The “Battle of Cable Street” is a key event in the “creation myth” of the anti-fascist movement. It goes like this:
On Sunday, October 4, 1936, about 5,000 members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Sir Oswald Mosley, planned to march in full Blackshirt regalia through several Jewish neighborhoods in London’s East End. Six thousand police were assigned to protect them from about 100,000 anti-fascist protesters. The anti-fascists fought the police and erected barricades to block the marchers. When the fascists saw there was no possibility of moving beyond the barricades, they abandoned the march and dispersed.1
Some accounts of the battle claim that the fascists and anti-fascists fought hand-to-hand, but Reg Weston, a journalist who was in his early twenties when he actually participated in the battle, makes it clear that the two sides never clashed. The police and barricades kept them apart. It’s a myth, Weston says, “that the ‘battle’ was between the protesters and the Blackshirts. It was not — it was a battle with the police.”2
Nevertheless, the crowd celebrated that day. The “Battle of Cable Street” went down in history as a victory for anti-fascist forces and to this day is part of the heroic mythology of the ultra-left: “For many members of contemporary anti-Fascist groups, the incident remains central to their mythology, a kind of North Star in the fight against Fascism and white supremacy across Europe and, increasingly, the United States.”3
But was it really a victory?
On the surface, the battle appears to justify the preferred tactic of the ultra-left: direct physical confrontation in the streets. However, like all myths, the battle and its outcome have been distorted and embellished over the years. When we look at what actually happened in the weeks, months and years following the battle, two things become clear.
First, as a tactic violence can, at best, bring short-term gains, but those have to be weighed against long-term consequences. In other words, we don’t want to win the battle but lose the war. This is what happened at Cable Street. Second, justifying violence by comparing the U.S. today with fascism in the 1930s is a red herring. In the 1930s, Nazis posed a real threat to democracy; in 2017 America, they do not. It’s time to ask, cui bono – who benefits?
After the battle the fascists grew stronger
Unfortunately, the anti-fascists celebrating their victory in 1936 couldn’t have known that their actions would ultimately do nothing to stop either the Nazi juggernaut that descended upon Europe three years later, or the immediate popularity of the BUF. In fact, the BUF benefitted from the violence and became even stronger over the next four years, until 1940, when it was banned by the government.
What the anti-fascist forces did achieve at Cable Street was a singular victory in stopping a single march. But at what price? In the aftermath of that action, membership in the BUF grew. Rather than smashing fascism, the battle turned out to be a recruitment tool for the BUF. The organization gained an additional 2,000 members immediately, and its membership continued to climb steadily. Seven months before the battle, BUF membership was around 10,000; one month after the battle, it rose to 15,500. It continued to rise until, by 1939, the BUF had about 22,500 members.4
The anti-fascist actions didn’t dampen the peoples’ enthusiasm for Mosely’s message. In the weeks after the battle, pro-fascist crowds in the thousands turned out for BUF meetings, listened to Mosley’s fascist proselytizing, and marched through London without much opposition.1 An intelligence report on the battle noted that afterwards, “A definite pro-Fascist feeling has manifested itself. The alleged Fascist defeat is in reality a Fascist advance.”1
Violence, it seems, provided free publicity for the fascists. The BUF “thrived off the publicity that violent opposition produced. The national media, under pressure from the government, largely avoided reporting on Fascist activity other than when disorder occurred. A leading Mosleyite lamented the ‘total silence’ in the press when BUF events passed without incident, complaining that only after disruption by opponents did newspapers show any interest.”1
And the fascists were quick to make the best of their notoriety. They cast themselves in the role of victim and hammered home the charge that the Left was interfering with their right to free speech and assembly.
Other confrontations with BUF fascists at Stockton (September 1933) and Newcastle (May 1934) had similar results. The anti-fascists succeeded in stopping the BUF temporarily, but as long as the fascists were perceived to be the victim of mob violence, their popularity and membership grew.
If these arguments from the 1930s sound familiar it’s because what we’re witnessing today in the ultra-right vs. ultra-left skirmishes is a replay of the anti-fascist strategy – and failures – from that era. But does that mean that the only choice we have is between doing nothing and taking violent action? That’s the ultra-left position, but it’s a false dichotomy that smacks of a lack of imagination or commitment to social change.
What stopped the British fascists?
