SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 187 April 2015

Brandís new revolution


By Russell Brand

Published by Century Books, 2014, £20

Reviewed by Helen Pattison

When Russell Brand admitted he had never voted it made headlines. He was attacked by many in the media for setting a bad example to young people. For Brand and nearly 15 million other people who did not vote in the 2010 general election, itís normal. The feeling that the main parties only represent the rich and their mates and there isnít a party for working-class people has been proven time and time again.

While trying to explain why voting every five years is not very democratic, and his disillusionment with the parties of austerity, Brand also said that we need a revolution. Exactly how this would happen, he didnít know, so since that interview Brand set to work and wrote Revolution to try and answer how we can change the world.

The media and politicians were shocked by Brandís comments; they sparked a backlash from the top. But they also resonated with many, especially young people, who have heard some of the statistics in his new book already. For instance, that 85 people have as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the worldís population. They also agreed that it was not out of apathy that young people didnít engage with Westminster politics but that the main parties were painfully similar and nothing seemed to change.

Thatís why I started watching The Trews, Brandís YouTube series of Ďtrue newsí. Most of the videos make the link between dubious headlines and the vested interests of media bosses, such as the Sunís pro-fracking stance and corporate links to shale gas production. The videos are interesting, short, funny and political. They are so much more relevant than daily politics and other news outlets, covering topics that affect peopleís lives, such as the fire-fightersí dispute and cuts to services, and the tax on water in Ireland.

Brandís videos are so good Ė offering demands and interviewing working-class leaders who donít get much time on mainstream media Ė that many people wanted to read his latest book, too. In a time of austerity, when there is huge anger at the rich getting richer, a book that describes itself as "the beginning of a conversation that will change the world" is popular.

Sadly, itís not quite the manifesto for revolution readers may have expected. Itís quite difficult to read and the comedy makes the politics confusing. Brand also has his own political weaknesses, which he recognises, and so spends a lot of time interviewing people he thinks have more authority than him, such as activists from Occupy, Julian Assange and Thomas Picketty. Their ideas are put forward as possibilities and answers even though they do not necessarily fit together and can be vague.

The reaction to Brandís book by media and big business was just as he predicted. His work has been slated and scoured with a fine comb in an attempt to discredit his ideas. Pickettyís book, Capital Ė which shows a long-term trend within capitalism to increased inequality Ė caused a similar backlash by financial and economic publications. Brand accepts that Picketty puts forwards only modest economic reform. Yet, the idea of an alternative or even minor reform can be dangerous in the eyes of the rich when the system is failing so many. The anti-water charges movement in Ireland shows how willing people are to move against austerity, especially when offered leadership. So the Sun newspaper has been drafted in to lead a campaign to discredit Brand and make it front-page news.

For real answers about why we need a revolution, Brandís book is only a starting point. He begins to answer some questions but not clearly or in detail. The flaws of capitalism are exposed rather than guiding the reader to action. For a clear manifesto, Brand probably isnít the best author. His wealth and celebrity are weaknesses. Class impacts your outlook, and Brand is not confident to offer the answers. He just wants to be a promoter of working-class causes. This means that he shies away from concrete suggestions.

It is unfair to label him a hypocrite, as the media has, when he accepts that at some point he will have to, and is willing to, share his wealth. Still heís correct that to give away his wealth, especially to a corrupt government, is just a gesture: what we really need is systematic change. The media people shouting Ďhypocriteí are far worse, such as Jeremy Clarkson who is worth millions.

While the publicity for revolutionary ideas is valuable, many would prefer that a working-class leader got the coverage Brand is currently receiving. As a promoter of left-wing politics his wealth is less important, but as an elected official many would expect him to take an average workerís wage. Socialists promote the idea of taking an average skilled workerís wage so leaders live in working-class communities and maintain the link with the people they represent.

During his appearance on BBCís Question Time, part of Brandís argument against standing for parliament was because of the corruptive impact of power and wealth, especially within Westminster. Thatís why leaders should be subject to the right of recall and there should be no economic incentive to being an elected representative. Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative councillor in Seattle, has only accepted an average wage and donates the rest to fund struggles for social justice. Socialist Party members who are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) this May are using the slogan of Ďa workersí MP on a workerís wageí, which is gaining support after years of expenses scandals and MPsí incomes from second jobs.

There is a perception among a new layer being politicised by austerity, that political parties and the trade unions are no longer relevant or effective ways of organising. It is not clear if Brand agrees, but his book is an attempt to refashion the movement as more exciting. He talks about theories and ideas that arenít his or new, but does not use their traditional names. Instead of nationalisation he talks about society collectively owning industry and a stateless society, but doesnít call it socialist.

