Anniversaries always offer good opportunities for the reinterpretation of past events according to modern sensibilities. With each passing year the memories get polished, the myths build and the truth becomes that little less easy to establish. 75 years have gone by since a diverse population of East Enders – among them dockers, Jews, trade unionists and assorted left-wing groups – gathered to stop Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts goose-stepping through the neighbourhood and ended up fighting the police sent in to clear a way for the fascists.
That is more than enough time for the stories of what happened in a now fairly anonymous street in E1 to get lost in a fog. Enough time for historians to look at the events of 4 October 1936 and question if the Battle even made things worse for the local Jewish population:
Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months the British Union of Fascists was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success and to justify a further radicalisation of its anti-Jewish campaign.
This is a dangerous argument, if seen through to its logical conclusion, that fascists are best not resisted. With the world mired in economic crisis and racists targetting areas with concentrated immigrant populations once again, it is tempting to wonder what, if anything, we have learned since the Thirties. Even this writer has indulged. And as Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti commented:
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
The truly fatal myth is the one that tries to encourage us to ignore fascism in the hope it will go away, when even a brief look at history shows this is not an effective strategy. As this excellent article argues,
it was not “objective conditions” that stopped the police forcing a way for the British Hitlerites into Jewish East London: it was a quarter of a million workers massing on the streets to tell them that they would not pass, and making good the pledge by erecting barricades and fighting the BUF-shepherding police. A year after Cable Street, it was the working class and the socialist movement which again put up barricades in Bermondsey to stop the fascists marching.
Remembering that may be the best way of marking today’s anniversary.