Opposing the EDL: lessons from Cable Street

This is a guest post by Kevin Ovenden

March against EDL 2011The announcement by the English Defence League that they intend to march in Tower Hamlets on 7 September is rightly generating a considerable response from within the borough and beyond.

This provocation comes after the spike in Islamophobic attacks following the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and as the Coalition hawks its racist, anti-immigrant billboard vans around multicultural areas of the country.

For the EDL, marching into Tower Hamlets has become a totem. The East End itself has become a target thanks to systematic Islamophobic media coverage aimed at the country’s largest mosque, the East London Mosque, Tower Hamlets independent directly elected mayor Lutfur Rahman (voted in after being ousted by the Labour right as the party’s candidate), and the Bengali community, which contributed so much to that political upset and its precursor, the election of George Galloway in 2005 and 12 Respect councillors a year later.

A broad-based mobilisation by United East End and Unite Against Fascism two years ago prevented the EDL from setting foot in Tower Hamlets and pushed the Home Secretary to ban them from marching. A similar response in Waltham Forest in October last year produced the same result.

A stunt by EDL leader Tommy Robinson at the end of June saw him arrested as he tried to enter Tower Hamlets with his side-kick after local community representatives warned the police that their “walk” would lead to widespread breach of the peace.

All that is very welcome. But as the size of the EDL mobilisations in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich killing showed there can be no complacency about the threat they pose. Ultimately, they were not able to sustain those mobilisations – and they faced systematic opposition – though they were able to pull considerable numbers to Birmingham recently.

Moreover, the political reaction to Woolwich has hardened Islamophobic sentiment. At the extreme end there have been a score of serious attacks on mosques. More generally, Muslim organisations report an increase in attacks. While mouthing opposition to racist violence, much of the political mainstream has conceded, or worse, to underlying Islamophobia.

It was left to the leader of Britain’s largest union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, to visit the Brick Lane and East London Mosques following Woolwich in a gesture of solidarity that ought to have been much more widespread among public figures and Labour politicians.

So the situation is volatile. Although Ukip’s Godfrey Bloom was forced to retract his racist outburst, his carefully chosen “regret” was designed to validate a hardened racist core who will regard him as a hero.

Calibrating the response to 7 September and to the wider growth of racism and xenophobia is vital for the anti-fascist movement and anti-racists.

4 October 1936

Inevitably, the threat of an incursion into the East End by racist thugs summons up references to the seminal Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were halted thanks to an enormous community mobilisation.

Times change, historical analogies can often mislead and there is no substitute for an honest appraisal of actual circumstances. But the overall example of the anti-fascist mobilisation in 1936 does, I think, have value today. Far from elevating a tactic to a strategy and a strategy to a principle, appreciating how it happened avoids some of the false polarisations that might otherwise mar our response today.

The story of the enormous and militant blockade against the BUF on the day is well told. So too – though somewhat contested – is the history of mass agitation in the two to three days immediately before the march. Less well rehearsed today is the massive effort that preceded this.

Mosley’s announcement in late September 1936 that the BUF would hold four marches, including through the heart of the Jewish East End, to converge in Victoria Park on 4 October was not met with cries of “bring it on” by the community. There was fear. Anger, sure, but also fear.

The BUF had switched to targeting the East End, with ramped up anti-Semitism, after Mosley’s core strategy of winning respectable Tory support was thrown back – not least following the shock among the well-heeled at the extreme violence meted out to Communist Party and anti-fascist hecklers at his Olympia rally in 1934.

The summer of 1936 had seen a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people in the East End. Moreover, it seemed as if fascism was on an unstoppable rise across the continent, Italy, Germany and Austria, the consolidation of fascistic regimes in eastern Europe, and then the Franco rising in Spain in July of 1936.

In response to Mosley’s announcement, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, set up by the Communist Party in July 1936, organised a petition calling on the Home Secretary Sir John Simon to prevent – to ban – Mosley’s planned march.

Within a couple of days the petition gathered over 100,000 signatures. It was both an astonishing piece of mass organisation and testimony to the popular feeling in the East End. It was presented to the Home Secretary, who on Friday 2 October – two days before the march – announced that it would not be banned.

For some – the leadership of the Labour Party and even George Lansbury, by then in his dotage – that was the end of the matter and they called on people to stay at home and out of the East End to allow the fascists to march. But the call by the Communist Party, led by its local branch in Stepney, and the Independent Labour Party to gather en masse found an enormous echo. The rest is history.

