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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Kevin Ovenden


Push or pull?


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Immigration, Ethnicity and Racism in Britain 1815–1945
Panikos Panyani
Manchester University Press £7.99

Over the past two decades there have been a number of studies of the impact of immigration into Britain since the Second World War. There has been comparatively less research about patterns of immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This book is a useful survey of the politics of immigration during that period.

It charts the migration of different groups – mainly Jews, Irish and Germans – the ways in which each group faced racism and the degree to which they became integrated into British society. Panyani states that ‘Marxist interpretations of population movement’ which explain migration as due to economic expansion in the host country are insufficient. They need to be supplemented by considering what he calls ‘push’ factors, like political repression in the country of origin. Despite this the evidence he provides shows a clear correlation between economic boom and immigration. The ‘push’ factors, for instance the Tsarist pogroms against the Jews, explain why particular groups of people are prepared to uproot themselves and move across the globe, but it is the demand for labour throughout this period that determines the total flow of numbers and where they move.

One fascinating aspect of the book is the hidden history it uncovers of small immigrant communities, for instance Italians and the early ‘Spanish Quarter’ of Somers Town in Camden. Such facts provide valuable ammunition against the racist myth of an unchanging homogenous ‘English race’. It is noticeable how many of these communities intermarry and become assimilated after two or three generations. The author succeeds in doing more than just documenting the racism faced by particularly Irish and Jewish immigrants and the changes in government policy which led to successive tightening of immigration controls starting with the 1905 Aliens Act. He shows how the different class structure of the immigrant communities played a crucial role in how they developed. The fact that Irish immigrants, by far the largest in number, were disproportionately working class single men meant that despite the high level of anti-Irish racism they became quite rapidly integrated into working class communities.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe tended to be whole families with a small but significant number of small businessmen. This shaped the structure of the Jewish East End of London.

Whatever the class composition of different groups it is clear from this book that all of them have been pulled into the class divisions in British society with each section having its own class interests. As the author states, in Leicester today working class Asians live in Evington and Highfields ‘while Oadby is the area of settlement of the Asian bourgeoisie’.

Panyani does not pursue the political implications of these class divisions for the fight against racism and at times his arguments are left undeveloped with no overall analysis drawing the threads together. Despite this the wealth of information and insights he provides add to our understanding of racism.

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