Cable Street, the Left and antisemitism

The Jewish Labour Movement’s trade union officer Miriam Mirwitz published a blog post on the Jewish News site last week, under the title “Why the left were nearly not at the Cable Street march against Mosley’s fascists”. Despite demonstrating thorough ignorance of the subject, Mirwatch’s article was enthusiastically promoted on social media by both Jewish News and JLM.

The title itself makes no sense. On 4 October 1936 the uniformed Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists attempted to stage an intimidatory march through an area of East London with a large Jewish population. As is well known, the march had to be called off after a mass demonstration by antifascists blocked the BUF’s planned route through Cable Street and fiercely resisted the efforts of baton-wielding police to clear a way for the Blackshirts. There was no Cable Street march against Mosley’s fascists. And where did Mirwitch get the idea that the Left nearly missed these events?

She claimed to take her inspiration from a new edition of David Cesarani’s The Left and the Jews, the Jews and the Left. This booklet, which originated as a briefing for Gordon Brown, was first published in 2004 by Labour Friends of Israel. It has now been reissued by an outfit called No Pasaran Media, which is run by self-described “Left activists resisting Left antisemitism”. The purpose of the reissue, as outlined in a new foreword and preface by Gordon Brown and Cesarani’s widow Dawn Waterman respectively, is to help counter the upsurge of Left antisemitism that supposedly engulfed the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership — to “put the dark chapter of the last five years behind us”, in Brown’s words.

David Cesarani died in October 2015, so we don’t know how he would have responded to the politically motivated incitement of hysteria over antisemitism in the Labour Party. But you could argue that his reputation is being exploited here to support a cause that he might not have uncritically endorsed. In her preface Waterman presents Ken Livingstone’s reference to Nazi support for Zionism in the 1930s as the emblematic example of Labour antisemitism under Corbyn, and says Cesarani would have condemned Ken’s views. Which suggests a lack of familiarity with her late husband’s work. His posthumously published study Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933–1949 quotes a Nazi report from 1934 as stating: “The efforts of the Gestapo are oriented to promoting Zionism as much as possible.”

Anti-fascists block the Blackshirts’ march through Cable Street

The new edition of The Left and the Jews, the Jews and the Left was reviewed for LabourList last month by JLM vice chair Ruth Smeeth. Taking up Cesarani’s reference to the Battle of Cable Street, Smeeth wrote: “As Cesarani sets out, the labour movement’s involvement came about only after immense pressure on unions and the Communist party from Jewish branches. That pressure forced the Communists to cancel a demonstration in solidarity with the besieged Spanish Republic in Trafalgar Square on the same day and instead direct their activists east.” Mirwitch’s blog post repeats Smeeth’s argument. She writes: “Without ‘Left-wing Zionists and Jewish socialists’ in membership, and branch leadership positions, in both the unions and the Community [sic] Party, the organised Left would have been in Trafalgar Square instead.”

Here is the passage from Cesarani on which Smeeth and Mirwitch base these claims:

“In early October 1936, Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, threatened to march thousands of pro-Nazi Blackshirts through the Jewish districts of the East End of London. Left-wing Zionists and Jewish socialists prepared to stop them, although the Jewish communal leadership notoriously advised Jews to stay at home on the day of the march. Under pressure from Jewish members, the CPGB at the last moment cancelled a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with the Spanish Republic and told its members to rally instead in the East End. Uniting under the slogan ‘They Shall Not Pass’, which was taken from the defence of Madrid against the Francoist forces, an estimated 100,000 people, including Jews, Irish dockworkers and East London trades unionists of all descriptions, blocked access to Whitechapel and Stepney. Although much romanticised and manipulated in retrospect, to Jews the role of the Left in the defence of Jewish people cemented bonds of loyalty. This loyalty bore fruit in 1945 when Mile End became the only British parliamentary constituency to elect a Communist member of parliament, Phil Piratin (1907–2001).”

Cesarani was a noted historian specialising in Holocaust studies and the history of Anglo-Jewry, but he lacked any expert knowledge of the labour movement and the organised Left. Which would explain why he was unaware of the election of Willie Gallacher as Communist MP for West Fife in 1935 and 1945 (or for that matter of Walton Newbold for Motherwell in 1922). In other words, Cesarani isn’t someone we should necessarily rely on for insights into controversies over the events surrounding the Battle of Cable Street.

His identification of “left-wing Zionists and Jewish socialists” — with Zionists placed first — as the forces heading the mass mobilisation against Mosley, which is seized on by Mirwitch, is a misleading formulation. So far as I can see, it has no basis in the three works — Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman’s Remembering Cable Street, Henry Srebrnik’s London Jews and British Communism 1935–1945 and Phil Piratin’s Our Flag Stays Red — that Cesarani cites as sources for his take on Cable Street.

David Rosenberg and book

David Rosenberg who unlike Cesarani does possess a detailed knowledge of these issues—see his book Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s — has written a reply to Mirwitch for Jewish Voice for Labour. He observes:

“Mirwitch would love it to be true that Zionists played a key role in 1936. They didn’t. Although Zionists were beginning to make headway in more middle-class Jewish areas in 1930s London, and starting to gather more support within the Board of Deputies (led at that time by upper middle-class non-Zionists and anti-Zionists) they were a marginal force in the overwhelmingly working-class East End.”