But an oft neglected part of that history is that it was precisely the earlier campaign and the refusal of a Tory Home Secretary to accede to it that meant there was such an enormous outpouring (that plus a truly massive agitation in East London and across the capital).

It is impossible to understand the scale of the Cable Street mobilisation without appreciating the level of carefully focused agitation in advance, not only against Mosley but also over European fascism, housing, anti-Semitism and the impact of the Great Depression, conducted by a left that was in tune with mass sentiment in the area while also prepared to confront reactionary forces and ideas.

7 September 2013

The mayor of Tower Hamlets and the broad range of community organisations and trade unions represented in the United East End coalition are calling on the police and Home Secretary not to allow the EDL to set foot in Tower Hamlets – to ban them – and at the same time pledging to demonstrate the multicultural opposition to the far right in Tower Hamlets on that day.

This was the same approach that brought an important victory two years ago. Then Theresa May announced a ban on all marches. However, the reality was that the EDL were heavily policed and did not enter Tower Hamlets (barring a coach that lost its way after the event) while anti-fascist forces were able to gather, protest, march and ensure the EDL was kept out. And the markets and daily life of people were not shuttered down in fear.

Of course, there were those from the rump Labour right in east London who counter-posed calling for the EDL to be banned to building broad public opposition to them on the day. For some that was associated both with a virulent sectarianism against the mayor and independent councillors, and a deeply reactionary equation of anti-fascists and community organisations allied with them to the EDL themselves.

Such a counter-position is destructive – whichever way round it comes.

The call by large community, tenant and trade union organisations in east London to ban the EDL marching through the heart of the area is an expression of just how much people see them as a threat.

Sure there are some establishment figures who will seek to limit popular mobilisation. But this call is coming mainly from those who not only are in favour of a mass show of opposition but without whom no such mobilisation on the required scale can take place.

For them, and for the Muslim community directly under threat, saying that the police and Home Secretary should not insist on forcing violent racists through a multicultural area where they will attack and intimidate people is not an alternative to building mass opposition to fascism and racism. It is part of it – as it was in September and October 1936. Understanding that is crucial to the many tactical discussions and considerations as events play out.

The revelations about the police infiltration and smearing of the Stephen Lawrence campaign should underline to any opponent of racism that it is not possible to “rely on the police”. (That’s leaving to one side the impact of stop and search not only directly, but also in creating a wider racist climate and all the other manifestations of institutionalised racism.)

The fact that the government’s anti-migrant billboard vans have been criticised even by Ukip is an indication that far from tempering racist sentiment, the Coalition is not only creating the conditions for it but deliberately fanning the flames – over Islamophobia too.

But there is a world of difference between saying we should not rely on such institutions to confront fascism and saying we are indifferent to how they respond to it.

There was an outcry two years ago when a senior officer of the Metropolitan Police said that he did not consider the EDL to be a violent racist organisation, but rather one expressing legitimate concerns. What should be the response of the anti-racist left? To say, “That’s the police for you”? Or should it be to demand that he is removed or made to change his stance, to campaign for the Met and every other public authority to designate the EDL as violent racists who do not have a “right” to storm into multicultural areas?

It is progress over the last three years that campaigning by UAF and others has created a climate in which many local politicians and police forces regard the EDL as illegitimate rather than misunderstood voices of “the white working class”, with anti-fascists seen as equally or more so the “troublemakers”.

That situation is very uneven and it is not static. Such are attitudes in the police in particular that many share certain sympathies with the EDL. Events such as the Woolwich killing can provide sudden opportunities for fascists and the racist right to re-present themselves and win both a wider support and claw back some legitimacy.

But that means that political pressure on the institutions of the state not to give them that legitimacy is strategically vital. As well, of course, as seeking to win the broadest possible ground against racism, Islamophobia and xenophobic tirades against migrants.

An intelligent, united and focused campaign in opposition to the EDL’s adventure on 7 September can play an important role in pushing them back and boosting the wider fight against racism.

That requires a broad and militant movement. Broad in drawing in the widest forces against fascism and racist violence. Militant in not yielding a millimetre to their arguments and in refusing to accept that they have a “right” to organise, march and terrorise – being prepared to oppose them.

