other. The Disorganised Scuffle of Cable Street after which Everybody Went Home seems to sum up accounts of the events slightly better (inlcluding from my flatmate's father, who actually witnessed it first hand, albeit as a young child).

And also agree (as someone else who lives about five minutes away from it) that Cable Street today is a pretty ugly and uninteresting part of the world.
posted by flashboy at 5:49 AM on October 4, 2006

Very cool post. I had originally learned of the event as told by The Men They Couldn't Hang in their song "The Ghosts of Cable Street." The song did a good enough job of telling the story enough to make hunt down a history book but didn't give me on tenth the detail of the good stuff posted.

Song on their myspace page. (Couldn't find good quality version anywhere else this early in the AM.)
posted by boonerang at 5:53 AM on October 4, 2006

Superb post, superbly complemented by Mister Bijou's newsreel footage (any YouTube haters going to complain about that?), from which the following line leaped out:

"From impartial people, the police earned nothing but praise."

Because, of course, if they didn't praise the police, they clearly weren't impartial! Just the sort of "objective" reporting we're so familiar with today.

If you don't have time or energy to work your way through all the links, I particularly recommend the Workers' Liberty one, which gives a detailed, nuanced account of the history and politics (I had no idea Mosley started out as a Keynesian reformer); here's an excerpt that makes it clear Mosley had plenty of support in the East End:
It was only in its period of relative decline that the BUF (known after 1936 as the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists) turned its attention to East London and there built the only truly mass base fascism ever built in Britain. It was as late as July 1934 that the first BUF East London Branch was set up in Bow. It was November of that year before the second East End branch was started, in their future stronghold of Bethnal Green. Yet they grew quickly and steadily, until by 1937 they were a powerful force in local government elections...

The story later propagated by the Communist Party, of an East End united against the anti-semitic Blackshirts, does not tally with election results. Nor do eyewitness accounts - from people unconnected with the BUF – of Mosley on informal evening walks through East End streets surrounded by a 'forest' of arms raised in the fascist salute.
In the 1937 LCC elections the fascists stood in Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. They lost everywhere but proved the existence of a substantial body of support, coming second in Bethnal Green.

In East London fascism set the agenda for political life. In school playgrounds the game of 'cowboys and Indians' was replaced by 'Jews and Blackshirts'. Streets, estates, and 'patches' were marked off as either fascist or anti-fascists (Jewish or Communist or both), and were off limits to members of the other side. Indeed for some time an unofficial state of warfare existed between the two factions. Such a conflict could not have been maintained without substantial local support for the fascists.

It was against this background that, in September 1936, Mosley announced that the BUF would march through the East End on 4 October...
Thanks for the post, criticalbill!
posted by languagehat at 6:38 AM on October 4, 2006

Excellent post!
posted by caddis at 7:20 AM on October 4, 2006

Thanks for all your comments and especially Mister Bijou - what a brilliant bit of footage.
posted by criticalbill at 9:59 AM on October 4, 2006

Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo
There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo
Carving "V" for "vandal" on the guilty boy's head
When he's had enough of that, maybe you'll take him to bed
To teach him he's alive before he wishes he was dead...

posted by koeselitz at 10:17 AM on October 4, 2006

Excellent, criticalbill. My thanks - I need a good bit of lefty history now and then to keep going.
posted by QIbHom at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2006

He was popular and 'andsome as Richard Burton
Coz I saw 'im on the box once with his black shirt on
And though I do not claim to be any great authority
As far as I'm concerned the sun shone out of his oratory

He would've been a great dictator,
Given half a chance,
But they treated him like a traitor,
So he went to live in France.

Baronet Oswald Ernald Mosely,
Baronet Oswald Ernald Mosely.

When they heard he was dead,
This is what the papers all said:

"Genuinely eager to champion of the unemployed and other underdogs. Dynamic and handsome; popular, gifted and a natural leader."
"A brilliant man in the Commons, compassionate and humane, a man of genuine courage, and inspiring leadership."
"Thought to have been the most handsome and gifted British political leader of the 20th century. A brilliant debater; gifted, lucid and compassionate

-Not the Nine O'Clock News
posted by Sparx at 12:44 PM on October 4, 2006

It is funnier to watch, Sparx. Not the Nine O'Clock News did great 80's pop genre video take-offs...

Good call, though.
posted by QIbHom at 1:25 PM on October 4, 2006

Oooh - forgot to mention, one thing that zoomed over my head when I first heard the NTNON song is that all those quotes at the end are real newspaper quotes from his various obituaries - one from the Times IIRC.
posted by Sparx at 2:12 PM on October 4, 2006

I don't know enough about the Battle of Cable Street - being a Jewish Londoner, I'd love to attend the celebrations.
Unfortunately, being an orthodox Jewish Londoner, I can't - because Sunday's Simchat Torah. Doh!
posted by yoz at 7:26 PM on October 4, 2006

those quotes at the end are real newspaper quotes

Sadly, none of the attributes in the quotes are incompatible with being a fascist (except, arguably, for 'humane'.)
posted by Luddite at 7:53 AM on October 5, 2006

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