Comedian, Hollywood star and former host of MTV and Big Brother's Big Mouth Russell Brand took on veteran BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman in a Newsnight interview subsequently viewed millions of times on YouTube.
The journalist, veteran of many bruising encounters with politicians of all stripes, decisively lost.
Brand was interviewed because he had just guest-edited a special edition of left-leaning magazine The New Statesman on the theme of revolution.
As well as a 4500-word essay by Brand arguing that the status quo totally fails ordinary people and only revolutionary change could save humanity from destruction, the edition includes contributions from radical writers Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, as well as a range of actors and singers.
That Paxman lost the debate is far less to do with any genius on the part of Brand — who is a heady mix of unrepentant sexist, self-obsessed celebrity and genuine anti-capitalist — than the fact Brand simply pointed to the elephant in the room, a working class in Britain chafing under savage austerity and utterly disillusioned in mainstream politics.
Pain and anger
There is very real economic pain felt by ordinary people across Britain (and the world), and deep-seated disillusionment and anger towards a corrupt political system that allows rich bankers to destroy the global economy then makes the ordinary people pay.
Five years on from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, no one responsible has been punished. But if a poor person so much as steals a television, as many did in the 2011 London riots, the full weight of state repression comes crashing down.
Those who destroyed the financial system have only become richer — often, just to rub it in, thanks to taxpayers’ money thrown at them by governments.
The most telling point Brand made was when he told Paxman: “I remember I seen you in that program where you look at your ancestors, and you saw the way your grandmother … got fucked over by the aristocrats … You cried because you knew that it was unfair and unjust.
“And that was what? A century ago? That’s happening to people now.”
Paxman clearly thought that the fact it was a rich celebrity like Brand pointing this all out meant he had an easy target. But Paxman's smug tone and personal attacks on Brand backfired.
The reason for this is that it does not matter who is slamming, as Brand did, the “lies, treachery, deceit of the political class " and pointing to “a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system”. The point is it is true.
Behind Paxman's aggressive sneering at Brand was hostility to the working class, camouflaged by the fact it was nominally directed at a celebrity.
When Paxman sneered “you can't even be arsed to vote”, he did so in a context where Brand was explicitly pointing out that millions of ordinary people in Britain did not vote because they were so disillusioned with official politics, and the fact that politicians of all big parties serve the rich rather than them.
Paxman's heavy-handed insinuation that if Brand doesn't vote, he should shut up about politics, is essentially saying “shut up” to a large chunk of the working class who see no point in marking a ballot paper every five years for politicians that only ever kick them in the teeth.
The electoral system in Britain (as it is in Australia) is very undemocratic. It is first-past-the-post with no preferential system, meaning if you don't vote for a candidate likely to win, your vote is more or less wasted.
And those who are most likely to win overwhelmingly come from the established mainstream parties who are well-financed and dominate coverage by the corporate media.
In the 2010 general elections, in protest at the pro-rich and pro-war Labour Party, but unwilling to support the even more pro-rich Tories, millions of British people turned to the party presented to them as the most realistic alternative — the Liberal Democrats, giving them a record vote.
The Lib-Dems then proceeded to form a coalition with the Tories that is overseeing billions of pounds of spending cuts, dismantling what is left of the welfare state, and punishing the poor with cruel measures such as the “bedroom tax” — in part to earn back money given to private banks that caused the crisis to begin with.
No wonder so many feel disillusioned with a political system so undemocratic, the House of Lords (Britain's upper house) is not even elected.
Australia is marginally better, but it is only a matter of degrees. Clive Palmer showed that if you are a billionaire, you can more or less buy yourself the balance of power.
But try advocating system change, as my party the Socialist Alliance does every election, and you'll find it near impossible to get media coverage. You have to produce what publicity you can with the generous donations of generally pretty poor people.
Whether you agree with Brand's insistence on not voting — the Socialist Alliance, for instance, engages in elections as an opportunity to get its politics heard — he is right when he points all this out.
It is true that neither in the interview or his New Statesman essay does Brand offer a clear way forward, beyond rejecting the political status quo. But he did point to an alternative, telling Paxman he supported, “a socialist egalitarian system, based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment.”
The very fact that such a discussion takes place on primetime television is testimony to how deep the disillusionment and anger truly is. It is hard to imagine such a discussion on primetime TV even five years ago.
