Following the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, it is important to remember not just the day itself, but where it came from. The most important thing about what happened on that day was how the other major East End community – the largely Irish dockers – came out in solidarity with the Jewish community in Whitechapel. The roots of this solidarity lie in the strikes of the Great Unrest period more than 20 years before.
In 1912, the radical wave of strikes that had begun in the Welsh mines two years before came to London as workers rediscovered the radicalism of the 1880s. One group of workers that took action were the Jewish tailors and textile workers of the East End. More than 10,000 textile workers went on strike over four weeks and won, all but ending the sweatshop system in the area.
At the centre of that strike was the anarchist organiser, Rudolf Rocker, who, in his autobiography (partly published as The London Years) described how the victorious Jewish came to the aid of the strikers on the London docks. As the dockers strike ran on without resolution and conditions worsened, more than 300 children from the docks were taken in by Jewish families. As Rocker wrote, “[i]t did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.” Despite this, the dockers were unsuccessful, but a new relationship was forged ending years of hostility between the two immigrant communities.
Twenty-four years later, this relationship was at the core of the anti-fascist mobilisation in Cable Street that prevented the British Union of Fascists marching through the still predominantly Jewish area. Historian Prof Bill Fishman, who witnessed the events of 1936, said “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.”
This history has largely been ignored by those who seek to claim credit for what happened in Cable Street. The truth is no party mobilised the defenders of Cable Street, even if they were involved. Instead, the solidarity of the day is rooted in a period of syndicalist and anarchist politics when workers rejected political parties of all types and instead recognised their own power.
As the UK re-enters a period of industrial conflict that the Labour Party refuses to support, we should draw inspiration from 100 years ago and build a new syndicalist era where workers find their own power. Organising to commemorate the centenary of the strike next May should be part of that. If you’re interested in getting involved, there’s a group on Facebook.