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 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 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.
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 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.
The final chapter begins by highlighting how this has been a history of segregation, and how this segregation has been encouraged both by Bengali political mobilisation and by mainstream politics. It then looks at why this matters, and at what can be done, developing a Marxist critique of multiculturalism and identity politics. It makes use of comparisons with earlier Marxist theory and practice, stressing the importance of maintaining a socialist materialist analysis while working sensitively with people of different cultures. It shows how the rare liberal critics of multiculturalism have exposed its inherent dangers, but not provided an alternative route that could lead to a fairer less prejudiced society; and it argues that this could be achieved by a new focus on economic structures and class-based politics.
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’.
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.
Chapter 8 examines the growth of Islamic identity and political organisation. It starts by discussing different approaches to Islam and the meaning of Islamism. It looks at groups linked to Jamaat-e-Islami, whose ultimate aim is an Islamic state, and how they build support through strong organisation, grassroots community work, prosletysing, and civic engagement. And it also looks at more radical groups – Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun - who see themselves as a revolutionary vanguard for the restoration of an Islamic state. It argues that the turn to religion, which has happened throughout the Islamic world, is a consequence of the decline of a left alternative. Young Bengalis face alienation, racism, inequality, and no future. Islam offers them brotherhood, certainty and pride. It also argues that, while a very few have gone on jihad, it is dangerous to claim that Islamist ideas lead to extremist violence. However, Islamism has led to conflicts with non-political Muslims (especially concerning alleged war criminals from 1971) and has put difficult peer pressure on college students. It also perpetuates separatism.Finally, the chapter looks at how governments have deliberately promoted faith groups - which has consolidated religious power, encouraged conservative values, and cut across class-based organisation.
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.