Comedian Russell Brand’s recent Newsnight interview has prompted discussion about revolution and social change. What is a revolution, and is it possible for us today?

Viewers of a recent edition of BBC’s Newsnight programme could have been forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the spectacle of comedian Russell Brand lacerating Jeremy Paxman on the sterility of mainstream politics and the necessity of global revolution. Brand’s political diagnosis may have been scattershot in character but he was on the money in his recognition of the supreme challenge of our time:

‘Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?’

Brand’s rhetorical tour de force took the internet by the storm and provoked an assortment of right-wing commentators to denounce him for even daring to suggest the global status quo might be fundamentally broken. Nick Cohen in the Observer suggested Brand should be compared to Mussolini or Marine Le Pen for his wild performance.

Shock waves

For all his idiosyncrasies, Brand was to some extent highlighting the impact of the revolutionary wave since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010. The shock waves of that process have rippled around the globe over the succeeding years and put a challenge to the neoliberal order on the agenda. Ruling classes in Greece, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere have been shaken as the wave has struck them.

The arrogance of the global elite has been battered by what the Hungarian revolutionary, Georg Lukacs, in the 1920s called ‘the actuality of revolution‘:

‘This means that the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda, discovered by an accurate analysis of the socio-historic whole. The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as moments in the liberation of the proletariat.’

Lukacs is underlining here that the dynamics of capitalist development have laid the material foundations of an alternative social and economic order. The transition to socialism is therefore now an authentic possibility. Any challenge to the system –big or small-in any part of the world is potentially part of wider, revolutionary process.

The distinctive appeal of marxism, in other words, is not just its moral vision – of transformed human interactions – but also its scientific understanding that the laws of motion of capitalism make such a revolution feasible. Lukacs himself was immersed in a previous revolutionary wave that shook capitalism. The challenge for the left today is to seek to understand the current global convulsions and direct them towards the ultimate goal of socialist revolution.

A new revolutionary wave

The fact that Lukacs was writing almost a century ago and yet we still strive to complete ‘the actuality of revolution’ is a stark reminder that although anti-capitalism has exploded as a global movement, this has not automatically translated into explicitly socialist politics on a mass scale. Revolutionaries in the 21st century have to make a case that the two phenomena have to coalesce in order to prevent this revolutionary wave sharing the fate of Lukacs’ generation.

The post-2011 wave may prove to be comparable in impact to the great chain reactions of 1848, 1917 and 1968. But the potential of the present is actually vaster as the transformation of the global economy now makes the spread of international revolution faster and bigger.

The current revolutionary wave can be traced back to the glowing embers of the demonstrations and protests that erupted at the Seattle conference of the WTO in 1999.The diverse movement created amid that event catapulted the concept of ‘anti-capitalism’ into political discourse. The global protests against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq four years later conjoined this critique of the neoliberal consensus with a militant resistance to the imperial hubris of the capitalist powers.

The dynamic of protest was transformed again in 2008 when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a new era of crisis. A theoretical asset of marxism is its understanding that this crisis was not simply provoked by the actions of a handful of greedy bankers but was the outcome of structural developments within capitalism, tending towards over reliance on financialisation and debt management. The contemporary crisis of the system makes its replacement not just desirable, Lukacs would argue, but necessary as well.

Revolution is a living reality


The catastrophic impact of the crash provoked many governments to subject their already hard-pressed populations to even greater austerity. This was the spark that lit the Arab revolutions that shook North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. The successful toppling of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and the rigorous challenges to others in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen put the actuality of revolution back in the heart of global politics.

The spectacle of millions of people filling up city centres in the region in heroic defiance inspired tremors of resistance to vibrate outwards, intersecting with, among others, the Occupy movement in the US, Idle No More in Canada and the anti-austerity campaigns in Europe.

The period following these revolutionary breakthroughs, however, has been a stark reminder that although these uprisings can be partially effective at forcing democratic concessions out of their respective elites, authentic transformation will only come by confronting the economic core of a capitalist state. The military decapitation of the Morsi government in Egypt this summer underlines that only socialist revolution can provide the full and lasting implementation of democratic freedoms.

Such an outcome in the region may still appear remote but the social platform for it is real in the form of the gigantic working classes that have been brought into existence. The revolutionary impulse has been sustained in Egypt by militant textile workers in factories such as Mahala al-Kobra and Kafr al-Dawar employing thousands. The political weight of the country’s 25 million workers is a crucial agent of Egypt’s explosive sequence of rebellion since 2011.

Rosa Luxemburg’s observation on the irreplaceable power of mass proletarian action is even more valid in our time than in her own:

‘Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.’

For the first time in human history, most of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and by the middle of this century that figure will have risen to 70%.

Needless to say, this demographic revolution does not represent an upward curve in terms of standards of living and quality of life for the majority-in fact, the reverse. One recent analysis of global economic polarisation has concluded:

‘Take the whole income of the world and divide it into two halves: the richest 8% will take one-half and the other 92% of the population will take another half. So, it is a 92-8 world.’

Twenty-first century capitalism does not have the means or the inclination to rectify this ticking time-bomb. The size and militancy of the global proletariat, however, now provides both.

From reforms to revolution

A notable feature of the current wave of revolt around the world is that it is often sparked by quite modest demands. In Tunisia, a single stall-holder unable to find space to sell his groceries; in Brazil, a planned hike in bus fares; in Istanbul, a scheme to replace an urban park with a shopping mall.

The combination of neoliberal austerity and social polarisation has created a global powder-keg that can be lit by the smallest fuse. This entails that in the current era the battle for reforms within capitalism cannot be separated from the ultimate pursuit of socialist revolution. The left must throw itself into every struggle against the system, as each one contains the seeds of a greater conflagration.

Revolutionaries have to engage in joint campaigns with other currents, while simultaneously highlighting their limitations as vehicles for transformative change. Only the conscious organisation of a layer of advanced workers within capitalism will be enough to crack open the centres of state power. This does not mean that in the current period revolutionaries stand aside from the modes of resistance that are emerging. The united front model of activity as developed by the left within Stop the War and the People’s Assembly in the UK has provided a fertile forum for debate and campaigning.

The political earthquakes that have previously shaken capitalist states throughout will undoubtedly recur in the near future. The creative experiments with organisation that are galvanising many parts of the left, combined with the burgeoning combativity of the global working class provides the possibility of fulfilling Marx’s enduring vision of socialist revolution:

‘When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.’

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

Tagged under: