Alliances, Fronts, Parties and Populism

By Morgan, Kevin; Prentoulis, Marina et al. | Soundings, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Alliances, Fronts, Parties and Populism


Morgan, Kevin, Prentoulis, Marina, Canos, Sirio, Gilbert, Jeremy, Soundings


October 2016 was the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, and as part of the commemorations Soundings organised a seminar to discuss how reflecting on popular front politics can help us think about contemporary issues such as populism and how we make alliances. The contributions below are based on the talks at the seminar. *

Why remember Cable Street?

Kevin Morgan

Unlike Paris, London has never really been a city of barricades. Even into our own times, it has generally been the forces of the state that have put up physical barriers--to keep our demonstrations on licensed, non-threatening routes, or use the monopoly of legalised violence to prevent us moving at all. The reason we remember Cable Street is therefore obvious. Not only was it one of the biggest barricades in the history of radical movements; it was also one which--far from relying on an activist minority swelling out to the breadth of the street by means of an abandoned lorry or tram--was made up of the tens and even hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, who blocked the incursions of the fascists by sheer force of numbers. They did so, moreover, under a rallying cry of the utmost simplicity--'They shall not pass': the basic categories of them and us were defined with a visceral immediacy that meant that diverse political ideals and identities became crystallised together in the defence of a physical space. But, at the same time, the slogan--like the clenched fist salutes--through its radical populist discourse linked the local with the national and the international, and in particular with the popular struggle in Spain, from which the slogan had originated. It is impossible to remember Cable Street without also remembering Spain, whose struggle against Franco became the focus of arguably the greatest international mobilisation of the twentieth century. If today we need to reflect on the challenges and possibilities of a left-wing populism, there can, in Britain at least, be no better occasion on which to do so than this anniversary.

Behind the crowds that blocked the way to Mosley's fascists, one can perhaps identify three key ingredients--narrative, organisation and the will to believe. In the space allowed me here, I want to offer brief reflections on each in turn as a contribution to the current debate around left-wing populism.

As to the first of these, the ceding to the right of the entire Brexit debate shows what happens to the left when it doesn't have a narrative. Between project fear and taking back control, it was difficult in much of the country to make out any clear alternative rising above the unbelievable insularity of the debate.

From this perspective, the anti-fascism of the 1930s-40s presents us with possibly the most compelling populist narrative in the history of the European left. Historians have written a lot about Cable Street, and some have suggested that its significance has been mythologised. In my view, this misses the crucial point that there wasn't only one battle of Cable Street, there were two. Beyond the physical confrontation itself, there was also the battle to represent the basic, defining, conflict of the day as that between fascism and the forces that could be mobilised against it, and thus drawn into activity for the wider social goals so obviously threatened by fascism. From this perspective, Cable Street was a great symbolic action whose power lay in its representation of fascism and anti-fascism as such clearly opposed alternatives that you couldn't avoid taking sides--and of the issue as being of such urgency that you couldn't avoid acting once you had taken a side. Not just Cable Street but anti-fascism itself thus had the power of the kind of social myth that the syndicalist Georges Sorel described as enclosing within it 'all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party or of a class', and as giving 'an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which . …

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