That it was a former MTV host on the telly pointing this out is, unfortunately, testimony to the absence of a political force on the left that has tapped into this anger or given expression to it.
Much of Paxman's interview, and many mainstream media commentaries afterwards, have focused on Brand the individual. But Brand is far less interesting than the debate he started.
A lot of left commentary has been about whether to “stand with Brand” — but the point is not standing with the person who pointed to the elephant in the room, it is whether to stand with the elephant.
In fact, in the New Statesman issue he edited, the highlight is Klein's essay. Terrifying and hopeful at the same time, “How science is telling us all to revolt” discusses how the sheer scale of the ecological crisis is driving scientists to draw the conclusion that only grassroots resistance can stop an out-of-control system threatening civilisation with destruction.
The only hope, Klein says, is in strengthening such resistance. You should read it — then join the movement for system change.
As for Brand, this is nothing new. As his essay makes clear, he has been speaking out and joining protests since before he was famous. His essay also makes clear his casual sexism and self-obsession.
Brand's sexism is long-standing and clearly deeply ingrained. The biggest scandal of his career proves that.
Brand was forced to resign from his radio show on the BBC in 2008 after a broadcast in which Brand left messages on the answering machine of Andrew Sachs, informing the elderly actor he had “fucked” his granddaughter.
At no point has Brand shown any remorse or awareness of what was wrong with his action ? how, as well as distasteful in general, it was a gross violation of the rights of the woman in question, who may not wish to have her name used as the centrepiece of public sexual boasting.
His sexism comes out in the essay too. In the first line, which he repeated to Paxman, Brand claims he edited the magazine because “a beautiful woman asked me to”. At another point, contrasting the decadence of a Paris fashion show with a Nairobi slum, Brand comments: “Now, I bow to no one in my appreciation of female beauty.”
Brand truly seems to think this objectification of women's bodies for his own pleasure is charming — that it is disarmingly self-deprecating, rather than the words of a sexist creep.
Such sexism clearly undermines Brand's points. It is much harder to take someone seriously when they talk of human liberation when they also treat half of humanity as existing for their own pleasure.
It does not have to be that way. John Lennon is another example of a working-class boy made good who, at the height of his fame, also decided he wanted to help change the world. By the time of his 1971 album Imagine, Lennon also publicly pushed socialist revolution.
But, unlike Brand so far, Lennon also sought to change himself. Lennon was a misogynist — just listen to his horrific song “Run for Your Life” on The Beatles’ 1965 Rubber Soul album for evidence. Lennon later explained that Yoko Ono convinced him of the depths of the oppression of women, and he disowned and critiqued his own sexism.
In an interview with the revolutionary socialist magazine Red Mole in 1971, Lennon said: “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority. It took me quite a long time to realise …
“[Yoko] was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.”
These are comments that Brand, if he is serious about social change, would do well to consider.
None of this makes the point in his essay — that if socialist revolution is utopian, then the world faces a choice between “utopia and oblivion” — any less urgent.
As Brand points out the problems that exist, but gives only very general points about the alternatives and no clear way forward, it is worth investigating what a revolution means, and how it might come about.
A revolution is a fundamental transformation. People often associate it with masses storming barricades and centres of power, or armed men toppling governments. But such things are, at most, episodes in a revolutionary struggle.
The essence of revolution is the overthrow of one system and the creation of another. In the case of socialist revolution, replacing the rule of the tiny capitalist elite and its political representatives with a system based on the power of ordinary people.
This means economic as well as political change. There can be no true democracy as long as big economic decisions are made by a tiny minority purely according to what generates the most profit. As Klein points out, there can no longer even be a sustainable planet under such a system.
Revolutions are often associated in popular imagination with violence. But genuine revolutions, involving huge numbers of people, are generally peaceful in intent. You simply cannot force revolutionary change on the majority of people, they have to want to make it.
Violence tends to occur as a result of the small minority being unwilling to give up power and privileges without a fight.
In the 1917 Russian revolution, for instance, the rise to power of the soviets, democratically elected councils in workplaces and barracks, was by-and-large peaceful.
