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International Socialism, January 1977


Colin Sparks

Fighting the Beast

Fascism: The Lessons of Cable Street


From International Socialism (1st series), No.94, January 1977, pp.11-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The fight against racism and fascism has been one of the major activities of the International Socialists over the last few months. The current growth of fascist groups like the National Front and National Party, the wave of racist murders, and the flood of racist propaganda from the bourgeois press have made the struggle against fascism an urgent priority. We have fought alongside an increasing number of young Asian workers in the direct physical struggle against fascism. Hardly an issue of Socialist Worker over the last few months has been without reports of mass demonstrations or small confrontations with the fascists. There is no doubt that we have learn the basic lesson of the need to stop the fascists physically wherever and whenever possible.

There is also no doubt that we have been in the forefront of the propaganda battle against the fascists. While other sections of the left have bent to racist pressure over immigration controls we have stood firm. We have produced a mass of leaflets, posters, stickers, articles in Socialist Worker, plus a special pamphlet, arguing the socialist case against racism and exposing the fascists.

Clearly, we have a great deal to be proud of and we have won important gains by our stand. However, we still have a great deal to learn. We all know that we are a long way from beating the fascists and that we have not yet begun to undercut the support that they undoubtedly have. Reports of successes in the political fight against the fascists are much fewer than stories of victorious confrontations.

We know that the current rise in fascism and racism is the consequence of the crisis and of the capitulation by the leaders of the labour movement and we also know that many of current supporters of the fascists are working class people. The link between the two facts is vital to understanding how we can win the ‘third battle’.

The crisis affects working people in a million tiny ways. The Social Contract and rising prices together mean that each week the pay packet buys less and less. Rising unemployment means that working class kids go straight from the boredom of school to the misery of the dole queue. The cuts mean that the nagging little illness that could be treated easily is pushed aside by the collapsing health service. The council can no longer afford the repairs that are needed for existing council houses; they have virtually stopped their building programme so it gets harder and harder for a family living in substandard conditions to find a decent home. The list of tiny miseries is endless. The dramatic collapse of Jack Jones and the rest filters through to the ordinary worker as a million streams of petty worries, small insecurities, little lost dreams.

The breeding grounds of fascism are in every dole queue, every rotting council estate, every overcrowded waiting room, every factory facing redundancy. It is there that the fascists find an opening. They are powerfully aided by the flood of racism which pours out of the media, the education system, and every other official institution. Faced with those conditions, people get worried and they get angry. What the fascists do is to provide them, with an explanation for their worries and an enemy to vent their anger on. Black people are an immediate and very visible enemy and it is possible to do something about them. If you are an unemployed white kid looking for an avenue to express your rage, the group that points to blacks and encourages you to attack them has a real appeal. So far it is a limited appeal, but we all have the evidence to know that it is growing.

Every socialist knows that the blacks are not to blame for the crisis. It is obvious to us that racism is a dead end. We understand that to attack blacks will not solve bad housing any more than the medieval peasant burning a witch could stave off the starvation following crop failure. We know that.

But it is not obvious to everybody. What is worse, we will not convince other people just by preaching socialism. Neither will we change people’s minds just by beating up the odd fascist. We have to do more than prove that socialism is an intellectually superior answer to the crisis: we also have to show that the sort of action which follows from our politics can solve real problems in a way that the fascists actions cannot.

1976 is not the first time that the labour movement has faced the threat of fascism. Fourty years ago the British Union of Fascists were pushing hard around the ‘enemy’ of the day – the Jews. By and large, the labour movement won that battle. It is worth looking at some of the lessons learnt then.

The Struggle in the 1930s

Everybody in the labour movement has heard of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’; it is one of the triumphs and myths of our movement. Like all myths it has a kernal of truth and a lot of embroidery. It is worthwhile digging out the truth and learning from it.

On 4 October 1936 Sir Oswald Mosley tried to march into the East End of London at the head of several thousand uniformed fascists. He was protected by a massive cordon of police – 6,000 foot police and the whole of the mounted division. Against him stood a crowd of East London workers estimated at 500,000. From early in the morning to the late evening the police fought to open a road for Mosley. They were beaten at Gardeners’ Corner. They failed to break the barricades in Cable Street and Jamaica Street. Mosley was unable to march and led his would-be storm troopers away into an empty central London. It was a tremendous victory. Despite the claim of The Times [1] that: ‘The activities of both Fascists and Communists in this country seem to most people to be a tedious and rather pitiful burlesque’, it was clear that the fascists failure to strut through East London was a major set-back. Phil Piratin, a leading participant and Communist MP for Mile End after 1945, describes the result:

As for the repercussions in Stepney, I find it impossible to describe the reactions of the Stepney people. In Stepney nothing had changed physically. The poor houses, the mean streets, the ill-conditioned workshops were the same, but the people were changed. Their heads seemed to be held higher, and their shoulders were squarer – and the stories they told! Each one was a ‘hero’ – many of them were ... The ‘terror’ had lost its meaning. The people knew that fascism could be defeated if they organised themselves to do so. [2]

The first lesson of Cable Street is the simple one that victory in the physical fight against fascism, particularly when won by a mass mobilisation, gives working people a fantastic confidence in their own power and ability to fight back.

