The Battle of Cable Street: ‘they shall not pass’

The Battle of Cable Street; anti-Fascists are pushed back by police on October 4, 1936 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Anti-fascist action has been an inherent part of the British society. Macklin and Busher (2015), who looked at the interactions between far right movements and counter-movements in the period after World War II, referred, for instance, to the activities of the 43 Group in the 1940s, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1970s, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in the 1980s, and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) more recently.

As a broad movement, however, that encompasses moderate and radical wings, and a plethora of organisations, anti-fascism cannot be reduced to a unified social actor that follows the same set of tactics in the struggle against the prevalence of far right ideologies. Instead, and in line with social movement theory, anti-fascism can be better understood if approached as ‘complex and highly heterogeneous network structures.’

While it is important to bear these differences in mind, though, there are some historic events that reveal the common roots of British anti-fascists. In essence, these can be considered pivotal moments, which have the intrinsic power to inspire and shape the trajectories of future generations.

It is safe to assume that the Battle of Cable Street is such a moment, since it instilled in collective memory the belief that ‘all is possible.’ On October 4 1936, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of London to prevent the sympathisers of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), known as the Blackshirts, from descending on the East End and spreading their message of hate, which at the time was mainly directed against the Jewish population. The decision of the Home Secretary to allow the march to proceed mobilised ‘members from the Jewish and Irish communities, local workers and local Labor and Communist parties,’ leading to violent clashes between the latter and the police. Although the disorder saw a large number of anti-fascists injured and arrested, it yielded the desired results. The Blackshirts were defeated and forced to abandon their initial plans.

The message that emerged on that day, the idea that fascism cannot and will not prevail, was so powerful that it has managed to survive over eighty years, and we have seen on many occasions more recently where anti-racist activists have drawn inspiration from this legacy.

However, as is often the case with moments of this magnitude, myths may become part of the dominant narrative and distort the real sequence of events – blindsiding future anti-fascist counter-tactics. Daniel Tilles explains that in the aftermath of the Battle of Cable Street, the BUF did not remain inactive; not only did the party see its membership rise in the East End, they also started an intimidation campaign that resulted in violent attacks against Jewish targets. More importantly, another fascist demonstration one year later in Bermondsey showed that single actions may not be enough to minimise the influence and presence of far right practices.

The above description does not intend to diminish the importance of Cable Street. However, a deeper reflection may be needed, so that lessons can be adapted to the current struggles. First, movement actors should be adequately prepared to respond to the unintended consequences of their actions. A vast literature discusses this topic. For example, Andrews (2002) studies the effect of the civil rights movement on the creation of all-white academies in Mississippi in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Second, and related to the previous point, victories in one arena do not mean necessarily that political groups will disintegrate. Meyer and Staggenborg (1996) theorise that ‘the availability of additional institutional venues for action encourages movements suffering defeats to shift targets and arenas to sustain themselves.’ Copsey (2011) finds, in particular, that the actions of militant anti-fascists in the UK instead of destroying the British National Party ‘encouraged its modernisation.’ Third, even if at times the far right appears defeated and does not pose an imminent threat, the mainstreaming of its ideas and logic is equally problematic; it negatively impacts ethnic relations and undermines the very foundations of liberal societies.

Undoubtedly, the Battle of Cable Street has constituted an important source of inspiration for modern anti-fascists. It shows that people have the ability to transcend their own fate and that determination and unity are constitutive elements of successful mobilisation. It also exposes some of the challenges anti-fascists face when confronting either radical or extreme manifestations of the far right. Therefore, the main lessons that can be drawn today are that complacency must be avoided, while an array of different measures, from Prevent and education programs to the systematic monitoring of online platforms, is needed to minimise – or even eradicate ideally – the influence of the far right. As far right movements continue to mobilise online, the internet will become the next hub of anti-fascist action.

Mr Andreas Dafnos is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield. His profile can be found here:

© Andreas Dafnos. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).