This exploration of one of the most concentrated immigrant communities in Britain combines a new narrative history, a theoretical analysis of the evolving relationship between progressive left politics and ethnic minorities, and a critique of political multiculturalism. Its central concern is the perennial question of how to propagate an effective radical politics in a multicultural society: how to promote greater equality that benefits both ethnic minorities and the wider population, and why so little has been achieved. It charts how the Bengali Muslims in London’s East End have responded to the pulls of class, ethnicity and religion; and how these have been differently reinforced by wider political movements. Drawing on extensive recorded interviews, ethnographic observation, and long sorties into the local archives, it recounts and analyses the experiences of many of those who took part in over six decades of political history that range over secular nationalism, trade unionism, black radicalism, mainstream local politics, Islamism, and the rise and fall of the Respect Coalition. Through this Bengali case study and examples from wider immigrant politics, it traces the development and adoption of the concepts of popular frontism and revolutionary stages theory and of the identity politics that these ideas made possible. It demonstrates how these theories and tactics have cut across class-based organisation and acted as an impediment to tackling cross-cultural inequality; and it argues instead for a left alternative that addresses fundamental socio-economic divisions.
Chapter 6 provides a detailed examination of the impact of identity politics. It begins with a critical look at the development of black radical ideas, their dismissal of the ‘white working class’, and their failure to set out how sectorial struggle could lead to working-class unity. It concentrates on the experience of the Bengali Housing Action Group, a squatters’ organisation coordinated by black radical activists from Race Today, and on anti-racist resistance spearheaded by second generation Asian Youth Movements. These campaigns succeeded in securing homes for many families and in generating a sea-change in community consciousness and confidence as Bengalis asserted their right to stay in Britain and be treated decently. However they left a legacy of geographical clustering and of separate community-based organisation that failed to address wider socio-economic inequalities. The chapter compares this identity politics with the 1930s, when the Communist Party used campaigns against racism and for better housing to unite the working class across the racial divide, to undercut support for fascism, and to build support for left ideas. It concludes by looking at how public money has been used to incorporate once-radical organisation into the establishment and institutionalise competition between different community groups.
Chapter 7 charts how community-based activism led to a pragmatic move into mainstream politics. Initially this meant the Labour Party, which was then dominant locally, was most immigrant friendly, and had also been supportive in the independence struggle. Bengalis subsequently joined all main parties, despite the Liberals’ notoriously racist campaigns in the 1990s, and became a major part of the council establishment. The chapter looks at how resistance to Bengali membership of the Spitalfields Labour Party was overcome by intervention of left-wingers, and how, when the party wouldn’t choose a Bengali to stand as a councillor, one got elected as an independent. It looks at patronage networks, prejudice encountered by political women, continued distrust of the ‘white left’, potential conflicts between representing the Bengali community and representing all constituents, and the demand for a Bengali MP. It ends by looking at the use of multiculturalism as a progressive veneer, and the impact of partnership governance in strengthening ethnic and faith organisations and tying them to council norms.
Chapter 9 looks at the attempt by some on the left (especially the Socialist Workers’ Party) to build on the movement against the Iraq war and create a new political party combining socialists and Muslims. It looks at the rise and fall of Respect in its power base of Tower Hamlets, including George Galloway’s defeat of Labour’s pro-war Oona King in the 2005 general election and more limited electoral successes in the local council. It argues that Respect was a coalition based on opportunism, and another example of the failure of popular front politics. It was conceived by a weakening left, prepared to compromise its socialist programme to make links with a strengthening Islamic movement. It made the left even weaker and strengthened religious organisations. The chapter examines at length whether religious and socialist organisations can work together beyond single issue campaigns. It concludes that while non-political Muslims might practise forms of socialism, Marxists and Islamists hold incompatible world views and any attempt at a more general coalition between the two would be bound to result in unacceptable compromise.