If we look beyond the drama, however, other lessons come to light. First of all, the mass mobilisation of that day did not happen of its own accord. It was the result of a long campaign against Mosley in the East End, involving hundreds of little unrecorded battles. An enormous propaganda war against fascism had been fought out:

‘During August, September and October of 1936, there were, on average, about 600 meetings in East London each month, reaching a peak of 647 in October.’ [3]

The credit for leading this mass mobilisation is usually claimed by the Communist Party. For example, Piratin wrote:

‘On that occasion the leadership of the Communist Party was undisputed.’ [4]

Unfortunately, this is at best an half-truth. As I intend to quote extensively from Piratin it is politically necessary to set the record straight.

Nobody can doubt that the Communist Party were the leading force in the fight against fascism in the 1930s and many of the tactics they developed are valuable today. However, their overall strategy at the time was to construct a ‘Popular Front’ which involved an alliance with the Labour Party and, if possible, a section of the Liberals. They were quite prepared to drop basic class demands to achieve that end.

In the case of Cable Street, Mosley’s action coincided with the Edinburgh Conference of the Labour Party, which the Communist Party were trying to win into an alliance. The Labour Party leadership was opposed to any confrontations with the fascists. On 1 October the Daily Herald printed an appeal by George Lansbury: ‘What I want is to maintain peace and order, and I advise people who are opposed to fascism to keep away from the demonstration,’ and commended that line in their editorial.

The Communist Party were in a difficult situation. Their politics demanded that they appear ‘respectable’. At the same time their members in East London wished to fight the fascists. They tried a very sordid compromise. On Wednesday 31 September the Daily Worker wrote:

A call has been sent out by the London District of the Communist Party for workers to go in their thousands to Trafalgar Square, and after the demonstration to march through East London’s streets to show their hatred of Mosley’s support for the fascist attack on democracy in Spain ...

In the end reality caught up with them. The lead in Hackney seems to have been taken by the Independent Labour Party [5] and in other areas of East London Jewish organisations were coming to the fore. We can only guess at the mood of closed Communist Party meetings, but it was probably stormy. Whatever the detail, it was not until 2 October that the official line changed, when the Daily Worker wrote:

The London Communist Party and the YCL, reacting to the urgency of the situation ... have decided to concentrate all their forces in support of the East London workers on Sunday ... There is no doubt that from 2 o’clock onwards the roads will be crowded with people intent on opposing fascism.

Having said that, and while remembering that the shadow of class compromise hangs over the whole of the Communist Party’s politics during that period, it remains true that the brunt of the struggle against the fascists was led by the Communist Party.

However, while Cable Street may have turned the tide, it did not, by itself, destroy Mosley’s base. The meetings and marches, and the physical attacks on Jews, continued. Winning the base away from the fascists required more than physical courage and good propaganda.

According to Piratin, there were two schools of thought in the Communist Party at the time:

I remember well the constant discussions in the Stepney branch committee of the Communist Party. There were those who said: ‘Bash the fascists whenever you see them’. Others among us asked ourselves: How was Mosley able to recruit Stepney workers? This, in spite of our propaganda exposing the fascists. If they saw in the fascists the answer to their problems, why? What were the problems? Did we, in our propaganda, offer a solution? Was propaganda itself sufficient? Was there more that ought to be done? [6]

In order to solve some of these problems, Piratin investigated further:

One evening Mosley held a meeting in Salmon Lane, Limehouse, Stepney. In order to settle this problem in my own mind I went along to the meeting, made myself inconspicuous, and watched to see the support which Mosley had. When the meeting ended there was to be a march ... I was curious to see who and what kind of people would march. The fascist band moved off, and behind them about fifty thugs in blackshirt uniform. Then came the people. About 1,500 men, women (some with babies in their arms), and youngsters marched behind Mosley’s banner. I knew some of these people, some of the men wore trade union badges. This had a terrific effect on my attitude to the problem ... (it was one thing to) fight Mosley’s thugs, (but) where did you get by fighting the people? ... Mosley’s appeal struck a chord. There were certain latent anti-Semitic prejudices, it is true, but above all these people, like most in East London, were living miserable, squalid lives. Their homes were slums, many were unemployed. Those at work were often in low-paid jobs. Therefore we urged that the Communist Party should help the people to improve their conditions of life, in the course of which we could show them who was really responsible for their conditions, and get them organised to fight against their real exploiters. [7]

It took a long argument to convince the Communist Party to adopt this new line, and in the end Piratin was forced to go ahead in one area in order to prove by his results that it could pay off.

