When Russell Brand was living his high-profile drug and party-fuelled life just a few years ago, the moralists in media and government had relatively little to say about him. Now that he has written a book calling for anti-capitalist revolution, bourgeois critics are lining up to insult, patronise and demonise Brand for daring to demand an alternative to the current system. This says a lot about the Establishment’s idea of what makes a good celebrity role-model.
We need a revolution
Brand’s book Revolution is very welcome because it openly calls for a fundamental transformation of society. He is explicit and effective in his attacks on the idea that we can reform the current system incrementally, pointing out that inequality, crisis and social problems are an inherent part of a system based on profit and exploitation. He explains that we need to overthrow capitalism completely and replace it with something else.
In this sense, Brand’s book is a step forward from the contributions of people like Thomas Piketty who, as Brand points out, calls himself a supporter of capitalism and whose aim is just to make the system work a little bit better. Brand observes that the vicious attacks on Piketty by the ruling class simply for suggesting slight changes to the system are evidence that capitalism cannot be reformed. A revolution is required if we want something different to inequality and austerity. Although not really developed, Brand’s idea of what will replace capitalism looks remarkably like a socialist system in which the means of production are owned and democratically controlled by the working class.
Brand has a clear ability to connect with a mood, felt by a lot of people today, of anger, disenfranchisement and a desire for change. In the book he explains that he doesn’t vote because all politicians are the same and that he completely mistrusts large companies due to their prioritisation of profit above all else. He discusses the impact of these things on people’s health, the environment and social movements in a way which resonates with ordinary people.
What does revolutionary change look like?
The book is strong in its arguments for revolution and for a society based on the democratisation of the economy and production for need not profit, but its weakness lies in its ideas about how this revolution can be achieved. In fact, the nature of this weakness is summed up by the book’s front cover alone which is simply a picture of Brand’s face – reflecting the message that the revolution will take an individualistic form.
Brand says that the success of the revolution will depend on a belief in God, and will take the form of revolutionising our own consciousness. In short, all we have to do is change the way we think, withdraw our consent from capitalism and then the revolution will just happen. Consistent with this he cites with approval the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics which argues that only by observing the world do we make it real; and he cites a study which suggested that crime rates can be reduced through meditation.
In fact, the philosophy of materialism, which argues that there exists a real world and real processes which exist in themselves, is explicitly rejected by Brand and he criticises Marxism for “placing the economy at the centre of socialism”.
This is problematic because natural science and our own interactions with the world suggest that things and processes do exist as real, tangible things independently of us. The capitalist economy exists, not because we have dreamed it up in our own minds, but because there are definite process of production and exchange taking place in the world. An understanding of how this economy and the rest of the processes in society work is the key to changing them. This is what gives Marxists an understanding of class struggle as the motor force in history. Claiming that these processes don’t really exist does not help us understand or change anything.
Conditions create consciousness
The individualism defended by Brand prevents him from grasping a clear definition of class, and in fact leads him to conclude that everyone, including the super-rich, will benefit from a revolution and that all we have to do is convince them of this for it to happen. He does not recognise that thoughts and ideas are, in general, a product of material circumstances and the super-rich are therefore unlikely to agree to an egalitarian, socialistic society. Their material circumstances of wealth will, in the majority of cases, trump any rational or logical arguments for equality. This is why class struggle is necessary.
Brand says that the revolution we should model ourselves on is the Spanish revolution of the 1930s. This is unfortunate, because that revolution ended in defeat and in the rise of the fascist Franco dictatorship. The reason for its defeat was largely thanks to the fact that anarchists, who leaned towards individualism and away from materialism, were in leading positions during that revolution and were therefore unable to understand the forces at work and the tasks that needed to be carried out.
Which way towards revolutionary change?
Overall we can say that the eye-popping rage that Revolution has elicited from the bourgeoisie is evidence enough that Brand’s open anti-capitalism and call for revolution is resonating with a layer of radicalised people, particularly young people, in Britain today. In that sense this book is very valuable.
It is also valuable as a contribution to a discussion about what a revolution will look like and how it can be achieved. Brand rejects materialism and Marxism in favour of spiritualism and anarchism – this is the book’s weakness. However he recently announced that, among other things, he is currently reading Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, after which perhaps he will reconsider the value of Marxism as the only genuinely revolutionary set of ideas.