The single event that put a dent in the BUF’s power and propaganda was the end of its access to the press. The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror were its main propaganda tools. Their owner, Lord Rothermere, stopped supporting Mosley after the fascists were accused of initiating brutal violence during a meeting at Olympia in 1934. After that meeting, Rothermere’s Jewish advertisers in the UK threatened to pull their advertising unless he stopped editorially supporting Mosley.5 Without the press, the BUF’s message was limited, and its membership dropped to 5,000 the following year. The final nail in the BUF’s coffin came in 1940, when the government banned them after the start of WW2.
So, the lessons to draw from Cable Street and the other anti-fascist actions in the 1930s are:
- Violence is not an effective long-term tactic against Nazi hate groups. When Mosley’s fascists were perceived to be the victims of violence, their membership grew; but when they were perceived to be the perpetrators of violence, it dropped.
- What does work, but is more difficult for peace groups to achieve, is applying economic pressure to the fascists’ financial base and swamping their propaganda with truth. This requires a long-term organizing strategy beyond the occasional demonstration or peace march (a good example of a long-term nonviolent strategy is the BDS movement).
No, today’s America does not resemble 1930s Germany
While this notion is thrown around – mostly into the faces of people who don’t condone violent confrontation with white supremacists – as “common knowledge,” it’s never actually questioned. Peace workers are simply expected to quake at the very idea of 1930s Germany. But what did 1930s Germany look like, and is there really any comparison with today’s America?
Hitler pretty much took over the German state in seven months, between January and July 1933. In January 1933, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reich Chancellor under pressure from the German ruling political and business classes. In February, after the Reichstag fire, Hitler began his move against the Left, which in Germany was strong in the labor movement. Using the SA (Sturmabteilung–Storm Detachment, the paramilitary wing of the National Socialist party) and his Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State, Hitler suspended civil liberties and began a full-scale terror campaign against the German Communist Party (KPD), including arrests, occupation of their offices, and shutting down of their press (again, note the critical role communications play). Many Party leaders went underground and many were executed. Without visible leadership and a printing press, the Communists were effectively neutered.
In early March, Hitler went after the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and confiscated its property, including its press. By late March, the regime passed the Enabling Bill, giving Hitler the power to rule by decree. With the Left parties out of the way, the trade unions no longer had effective leadership and Hitler was free to attack them next. In May he occupied the offices of the independent trade unions and confiscated their property. The regime then created the German Labour Front to “represent” German workers. In June, the SPD was banned, and in July the regime passed the Law Against the Establishment of Parties—outlawing all political parties except the National Socialists. With all political and trade union opposition out of the way, and Germany a police state, it remained only for Hindenburg to die, which he did the following year in August 1934, whereupon Hitler merged the offices of the Chancellery and Presidency and became dictator.6
Even in this brief summation of the early years of 1930s Germany one would be hard pressed to see any comparison with today’s America, Trump notwithstanding, or any grounds for the irrational fear among liberals that the country is about to be overrun by Nazis.
Instead, what should be clear is the continuity of the neocon and neoliberal agenda from the 1990s — under both political parties — that has brought us never-ending regime change wars, deep cuts in domestic programs, and internecine identity politics conflicts within the working and middle classes.
Divided, we cannot effectively confront the ruling classes, and they know it. There is one issue capable of splitting and cracking the organized peace and justice movement, and that’s the issue of tactics — violence vs. nonviolence. Historically it has split the Left into smithereens over and over again. In fact, if the ultra-left hadn’t appeared at this point in history, the ruling class would have had to create it, sponsor it, glorify it in the media, and allow it the freedom to divide the left and destabilize protests that, in the past, have gone on without incident. Again, cui bono?
Violence is a dead-end…time to get creatively nonviolent
[Antifa] believe that elites are controlling the government and the media. So they need to make a statement head-on against the people who they regard as racist. There’s this ‘It’s going down’ mentality and this ‘Hit them with your boots’ mentality that goes back many decades to confrontations that took place, not only here in the American South, but also in places like Europe.
— Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.7
The idea in Antifa is that we go where they (right-wingers) go. That hate speech is not free speech. That if you are endangering people with what you say and the actions that are behind them, then you do not have the right to do that. And so we go to cause conflict, to shut them down where they are, because we don’t believe that Nazis or fascists of any stripe should have a mouthpiece.
— Scott Crow, a former 30-year member of an Antifa group.8
When you look at this grave and dangerous threat — and the violence it has already caused — is it more dangerous to do nothing and tolerate it, or should we confront it? Their existence itself is violent and dangerous, so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical.
