Following Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview urging for revolution, LS explores what revolution really means for students.
Last week, in a fascinating Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, comedian- cum-revolutionary Russell Brand made significant waves when he animatedly presented his Socialist vision to the UK. The 10 minute interview has since become a Youtube hit – well worth a watch, if only for Paxman’s curious new beard – with some social commentators jumping onto the “Brand- wagon,” urging the Essex born comic to spearhead socio-political upheaval, which Brand declares is “totally going to happen.”
The revolutionary rant followed Brand’s guest edit of left wing magazine The New Statesman, for which Brand wrote a passionate 4,500-word essay on revolution – the week’s theme. In it, he condemns politicians as “frauds and liars” and plays various other popular anti-establishment cards that appeal to the growing number of political cynics. Brand’s wit and eloquence are persuasive – Paxman underestimates his interviewee, labelling him “trivial” – yet to some, his latest saga is as unfounded and inappropriate as “Sachsgate.”
Is Russell Brand, owner of a $15m fortune, in any position to encourage the redistribution of wealth? Is he the right figurehead for Socialists? Is a revolution imminent? Brand’s colourful personality and bold views are often mocked, but they’ve highlighted a shared disillusionment, particularly among the young student population.
As the debate rages on internet forums and political websites, LS spoke to two of the interested parties on campus to gauge views of Leeds’ students. “What he’s saying is good,” says Paris Thompson of the Leeds University Union Revolutionary Socialist society (RevSoc), a group that has praised Brand as an honorary member, “[but] don’t create false leaders. We don’t need a hero or a messiah.” Given the name of Brand’s recent comedy tour, ‘The Messiah Complex’, and the emphasis he placed on having “a f***ing laugh” in his New Statesman article, critics question the legitimacy of his cause, arguing that the furore over the Newsnight interview serves only to supplement Brand’s burgeoning ego.
Indeed, left wing critics have expressed concern over Brand’s image and its potential exploitation by the right to discredit the Socialist movement. Thompson admits it is “natural” that Brand should become a Socialist figurehead, but the RevSoc member adds that “people on both sides will want to [use Brand politically]” warning the right will “pick on the weak elements,” to tar the Socialist agenda.
And there are weak elements. Brand’s abstract visions of an egalitarian future landed him in the deep end with Paxman, who pushed the comic for his alternative agenda, prompting the comedian’s droll response “Jeremy, don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you, in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.” Brand’s interview fluctuates in this way between fluently delivered ideas and, following Paxman’s probing questions, jocular evasions.
In failing to elaborate on some of the more realistic issues linked to his foreseen revolution, Brand loses some validity – Leeds Labour Students society vice chair, Luke Downham, reminds voters to “see Brand as a comedian and not a political scientist.” Yet, both the Labour society and RevSoc observe that Brand has at least voiced concerns that are being shouted at television screens across the UK and for that he perhaps deserves some credit.
Brand is just “a working class bloke who’s now used his position to say what everybody thinks,” according to Thompson, while the Labour spokesman agreed that there is “a lot of disenchantment in society – a strong sense that things need to change”, but urged students to “use [their] vote to reverse those issues.” Here we hit on one of the key points of discussion taken from the interview: whether the disillusioned in the UK should follow Brand’s advice not to vote, as he sees no alternative on the left.
Brand’s thesis is that while there is no “more qualified” alternative party people should not vote. “If you look at the policies of Labour, I think it’s clear they’re not an opposition in any way… it’s not an alternative,” says Thompson. Downham acknowledged: “it’s for the Labour party to provide the alternative,” going on to add, however, that “although you could say the Labour party has drifted to the centre, they are not indistinguishable from the Conservatives.”
Meanwhile, as Brand’s popularity continues to soar – and the “Russell’s Revolution” Facebook page gathers over 20,000 new members daily – is it possible that his statements could genuinely affect the polls, with less of the population taking to the polling booths? Downham suggests not: “a lot of people he’s referring to don’t vote anyway”, he asserts. “If you’re disenfranchised, your power to vote is the most important right you have to reverse some of the unjust circumstances that you face.”
Likewise, RevSoc’s Thompson was careful not to advocate a boycott of the next parliamentary elections, stating “anti-politics as a principle is wrong.” Thompson goes on to claim that “if there was a Socialist standing, I would vote for that person. I’m not against voting on principle.” This presumably suggests that as long as there is no alternative for this faction of the electorate, they are unlikely to cast a vote, begging the question how the “underclass,” the “disillusioned,” can create change. Russell Brand’s answer is his more attractive, undefined alternative: revolution.
With examples of revolution and social change worldwide, Thompson assures that “revolution is on the agenda in the international perspective.” From the Middle East to the London Riots, the public has become familiar with the concept of the power of the people or the famous “99 per cent to one per cent” wealth divide exposed by the Occupy movement. But rarely in the public sphere does a celebrity openly and vehemently declare a coming revolution. Russell Brand has opened a can of worms that we’re not used to seeing so close to home.
His bold assertions can be difficult to take seriously, especially given his notoriety for “stirring up trouble,” as Downham puts it, reminding the public to “take what he says with a pinch of salt.” Similarly RevSoc, concerned with a national revolution, treats Brand’s incendiary comments as “hyperbole,” pointing out that the proclamation “in itself won’t spark anything,” instead simply spreading the idea of an alternative. “Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz,” writes Brand, having injected arguably more than his fair share already.
If we were to take Brand’s remarks seriously, as a minority no doubt will, his calls for a revolution could be seen as potentially dangerous. There is the bigger picture to consider. Some fear that the dormant rioting and anarchy that we saw in 2011 could rise again, this time using Brand’s calls for “change” as an excuse for violence and looting. The scenes in Egypt and Syria depict graphically that when a revolution goes wrong, it can hurt for generations to come. Brand’s comments could easily be construed as ill considered sensationalism.
Typically, Labour adopts a strong stance on revolutionary calls: “the Labour party do not advocate a revolution under any circumstance,” claims Downham, “we would never say revolution is the answer.” In contrast, while the RevSoc support the idea of revolution, Thompson reminds voters that “revolutions are exciting; unfortunately there are mundane things to do before that.” He instead suggests, “If you agree with what Russell Brand is saying, get involved… come and talk to us.”
One of the more mundane things that Thompson refers to is the scheduled staff strike, taking place on October 31. The Revolutionary Socialist Society will be present in support of the strike, forming picket lines and delivering information to students. While Labour have not formed plans as of yet, Downham supports the staff strikes, declaring that “the principle of going on strike to help lowest paid workers at the University is correct.”
The strike was planned before Brand’s video went viral, but it is another small marker in the left’s struggle for power. We can’t predict how far Brand’s comments may resonate, but the movement has undoubtedly been given a shot in the arm. The ever intriguing Russell Brand has set the stage for informal national debate and, possibly more importantly for him, has become one of the most talked about celebrities of the week. Perhaps, then, his work here is done.