Because of the nature of the area the major struggles took place around the problems of housing. It is this struggle which Piratin deals with most fully, but it should be borne in mind that the Communist Party was also campaigning on unemployment, trade union organisations and youth problems at the same time.

The Communist Party went into areas which were known to be strongly influenced by the fascists. They took up the very little issues like repairs, rents, lighting, etc., and organised the tenants to fight collectively around them. They did not insist that the tenants first of all agreed with Communist Party politics, nor did they start off by abstract propaganda. They organised a fight-back and then helped people draw the more general lessons.

The turning point was at Paragon Mansions on 6 June 1937. A tenants committee had already been formed and it was learnt that two families were about to be evicted. Piratin went along to see them:

I was curious to know why the people themselves had done nothing in the matter, and why they had not referred the matter to the Tenants Committee. I discovered that in both cases they were members of the British Union of Fascists and obviously wanted no truck with us. One family would have nothing to do with us whatsoever that evening. The other was prepared to listen. [8]

The only way to stop the eviction was to fight. The BUF was not prepared to do anything to help their own members, despite their ‘radical’ rhetoric. A defence was organised, and after a battle with the bailiffs and the police the notice to quit was withdrawn. It was a small victory, but it showed what could be done:

The lessons did not require to be pressed home. BUF membership cards were destroyed voluntarily and in disgust ... We were now supplementing our propaganda with positive action. The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learned the facts overnight and learned the real meaning of the class struggle ... [9]

The campaign which followed the victory at Paragon Mansions was on a much larger scale, but the essential method was already established. The Communist Party proved to ordinary working people that, over tiny issues which really mattered, the Communist Party’s politics and militancy could deliver the goods, make a real difference to their lives, while the fascists had nothing to offer but rhetoric.

The Lessons for Today

The situation in the 1970s is in important respects different from that which faced the Communist Party in the 1930s, but the central lessons remain valid. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that, however the fascist ‘hard core’ is made up, the bulk of their supporters – at least in electoral terms – are ordinary working people. There are the same prejudices which Piratin detected, only this time directed against black workers rather than Jews, but the real cutting edge is the increasing squalor and misery of life in a capitalist crisis. [10] General racist grumbling in the public bar about immigrants is not new – in one form or another it is as old as the industrial working class – but organised racist attacks and political support for openly racist political organisations are qualitatively different. It is the crisis, not immigration, that has given the fascists an increased audience.

A recent article described how the National Front built its base in Rotherham. [11] The Front branch was built around the by-election campaign with some success:

The organising base of the branch was decidedly lower middle class in character. The election agent was Ivan Peirson, 32, describing himself as an accountant ... Shortly after the 1974 election, Peirson moved to a new house on a lower-middle-class ‘fill-in’ estate in Kimberworth, Rotherham.. Surrounded by a mixture of decaying terraces and council estates, the new owner-occupiers there experienced a sense of insecurity, struggling as they were with mortgages, hire purchase and fuel charges. Working on the anxieties of their neighbours, Ivan and Ivy Peirson, with outside help, were able to build the embryo of an organisation ... a dozen out of the twenty nominators signing the papers for the National Front candidates were neighbours on Wildwood Way.

With this base, and importing the heavy mob, the Front were able to march through the major immigrant areas and to pick up a number of working class supporters. In the election, they managed to pull 1,696 votes – six per cent of the poll.

Rotherham is not an isolated example. The electoral gains of the Front have been considerable, and no doubt many of those voting have been workers. The strength of the fascists has been generally felt most in those areas where the organisation of the labour movement is very weak. In East London there seems to be an historical continuity in these areas: according to Bob Darke, a leading Communist Party militant in Hackney in the 1930s [12], Mosley picked up a lot of supporters in Hoxton and Hackney Wick, the areas of weakest labour organisation. Today Hoxton is notoriously an area of fascist strength.

