Ian Birchall reviews Phil Brett's novel, Comrades Come Rally, which imagines the development of a revolutionary situation in Britain.
Three centuries ago Voltaire lamented that for every one person who read the philosopher Locke, there were a hundred reading Oriental romances. Voltaire’s response was to write Candide, an adventure story with sex, violence, a lot of jokes – and a powerful philosophical message. Phil Brett has not written Candide, but his situation is comparable. For every one person who reads learned theses deciphering the footnotes in Marx’s Capital, there are several hundreds who read detective fiction. So, Brett seems to have thought, why not write a detective novel filled with political ideas and incidents? The result is his novel Comrades Come Rally.
It is a murder story set in a future – but not too far distant future – Britain, which is on the brink of revolution. The murder is set within the framework of one of the main revolutionary organisations, which has grown rapidly, but which traces its history back to the small, divided and often isolated far left of the later twentieth century.
Brett is well-placed to write such a novel. On the one hand he is a long-standing far left activist and he knows the milieu. (As one who comes out of the same milieu I can vouch for that.) And like most long-standing activists he has – not a love-hate but a love-cynicism – relationship with his own political tradition. (Indeed it is arguable that only a degree of cynicism enables one to survive as a far left activist.) But he is also an aficionado of detective fiction: see Murder, Mavericks and Marxism. He is fascinated by its conventions and in particular the use of the first-person narrator to provide an insightful and humorous commentary on events.
In his classic study of political fiction Politics and the Novel, Irving Howe wrote of the difficulty of inserting ““the hard and perhaps insoluble pellets of modern ideology” into a fictional narrative. It is not an easy task, and clearly Brett has wrestled with it. Both the characters and the plot can be understood only in terms of a complex set of political factors, and I suppose it is unlikely that, say, a supporter of UKIP would get deeply involved in this novel, unless they were looking for a means of understanding their enemy.
Indeed, Brett clearly seems to recognise that most of his readers will have left-wing sympathies of some sort. Sometimes there are some fairly obvious hints. Thus as soon as we arrive at the “Contents” page we find thirty chapter titles – each of which is taken from a book or article in the socialist or radical tradition. (If you’ve read all of them you should probably be on the central committee of something or other.) Yet you could miss this completely and still get caught up in the plot. The book will amuse and entertain, while at the same time forcing the reader to confront questions of political morality as well as of tactics and strategy.
Initially I wondered if this might be a roman à clef – a novel in which all or many of the characters are based on people in real life. Thus I speculated that Jackie Payne, the impressive leader of the United Revolutionary Socialist Party and chairperson of the National Workers’ Councils, might be based on Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition. But Jackie is black – she is clearly a composite figure, taking elements from a number of activists.
The main characters in the novel are all socialist activists, and can be understood only in terms of their activity in the revolutionary present and the far less revolutionary past. The frequent references to rather dreary sales of the Revolutionary Worker newspaper evoke a shared experience (and one which many of Brett’s readers will relate to). They are generally portrayed with affection, and Brett has no doubt about the motivation that has led them to make huge sacrifices in order to commit themselves to a project which may have seemed utopian and remote to most people – though the novel provides a kind of justification by showing that their political perspectives were not as unrealistic as they may have seemed.
But this is not Socialist Realism, and there is no attempt to idealise the characters or to show them as flawless heroes of the Revolution. On the contrary there are some quite scathing depictions of activists. Of one leading activist we are told that he was “a political bore. It seemed to be all he lived for.” Of another we are told that he “could not help but give another political lecture … giving full vent to his political Tourette’s.” The narrator rather uncharitably wonders if the National Workers’ Councils had “its own mental hospitals. If so, then I could think of a fair few comrades I would like to send there.”
The question of characterisation poses particular problems for a political detective novel. Traditionally the genre has been described as a “whodunit”, and in the classic examples of the genre (say Agatha Christie) “who done it” is very much more important than “why done it”. The author is playing a game with the reader, asking her to choose the villain from a list of suspects, and the more implausible the criminal, the more successful the deception. Afterwards we may be given a more or less credible story which explains why the murder was committed.
But in a political novel the question of motivation is central. Why would a committed socialist activist betray the ideals to which he or she has devoted a lifetime? We require not just a twist of the plot but a serious explanation of what could lead a revolutionary to the ultimate treachery. I can’t pursue this point further without giving away the ending, but it is a question that will have to be asked by Brett’s readers.
The second, very interesting, aspect of this novel to which I want to draw attention is its treatment of “dual power”. Dual power was a term used by Lenin to describe the situation in Russia between the February and October revolutions, which saw the coexistence of soviets (workers’ councils) and the state machine of the Provisional Government. Neither exercised complete authority, and there was constant friction between the two forms of power.
Brett has taken this concept, much discussed in meetings of revolutionary organisations, but in a rather abstract fashion, and translated it into a remarkable imagining of what dual power might look like in Britain, where the old police and army are still very much in existence, but are constantly confronted by a new authority based on a national network of workers’ councils.
With a striking use of imagination, Brett has recreated what dual power would look like on the streets of London, and how it would affect everyday life. The narrator attends a small demonstration in Farringdon Street. He notes the “tiny number of police present”, but also that there was “quite a serious workers’ council guard present. Clearly identifiable by their red armbands and submachine guns.” There is even dual currency, with workers’ council tokens in use alongside the old money. The situation is highly unstable. Jackie Payne explains the dynamic that has produced the present situation:
'They tried using armed force to suppress the movement two years ago, but that was a disaster. Every time the escalated the suppression, it escalated the struggle. Using water cannons and rubber bullets all merely inflamed the situation and made things worse for themselves. The riot police could not cope, so they called in the army. That, as we all well know, just pushed the doubters over to our side. Calling a state of emergency only poured petrol on the flames. Soldiers refused to fire on their brothers and sisters, and splits appeared.'
Thus the army is deeply divided, with a “vast majority who had made plain their unwillingness to get involved in civilian matters on the streets of Britain.”
So there are acts of violence, perhaps provocations, and on the workers’ side strike action – for example power workers cutting off electricity to upmarket areas. The revolutionary party is attempting to recruit members from within the police. (Not a wholly implausible scenario; in the post-1945 period the French Communist Party had substantial support among the CRS riot police.)
As we are reminded in the very final chapter, the Pinochet option remains. In 1973 the Chilean army crushed all working-class resistance for a generation, leaving thousands dead. Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup showed what a British version of a counterrevolution might look like. Brett has given us a “Very British Revolution”. It offers no promise of success, but suggests at least a possibility. If it helps its readers to see what Sartre called the “field of the possible” a little more clearly, it will have served its purpose.
Comrades Come Rally, by Phil Brett, is published by CreateSpace Independent Platform, price £11.99.