Cable Street revisionism in ‘History Today’

September 27, 2011 at 9:05 am (anti-fascism, Anti-Racism, anti-semitism, history, Jim D, stalinism)

As the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street approaches, the usually excellent History Today marks the event with a terrible article by one Daniel Tilles, a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Here’s the conclusion to give you a taste of how appalling it is:

“The demonstrators at Cable Street, and their successors in the
anti-fascist movement, have understandably taken pride in their
achievements that day. Yet far from signalling the beginning of the end
for fascism in Britain, or even in the East End, the demonstration
yielded a significant short-term boost for the BUF, and did nothing to
hinder it in the longer term. True, it succeeded in demonstrating the
strength of hostility to Mosley, confirming that his political ambitions
would never be realised. But this had long been clear. By 1936 the BUF
was a local irritant but a national irrelevance and destined to remain
that way. Instead, Cable Street drew unnecessary attention and new
adherents to the party. However laudable the motivation of the Jewish
participants that day, the primary consequence of their actions was to
make life significantly worse for their fellow Jews in the East End,
with their involvement used to justify the commencement of the most
intensive phase of anti-semitic activity in modern British history.”

The full article is here.

Now, there’s nothing wrong in principle, with ‘revisionist’ history that challenges accepted truisms and asks us to look afresh at orthodoxy. And it’s true that Stalinists like Phil Piratin have, over the years, promoted a very simplistic view of “Cable Street,” attributing the decline of Mosely and the Blackshirts more or less entirely to what happened on that day.  But Tilles’ piece is simply bad history. A few points:

* Not one mention of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) which had more members and mobilised more people on the day, than the CP (Communist Party).

* He argues that Cable Street led to more BUF (British Union of Fascists) attacks on Jews but gives no information on the level of attacks on Jews before Cable Street.

* Most of his sources are anecdotal or from the BUF’s Blackshirt paper.

* Little discussion of the effect of Cable Street on the Jewish anti-fascist movement and none on its effect on the CP. The ILP not even mentioned. It gave all of these added confidence and prestige.

* No analysis of who the 100,00 anti-fascists on the streets actually were.

* Serious histories of fascism in Britian are pretty much unanimous in concluding that the BUF was in steep decline by 1937. They revived somewhat after Munich with their “peace” campaign. Maybe the cause wasn’t Cable Street, but overwhelmingly,  the evidence is against Tilles’ contention that the BUF was on the rise at this time.

A much better and more balanced account here.

‘Cable Street 75’ blog here.

H/t: Dave and Cath


  1. Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    Sounds like phd stoodent tooser has been googling olly kamm cunt going by the snippet posted here of its shit. BTW, the excellent You Tube 1936 vintage ‘Mr Chomley Warner’ news bulletin shud be woTChED.

    Every year this shitty thick cunt revisionist toss comes up and every year it needs to be rebutted. This strategy of repeating ad nauseum falshoods and stupid dumb piss, is of course a favoured teqnique of rightoid cunTS: it usually goes something like this…’the local people tried to get the march banned through the courts. Their attempt failed… the Anti-Fascists were then breaking the law by trying to stop the march going ahead and the police were acting correctly to try to force the march through and that they were caught between two gangs of thugs equally reppellant as each other’.

    The crux of the matter was that the Fascists were marching through a Jewish area in order to intimidate and create racial hatred. They operated a reign of terror in the area, prior to the march, with thugs roaming the streets beating people up (a tactic they learned from Mussolini’s Squaderisti) It was felt also that quite a few members of the police force charged with guiding the march were Mosley sympathisers (worra shock that is – imagine such a thing!#!!!#!!!!!!).

    Proper historians know there is no doubt that Cable St was a huge defeat for Mosleys BUF. The reason being it led to the Public Order Act 1936. The British government began to get rattled by Mosley: What people don’t remember was that there were Far-Right riots in France the same year that nearly brought the government down and 2 years before at a BUF rally at Olympia where Mosley had let Stewards brutalise a heckler in front of the Press, news cameras etc. It brought into public awareness the nature of Mosley and his movement.

    The act amongst other things bans the wearing of military uniforms by political parties effectively stopping Mosley to copy the “spiffing” uniforms that were worn by the Blackshirts in Italy and the Nazi S.A.It also gave the Home Secretary the power to ban marches if they were thought to be dangerous to public order. The act is still in use today and has been used to ban Far-Right marches, more so under Blair than Thatcher or Major it has to be said (and i for one agree that banning the cunTS MARCHING (even by hated boojois politicians) is a good thing.

    It didn’t stop them all of course and serious Anti Fascists will recall the Lewisham march in 1977 when history seemed to repeat itself, The NF tried to march through Lewisham a Black area, everyone turned out to stop them there was a riot and the Daily Mail and the establishment potrayed it as the Police caught up in the middle of two equally bad gangs of thugs and again local people thought the Police sympathised with the NF. Questions were asked in Parliament why the march had not been banned by the Home Secrtary using the 1936 Act.

    Of course the spirit of Mosleys Blackshirts lives on in Northern Ireland with its Orange Marches through Catholic areas amongst other things but Cable St, for the reasons outlined above stopped the would be British Fuhrer- rather like Stalingrad or El Aleimain it was all down hill from there.

