Having been challenged by Robert Webb to “read some fucking Orwell,” Russell Brand responds by showing that he’s either not read or not understood Orwell.
I’m not sure quite how we have got to the stage where the politics of Russell Brand apparently merit not only an interview by Jeremy Paxman but also a follow up with Medhi Hassan. However it happened, I really wish it hadn’t. His responses to Robert Webb’s thoughtful and intelligent critique of revolutions illustrates the shallowness and recklessness of his political thinking.
His Weak Arguments
Brand continues to deploy the George W. Bush technique of trying to make his ignorance into an asset. He explains that he doesn’t “claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had.” People who try to legitimate their views by saying in effect ‘you should take me seriously because I’m as stupid as a regular person’ are not only insulting regular people but also showing why their views don’t merit attention. Political debate should be about the mutual enlightenment of all those involved not about the dissemination of ignorant opinions by those who main qualification is being as stupid as some purported everyman.
Brand also tries the inverse of this reasoning by trying to brand Webb an elitist. He says: “Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb…If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids.” This is a weak argument because:
- Robert Webb went to a state school
- You should tackle the argument not the person making it
- Russell Brand is worth an estimated $15million. If we are dismissing people’s views because of their privilege, then Brand’s should be one of the first in line for the chuck.
His scary argument
However, this is far from the worst part of the interview.
“I’m not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I’m not in on the old death camps… I’m double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness.”
Brand added: “Definitely no killing. I’m against that; I’m a vegetarian, I think we’re all equal. I’m not saying smash people’s stuff up, and definitely no killing.”
Assessing previous Marxist revolutions, the 38-year-old said that in its “traditional form” revolution was ok but it “went a bit genocidal, it was just a bit of sharing, then it got spoilt.” Brand insisted that he wanted a peaceful revolution. “Once you are violent you’d get nicked. If you’re disobeying without being violent they can’t nick you, it’s a paradigm breaker.”
What Orwell could teach Brand
If Brand took Orwell seriously, he’d understand precisely why these (bizarre) clarifications are so pointless. The whole point of Animal Farm is that even revolutions that seem benign at the start, can mutate into something ugly. The pigs do not start out announcing that they plan to have dogs kill other animals, send Boxer to the glue factory and begin walking on two legs. But that’s what happens as power corrupts them and their revolution.
This not only happened in the Soviet revolution that inspired Animal Farm. It took only a few years of the French Revolution to turn Robespierre from an opponent of the death penalty into the instigator of the terror.
Why we need Democracy for peace
Let’s be clear, the kind of revolution brand imagines – anti-democratic and radical – would almost inevitably be violent.
Democracy is not only (or even primarily) a means for representing the views of the people, it’s also a means of avoiding political violence. It provides a set of rules on transferring power that are generally perceived as broadly fair and therefore accepted – it’s a safe bet that after the last general election, Gordon Brown did not contemplate using the army or police to hold onto power. Take away democracy and you take away the rules of politics, and anything (including violence) goes. Without democracy it is hard to see how the Brandian revolutionary vanguard would legitimate their rule and without legitimacy it is hard to see how they could maintain their rule except through coercion, and indeed how they could dissuade people from using violence to oppose them.
And revolutions are worse than even Orwell suggested
Brand says a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me.” These kind of genuinely revolutionary revolutions with their utopian pretensions are the most dangerous. Better even than Orwell for understanding why revolutions go bad is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. In the dry prose of a sociologist she explains why she found conventional Marxist analysis inadequate for understanding ‘social revolutions‘ like those in France, Russia and China. Marx would lead you to believe that revolutions transfer power between classes. Instead Skocpol found that the largest shift in power was not towards any particular class but to the state itself. This comes about because the revolutionary regimes needed a state mighty enough to push through their plans for dramatic changes. So they give bureaucrats, the armed forces and other organs of the state a degree of power they’ve never had before.
Orwell was actually understating the horror of the revolution when at the finale of Animal Farm, the ordinary animals see that the pigs have become indistinguishable from their old human masters. Stalin wasn’t indistinguishable from the Czar; he was far worse. The Czars ability to oppress his people was constrained by his ramshackle state. By contrast, the Soviet state was powerful enough to send thousands to the Gulags, spy on the entire nation and starve millions to death in the name of collectivizing agriculture.
Time for the political prima dona to exit the stage
Just about the only thing Brand gets right in this whole sorry interview is that there are indeed plenty of people who know more than he does. It’s time he let them take the floor. Nothing he has to say about revolutions portrays insight or deep thought. His political thinking is underdeveloped and ill-informed.
He should be more careful. Revolutionary socialism is an unpleasant and violent doctrine. While there is little or no chance of a socialist revolution in Britain today, there is a risk in even some individuals taking it seriously. There was a time not to long ago when the terrorist threat to Europe came not from angry young Muslims but angry young leftists. Given high youth unemployment and our general disengagement from party politics, the conditions for it to re-emerge are there. Webb rightly observes in his letter to Brand that:
In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.