Russell Brand is done with acting. Let’s be honest: how could he indulge the frivolous parties, the sacks full of cash, the slobbering fans demanding photos and autographs, when the planet is being molested by capitalism? When an economic chasm has opened up between rich and poor? The trappings of fame and the comforts of extreme wealth are utterly boring, especially considering that he already has them and, as he told a recent interviewer, it “makes me feel guilty.”
Like Patty Hearst forswearing her privilege in favor of the revolutionary struggle, the multimillionaire actor recently declared that, “Profit is a filthy word” and promised to dedicate himself exclusively to revolutionary politics, with the aim of consigning capitalism to the dustbin of history.
Most of us have the benefit of growing up politically in private. Not too many people remember the naive and silly views we held; the late night college bull sessions (during which we discover that utopia is possible, if only they would listen to us kids) are forgotten in the haze of pot smoke and advancing age. But Brand, as he always reminds us, was doing a mess of drugs when all the other kids his age were at university doing a mess of drugs. So Che and Chomsky had to wait.
But now, two decades later, Brand is now doing the rounds promoting Revolution, a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism. Now he will just proselytize and wait. He’s Lenin in Switzerland, Mao on the Long March, Castro in the Sierra Maestra.
Many of Brand’s critics have noted that Revolution is full of vacuous nonsense, like his argument—if that’s the right word—that the economy “is just a metaphorical device. It’s not real, that’s why it’s got the word ‘con’ in it.”
And there is always the easy-but-true charge of Hollywood hypocrisy. Sure, it’s amusing that Brand rages about corporations and an economic system that has allowed him to loaf around a mansion muttering about the rich. More low hanging fruit: the $37 Russ-as-Che-Guevara t-shirts available on his website. Or how about when he was ejected from a Hugo Boss event for a spittle-flecked rant about Hugo Boss’s complicity with the Nazi regime, never recognizing the irony of his triumphant escape in a black Mercedes?
Brand occasionally acknowledges the hypocrisy, but his defenders frequently praise him for “engaging” and “inspiring” young people to look critically at our rotten, corrupt, and crumbling political system. There is no evidence to suggest that this is true, of course, but what if it is? What sort of information is he imparting to young people?
In Revolution, Brand bemoans our “uninformed populace,” while repeatedly proving his point with fantastically wrong information. It’s unsurprising that he compares Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump to Nazis, but if you have a habit of comparing your enemies to German fascists, it’s probably best to know a little something about German fascism—like “everyone’s favorite founder of the Gestapo, Hermann Göring,” who was actually everyone’s favorite founder of the Luftwaffe (the Nazi Air Force). *
Brand writes that after “the United States said there was an ‘increased threat from Third-World nations who were developing technology’ that could disrupt U.S. domestic serenity—really, they mean economic hegemony.” The United States said that? When I attempted to source the quote, it existed nowhere but in Russell Brand’s book.
On the following page he offers this baffling recapitulation of the Cold War’s end, when Mikhail Gorbachev “allowed a unified Germany to enter NATO, a hostile military alliance, on the condition that, ‘NATO would not expand one inch to the East,’ the United States agreed. Then they expanded right into East Germany, likely giggling as they went.” Wait, so a defeated Gorbachev “allowed” a unified Germany into NATO and then, like assholes, a unified Germany joined NATO?
We are told of “Black Elk, the Native American chief who wrote a now-famous letter to President Franklin Pierce in 1854,” an “utterly ignored” proto-environmentalist tract. It was ignored at the time because the now-famous letter is also famously a fake. And Brand is confused: the phony letter is attributed to Chief Seattle; Black Elk would have a hard time writing to President Pierce, considering he was born more than a decade after he took office.
Many of the quotes are mysteriously sourced, apocryphal, or misattributed. Brand claims that, “Since Friedrich Nietzsche (deceased) declared, ‘God is dead,’ we’ve been exploring the observation of British writer G. K. Chesterton, who said, ‘The death of God doesn’t mean man will believe in nothing but that he will believe in anything.’” Brand rewrites the quote (the original: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything”), which is from the pen of Belgian writer Émile Cammaerts, something he could have discovered in a few seconds of Googling.
Such confusions matter when reading Revolution, because the lessons of the past, Brand says, will inform the worker’s state of the future. He has been criticized for calling for revolution without saying what will replace the ancien régime. Perhaps it will mirror the brutal Cuban dictatorship, whose “very existence,” Brand writes, “is a rallying cry to other nations that corporatism can be beaten.”
Indeed, Brand proclaims himself “a big fan of [Fidel] Castro and [Che] Guevara” because “they were sexy, cool, tough” and the fetid autocracy they imposed on the Cuban people “was a remarkable success in many respects.” (Fidel is also described as being “double cool” for a four-hour, filibustering courtroom speech, while Che Guevara is described as a “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable” revolutionary.)
And what were those successes, in a country that routinely ranks as one of the least free countries on the planet? “Education for everyone, land sharing, emancipation of women, and equal rights for black Cubans.” This latter achievement would come as a welcome surprise to black Cubans, who are second-class citizens—equal only in the sense that, like all Cubans, they too have no rights. And yes, education is for everyone—provided they want to read wooden agitprop about how education in Cuba is for everyone.
Ironically, Brand sees himself as an ideological soulmate of George Orwell, whose books are banned in Cuba. But in Revolution, he declares that, “Orwell agrees with me” about the menace of capitalism, launching into a painfully naive—and factually schizophrenic—précis of the Spanish Civil War.
