Cable Street Mural

The Battle of Cable Street Matters

20 years ago today, I went to the screening of a documentary on the Battle of Cable Street, with my grandfather. Albert had been present at the great battle, which had taken place 60 years before that.

The battle against fascism is of supreme importance – today, more than at any time in the past 80 years. But the political landscape is deeply changed. Most disturbingly, the political left, once a bulwark against fascism, is now riddled with the very ideas that it once fought against.

From the opening of my book Porn Panic! –

Given the family and environment I was born into, it was virtually inevitable I would become immersed in political activism. My grandfather Albert Mann (later Albert Mann MBE), as a young Jewish man growing up in London’s East End ghettos, had been politicised by the rise of fascism, as well as by the poverty that surrounded him during his childhood. When the fascist leader Oswald Mosley tried to lead his blackshirts through the Jewish East End on 4th October 1936, Albert was one of many thousands who came out onto the streets to block Mosley’s progress. Jews, other locals and Communists united to physically beat the blackshirts out of the East End. Women threw heavy pots out of windows onto fascist heads. The police deployed their truncheons against the protesters, but were beaten back, along with the fascists. This victory of the left, known as the Battle of Cable Street, was a turning-point in the fight against British fascism.

The mainstream parties of left and right failed to either fully understand or strongly oppose fascism, and so in the 1930s many progressives (including Albert) joined the only strongly anti-fascist force, the Communist Party, which became a mass political party for the next two decades. During WWII, Albert fought in the RAF against fascism, and was among the returning soldiers who voted for the most left-wing government in British history. The Labour victory of 1945 secured the foundation of the National Health Service, the welfare state and universal education, institutions which Albert fought to defend for the remainder of his life (although, like many former Communists, he was eventually repelled by Stalinism and found his lifelong home in the Labour Party).

Albert’s stridently progressive views politicised his daughter, my mother. She was of the 1960s generation of young people attracted by second wave feminism (known at the time as the Women’s Lib movement), which campaigned for equal rights for women, and in particular for sexual liberation. Some of the first sexual writing I encountered, in my prepubescent years, was in the pages of my mum’s feminist magazines, such as Spare Rib. In such publications, women were told that they had a right to sexual pleasure, and were advised on how they might achieve it; men were teased for not being able to locate clitorises.

Post-Women’s Lib, many women were no longer ashamed to reveal their bodies, and sexual imagery became more daring and less censored. In more liberated countries than Britain – led by Denmark in 1969 – pornography was decriminalised. Social and religious conservatives watched in horror as carefully constructed walls of censorship and anti-sex morality were swept away.

In her father’s footsteps, my mum was also involved with the anti-fascist movement. In the 1970s, support for the National Front was surging, driven by concern about mass immigration. My mum took me to marches with her; the first I remember was a counter-protest against a march by an obscure far-right group, the British Movement, which had gained some popularity in West London. Perhaps a few hundred fascists had turned up, but there were tens of thousands of us, of all races, standing against them, and we prevented them from marching. On a smaller, gentler scale, I was repeating my grandfather’s experience in Cable Street, four decades earlier.

In the late-1970s, the Rock Against Racism movement was combining the music of my generation – reggae, punk, ska – with anti-fascist politics, and mobilising a new generation into politics. We went to music festivals and on political marches. Rastafarians danced to the same music as skinheads, and racial divisions began to break down. The transformation of Britain’s race relations was remarkably fast: the 1990s was a palpably different era from the 70s.

My political upbringing and my own activism meant that I spent my teens surrounded by activists from around the world: leading ANC exiles, fighting Apartheid from their temporary base in London; the children of left-wing activists who had fled state terror in Chile; political refugees from Zimbabwe, Mexico and dozens of other places. It was a dangerous, unsettled period, but an exciting time to be young, and in London. The alternative comedy scene was born, in small comedy clubs and rooms above pubs, giving us a welcome antidote to the stuffy, state-approved comedy on TV. The new comedy was left-wing, sweary, anti-establishment and sexually explicit. I joined one of the many Trotskyist organisations, the Militant Tendency. Riots erupted in inner cities; first in 1979, then more widespread in 1981. The early-80s felt like a revolutionary era, and we believed we were the vanguard of a socialist revolution that was about to sweep the globe.

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But we were not, and it did not. Margaret Thatcher’s historic defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 marked the end of the power of the proletariat, which was supposed to overthrow global capitalism. The industrial working class was vanishing. Many of the left-wing activists of my generation drifted away from politics. By then I had a young son, a family to support, and the beginnings of a career as a software developer. I felt, a little guiltily, that I was abandoning the revolution. As it turned out, I was joining it.

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4 thoughts on “The Battle of Cable Street Matters”

  1. Utter Codswallop. Nobody threw “pots out of windows onto fascist heads.” for the simple reason that the fascists were formed up on Tower Hill waiting for the police to clear the intended route of the march. When plod were unable to do so, the fascists marched westwards to Temple instead. Maybe your grandfather was in the east end that day, but bear in mind Victor Lewis Smith’s observation that if everybody who claimed that their grandfather was in the Blind Beggar PH the night Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell was accurate to do so, then there would would have been a quarter of a million people in the pub that night.

    1. I can assure you: he was a 20 year old Jew, resident of Limehouse, and a Communist, and was there. My account isn’t directly from him. He died a few years ago – my last detailed discussion with him (and other veterans of the day) was 20 years ago at the mentioned screening (which was at UCL, I think). The “pots thrown out of windows” was discussed that day, and appears in multiple eyewitness accounts

  2. In 1982 the Canadian arts and cultural journal Fuse published an account of 4 October 1936 which included the assertion that “Bricks, bottles, household rubbish and even the contents of a chamber pot were thrown from windows and rooftops..” By 1992 the story had grown and ‘Anti-Fascist Action’ stated that “ln the ensuing battle police were pelted with fruit, bottles and the contents of chamber pots from the upper windows..”

    In 1995 the Cable Street Group published ‘The Battle of Cable Street 1936’, which apparently described the women throwing down everything they had – beds, chairs,..

    In 2001 novellist Yoel Sheridan muddled fact and fiction: “Some of them threw pots and pans down onto the heads of the Fascist marchers who had to change their route to get away”

    The disturbances in and around Cable Street on 4 October 1936 were widely reported in newspapers and newsreels at the time. There were no blackshirts directly involved, no mention or sight of anything being thrown from windows or rooftops. What started as the contents of a chamber pot 43 years after the event, became the chamber pot itself 53 years after the event and eventually became your ‘heavy pots’.

    So-called ‘eyewitness accounts’ are of little or no factual value when they include content that nobody remembered in the first forty years following the event itself.

    1. Thanks for the information – interesting. I think the “heavy pots” assertion came from the screening/meeting I attended on the 60th anniversary. It seems I may have succumbed to urban legend – however, it has no impact on what follows in the book, which is a description of fascism today.

      FYI I attended the rally in Cable Street last Sunday. Decent turnout, though somewhat disheartening: same old speeches that have been given at rallies for decades, and little indication that the left is aware of, or capable of challenging, the current situation. Most depressing perhaps was hearing Comrade Corbyn give the same old speech, with the same applause at the same points. If this is where today’s left is at, we’re in trouble. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of intelligent leadership left.

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