Three summers ago I made the trip from New York City to London and stood in front of the breathtakingly kinetic East London mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street. The mural, painted between 1979 and 1983, depicts the people’s revolt against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Hundreds of thousands (historians still argue about the exact number) of Jews, Irish laborers, Communists, Labour party members, trade unionists and more united to protest Mosley’s plan to bring his paramilitary Blackshirts to the heart of Jewish working-class London.
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In the end, the Battle of Cable Street was actually a confrontation between the people and the police. The BUF never got near Cable Street. Not, however, because the government was inclined to clamp down on Britain’s homegrown fascists. It was the government’s passivity in the face of violent intimidation which incited Cable Street, a clash whose import still echoes today.
This October I will be returning for the 80th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Cable Street. When I first started planning this trip, the Brexit vote was the tiniest blip on my political radar. Such a ridiculous, isolationist stunt seemed a much better fit for the increasingly dark, anything goes mood here in the United States. I felt certain the referendum could go nowhere in the much more rational U.K. And now, just a few days after the referendum, I wonder what if anything can be read as an omen for our own potentially cataclysmic vote in November. And no matter the outcome of our respective votes, what damage has been done to the civil discourse?
The sudden disappearance of solidarity against the politics of race
Just a few days before the Brexit vote, Professor Brendan McGeever, an academic studying racism and anti-Semitism, wrote: “The EU referendum has transformed British politics. In just a matter of weeks a devastatingly rightward shift has become evident. It is a shift defined, above all, by the politics of race and nation.” Indeed, given this shift “[t]he search for anti-racist futures has acquired a new degree of urgency.”
It would be alarmist to say that 2016 is 1936 (thank god) and I’m definitely not casting the U.K. Independence Party head and lead Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage as a successor to Oswald Mosely (such a comparison gives the ludicrous Farage way too much credit.) However, days after the shock of the Leave victory, the strategies of eighty years past feel starkly urgent. Cable Street veteran Max Levitas put it this way on the 75th anniversary in 2011: “It was the solidarity between the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the trade union movement that stopped Mosley's fascists, supported by the police, from marching through Cable Street.”
In 1936 it was Jews who were being blamed for the economic crisis in Britain. Today, solidarity, and resistance to anti-refugee and anti-migrant scapegoating and intimidation feels all the more relevant, especially for this American Jew, with her own quasi-fascists on the November horizon. But where will that sense of solidarity come from?
The Right set the xenophobic terms of the debate
Since Friday’s vote the commentariat has gone into overdrive. It’s clear that 52% of U.K. voters haven’t transformed into violent skinheads, eager to return the U.K. to some kind of bygone white hegemony. Still, it will take some time to fully understand the motivations of the Leave voters, especially the phenomenon of protest voters who didn’t even necessarily want to leave the EU, but were looking for some way to express deep discontent with the status quo. It’s clear that no matter what motivated individuals, the referendum plugged into a virulent undercurrent of anti-refugee and anti-migrant feeling.
For me, two of the most shocking aspects of the Leave victory, one a mass of anecdotes, the other a statistic, were these:
First, almost immediately reports started coming out of abusive incidents targeted toward those perceived as not being ‘British’
Signs saying "Leave the EU. No more Polish Vermin” were posted in Cambridgeshire. Then there are the innumerable incidents all over social media of U.K. citizens of color being told to ‘go back home.’
Second: a statistic. One third of Labour members voted for Leave
Again, it will be a while until we can fully account for voter motivations. But one thing is quite clear at the moment, that if a full third of Labour members voted leave, it’s at least in part due to the failure of party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was a life-long Eurosceptic, and in the months leading up to the referendum, he failed in every way to put forward any kind of argument for Remain.
Even worse, Corbyn failed to make a case for the benefits of welcoming migrants and refugees, making him incapable of meeting the xenophobic frame placed around the vote by the Right. As Professor McGeever put it, “The terms of this debate have been set entirely by the right, from the neoliberal mainstream to the fascist extreme. The left, owing to its historic position of weakness, is simply nowhere in this discussion.” Maybe it goes without saying, but it does not have to be that way. But a strong progressive party requires leaders with vision, empathy and, not least of all, an historically informed consciousness. Jeremy Corbyn, alas, seems to have only distinguished himself as a leader by how many of his actions invite cringing not credibility. Most notably, Corbyn’s history of ‘internationalism’ includes hosting a show on Iran’s propaganda channel, Press TV, and unapologetically associating with a lengthy list of anti-Semites.
Brexit and Trump, searching for scapegoats
In his memoir, the eldest son of Oswald Mosley, Nicholas, had this to say about his father’s tactics: “It was sometimes suggested... that my father came to embrace anti-Semitism openly for wholly cynical reasons- to maintain impetus in a party which for all [its initial] success .was by the end of 1934 running down.” Mosely dismisses the idea that the call to anti-Semitism was just to manufacture a spurious crisis: “The state of mind of people such as fascists who believe that they can and should set the world to rights requires scapegoats so that things may seem bearable when plans and hopes go wrong: this is a necessity if dynamism is to continue.”
I’m reminded (against my will) of the rise of Donald Trump here in the United States. Being a native New Yorker, Trump has been a part of the New York consciousness my whole life. Even today I find it hard to believe that he actually bears true racial animus toward Muslims or Mexicans in any fundamental way. What I find much easier to believe is that these groups are easy — the easiest — scapegoats and, for angry Trump voters looking for a place to lay blame, they are fodder for that continued dynamism Nicholas Moseley so trenchantly pointed out.
If the U.K. and the United States ever needed a little idealism, it is now, in this season when hatred is being put to the ballot. It looks like Jeremy Corbyn is on his way out of leadership. But whether or not he manages to hold on until then, the idealist in me hopes to see him at Cable Street in October. It would be a fitting act of reparation.
Rokhl Kafrissen is the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. Her writing on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life has been widely published.