Our Front is Popular
Mark Perryman revisits 1936 when anti-fascism was the cause, at home and abroad.
‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’
The notorious Daily Mail headline is just one chilling indication of the very real threat Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists posed in the mid 1930s. Inspired by the successful rise to power of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, Mosley sought to galvanise support via a combination of naked anti-semitism and brute force.
On 4 October 1936 Mosley planned the BUF’s biggest and boldest initiative yet. His uniformed Blackshirts would march through London’s East End, home to one of the country’s largest Jewish communities. The intention was quite clear, to cause fear and stir up hate. On the day more than one hundred thousand East Enders turned out to protect their community, of whatever faith or none. The fascists were forced to retreat. They did not pass. But there was also a realisation that protest alone would not stop the hateful ideas that Mosley sought to encourage as a vicious diversion from the causes of the East End’s very real problems. Phil Piratin, one of the organisers of the Cable Street protest, argued successfully that the key to the area’s problems was poor housing, slum landlords, steep rent rises and evictions. He helped organise tenants, including those with BUF sympathies, separating the cause of their living conditions from the lies the fascists spread. Piratin was a communist, in the 1945 General Election just nine years after the fascists thought they could rule the East End he was elected the Communist MP for Stepney.
Within weeks of Cable Street the Spanish Civil War that had begun in July with Franco’s armed rebellion against the democratically elected Republican Government, led to the formation of the International Brigades. Travelling to Spain, mostly with next-to-no military training, British volunteers went there to join the country’s battle for land and freedom against Franco’s fascism. This internationalism was criminalised by their own government, which backed instead a useless policy of non-intervention while Hitler and Mussolini armed unimpeded their Spanish ally Franco. Preceding the International Brigades, foreign volunteers simply formed units to help defend the Republic. Amongst the first was the Tom Mann Centuria made up of Brits living and working in Barcelona. Once the British Battalion was officially formed it joined the Fifteenth Brigade which was primarily, though not exclusively, English-speaking. The fighting Spanish forces included Catalan nationalists, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and parties such as the POUM which George Orwell famously fought alongside. All were united however, for the most part, in what was known as a ‘Popular Front’ led by socialists and communists.
In 1938 the International Brigades left Spain and within less than a year Franco had completed his victory: a fascist regime installed in Spain. Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland, World War Two began. The Communist MP Dolores Ibárruri, known forever as La Pasionaria, spoke on the Brigade’s departure. Her words remain an inspiration for all those who resist oppression, wherever, whatever, whenever:
‘It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’
The Popular Front, which inspired both those who stopped the Blackshirts at Cable Street and those who joined the International Brigades, was based on a simple idea. Concentric circles of unity. At its centre was the working-class movement. In the 1930s this was most notably the communists, around whom was formed a broader anti-fascist People’s Front. And by World War Two this became a National-Popular Front in those countries determined to resist Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan. Eventually, with the USSR’s entry into the war in 1941, this took on the dimension of an International Front too.
Two of the key objectives of the Popular Front were outlined by the architect of the strategy, Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov.
‘Find a common language with the broadest masses as well as overcoming the fatal isolation of the working class itself from its natural allies.’
Eighty years on, in a much-changed era for a radical politics of opposition, they are principles that nevertheless remain as relevant as ever for all those committed to rebuilding a Popular Left.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. Their range of 1936 Popular Front T-shirts are available here.