Battle of Cable Street: when the Irish helped beat back the fascists
A survivor of the legendary London street battle recalls a dramatic day in the East End
Anti-fascist protesters, some of them carrying missiles, run from a barricade they have erected near Aldgate on October 4th, 1936. The police are charging on the far side of the barricade, which has been reinforced with paving stones. Photograph: Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Max Levitas: “I’m Irish, I’m a communist, but I’m not a Young Communist anymore.”Photographed by Amanda Spencer
British politician Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896-1980) inspects members of his British Union of Fascists in Royal Mint Street, London. Their presence sparked a riot known as the Battle of Cable Street. Photograph Central Press/Getty Images
A plaque remembers the Cable Street battle. October 4th marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when Jews and left-wingers stopped fascist blackshirts marching through East London. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Trouble was brewing in London 80 years ago. In the early morning of October 4th, 1936, thousands of black-shirted fascists mustered around the Tower of London. Awaiting them in the East End were Jews, union men and communists.
Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, had declared October 4th a day of destiny and reckoning. Mosley hoped his army of British Blackshirts would march east from the Tower and occupy the “Jew-ridden and communistic” dockside streets of the East End.
Mosley’s legions would be guarded by thousands of policemen, hundreds of them on horseback. He expected his fascists to sweep through London as Mussolini had marched on Rome – and, de facto, into power – in October 1922.
It would be one of the most dramatic days of the 20th century on British soil. Thee hours of fighting at the barricades, mounted-police charges and riots would become known as the Battle of Cable Street.
As the large Jewish community (mostly refugees from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, the Baltic States and Poland) prepared their barricades around Cable Street and Whitechapel, many wondered: what would the Irish do? Tens of thousands of Irish Catholic dockers lived with the Jewish community, in an often uneasy, antagonistic relationship.
The Irish in the East End had been courted by Mosley, a political firebrand and Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Mosley had often spoken of freedom and unity for Ireland, and some Irishmen had joined his cause. His deputy was William Joyce, the Galway-raised fascist who would later find infamy as the Nazi propagandist “Lord Haw Haw”. A former Belfast policeman was his personal bodyguard.
As political and social unrest grew through the Great Depression, the East End terraces that housed the Irish immigrant communities had often seen graffiti declaring; “No Jews On Our Streets”.
But for Dubliner Max Levitas, today aged 102 and still living in the East End, it was never in doubt. The dockers would stand with the Jews and communists. It would come down to a debt repaid.
“We knew the Irish would stand with us,” says Levitas, who spent his childhood with his large family in the Harcourt Street area of Dublin. “When [the dockers] went out on strike in 1912, it was a terrible time. Jewish families took in hundreds of their children. They were starving.
“We knew \[the Irish dockers\] wouldn’t forget. They wanted to repay the debt.”
“That morning, I remember. There were huge crowds, the dockers were shouting: “Come on lads, we’re going to go out and stop them! They want to march, we won’t let them!”.
Max stood at the barricades with his father and brother. Both had been involved in Dublin union work with Jim Larkin. Levitas’s older brother Morris “Morry” Levitas would later join the Connolly Column of the International Brigades to fight the fascists in Spain.
Max Levitas’s father and mother had escaped the 1913 pogroms in Latvia and Lithuania and met in Dublin, where three years later, one-year-old Max and his brother and sisters were put on the floor of their tenement by their mother as bullets flew during the Easter Rising.
Today, Levitas has kept many mementos from his family and political life in his small flat on Sidney Street in the East End. Pride of place goes to a framed letter from President Michael D Higgins, congratulating him on reaching the age of 100.
“I’m Irish, I’m a communist, but I’m not a Young Communist anymore,” he says in a voice that still has a strong, working-class Dublin ring to it.
“My father worked with Larkin in Dublin. He founded an Irish Jewish union for tailors, but the employers blacklisted him. We had to leave”.
Just say no to fascism
Max had his first run-in with the law in 1934, when he was arrested (with a fellow Young Communist) for painting “No To Fascism” on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the Battle of Cable Street was the most dramatic moment in his life.
“Mosley and his fascists wanted to take over the East End,” he says. “To run out the Jews and communists. We had to stop them. It was the people, united, fighting together.”
Estimates of the crowds that met the 5,000 or so Blackshirts – led by Mosley standing in an open-topped Rolls Royce and throwing the fascist salute – vary widely from 60,000-200,000.
Mosley’s people reached the top of Cable Street after marching from nearby Tower Hill. But despite the march being legal and stewarded by police, many drawn in from surrounding counties, the barricades and flying bricks and bottles meant the Blackshirts would get no further.
After several hours, the police officer in charge had to go to Mosley to tell him it was impossible and that he would have to turn back.
The Battle of Cable Street is today remembered by the left in Britain as an almost mythical moment, when the working class people of the East End won a rare victory over fascism.
Max Levitas, who would go on to be elected a communist councillor for the area, remembers it as the day he stood with his brother and father, his Jewish brethren and thousands of his fellow Irishmen, and turned back the Blackshirts.
Panel: A coming force
It may seem incredible to us now, but in the early-to-mid 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley and his Fascists were seen as the coming force in British politics.
Fascism had triumphed in Italy and Germany, and Spain would soon fall. The old democracies were judged by to be weak and spent.
Mosley was a charismatic demagogue. On the day after his march on the East End, he flew to Berlin to marry his long-time mistress, the famed society beauty Diana Mitford, at the home of their great friend Joseph Goebbels. Adolf Hitler would be the guest of honour.
Mosley did go to Berlin, but not as the triumphant leader.