  2. Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

  3. Daniel said,

    As the author of the article in question, I though I might offer a reply to your criticism. Dealing with the points you made:

    – The article was a discussion of the impact of Cable Street on the fortunes of the BUF and on its activity over 1936-7. The ILP did indeed play a prominent part in organising Cable Street, but what relevance does that have to the issue at hand? As I think is quite clear from the piece, I had no intention of discussing in any detail the events of the day, which are well described elsewhere, but rather their longer-term consequences.

    – I did say that from 1935 (i.e. before Cable Street) there were ‘a growing number of physical attacks on Jews’.

    – The article is based on contemporary evidence from, among other sources, the (left-wing, working-class) Jewish People’s Council, the police, the Home Office and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I’m not really sure how this can be described as ‘anecdotal’.

    – As I said above, this is an article about the effects of Cable Street on the BUF and its activity. I’m sure an equivalent article on ILP and CP would be very interesting.

    – Again, the events of 4 Oct 1936 have been well explored elsewhere. The aim of this article is to look at the consequences of Cable Street for the BUF.

    – ‘Serious histories of fascism in Britian are pretty much unanimous in that the BUF was in steep decline by 1937’. First, even if they were, the point of a revisionist article is to challenge the accepted historical narrative. As the election results of 1937 show, the BUF was far from in decline, and had a greater degree of support in the East End than in 1936.

    But in any case, your contention is wrong:

    Nigel Copsey (Anti-Fascism in Britain, pp. 13, 62-3) records the rise in BUF membership after Cable Street and the ‘anti-Semitic backlash’ in ‘retaliation’ for Cable Street, which ‘persisted…over the longer term’. He also observes that ‘Cable Street’s…contribution to the failure of British fascism is typically exaggerated’.

    Thomas Linehan (East London for Mosley, p. 10, and British Fascism, p. 107) also notes the rise in BUF membership after Cable Street.

    Richard Thurlow (Fascism in Britain, pp. 63-4, 81) points out that left-wing opposition was a useful recruiting tool for the BUF, and that after Cable Street 2,000 new members joined the party.

    In any case, I don’t dispute that the BUF went into decline FROM (late) 1937. I even say this in the article. But this was due to financial difficulties and internal divisions; it had nothing to do with Cable Street.

    @Monsieur Jelly, if you read the article, you’ll see that I deal with the issue of the POA.

  4. Dave K said,


    Good of you to respond and I think its worth an answer to your points –

    You say “The article was a discussion of the impact of Cable Street on the fortunes of the BUF and on its activity over 1936-7”. Thats fair enough and if your basic thesis is that Cable Street was not the knock out blow to the BUF its some times portrayed as, I would agree.

    If it is your contention that Cable Street gave a fillip to fascism I not only disagree but also pose the question what would have happened if the jewish establishment’s strategy of ceeding the streets to the fascists had won out. Surely the BUF’s would have been a massive boost

    Olympia and Cable Street where set peice defeats for the BUF. There can be no doubt that it greatly gave prestige to the anti fascists and damaged the reptation of the Fascists.

  5. Daniel said,

    I’m not sure how you can disagree that Cable Street gave the BUF a boost. Its membership increased, its activity grew and its popularity rose, as is demonstrated by a wide range of contemporary sources and by the party’s election results 5 months after the Battle and again in autumn 1937. Of course Cable Street further tarnished the image of the BUF among most sections of society, but it was already beyond the pale as far as they were concerned. Among the Blackshirts’ target audience in the East End, the event increased their standing.

    Whether or not the BUF would have experienced an even greater fillip had the Cable Street demonstration not taken place is another question, and can only be speculated on. But the evidence suggests that your claim isn’t true. After Olympia, the BUF’s popularity tended to fall when anti-fascist activity declined. For example, from late 1934 and over 1935 there was a drop in the disruption of BUF events, and the party sunk to its lowest level of membership. From mid to late 1937 another decline in confrontational anti-fascism began and the BUF’s popularity again fell. After 1934 the Blackshirts were never a serious political force, so they sought to stir up conflict, which brought them attention and fed their image of victimhood. Events like the Cable Street demonstration were exactly what they wanted. More subtle forms of anti-fascism were far more effective in countering them – although of course it’s understandable that Jews who were physically threatened by the Blackshirts felled compelled to respond in kind.

  6. Doug said,

    IThe issue of fluctuations in BUF support in response to levels of anti-fascist activity is an interesting one. If Daniel is right about this in the East End, it may not necessarily be so elsewhere. Todd Gray’s book ‘The Blackshirts in Devon’ clearly suggests that the decline in Plymouth was largely due to the mobilisation of thousands of people against the local BUF, thoroughly demoralising them to the point of virtual extinction.

  7. Herbert said,

    ‘In local terms, in East London, however, the fascist failure was a qualified one. Here, even after the defeat at Cable Street, they achieved and sustained a mass base of support which, if it could have been repeated elsewhere, would have given them major political weight and at least the possibility of power.’

    That’s from “A much better and more balanced account here.’

  8. Herbert said,

    I get the distinct impression, Dave, that your objection to the piece isn’t that it’s badly researched and written (which i don’t think it is) but that it doesn’t make the political points you want it to make. Read what you call ‘A much better and more balanced account’ again.

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