Russell Brand‘s call for revolution has drawn pompous commentators and reactionaries out of the woodwork.
Former punk and Country Life butter promoter John Lydon dismissed Brand as a “ratpile of laziness”. He claimed revolution would leave everyone homeless.
Brand particularly annoyed Labour cheerleaders who fear more voters deserting the “austerity-lite” party.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee denounced him as “vain and destructive, peddling unreal, hip alternatives”. She went on to admit the political system doesn’t deliver what people want. “Politics is never cool,” she wrote, “because voting means opting for a least worst, never the imagined ideal.”
Socialist Worker thinks it is absolutely right for people to demand more than the “least worst” out of life. We shouldn’t settle for a system that fails us.
Opting out of voting won’t change the world. But it’s understandable that so many don’t vote when the mainstream parties sound the same and voting doesn’t seem to change much.
The question is—is revolution possible? And if so, how do we get one?
People have different ideas about what revolution means. Russell Brand’s is quite vague. He raises ideas such as getting rid of private security guards and cancelling debt.
He says we must “respect the planet so we can use the resources to nourish the people” and that we need “systemic change”. But there’s no sense of how to achieve that in the face of powerful interests bent on upholding inequality.
Marxists want to see a socialist revolution. That means working class people collectively taking control of production and democratically planning how to use the wealth they create.
This is completely different to the democracy we know today. Revolutions see an explosion of political debate. Old hierarchies become irrelevant as everyone takes part in debates on how to run society.
During the recent uprising in Egypt, some hospital workers met in their workplaces to discuss how to reorganise things on their terms. All workers were involved, from doctors to porters, cleaners and admin workers.
At the moment it’s the ruling class—the people who own the workplaces and control the vast majority of the wealth—that makes those decisions.
Workers, who have to sell their ability to work in order to live, make up the biggest class. Bosses make profit by exploiting workers, paying them less than the value of what they produce.
Workers’ position in society gives them immense power. They can bring the system to a standstill if they refuse to work. And they have the economic power, the numbers and the expertise to reorganise society on their terms.
Some say workers can’t do this now because they have lost some of their power. But this is often based on the fact that the kind of jobs workers do has changed. Workers’ power comes from their ability to stop the flow of profits by stopping work—and this hasn’t changed.
Others say that, whatever the potential, workers don’t want to reorganise society. Many are quite happy as they are. And if they aren’t happy, they are apathetic.
But just because many people aren’t inspired by the two main parties, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in politics.
Look at the recent Scottish independence referendum. It mobilised masses of people who had never seen themselves as political, because they finally felt that they could make a difference.
Tens of thousands of people joined parties that backed a Yes vote in the wake of the referendum. Not bad for a society that we are told is “anti-politics” and down on political parties.
Politics is about a lot more than voting, too. Across Britain people are campaigning to defend services, save jobs, stop attacks on benefit claimants and combat racism.
The revolutionary Karl Marx explained how the dominant ideas in society are those of our rulers. Unsurprisingly the dominant view tells us that radical change isn’t possible—and that can seem to make sense.
Yet people’s ideas transform on a mass scale when they engage in mass struggle. In struggle workers discover their power. Dominant ideas based on racism or sexism can sit less easily as workers see they have a common interest against the bosses.
Under capitalism most people aren’t revolutionary. But revolutions don’t happen because most people decide they want one.
They unfold as struggles lead to clashes with those at the top and start to challenge the system.
Struggle and revolution are built into the system. Bosses have to try to squeeze ever more out of workers to compete successfully and make more profit. Yet their attacks on wages, working hours, sick pay and so on encourage resistance.
Revolutions develop at times of serious social crisis, but they can spring from battles over specific issues.
In Russia in 1917 a revolution began after women protested for bread and peace. They demanded that workers and soldiers join their demonstrations and Russia’s ruler, the Tsar, was overthrown within days.
A few months later, in October, workers led by the Bolshevik Party seized state power.
People who oppose radical change argue that revolution could never happen these days. Yet the world has been rocked by revolution in recent years. In Egypt a popular revolution got rid of hated dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Along with a revolt in Tunisia it sparked uprisings that spread across the region including in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya.
But revolutions aren’t simply “spontaneous” events. They are processes that can go on for years as different forces with different agendas intervene in them. The balance of those forces shapes how revolutions unfold.
In Egypt many people wanted more than just the end of Mubarak. They fought to change society for the better in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. But counter-revolutionary forces fought to limit the revolution and attack those organising to push it forward. At the moment, they have the upper hand.
Revolutions don’t automatically win a radically different kind of society. Although workers make a revolution, a well-organised and rooted revolutionary party is critical to making sure it succeeds.
In Russia the Bolshevik party organised to make the revolution a success. They argued against workers taking state power in an insurrection in July 1917.
The Bolsheviks knew that the revolutionary forces weren’t well organised enough in enough places, and that counter-revolutionaries would have a good chance of defeating them.
They had built up influence among workers over years of struggle. They used that influence to win people to the idea of delaying the insurrection and prepared for a successful one in October.
People who want to change the world find many forces stacked against them. Ruling classes have powerful states to back them.
Russian revolutionary Lenin called the state “an organ for the oppression of one class by another”. It uses “special bodies of armed men” to maintain class rule. Those at the top won’t hesitate to use the judiciary, the cops and the army to protect their privilege.
But for all that, the state can be beaten—as long as workers are prepared to fight it and have a majority on the side of the revolution.
The numbers that the working class can mobilise are far, far greater than all the cops and soldiers that the state can throw at it. And in revolutionary situations workers can win over ordinary soldiers to their side.
Middle class commentators sneer at the idea of revolution. They say revolutions “fail”—yet their reformism has failed working class people for over a century.
More and more people want a better world and know mainstream politics can’t deliver it.
Capitalism generates racism, sexism and homophobia as those at the top try to keep workers divided. It generates climate change as bosses put the drive for short term profit above the planet. It generates wars as capitalists and the states that back them fight for control of resources and global influence.
Russell Brand hasn’t put forward a solution to the crisis of capitalism. But he is right to ask, “Under what circumstances is continuing to live like this the best option?”
The need for revolution is becoming more urgent by the day.
- Arguments for revolution: the case for the Socialist Workers Party by Joseph Choonara and Charlie Kimber, £3
- The point is to change it by John Molyneux, £7
- Revolution in the 21st Century by Chris Harman, £4
- The Revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos, £8
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk