While it can’t exactly be said that Russell Brand, in his latest incarnation as robe-wearing Youtube Guru, exudes anything approaching glamour, the idea to which he is presently in thrall – revolution – has long been attractive to young people: a tendency of thought picked up and brushed off as quickly as a penchant for cheap wine and lurid hair. The possibility of remaking the world in one’s own image is as deeply intoxicating as the former, and a sort of magnet for the creative impulse of youth which manifests itself in the latter. Though many may not, in their flirtation with seditious sentiment, go beyond the clichéd Che poster, others may read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, perhaps even Connolly. Very few, however, will remain dedicated to ‘the cause’ for long. They’ll become socialists, quite likely, but of the tinkering, reformist breed. They will, perhaps inevitably, assimilate into a society they once desired to transform, quietly and unthinkingly perpetuating its iniquities. The mature mind, we are often told, is quite plainly aware that revolutionary ideals are fundamentally utopian, and therefore puerile. Yet not one ounce of the glamour that emanates from the abstract normativities of revolutionary ideology taints the long-term desirability of an event which can truly be called emancipatory.
Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in The Spirit Level that the sort of intra-societal inequality these movements have historically sought to abolish literally kills, yet it is no surprise to learn that the recommendations included in the book for combating this (and therefore vastly improving public health) are paid little more than lip-service by those at the top of society, as it would require not only a substantial redistribution of wealth, but also structural changes that dilute hierarchy. Indeed, having been advised of the very real damage wrought by inequalities, be they social, economic, or otherwise, those with the power to act have done quite the opposite, and presided over a massive growth in these disparities – many convinced of their being natural, healthy even; conducive to a beneficially competitive spirit. There is a reason we have all heard of the 1%: in the face of such intransigence, anger and disgust are only to be expected.
Those who are disgusted, among them pseudo-revolutionaries like Brand, serve a purpose in that they challenge the dominant narrative, posing awkward but essential questions to a populace largely subdued by its inability to imagine anything other than the status quo. But their inability to provide a coherent alternative, or indeed to demonstrate any sort of capacity for leadership, creates a potentially dangerous situation in which people’s apathy has been dispensed with, but an undercurrent of self-defeating impotence remains. This, in countries such as ours without a strong left voice, expresses itself in the rise of support for ambitious, nominally anti-establishment parties of the right, like UKIP, who are more than willing to lead.
What many who claim allegiance to revolutionary ideas forget is that it is not enough simply to talk about it, and nor is it possible to “bring about”, as if one were presenting a petition. Revolutions in their spontaneous mode are typically the result of some crisis: war, financial crashes, etc. In short, nothing will be easy, and things may even get worse. History is littered with examples of revolutions either hijacked by the forces of reaction, or culminating in long periods of internecine violence.
To be a revolutionary then, is to be two opposing things at once: a realist, and an idealist. The sooner the present proponents of the idea realise this, the better, because to sow the seeds of revolution without either the plough to craft the furrows, or the sickle to reap the harvest, is to play with fire in kerosene-soaked gloves.