It is obvious that the physical struggle against the fascists will continue to be a major part of our work. There is, however, a real danger that our mobilisations will tend towards what can only be called terrorism. The conditions for a successful physical struggle against the fascists necessitate a certain amount of clandestine organisation, but there is the possibility that this will become an end in itself. Because we are a tightly disciplined organisation it is technically simpler to mobilise our own members without involving any wider section of the working class.

The problem of mass mobilisation boils down to politics. Rotherham is only one example of the reformist organisations refusing to enter the physical struggle. The country is dotted with class-collaborationist anti-racialist committees stuffed full of reformist trade union bureaucrats, jolly liberal clergymen and other such riff-raff. We should not ignore these bodies, but we have to recognise very clearly that they cannot and will not lead the physical struggle against fascism.

As the crisis deepens it becomes increasingly obvious that the only way even the basic issues can be tackled is through revolutionary politics. The best that the reformists can say to workers is: ‘I am very sorry for you. Grin and bear it. When we are through this little local difficulty then it may be possible to find some more jobs. In the meantime, don’t rock the boat and don’t be nasty to black men.’ That sort of worthy moral preaching combined with a complete refusal to do anything about real issues convinces fewer and fewer people as the crisis deepens. The fascist says to the unemployed worker: ‘Kick out the blacks and you will get a job.’ That ugly idea is false, but it does give an imaginary hope and a real prospect for action. The only counter to it is the reply of the revolutionary socialist: ‘Let’s rock the boat. Let’s fight like hell. Let’s force jobs for everyone. If the bloody system can’t give us jobs, then too bad for the system. We’ll build a better one.’

If we are going to succeed in mobilising masses of workers against fascism, then we have to win the fight against racism and the fight for revolutionary politics. This means that we have to take the struggle against racism to the white working class. Obviously, the reception for anti-racialist propaganda will be much better among black workers, but we cannot use that as an excuse for avoiding the struggle amongst white workers. That struggle will be fought out above all in the trade unions. An excellent example of this is the series of articles in Public Eye, the magazine of the NALGO Branch of Camden Council. In articles by P. Ainsley and Lee Kane the problem of racialism and the Front were tackled firmly but sensitively. The common racialist arguments were fairly stated and carefully refuted and the dangers of fascism to all workers spelled out in detail. Nothing was taken for granted and the articles were written on the clear assumption that among their audience would be those who are influenced by racist ideas. At the same time there was no political compromise; Lee Kane’s article ends:

Whether fascism succeeds in the long run depends on us. We are the Union, we have the strength and we should use it to control any threat. Those proposals (the circulation of an anti-racist petition) are a beginning but to combat racialism effectively we have also to fight the cuts, unemployment and poor housing – i.e., the root of the frustration which leads white workers to use blacks as their scapegoats. [13]

The political fight against racialism is not something separate from the job of fighting for revolutionary politics: the two are aspects of the same thing.

Propaganda, however good, is not enough on its own. The other side of the ‘One race – the human race’ style of argument is that it provides nothing for people to do. We have to find avenues to connect our abstract propaganda with real action. The problem we face here is that we tend to think in too grandiose terms. It is true that a fight against the Social Contract, an occupation against redundancies, or a rent strike on a Council Estate will change the situation fundamentally. The bigger the class struggle the easier it will be to win the arguments against those who seek to split the working class. But these things do not happen every day. We are not strong enough to initiate such actions.

We therefore have to look for the little tiny mundane ways in which we can involve people in action. Very often these will be so small as to appear insignificant, but each one represents a little victory in connecting our politics with wider layers of workers.

A good example of such a tiny advance is the work of one East London Branch. The National Front had painted a particularly prominent slogan on a council estate. The initial response was that the IS members should sneak out at the dead of night and paint it out. After a discussion in the branch it was agreed to adopt different tactics. An attempt was made to involve the tenants on the estate in the removal of the slogan. A very simple petition was taken round the estate, reading:

We, the undersigned, residents in ... object to the racialist slogans and other slogans in support of the National Front which have been painted around the borough. We oppose the NF and similar fascist organisations and the racialism which these groups initiate. We therefore call upon the Council to remove such slogans from ... by Sunday 10 October. If they have not been removed by this date we will help remove them ourselves on Sunday 10th at 11 a.m.

A good proportion of the residents signed the petition and it was duly forwarded to the Council, who of course took no action. On the appointed day the slogan was removed with the help of residents.

That was a very small victory, but it is important. An isolated IS branch was able to reach a wider circle of people than before, and involve them, however minimally, in the fight against the Front. Of course, a mass demonstration would have been better but, given that such an action was impossible, a small step was better than no step at all.