There is no question, though, that the Communist Party leaders did initially try to avoid a physical confrontation with the BUF. They called on members and supporters to attend a Spanish solidarity rally organised by the Young Communist League in Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of 4 October, at the very time the fascists were planning to march through the East End. Joe Jacobs, a Jewish Communist who was directly involved in these events as secretary of the CP’s Stepney branch, recounts in his book Out of the Ghetto how he and other party members protested against this decision, which they were convinced would finish the CP in East London unless it was reversed.

In response, Jacobs received a note from the party’s East London organiser conveying instructions from the London district committee. CP members were authorised to organise two protest meetings in the East End to coincide with the BUF demonstration, but they should avoid clashes with the Mosleyites, because that would only give the government an excuse to depict Communists as hooligans who were no different from the fascists. “If Mosley decides to march let him”, Jacobs was told. “Don’t attempt disorder. (Time too short to get a ‘They shall not pass’ policy across. It would only be a harmful stunt.)” Jacobs comments: “I could hardly believe my eyes. How could they be so blind to what was happening in Stepney? The slogan ‘They shall not pass’ was already on everyone’s lips and being whitewashed on walls and pavements.”

Why did the CP leadership respond in this way? In his JVL article David Rosenberg puts it down to a “logistical problem”. The party had already committed resources to building the Trafalgar Square demonstration and “could not be in two places at once”, so they tried to combine the YCL Spanish solidarity rally with a march afterwards to the East End, which unfortunately would have arrived too late to stop the BUF. This argument will no doubt go down well with David’s friends at the Morning Star, but it doesn’t explain why the CP leadership should adopt and persist with such an obviously damaging and self-destructive policy.

Communist Party pamphlet 1936

The central problem was not logistics but politics. During this period the Soviet Union was seeking to establish military agreements with democratic capitalist powers for mutual defence against the threat from Nazi Germany, along the lines of the 1935 Stalin-Laval pact. In support of this objective Communist Parties were required to adopt the strategy of the Popular Front, which involved subordinating independent class politics to the formation of broad alliances, and ideally pro-Soviet coalition governments, incorporating bourgeois forces.

In Spain, this resulted in the Communists spearheading a bloody counterrevolution against the Left, aimed at “pushing the proletarian revolution back within the bourgeois-democratic bounds from which it ‘should’ never have escaped”. In Britain, the Popular Front strategy meant that the CP leaders favoured “respectable protest rather than direct militant action, which could only antagonise those they were so anxious to influence among the Tories, Liberals and ‘Progressives’”.

On the evening of 30 September, Jacobs and other Stepney Communists met with a delegation from the London district committee who obstinately upheld the existing line in the face of angry demands from Jacobs and his supporters for resistance to the BUF. He recalled: “We were treated to a long talk on the world situation in which it was stated that the demonstration to Trafalgar Square in support of Spanish Democracy was more important than Mosley’s march in East London.”

Very late in the proceedings, however, as everyone was about to pack up and go home, a CP official arrived from the party centre to announce a sudden change of plan. The national leadership had finally woken up to the actual situation in East London. The Trafalgar Square rally was cancelled and all forces were now to be mobilised against Mosley. Because of the lateness of the CP’s U-turn it wasn’t until 2 October, just two days before the planned fascist march, that the Daily Worker issued the call to take to the streets against the BUF. Nevertheless, Communists threw themselves wholeheartedly into this campaign and played a courageous role in the defeat of the fascists.

The Daily Worker announces the cancellation of the Trafalgar Square rally, calls for resistance to Mosley

What would have happened if the CP leadership had failed to change its line and confront Mosley, though? Is it really the case, as Mirwitch claims, that “the organised Left would have been in Trafalgar Square instead”?

First of all, as Joe Jacobs made clear to them in his objections to the non-confrontation policy, the CP leadership would have faced a revolt by rank-and-file Communists if it had gone ahead with the Trafalgar Square rally. The party membership in East London, Jewish and non-Jewish, would simply have defied the official line and joined the mass resistance to Mosley. This is in fact what happened with Labour Party members, many of whom turned out to take on the fascists despite appeals from their own leaders to stay away.

ILP pamphlet celebrating victory over the BUF

Secondly, Mirwitch ignores the existence of an organised Left outside of the CP. In the run-up to Cable Street it was the Independent Labour Party — free from the restrictions of a Popular Front strategy determined by the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy — who played a particularly prominent role in mobilising opposition to Mosley. To quote David Rosenberg’s Battle for the East End:

“On the Thursday evening, three days before the demonstration, the Independent Labour Party hired a loudspeaker van and toured the streets of East London calling people to come in their thousands to block all entry points to the East End from the city streets where Mosley’s troops would be gathering. Its appeal was reported as a front page item in the Evening Standard…. The Standard unwittingly aided the anti-fascists’ mobilisation by publishing ‘Big ILP counter rally’ on its hoardings throughout the London area. On the Friday night the ILP held a large indoor anti-fascist rally in the neighbouring district of Hackney, supporting the fight against fascism in Spain and in London, in which it passed a resolution calling on people to block Mosley’s proposed march on the Sunday.”

So Mirwitch’s assertion that, if the CP leaders hadn’t withdrawn their call to join a rally in Trafalgar Square rather than confront Mosley, the Left would just have headed off to central London and abandoned the East End Jewish community to their fate is frankly idiotic. Relying on David Cesarani’s rather garbled summary of Cable Street, she falsely attributes the flaws in Communist politics of the period to the Left as a whole, in order to paint a fantasy picture of leftwingers refusing to take action against antisemites and having to be pressured to change course by Zionists. It’s not difficult to identify the motive behind this self-serving nonsense.

Published on Medium in July 2021