It was the subsequent civil war, and military intervention by 16 capitalist countries, that brought ruinous violence on the country and destroyed the economy. This, along with the Soviet Union's isolation after the defeat of the German revolution, set the country on the path that ended in the nightmare of Joseph Stalin's terror.
Directed in no small part at genuine revolutionaries, Stalin's violence aimed to entrench the power of a new bureaucratic elite that emerged from the rubble at the end of the civil war.
Stalin's crimes may have had nothing to do with socialism, but they are strongly identified with each other in popular imagination. This means any movement for serious systemic change must take democracy and people's rights as seriously as possible.
Talking about socialism can also bring to mind a grey vision of a society where everything is controlled top-down from the state and no private enterprise, or possibly even private property, is allowed.
Yet this is (or should be) a distortion. Socialism aims to re-organise society according to the needs of people and planet, not capitalist profits.
This requires breaking capitalists' hold over big industry and finance, and promoting economic democracy in which workers and local communities have a direct say in all areas that effect their lives, including economic activity.
But there is nothing in this that necessarily involves taking property or businesses away from small or even medium-sized companies ? something the Cuban revolution, which was heavily influenced by the “state dominated” Soviet model, is now starting to realise.
Cuba is now seeking to combine state control over big industry with promoting small businesses and cooperatives to encourage efficiency and sustainable growth.
'Socialism of the 21st century'
So what might a humanist, democratic socialism look like in the 21st century? We do not have to simply imagine — there are living struggles to create it right now in Latin America.
The governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have each raised the banner of “socialism of the 21st century”. This slogan, first coined by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, was deliberately raised to emphasise a different ideal than the failed models of the 20th century — one that put people at its centre.
The concept remains vague, but is most advanced in Venezuela. Some key things can already be seen.
First of all, the Bolivarian revolution, led first by Chavez's government and now the administration of President Nicolas Maduro, arose as a result of two related factors.
First was the deep anger and disillusionment felt by the vast majority of the poor, whose interests were ignored by a corrupt elite that controlled the two big parties. This led to many protests — including the spontaneous 1989 Caracazo riots brutally put down by the military.
The second factor was the rise of an alternative political movement headed by Chavez. Known as the Bolivarian movement, it entirely rejected the political status quo, especially its parties and political representatives.
Instead, it sought to base itself on the mobilisation of the poor — whose imaginations were captured when Chavez led a failed military uprising in 1992.
In 1998, the movement, now organised into the political party Movement for the Fifth Republic, ran Chavez for president. But rather than just accept the existing political system, the platform Chavez ran on involved transforming it.
Once elected, Chavez held a referendum on calling a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution — opening the way to transforming the political system into one far more democratic.
This opened a new round of intense class struggle. Although the rich elite kept control of the economy and most of the state, they deeply resented the newfound rights of the poor — and feared that having tasted some power, the poor would push for greater changes.
An elite-organised military coup overthrew Chavez in 2002 — but a mass uprising of the poor and loyal soldiers restored the elected president within days. These struggles radicalised the Bolivarian revolution, as Chavez and the poor majority realised the resistance of the rich meant anti-capitalist measures were needed to make the revolution’s goals of participatory democracy and social justice a reality.
The Bolivarian revolution combines economic changes — nationalisations, huge social spending and other measures have halved poverty since 1998 — with measures to directly empower the poor. The most advanced are communal councils that involve poor communities in directly deciding on, and carrying out, the measures transforming their lives.
Other experiments include forms of workers' control and the promotion of cooperatives.
Crucially, the Venezuelan revolution is profoundly democratic. It has not suppressed opponents, but competes against them in elections. It has not shut down corporate media outlets, but sought to promote community and state media as alternatives (unfortunately, with too little success).
Every inch of progress has been wrested by ordinary people against a much-weakened but still powerful elite. Wracked with many problems, Venezuela is far from a utopia — unsurprising for such a poor, underdeveloped nation.
The Venezuelan revolution is no model, but it points in the direction of a new type of society based on human need.
Our task is figuring out how to build our own political movement to tap into deep-felt dissatisfaction. Brand has helped spark a discussion; we have to figure out what to do about the issues he raised.
[Stuart Munckton is an editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive. You can read Socialist Alliance's Towards a Socialist Australia document for some thoughts on how these ideas apply here. For more reading on socialist ideas and revolutionary strategy, visit Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]