In The Guardian today, Seumas Milne writes about the enduring relevance of the British miners’ strike, which began 25 years ago today and which he calls “a social and political tipping point that has had no real parallel anywhere else in the world.” Milne may or may not be correct in his assertion that the strike represented a major battle in the war to impose the unregulated markets which have recently collapsed; what interested me, though, was the appearance in his piece of that common meme of the eternal radical.
It’s a meme which forms the backbone of the novel Q, which I recently read after some years of meaning to get around to it. Part of both the Luther Blissett phenonemon and a product of the Wu Ming Foundation, Q is a novel steeped in the culture of radicalism which refashions the Reformation, and particularly its Anabaptist elements, into a form of cultural and social protest. It concludes as one might expect of such a novel: “I smile. No plan can take everything into account. Other people will raise their heads, others will desert. Time will go on spreading victory and defeat among those who pursue the struggle.” The narrator never receives a name, and is buffeted from one revolutionary moment to the next. He stands for this current of radicalism, this eternal resistance to the forces of corporatism.
As this summary might suggest, Q is a forced and didactic novel, and it often fails to differentiate between one moment, between one revolutionary, and the next. Perhaps this is the point; certainly I have some sympathy with what Stewart Home about Q being an anti-novel (much of what else he says is rubbish). This doesn’t make the novel clever, however, merely bold, and for my money its analysis of radicals and their trajectories is far less eloquent than that in David Edgar’s duology, Continental Divide, which remains the best dramatisation of America’s ‘culture wars’ and focusses on the maturing experience of 60s and 70s activists on both sides of the political fence.
“You don’t start where people are,” says one character in Mothers Against, the first of those two plays and the one focusing on the right. Continental Divide, with its emphasis on style and finesse, is self-evidently about what happens when the radicalism gets burned out of you; Q, embodying its theme in its tricksy and not entirely successful form, is about keeping the flame alight regardless of where everyone else ends up. Both have something to say to Seumas Milne’s article. When he says the strike “raised the alternative of a different Britain from the greed and individualism of the Thatcher years, rooted in solidarity and collective action,” he frames the strike as an entry in the history of radicalism, a beacon along the way for all those who hope at one point or another that life does not have to be lived as we are told it must be. “We have begun the struggle,” says Q‘s , “and will see it to its conclusion.”