Most readers have probably seen the Youtube clip of Russell Brand taking on Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. With over 10 million hits it has both resonated with the feelings of many people and sparked further debate.
It was refreshing to see someone not only challenging the mainstream consensus that there is “no alternative” to cuts and austerity but actually talking about the need for revolution on mainstream TV.
Why has it proved so popular? I think it’s because Brand reflects a desire, shared by millions of people across the globe, for a better world. He articulates the anger felt at the vast and growing inequality in society, environmental destruction, corporate power and out of touch politicians ignoring the needs of the majority of people. He is clear that “profit is a filthy word”.
Brand’s message not to vote has been controversial. I am sure many relate to his argument that voting is pointless because it changes little. There is much frustration that at a time of such a profound and protracted economic crisis, and in the face of a mammoth onslaught from the Tories, the alternative from Ed Miliband and the Labour Party in no way matches up to the task.
Yet millions will vote Labour with the feeling that it is at least a bit better than the Eton educated millionaires of the Tory party.
However, it is important to point out that Brand does not say people should never vote. He is clear that he would vote for a genuine alternative if one existed, but until then he argues “don’t bother, why pretend?”
He is making the point that the problem is the whole system, and won’t be changed just by electing different people who are still committed to maintaining that system. His point that people don’t refuse to vote out of apathy, but out of “indifference, awareness, and exhaustion of the lies, treachery and deceit of politicians” is a good one. As he says, it is they, the politicians, who “are apathetic to our needs”.
His message does not just end with “Don’t vote”. He makes it clear that he is interested in exploring alternatives. When pressed by Paxman to describe what his alternative would be like, Brand’s response is to say it would be a “socialist, egalitarian system based on massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and environmental responsibility for energy companies and those exploiting the environment”.
This is not a bad place to start. But he also makes the point that he isn’t just going to come up with a fully worked out alternative to capitalism sat in a hotel room talking to Paxman.
He is right. A different society will not be created by one man giving an interview or even a few socialists agreeing the features of a new socialist world. It will be made and shaped by millions of people involved in the process of struggle and revolution.
Marxists have a lot to say about revolution and it’s welcome that Brand has opened up a discussion about it. Most people have probably had at least one conversation provoked by Brand’s call for revolution.
And this is where I think we have to start with what Brand says but then go further. He not only articulates what may be loosely termed anti-capitalist ideas but is himself shaped and influenced by those new movements and the new radicalism that has grown with them since the birth of the anti-capitalist movement back in Seattle in 1999.
Indeed he references the recent “Occupy” movement. The last decade has seen mass protests in many countries. These have put challenges to the whole system on the agenda and shown the beginnings of alternatives.
Many of these reject all political parties and at times the need for any organisation. But while there may have been mass movements on the streets we have not seen decisive class battles where the organised working class have not only been centre stage but shown their ability to take on the state.
Brand talks about class, drawing on his own background and experience, and in his interview with Paxman he powerfully articulates class anger. But he doesn’t identify the working class as the agent of change, that they can be the “gravediggers” of capitalism when they take action collectively.
By identifying a problem with profit he starts in the right place. It’s not too great a step to then argue that those very profits are made by workers, which in turn gives them tremendous potential power to reshape society.
Karl Marx argued that revolution was necessary for two reasons. Firstly, there is no other way to achieve change without getting rid of the whole system. But he also argued that revolution was vital in order to “get rid of the muck of ages”. By this he meant that the process of revolution will transform us, people who are shaped by capitalism including some of its most vicious and nasty ideas like racism, sexism and homophobia, and make us fit to run society. His unique insight was identifying the working class as the key force for change.
It is unclear what conclusions Brand will eventually draw and socialists definitely won’t agree with everything he says. But anything that opens up that discussion and makes revolution part of mainstream debate, with the added bonus of leaving Paxman almost speechless by the end of the interview, has to be a good thing.
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