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The Battle of Cable Street

October 4, 2016


Yes, it was eighty years ago today.  As horrible horrible 2016 groans wheezingly to an ignoble close, we need an anti-fascist anniversary more than ever, and Britain needs an anti-fascist anniversary more than most places.

The Gandalfian defiance of “They Shall Not Pass” echoes across the decades.  At the time of course, the event was officially designated as a criminal riot.  Many of the anti-fascists were tried and sentenced.  The Cable Street battle provokes an interesting test case for discussion of the preconditions for imperative extra-legality.   Then, as subsequently, the police served as bouncers for the Fascists, although given the legal situation on the day, they could have hardy done otherwise, unless they’d all just called in sick.  They should have all just called in sick.

Cable Street is remembered with pride in the East End by people for whom London at least should never surrender to Fascism.  The Fascists declared that London’s Jews were neither British nor Londoners, describing them as an alien infestation.  The people of the East End (Jewish and otherwise) were determined to assert that they were here to stay and that the Fascists were the infestation.

The British Union of Fascists used the same dehumanising language to describe Jewish communities that Hitler was using.  Those who broke the law in 1936 were resisting the political manipulation of hatred and fear that would kill six million Jewish people across Europe.

In 2016, Fascists in Britain have a spring in their step and a song in their hearts.  There have been many versions of the Battle of Cable Street since 1936 and there will be many more.  And Fascism itself is a product of a lack of national cohesion – the cohesion that’s required to challenge “kickdownism” – the othering and scapegoating of communities as part of a pseudo-nationalism, a loveless nationalism that can conceive of a common good only in terms of common fears and stupidities.  2016 has been a great year for fear and stupidity.  And it’s not over yet.

The responsible leftist politics needs avoid the quick and easy temptations of conspiracy theories.   Conspiracy theories are the very stuff of fascism, but the speed and ferocity with which they function makes them a tempting commodity for politicians waving a variety of banners.

Now it always seemed to me that Marxists ought to have no truck with conspiracy theories of any kind.   Capitalists are not “evil” in the sense of being Bond villains who meet together in secret locations to guffaw and cackle.  Capitalism is the product of certain material historical forces.   Those who wish to parade their “Leftier than Thou” credentials cannot afford to dispense with this Marxist (or at least Marxian) structuring wisdom.  Unfortunately, we know that Marx himself could be horrifically anti-semitic and indulged the same paranoid essentialisms about “Jewishness” that disfigure the most right wing thinkers you can imagine.


Finally, commemorating this “battle” is an opportunity to confront twenty-first century anti-semitism on the Left (or pseudo Left).  Hardly anybody calls themselves anti-semitic these days, but the truth is that if you’re the sort of person for whom “Zionism” is a convenient and habitual word to slide between “International” and “Conspiracy” then you have more in common with Mosley’s Blackshirts than you do with the people who refused to let them pass through the East End eighty years ago today.


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