Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society

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Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society

Remembering Cable Street, an eclectic collection of essays and literature, focuses on the confrontation between Oswald Mosley, his fascist followers, anti-fascists, and the police. The "Battle of Cable Street" occurred on October 4, 1936, in Stepney, the heart of the Jewish East End. The strength of this somewhat non-traditional study is the varied lenses it brings to bear on the demonstration. It thus extends our knowledge beyond the basic outlines thus far considered by scholars (C. Holmes, G. Lebzelter, V. D. Lipman, W. D. Rubinstein).

The volume emerged from a conference marking the sixtieth anniversary of the "Battle" and emphasizes the nature, use, and contestation over historical memory and "the rhetoric and representation of `Cable Street'"(p. 2). It sheds light on Anglo-Jewry and the behaviors and attitudes among Jews of differing socio-economic classes, genders, communal status, and political affiliations. The editors suggest that attention to the treatment of ethnic minorities and institutional racism in the past may focus attention on similarly charged issues in our own time (p. 5).

The various articles offer several conclusions. Anti-fascists' responses may not have undermined fascism to the degree often contended, but Cable Street has had continued resonance "both for local activism and British-Jewish identity" (p. 4). Jews responded to the fascist threat with both "fear and insecurity," as well as "excitement and growing self-confidence" (p. 19) and anti-fascist activity contributed to the political maturation of East End Jewry (p. 197), especially of the younger generation.

Thomas Linehan questions the interpretation of Cable Street as "a major victory for the anti-fascist forces." As Richard Thurlow also notes, immediately after their physical defeat, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), attracted large crowds and increased membership. The defeat led to renewed efforts by Mosley and the BUF; they sought to replace positive perceptions of the heroic anti-fascist crowd with negative ones (lawless, subversive, outsiders, funded by Communists and Jews) (pp. 23-25, 74). By maligning the anti-fascists, the BUF attracted those whom they labeled as "honest, law-abiding, God-fearing, patriotic, respectable `British' working men and women" (p. 28). Further, Thurlow argues the Battle enabled the government to push through the Public Order Act (December 1936), which increased the power of the authorities and limited civil liberties, though political extremists never really challenged the authority of the British state (pp. 74, 76).

Julie Gottlieb and Nadia Valman highlight gender in their analyses. Gottlieb explores the role of women in the BUF. Their presence gave the BUF a "veneer of decency" (p. 33). Fearing the appeal of Communism, BUF women argued that working women's status would improve under a fascist state (pp. 35). While antisemitism was blatant in the BUF, Gottlieb argues that it was not necessarily the aspect that attracted women. Fascist women, though, were as capable of racism as their male counterparts (p. 39). Although propaganda promoted only limited extensions of women's roles, women were the "salespersons and soft-sellers" of fascism, and Cable Street may have "stimulated female recruitment" (p. 40-42). Valman looks at efforts to influence East End girls and the role of communal organizations "as agencies of social discipline," that "operated in an ethnically specific form" (p. 187). Valman's analysis of the erosion of influence among the leaders of Jewish clubs also points to the changing relationships between working-class Jews and their wealthier co-religionists, as East Enders increasingly defined Englishness themselves. …