And as Cable Street showed, there is nothing more militant than the mass, collective mobilisation of people – especially when the oppressed and targets of racist terror are at its heart.

Anti-fascists should avoid a false polarisation of bans versus mobilisations to democratically close down the far right’s space. Cable Street was an example where agitation with the tactic of calling for a ban boosted the tactic of mass mobilisation – all according to a thought out strategy to throw back the far right and racism.

Kevin Ovenden is a national officer of the Unite Against Fascism campaign

17 comments on “Opposing the EDL: lessons from Cable Street

  1. Ah the UAF, traditionally the most effective conveyor belt for SWP recruitment. Calling for a ban you don’t actually want is a good one. The lessons of Cable Street is that membership of the BUF actually increased. Look at the lessons of Mosley’s rally in Olympia to actually reduce membership of these vile groups.

  2. If you read Joe Jacobs’ account, he argued that the CPGB were not exactly ‘in tune’ with mass anti-fascist sentiment and had to be pushed into it by the rank-and-file membership in the Stepney branch and the YCL. The important thing that the CPGB brought to the anti-fascist campaign was organisation and although the Party leadership had placed emphasis on calling for ban on the BUF, once this option was ruled out, the Party was able to mobilise quickly based on its organisational structures.

    The difference between the anti-fascism of the UAF (or its predecessor the Anti-Nazi League) and the CPGB is that the UAF is a single issue organisation and cannot do the same kind of community work that the CPGB did in the East End of London to undermine support for Mosley (which if you read Jacobs or Phil Piratin on, was the key to sapping support for the BUF). UAF may be able to mobilise people quickly for a demonstration, but it relies on other organisations, groups and individual activists to perform the day-to-day tasks that would undermine people drifting towards the BNP or EDL (or even UKIP).

  3. #1 Well if it is the case that UAF don’t want a ban, then they will be disapointed if they get one. And as a ban would be a good thing, so what?

    The reality is that the EDL is not a legitimate form of organisation and nor are their mobilisations. They have racist incitement, intimidation and violence at their core, and therefore the state, if it is to do what it sets itself the task of doing, and protecting all its citizens from such threats, should act accordingly. And there is nothing wrong with demanding that it does so.

    Because if we fail to do so we are essentially saying that the state should allow organisation and mobilisations of thugs for the purpose of intimidating particular ethnic minorities, forcing them to cease their lawful activities in the communities where they live and all in the name of liberalism or of libertarianism posing as revolutionary politics.

    When the state allows such activity it is essentially saying the rule of law does not apply to protect certain minorities and certain communities. And that’s not something to be neutral about.

  4. Let’s let the state define which political organisations are legitimate. That’s a good idea. Can’t see that going wrong. Ditto the rule of law. Seriously if you want to stop thuggery and intimidation then you stop thuggery and intimidation, forcibly where necessary. If you want to stop divisive politics and hatred you have to undermine the ideas not just shout “NAZI SCUM OFF OUR STREETS” at thugs.

  5. #5 No, the EDL are illegitimate because of what they are. If the state doesn’t act accordingly we should demand that they do.

    So are you saying you’re hapy for the EDL to mobilise without hindrance from the state, OR mass mobilisation?

  6. Trusting the state will help nationalist organisations like the EDL, BNP and especially Strasserist nationalist notions. Is that what you want? How many more mass mobilisations do we have to have before people realise nationalist ideas are still with us? And maybe, just maybe, mass mobilisations and bans are not working. How many false dawns of defeating the fascists do we have to have? Maybe something else is needed.

  7. Imran Khan on said:

    I am somewhat confused here. Can someone help? As far as I know Kevin Ovendon was expelled from the SWP when he sided with Galloway in the Respect split as he was employed by him. He now seems to have taken over the position of Comrade Delta as national organiser of UAF which was always under the control of the SWP. What is going on?

  8. DW: Ah the UAF, traditionally the most effective conveyor belt for SWP recruitment. Calling for a ban you don’t actually want is a good one. The lessons of Cable Street is that membership of the BUF actually increased. Look at the lessons of Mosley’s rally in Olympia to actually reduce membership of these vile groups.

    Interesting how the most important thing for you, DW, was to discuss the SWP. It must’ve been the most important thing otherwise you wouldn’t have started your comment with it.

    Are you still in the SPGB? What wil the SPGB be doing to stand alongside the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets if the EDL tries to march here?