If people have turned their backs on politics it is not because itís stern and joyless, as Brand calls it, itís due to defeats of class struggle around the world. In Britain, the Labour Party, which once had a working-class base, has been totally reinvented as New Labour, which shares a Ďfree-marketí approach and austerity policies with other capitalist parties. At their height, trade unions were blasted by governments with restrictions on strikes and organising which the Labour Party has never lifted. This has made it more difficult to fight back against attacks on living conditions. Working-class people have proved time and again that they can organise and campaign to defend their interests but, with very few exceptions, trade union and labour leaders have proved to be a barrier to struggle. Thatís why we need a viable alternative.

Brandís Revolution is missing a clear programme, although there are points where he puts forward what is possible. Discussing dismantling corporations and nationalising industry, for example, he also says how they could then be organised. Through elected workplace representatives Brand begins explaining the need for a planned economy. This is the book at its best: a clear explanation of capitalism now and a solution around working-class control.

There is a colourful history of revolt against this system from which we can take lessons, Brand agrees. But he does not draw these out from either Russia 1917 or the Spanish revolution, which he spends more time on. Quoting George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia gives interesting descriptions of peopleís lives during the Spanish revolution but the lessons are in the strategy, actions and demands of a struggle. Brand also blames the failure of a revolution against capitalism at that time on fascism. He ignores the fact that the turn towards socialist and revolutionary ideas came from a confidence in the fight against fascism, on one hand, and an unwillingness to then return to the appalling living conditions the working class and peasantry encountered, on the other. Similarly, Brandís understanding of anarchism is mistaken. He calls the anarchists Ďsalt-of-the-earth community organisersí, ignoring that anarchist leaders took part in the popular front government, which included capitalist ministers and put the brakes on the revolutionary movement.

The lessons from the Spanish revolution are vast, exposing the failure of popular frontism to defeat the far-right and its role in holding back revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Brand ignores this and quickly goes on to dismiss the lessons of the Russian revolution because it degenerated into Stalinism. Yet the Russian revolution has lessons both in its success and its defeat.

Nonetheless, Brandís book is relevant. It is a humorous starting point for thinking about capitalismís problems and how an alternative can be built. It tells readers about events where working-class people played an important role and starts to explain what a revolution is.

The media has focused on Brand calling voting a waste of time. What he means isnít actually that simple. The point is to stop voting for parties that do not represent us and, given the lack of a working-class alternative in the main, that means donít vote. But, if there is no alternative, socialists think we have to try to build one. The ruling class is not going to build us a party of our own.

The electoral system is as corrupt as Brand describes: big business and the rich have the ability to fund campaigns, individual working-class people canít. However, Socialist Alternative raised over $100,000 to pay for Kshama Sawantís election in Seattle, without taking a cent from big business. The working class cannot match the rich but we can have electoral victories funded by the trade union movement and individuals.

For socialists, standing in elections can be an important part of our campaigning activities, which Brand doesnít seem to understand. Election campaigns can provide a platform for publicising socialist ideas and mobilising wide numbers of people. If elected, socialist representatives (as in the Irish parliament, for instance) can have a powerful effect in opposing anti-working class measures and winning improvements on certain issues. That is why the Socialist Party participates in TUSC, which is standing candidates in this Mayís parliamentary and council elections.

The electoral system, like many parts of society, is stacked against ordinary people. Still, many working-class people are looking to May already as an opportunity to get rid of the Tories Ė although voting for the Ďred Toriesí (Labour) isnít stirring much enthusiasm. Labourís campaign is parliamentary tunnel vision at its worse, trying to drum up votes through fear of anther Tory government.

TUSC is laying down a marker that there is an alternative to austerity. Greece and Spain are leading the way with Syriza and Podemos but similar movements will develop here, too. Brand is mistaken in arguing against engaging in elections on the grounds that participation strengthens the system. Non-participation would leave the electoral field open to pro-capitalist and right-wing parties. By standing, socialists can answer the right and give confidence to wider layers to fight back.

Calling his bluff, sections of the right-wing press are calling on Brand to stand for London mayor, or against Boris Johnson in the parliamentary elections. It would make a big statement and might give publicity to others standing on an anti-austerity platform. Even so, itís not very likely that he will stand.

A few months ago, Brand uploaded a photo of what he was reading. It included The History of the Russian Revolution, by Leon Trotsky. Brand can obviously see there are lots of places where you can learn about the movements that have come before and how to fight for a better society. His book is probably the funniest book about revolution, but not the most instructive.

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