— Antifa activist
What strikes me in the rhetoric of the ultra-left is a sense of urgency and danger, which then feeds the perceived need for the use of force against an overwhelming enemy. This is a crusade, and the enemy is evil itself. So, to the question of, “Why do you use violence,” Antifa answers, “Violence is necessary against Nazis because you can’t talk to evil.” If this seems to mirror what imperialist America has been saying about its “enemies” for decades, that’s no coincidence. The war industry has become America’s bread and butter, and its world view has percolated down through every level of society.
But “Why” is the wrong question. From a purely tactical stance, the question should be, “Does is work?” And the answer that comes down to us from history and experience is, “Not in the long-term.”
The lesson from Cable Street is clear—the anti-fascists succeeded in shutting down one march. But in the aftermath of that action, fascist membership grew and, within a few weeks, the BUF was marching again—with little or no opposition.
Most organizations working for social change do so with an explicit commitment to nonviolence, as stated in their mission statements. There are good reasons, and a lot of historical precedents, for this. These groups know that peace work is long-term work that requires decades, often generations of commitment. No organization can hope to sustain its work and maintain its membership over the long term through violence. Organizing the masses around hatred of an “Other” is not a long-term winning strategy, especially when that Other isn’t even the real enemy. There is some irony in the fact that the ultra-right hates the Deep State as much as the ultra-left does.
The Nazi organizations in the U.S. are not the Italian Blackshirts or the German Brownshirts. Contemporary U.S. Nazis resemble their Italian and German idols only in their symbols and rhetoric. Beyond that, they are isolated groups that split, fracture, often kill one another, and have no political party backing. The fact that the media and its political handlers have chosen this moment in history to hype the “Nazi threat” should raise a few eyebrows, if not questions.
Is nonviolence “pacifism”?
Ultra-leftists use the “P” word to imply that those advocating nonviolence are cowards, do-nothings and enablers of fascism. These charges can be expected from individuals who have little foresight, little knowledge of history and little experience in actual organizing – but who have a lot of fear and confusion about current events.
So, a word about what nonviolence is and is not. Nonviolence is not pacifism. It is not toleration. It is not cowardice. Nonviolent direct action is struggle. It is courage. It is thoughtful and creative strategizing. It is for the future of humankind.
To the false and loaded question of, “Is it more dangerous to do nothing and tolerate it?” we can let Howard Zinn, a life-long nonviolent fighter for peace and justice, have the final word:
Thus, none of the traditionally approved mechanisms for social change (not war, nor revolution, nor reform) is adequate for the kind of problems we face today in the United States and in the world. We need apparently some technique which is more energetic than parliamentary reform and yet not subject to the dangers which war and revolution pose in the atomic age.
This technique, I suggest, is that which has been used over the centuries by aggrieved groups in fitful, semi-conscious control of their own actions. With the Negro revolt in America, the technique has begun to take on the quality of a deliberate use of power to effect the most change with the least harm. I speak of non-violent direct action. This encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations: sit-ins, freedom rides and freedom walks, prayer pilgrimages, wade-ins, pray-ins, freedom ballots, freedom schools, and who knows what is on the horizon? Whatever the specific form, this technique has certain qualities: it disturbs the status quo, it intrudes on the complacency of the majority, it expresses the anger and the hurt of the aggrieved, it publicizes an injustice, it demonstrates the inadequacy of whatever reforms have been instituted up to that point, it creates tension and trouble and thus forces the holders of power to move faster than they otherwise would have to redress grievances.9
- Daniel Tilles, “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today, Volume 61 Issue, 10 October 2011.
- Reg Weston, 1936: Fascists and Police Routed – the Battle of Cable Street.
- Daniel Penny, “An Intimate History of Antifa.” The New Yorker, August 22, 2017.
- G. C. Webber, “Patterns of Membership and Support for the British Union of Fascists,” Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 19, No. 4, Reassessments of Fascism (October 1984), pp. 575-606.
- C. Webber, “Patterns of Membership and Support for the British Union of Fascists,” Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 19, No. 4, Reassessments of Fascism (October, 1984), pp. 575-606.
- Stephen Salter, “The Object Lesson: The Division of the German Left and the Triumph of National Socialism.” In The Popular Front in Europe, ed. by Helen Graham and Paul Preston. NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1987. For a definitive account of 1930s Germany see Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin Books. 2005.
- Jessica Suerth, “What is Antifa?” CNN 17 August 2017.
- Thomas Fuller, Alan Feuer, Serge F. Kovaleski, “Antifa’ Grows as Left-Wing Faction Set to, Literally, Fight the Far Right.” The New York Times. August 17, 2017.
- Howard Zinn, “Non-Violent Direct Action” excerpted from Howard Zinn on History, Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper.