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.
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.