Chapter 2 looks at links with the homeland and Bengali politics. It begins with the movements for independence from Britain and for the formation of Pakistan; and it goes on to the growing movement for East Bengali autonomy and then independence, as the Bengalis came to believe they had exchanged colonialism under Britain for colonialism under West Pakistan. It also looks at Bengali responses to problems relating to immigration, which sometimes – as in the issuing of passports –overlapped with Pakistani politics. It charts the development of movements for democracy and independence in East Bengal and supportive activism in London. And it examines the role played by Bengali students and professionals in co-ordinating political mobilisation and in welfare activities – where, despite their radical left politics, they relied more on patriarchal bonds than on class analysis. The chapter explores the impact of Communist Party ideology on progressive politics, and especially revolutionary stages theory and popular-front organisation, which encouraged the activists to set aside long-term aims for socialism, and concentrate on immediate demands for national independence and on resolving community problems. It argues that, instead of leading to socialism, this marginalised the socialist aims that most activists claimed to support.
Chapter 3 looks at the war for Bangladeshi independence and the support given by the Bengalis in London. It chronicles the mass mobilisation and public demonstrations, and examines the roles played by students and by women and by traditional patriarchal links. It looks at organisational structures and conflicts, and it gives a critical account of the Bengalis’ propaganda and fundraising – including their thwarted plans to provide financial aid to the liberation army. It also looks at those who argued against independence. The chapter highlights the different political understandings of the nationalist and socialist parties, and the continued impact of popular-front policies in submerging socialist aims beneath the nationalist struggle.
While previous chapters looked at how popular-front politics postponed the development of socialist ideas indefinitely, this looks at how their cultural background impacted on the Bengali socialists. It looks at the continued importance of religion and of patriarchal relationships, at the Bengalis’ rural roots and position as landowners, and at their blurred definitions of class and rejection of working-class identity. It looks at how structural and working-class racism encouraged a wariness of white trade unionists; and how the growth of identity politics and separate organisation helped persuade the Bengalis to dismiss left-wing organisations as the ‘white left’, and not identify common cause. It looks at the failure of the British Communist Party to make effective links with Black and Asian immigrants in the early years, and at the limits of attempts to politicise and unionise the lascars. It examines the structural difficulties of unionising clothing workshops and restaurant workers, and at various attempts to overcome these. The chapter contrasts the Bengali experience with earlier Jewish immigrant trade-unionism, which was seen as important for working-class solidarity and for cutting across racism.
This summarises the nature of the book and what makes it unique, and outlines its main argument. It explains that the book serves as a critique of the cultural turn and of identity politics, and a call for a return to more materialist understandings as a basis for addressing socio-economic inequality. It looks at ideas about racialisation, and includes an explanation of the book’s use of key terms, including ‘working class’.
This first chapter sets the scene with a brief historical introduction. It looks at the East End’s immigrant history, at the Bengalis’ Sylheti background, at the first links through lascars in British merchant ships, at the role of Bengali professionals and students, at the enlargement of the community with the arrival of families and through natural growth, at the impact of immigration legislation, and at the development of Bengali neighbourhoods. It gives an introduction to the growing importance of Islam and to the perennial problems around the shortage of housing and the competition this creates. It gives a broad outline of the types of employment Bengalis have taken up, the problems of racism, and the particular and evolving situations and constraints facing Bengali women and young people. It includes statistics from the 2011 census, and ends with a look at recent changes in the area and the impact of gentrification.
Chapter 4 looks at the Bengalis’ continued links with their now independent homeland and with its politics (which it outlines), as the London community consolidated and settled and men were joined by their wives and families. This is a smaller scale politics, with different groups taking different positions, but it involves strong loyalties. As well as activity in Britain and the influence of immigrant money, the chapter discusses direct political involvement by returned immigrants and the possibilities of two centred politics. It also discusses the relative disenchantment of the younger, British-educated generation, and continued bonds with Bangladesh that are less overtly political, such as through regional organisations and their charitable activities. The chapter includes a discussion of the different meanings of secularism, and a critical examination of the growing conflicts between secular and religious politics.