Sociology

A political history

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
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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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
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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’.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

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.

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End

This chapter examines the difficult period of bereavement and the effects of such upheaval for children. During this period, the chain of circumstances led widows to seek relief from Protestant Orphan (PO) Societies, which by 1870 had a presence in every county in Ireland. The book assesses the boarding-out environment in which children were placed and considers the Dublin POS as a case study to establish whether the system was as effective in practice as in theory. The DPOS, local superintendents, the nurses with whom the children were placed, and surviving kin were jointly responsible for the maintenance of the orphans' health and the provision of medical care. DPOS orphans were visited unannounced once in summer and once in winter by committee members, and supervised in their local parish by parochial clergymen and their wives, as well as the community at large.

in The Protestant Orphan Society and its social significance in Ireland, 1828–1940