Both terms, ‘alternative’ and ‘radical’ are imprecise and no less so when coupled with the word ‘history’. It is necessarily so. While Shelley once referred to us proles as ‘ye are many, they are few’ and more recently we have been characterised as the 99%, we are anything but a united bunch. It doesn’t matter whether you are looking at the local, regional, national or international level, ‘the people’ are a heterogeneous crowd.
Even when, as some try, we are lumped under some all-encompassing term such as ‘the proletariat’ or ‘the working class’, such identities rarely determine exactly how we behave in everyday life activities. There are numerous deeper distinctions of gender, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic group, sexual orientation, trade, status, belief system, each of which provides other rationales, but none of us necessarily entirely fits under these identities either. Coupled with that, many of us have a perverse tendency to develop ideas, beliefs and activities that run counter to our own best interests. This tendency to annoy sociologists, psychologists and those of political persuasions that want us to adopt their idea of who we are, is what makes us interesting and diverse as human beings.
Nevertheless, this also has its dangers in a world where the dominant ideas and means of their distribution remain in the hands of an extremely well organised interest group that I will classify as ‘the ruling class’. I prefer that term to the one used by Marx, ‘the bourgeoisie’, because it refers more closely to what they actually do than who they are. In the face of their dominance of education and culture in every corner of our lives, it makes it very hard for us to build the links between our different fragments, even to understand how we internally have to cope with this fragmentation.
Both terms, ‘alternative’ and ‘radical’, are intentionally oppositional in quality. We are this way because we disagree with the way society is presently constituted and wish, in a variety of ways, to change it. We are looking for a degree of change that is fundamental – we are not seeking to tinker round the edges. Consequently we find ourselves, happily, on the fringes of mainstream society, politics and culture. We can also appreciate and reach out to others in the same position, even if for different reasons and even if we have to work hard to build a relationship.
It is worth making a distinction from what is sometimes called the ‘radical Right’. Whether in their authoritarian form (such as fascism and moral or religious extremism) or in their libertarian form (the Tea Party movement, free market extremists such as Ayn Rand), these so-called radicals do not seek to fundamentally change society, they seek to take one aspect of capitalist society or culture and impose it on the rest of us in its most extreme form.
Even within what might be described as ‘the left’, however, our characteristic is one of pluralism and has nothing in common with any tendencies that might seek to impose some one-dimensional ideological framework. We are not in that mainstream either. We acknowledge and celebrate our diversity and we reach across these distinctions towards that common humanity out of which the diversity naturally emerges. That starts at the local level, where we meet each other face to face, and from which we can in time build wider networks of commonality, socially, politically, culturally and as students of the past.