    You basically have nothing to say about the meat of the article. Are you saying that the call for a ban at Cable Street is what led to the increase in membership of the BUF? Or the mass mobilisation? What do you put it down to, and how does this relate to the article? Y’see, the fact that you started off with a dig at the SWP – a group that none of us here, including the author, are members of – shows that politics is just a game to you. You’re not serious.

  9. Imran Khan: I am somewhat confused here. Can someone help? As far as I know Kevin Ovendon was expelled from the SWP when he sided with Galloway in the Respect split as he was employed by him. He now seems to have taken over the position of Comrade Delta as national organiser of UAF which was always under the control of the SWP. What is going on?

    See you’re another interesting one. Your name is not Imran Khan, and you’re actually banned from this site for your previous racist postings – but I want to leave this up here to show people the sort of poster who thinks there is absolutely nothing to say about fighting fascism, but instead is only concerned with whether someone occupies a particular position in an organisation that fights fascism.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… Terry Fitzpatrick, convicted racist, who posted a (now deleted) comment on here last year saying “I wear the badge of convicted racist proudly, having defend the honour of my mother against the dirty stinking filthy fucking n***** Lee Jasper.”

  10. I think Kev’s article is excellent and makes the case well for both calling for a ban but also being prepared to put massive numbers of people on the streets. We’re past the stage where the EDL can simply be treated as a public order problem left to the police – we need to show absolute solidarity with our Muslim friends and neighbours, and not give in to the ridiculous racism of so many people who pretend to be on the left but are actually partly responsible for the rise of groups like the EDL.

    I think the obvious, correct position for any anti-fascist to take is to call for a ban. We have to ask “what attitude should the state take towards the threat of fascists marching through an ethnic minority area?” – if we say we’re against calling for bans, then we’re actually saying we think the state and the police should *allow fascists to march*.

    Cable Street showed that you can and should do both.

  11. Nothing wrong with the ordinary members of the community forcibly stopping people marching especially people championing racism such as the EDL. The problem is when the SWP and fronts like the UAF encourage fantasies of street battles and defeating fascism for good. Its been proven time and again to fail. Yet there is barely any critical analysis, preferring to whip up moral hysteria “NAZI SCUM! OFF OUR STREETS!” If you can’t stomach criticism of the SWP wherever it is stated, forget about politics, stick to shouting with placards.

    Please tell me how UAF has defeated fascism. A serious political analysis would do this. It would weigh up things like the medium-term effects of Cable Street on BUF membership (it went up) or the medium-term effect of the Question Time episode with Nick Griffin on BNP membership (it went down). The more the ideology is challenged, the worse fascism fares.

  12. DW: The lessons of Cable Street is that membership of the BUF actually increased.

    Cable street was a decisive defeat in a number of ways for the BUF, not least because as a direct result of it Mussolini ceased his very substantial financial support to BUF, deciding that Mosely was not serious; and that the generally poor publicity contributed to the BUF flop in the 1937 London CC elections.

    What Mussolini expected was for the BUF to fight their ground instead of retreat. What the London electorate expected was for a political party to be untainted by mayhem and violence.

    Anti-fascist politics needs to be calibrated to isolating and diminishing the influence and capacity of the far right in the specific historical and political context they are operating in. Cable street brilliantly caught the BUF on the horns of a dilemma, a common dilema for the British far-right in many perioids: that the right wing populism they seek to ride on the back of is conservative and at best ambivalent to disorder.

  13. DW: The problem is when the SWP and fronts like the UAF encourage fantasies of street battles and defeating fascism for good. Its been proven time and again to fail. Yet there is barely any critical analysis, preferring to whip up moral hysteria “NAZI SCUM! OFF OUR STREETS!”

    I must admit I largely agree with this; and there has been an unwelcome ambivalence from some parts of UAF to these fantasies.

    DW: It would weigh up things like the medium-term effects of Cable Street on BUF membership (it went up) or the medium-term effect of the Question Time episode with Nick Griffin on BNP membership (it went down).

    You are right about Griffin and QT. His appearnce harmed the BNP, and was a wake up for a lot of people that this guy had actually been elected.

  14. “…the call by the Communist Party, led by its local branch in Stepney…”

    Interesting way of putting it. Wasn’t the CP telling people to go to a rally in Trafalgar Square in defence of the Spanish Republic and ignore the BUF march up until about 2-3 days beforehand?