According to Brand, Orwell “can’t have imagined that when he was doing his packing [he would join the fight]. I bet he just took Typex and coloring pens, but within an hour he was tooled up and killing fascists.” But Orwell went to Spain for the express purpose of killing fascists, as he makes clear in the book Brand is quoting from.
Brand thinks that, “Collectivization is the most exciting and replicable aspect of the Spanish Revolution, if you ask me and dear George.” I suppose when you have a Wikipedia understanding of Orwell, you might not know that the collective was something that terrified dear George. As he wrote in 1944, “It cannot be said too often—at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough—that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”
And like every great political halfwit, Brand inevitably invokes Orwell’s 1984 to suggest that we have long since become Oceania, that Stalinism has descended on the West: “Orwell described a totalitarian regime where humans were constantly observed, scrutinized, and manipulated, where freedom had been entirely eroded, omnipotent institutions dominated, and every home glowed with the mandatory TV screen streaming state-sponsored data. Well, he was spot on, aside from a bit of glitter and the fact that we voluntarily install our own screens.”
All of this is less surprising when you discover that much of the research for Revolution was provided by the disgraced journalist Johann Hari, who in 2011 was caught plagiarizing multiple columns, accused of inventing quotes, forced to resign his job as a newspaper columnist, and had a major British journalism prize (named after George Orwell!) rescinded.
But the real test of political stupidity is the indulgence, if not outright acceptance, of crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories. And in Revolution, Brand slithers around trutherism, writing that the “World Trade Center collapsed in a way that some people say looked like a controlled demolition” and scratches his chin over “the mysterious, ignored ‘third tower, building 7,’ the signs of ‘controlled demolition,’ the nationality of all the terrorists, are all cause for question.”
When asked by the BBC about his flirtation with 9/11 denialism—just asking questions, people!—Brand said he was “open-minded” about who carried out the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., parrying with a predictable non-sequitur: “Do you trust the American government?” This is the conspiratorial mind using skepticism as a cloak for intellectual laziness.
Brand’s notoriously clotted prose is still here, despite the gracious intervention of an editor. On BBC’s Newsnight last week, Brand overcooked his matey English accent and spoke of “us ordinary people,” attacking the bourgeois notion that verbs require proper conjugation. But in print, Brand writes like this: ”This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.”
These are sentences that stupid people think are smart; a simple concept brutally assaulted by a thesaurus. When he hits upon a phrase he likes, the reader should prepare to be smothered by it. Scattered throughout Revolution, Brand denounces “the occupants of the bejeweled bus,” “the bejeweled fun bus of privilege,” “the eighty-five occupants of the bejeweled bus of privilege,” “the occupants of the bejeweled bus,” the “bejeweled bus with eighty-four other plutocrats,” and a “bejeweled misogynist making money by moving ice.” The writing isn’t just excruciatingly bad, but exhaustingly repetitive.
But Brand isn’t a writer, no matter how much he fancies himself one, so fairness demands we cut him a tiny bit of slack. He is, though, a comedian, so there is little excuse for the painfully limp jokes, often lurking at the end of a sentence in parentheses: “You know me, when I started this book I really thought I might be able to write my version of, I dunno, Mein Kampf (whatever happened to that guy?)”; “I mean, if Gandhi can write a letter to Hitler, lovingly requesting that he step back from genocide (that went well!)”; “He—remarkably and with a straight face—tied it in to 9/11 (you remember those towers; there were two of ’em, I think)”; “...that cuddly ol’ Thatcher chum, General Pinochet—although if you ask me he wasn’t that general; he was specifically a bit of a bastard.”
The problem here isn’t so much that Brand knows nothing about history, is politically naive, doesn’t understand even the rudiments of economics, can’t write, and manages 320 pages without producing a single laugh. It’s that his self-righteousness often veers into the authoritarian.
If you find one of those rubes who believe in “compassionate capitalism,” Brand advises that we “just nod, smile, and lead them to the sanitarium to begin their reeducation.” A little joke, perhaps. Russia’s brutal Soviet century—which produced famine, genocide, and 75 years of penury—at least “started off as a lovely ritualistic murder of the royal family and empowerment of the serf class.” I suppose the murdering of children could be considered lovely—who am I to object?—and the shooting of disagreeable peasants might be deemed empowering.
As you might have guessed, I’m starting to not like the sound of Russell’s Reich (see, anyone can recklessly allude to Nazism!), where every criticism is met with a dismissive accusation that the counterrevolutionary is blinded by corporate lies, a deluded lemming in thrall to the man.
Not only does Brand hate the man, but in a recent interview with the Financial Times he tidily summed up his ideology: “Do you know why I think the people of Scotland should have voted yes? Because Cameron wanted them to vote no. Do you know why I think we shouldn’t be bombing the Middle East? Because they want to bomb the Middle East. Any single thing they tell me, I disagree with absolutely 100 per cent.”
This is Brand’s revolution. As long as they are for it, he’s against it. It almost makes you want to root for the establishment, doesn’t it?
* It has been pointed to me that Hermann Goering was, on paper, indeed the “creator” of the Gestapo. But as historian Edward Crankshaw points out in his book Gestapo, “those who think of the Gestapo as the creation of Heinrich Himmler are closer to the mark than the pedants,” despite Goering technically running the organization—which was then a regional force, limited only to “police work” in Prussia—in the chaotic year of 1933. Indeed, it’s rare to see Goering identified as the founder of the Gestapo (and not the Reichsminister of the Luftwaffe or the president of the Reichstag), and I think it’s safe to assume the Brand is unfamiliar with these distinctions.