The Cable Street Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, 1936. Photo: jo-marshall / Wikimedia Commons. "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!" This notorious Daily Mail headline is just one chilling indication of the very real threat Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists posed in the mid 1930s. Inspired by the successful rise to power of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, Mosley sought to galvanise support via a combination of naked anti-semitism and brute force. By 1936 he was attracting both well-heeled establishment support and thousands of ordinary people to his rallies. Any counter-protests would be dealt with violently by Oswald's supporters, and the police scarcely intervened.
On 4th October 1936, Mosley planned the BUF’s biggest and boldest initiative yet. His uniformed Blackshirts would march through London’s East End, home to one of the country’s largest Jewish communities. The intention was quite clear: to cause fear and stir up hate. On the day, more than a hundred thousand east enders, of any faith or none, turned out to protect their community. The fascists were forced to retreat. "They shall not pass". But there was also a realisation that protest alone would not stop the hateful ideas that Mosley sought to encourage as a vicious diversion from the causes of the East End’s very real problems. Phil Piratin, one of the key organisers of the Cable Street protest, argued successfully that the key to the area’s problems was poor housing, slum landlords, steep rent rises and evictions. He helped organise tenants, including those with BUF sympathies, separating the cause of their living conditions from the lies the fascists spread. Piratin was a communist, and in the 1945 general election - just nine years after the fascists thought they could rule the East End - he was elected the Communist MP for Stepney.
Earlier that same year, the Spanish civil war that had begun, as General Franco led an armed rebellion against the democratically elected Republican Government. Within weeks of Cable Street, International Brigades of fighters were formed to support the Republican cause. Travelling to Spain, mostly with next-to-no military training, British volunteers went there to join the country’s battle for land and freedom against Franco’s fascism. This internationalism was criminalised by the British government, which backed instead a useless policy of non-intervention while Hitler and Mussolini armed their Spanish ally unimpeded by sanctions or embargoes, let alone military intercession. Prior to the formation of the official International Brigades, foreign volunteers simply organised into informal units to defend the Republic. One of the first was theTom Mann Centuria', made up of Brits living and working in Barcelona. Once this British battalion was officially formed, it joined the 15th Brigade of the Republican Army, which was primarily English-speaking. The fighting Spanish forces included Catalan nationalists, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists and parties such as the POUM which George Orwell famously fought alongside. All were united however, for the most part, in what was known as a ‘Popular Front’: an alliance of political parties, led by socialists and communists.
In 1938 the International Brigades left Spain, and within less than a year Franco had completed his victory. A fascist regime was installed in Spain. Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland, the second world war began. On the Brigade’s departure, the Communist MP Dolores Ibárruri, known forever as La Pasionaria, spoke, her words remain an inspiration for all those who resist oppression, wherever, whenever, and in whatever form it takes: “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."
The Popular Front, which inspired both those who stopped the Blackshirts at Cable Street and those who joined the International Brigades was based on a simple idea: concentric circles of unity. At its centre was the working-class movement; in the 1930s this was most notably the Communists, around which was formed a broader anti-fascist People’s Front. And by the outbreak of the second world war, many countries saw the addition of a third ring: national anti-fascist popular fronts, which enjoyed support far beyond the radical left in those countries determined to resist Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan. Two of the key objectives of the Popular Front were outlined by the architect of the strategy, Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov: “ Find a common language with the broadest masses as well as overcoming the fatal isolation of the working class itself from its natural allies.” Eighty years on, in a much-changed era for a radical politics of opposition they are principles that nevertheless remain as relevant as ever for all those committed to rebuilding a popular left.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. The Philosophy Football range of Cable Street and Spanish Civil War T-shirts is available from here.