    Perhaps “the Communist Party, dragged kicking and screaming by its branch in Stepney” would be more accurate.

    Also let’s not romanticise the East End of the 1930s; the BUF had a real mass base there which it successfully built in a very short period. In the local elections in ’37 i.e. after Cable Street, they did v well around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch.

    It’s a shame how the CP’s myth of Cable Street continues to linger, elbowing (among others) the Independent Labour Party out of the picture.

    The ILP were more consistent in calling for (and doing) direct action against the fascists in the East End I think.

  15. George Hallam on said:

    EddM: Perhaps “the Communist Party, dragged kicking and screaming by its branch in Stepney” would be more accurate.
    Also let’s not romanticise the East End of the 1930s; the BUF had a real mass base there which it successfully built in a very short period. In the local elections in ’37 i.e. after Cable Street, they did v well around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch.
    It’s a shame how the CP’s myth of Cable Street continues to linger, elbowing (among others) the Independent Labour Party out of the picture.

    STEPNEY Metropolitan Borough Council : 60 councillors until 1959, 40 thereafter. Union of Stepney Ratepayers 1906-1919; Labour 1919-22; Ratepayers’ Association 1922-25; Labour 1925-1931; Anti-Labour coalition 1931-34; Labour 1934-65.

    1919: Lab 42, L 13, Union of Stepney Ratepayers 4, C 1.
    1922: Ratepayers Association 33, Lab 27.
    1925: Lab 40, Ratepayers Association 17, Ind 3.
    1928: Lab 41, C 15, Ind 3, Ratepayers Association 1.
    1931: Lab 26, C 19, Ratepayers Association 11, Ind 4.
    1934: Lab 60.
    1937: Lab 59, Com 1.
    1945: Lab 49, Com 10, Ind Lab 1.
    1949: Lab 50, Com 9, Ind Lab 1.
    1953: Lab 59, Ind Lab 1.
    1956: Lab 48, Ind Lab 8, Com 4.
    1959: Lab 37, Com 2, Independent Riverside 1.
    1962: Lab 35, Com 3, L 2.

    Read more: http://vote-2012.proboards.com/thread/1144/metropolitan-borough-councillors-1900-1962?page=1&scrollTo=42861#ixzz2bUELR9aL

  16. Jellytot on said:

    Tony Collins:

    I think Kev’s article is excellent and makes the case well for both calling for a ban but also being prepared to put massive numbers of people on the streets.

    Yes, Kevin’s article, in the context of what’s possible in East London, gets it right.

    EddM:

    Also let’s not romanticise the East End of the 1930s; the BUF had a real mass base there which it successfully built in a very short period. In the local elections in ’37 i.e. after Cable Street, they did v well around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch.

    The fascists retained a fairly strong residual support in the East End up until the mid-1990′s when teh focus of their support base moved out to South Essex and they became the official oppostion at Barking and Dagenham Council for a time. It should be noted too that the BUF did expect to actually win seats in the 1937 LCC elections and their failure to do so was a genuine shock to them. Yes, it is tempting to get overly “starry eyed” about Cable Street (indeed, the BUF successfully marched through the area a week after October 4th and they continued to hold large street meetings there up until the outbreak of the war) but it was genuinly inspiring, and was a much needed boost to the Jewish community (who had been suffering awful violence and provocations) and the wider Left.

    My view has always been that the most important anti-fascist mobilisation, from a strategic POV, of the 30′s, was Olympia in 1934 which preceeded the backing off of whatever ‘Establishment’ support Mosley had attracted in the previous two years. It could also be argued that the re-focus, after Olympia, towards a vicious and overt anti-Semitic (but rather narrow and localised) campaign in the East End marked something of a political backward step for the fascists. Indeed, the fascists in Britain have been obessed by ‘Race & Immigration’ ever since. Allied to that, the clear march-to-war from 1937 onwards meant that an overtly fascist political party, in the latter half of the 1930′s, was always going to find it tough-going in England.

    I think what really did for the fascists in Britain though was something that has stunted the growth of the far-right (and far left) up to the present day: the incredible solidity of British (English) political and social institutions, a “peculiar” English disgust and aversion to political violence and disorder, and the inherent political strength of the Conservatism and Labourism (UKIP being but the latest manifestation of the former).