That is one of the major lessons we can learn from Piratin. The need to take up the small issues which bother people without demanding first that they are fully paid-up Socialist Worker supporters. If we can show that it is possible to solve some problems by self-activity then an increasing number of people will want to know about the politics behind it.

In Conclusion

The main lessons from the struggle against Mosley and from the experience we have gathered so far can be summed up in the following points:

  1. The physical struggle against the fascists is vital. We must seek to involve all those prepared to fight the fascists and not just our own members.
  2. The condition for avoiding the dead-end of terrorism is that the physical struggle must always be part of a much wider political campaign.
  3. The propaganda battle against the racists must be fought out among white workers and above all in the trade unions. The arguments must start from first principles and convince workers who have been influenced by the racist arguments.
  4. The need to oppose racialism cannot be divorced from the struggle against capitalism. That can only be done by means of revolutionary politics. We cannot rely on reformists or others either to lead the physical struggle against racialism or to argue convincingly against the racist case.
  5. Military victory and propaganda together are not enough. We have to provide a perspective of action against the real problems of workers. Sometimes that will involve big class actions; very often it will be tiny struggles around small issues. We have to lead those.
  6. We have to use every channel to reach other workers and involve them in the struggle against racism, however limited. On the basis of the small struggles we can establish the credibility to lead the big one.



1. Monday 5 October. The Times’ reporting of the whole affair was amazing. Their chief reporter seems to have been in Royal Mint Street with Mosley. He wrote:

‘As they (the Fascists) waited on parade a diversion was caused by the appearance on a roof of a man holding in his right hand a staff on which was mounted the sign of the hammer and sickle ... the incident gave rise to much good-humoured (!;!) chaff. There were also exchanges between people on the footpath and the fascists. Many of the latter shouted in unison: “The Yids. The Yids. We’ve got to get rid of the Yids”, while spectators retorted: “Down with Fascism!”’

2. Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (Thames, 1948), p.25. Piratin’s book is well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy. I have relied on it for most of the material in this section.

3. Barry Burke, Rebels with a Cause (Hackney Trades Council, 1975), pp.44-53.

4. Piratin, op. cit., p.20. There are, of course, quite a few little falsifications in Piratin’s book. He claims, for example, that the main cause of the Nazi’s victory in Germany was:

‘... the hatred of the right-wing Social Democrats for the Communists, which prevented any possible cooperation ...’ (pp.5-6)

On the issue of Cable Street he does mention the fact that the CP was originally calling for a meeting in Trafalgar Square. He says of the change of line:

‘East London was in a ferment. The Stepney Communists sensed this. At a joint meeting with officials of the London District Committee it was decided to ask the youth to call off their meeting in Trafalgar Square and to devote the full resources of all Communist organisations to the anti-fascist action against Mosley. Once this decision was reached, the most powerful campaign of propaganda and preparation took place, unequalled in any other action of recent working class history with the exception of the 1926 General Strike.’ (p.19)

He gives no date for the change of line, but Ishow below that the crucial meeting could not have been earlier than October

It would be most interesting to see a record of that meeting. How a massive campaign was mounted in two days is unexplained. The Daily Worker of October 2 promised a special mobilising leaflet for the next day, but I have not been able to find a copy. The Daily Worker of 1 October was still advertising the Trafalgar Square meeting.

5. Burke, op. cit., p.53:

‘The night before the march, a mass meeting was held in Hackney Town Hall. Called by the Independent Labour Party, it was presided over by Fenner Brockway who called for an overwhelming demonstration against Mosley.’

6. Piratin, op. cit., pp.18-19.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., pp.28-29.

9. Ibid., p.32.

10. In terms of fascist ideology there are important differences between blacks and Jews. I hope to talk about that problem in a later article.

11. N. Howard and I. Taylor in How the National Front Organised in Rotherham, The Leveller, No.1, November 1976, pp.16-17.

12. I would like to thank him for a long interview about the struggles in the thirties and today, in both of which he played a leading role.

13. Public Eye, August 1976, p.14. The petition was circulated with the agreement of the Branch EC, who, however, did not agree with the reference to opposition to all immigration controls. The editors commented on the article:

‘This edition contains an article on racialism by one of our members. Whilst we do not agree with every comment made in it Public Eye wishes to endorse its basic sentiments ... There are sincere differences of opinion among well-intentioned people concerning immigration controls ... These must be argued out within the trade union movement. There should be no disagreement at all, however, about our wholehearted opposition to the racialist filth spewed out by the fascists.’

It seems to me correct that the revolutionaries were prepared to agree to such a petition which at least represented a firm stand against racialism while retaining their right to argue against immigration controls.

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