For Workers' Power: the selected writings of Maurice Brinton [A Review]

For anyone active in radical politics in Britain in the 1960’s - 1980’s the magazine Solidarity, with its various sub-titles, was one of the more influential and best liked of those produced in the libertarian milieu. Together with the series of excellent pamphlets it published, the group, which rarely numbered more than 100 active members, had a disproportionate effect on radical politics. And central to that were the writings of Maurice Brinton, the nom de plume of Christopher Pallis, an eminent medical scientist, who had moved from the Trotskyism of his 20’s and 30’s (he was born in 1923) following a split from the Socialist Labour League (then under the control of the odious demagogue Gerry Healy) to a more libertarian socialist position which he followed until his death in 2005.

Brinton was the founder of the Solidarity group (original name, “Socialism Reaffirmed”) with fellow SLL’ers such as Ken Weller, and the group drew much of its initial inspiration from the writings of fellow ex-Trotskyist Cornelius Castoriadis (perhaps better known in Britain as Paul Cardan) who had founded the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. Indeed Brinton, an excellent linguist, due to having been schooled in Switzerland with Anglo-Greek parents, and thus being fluent in English, Greek and French, is primarily responsible for the translation and first publication of Castoriadis’s writings into English. And one of the constituents of this book are his introductions to several of Castoriadis’ pamphlets that Solidarity published over a period of 15 years or so.

Brinton, however, was not an academic revolutionary, he was also an excellent reporter on political struggles as they happened. His account of the Belgian General Strike of 1960 (not one that has passed into the revolutionary canon) is exemplary and is used to show up one of the key themes that run through this book. That is that workers need to take control of their struggles with capital and the state and not leave them to intermediaries. This is true also of his account of the events of May 1968 in Paris (which were written contemporaneously with the events - he just so happened to be there) which was originally published as a pamphlet and which is supplemented by two further essays reflecting on the events.

The political upheavals of the 1970’s are reflected in his diary of events during the Portuguese revolution in 1975 / 76 and his introduction to Solidarity’s largest publishing project, Phil Meyler / Mailer’s Portugal: The Impossible Revolution”. As ever Brinton emphasises the potential creativity of working people and the numerous ways in which those who seek power over them whilst claiming to represent them, become as much a part of the problem as the solution.

Another part of the Solidarity project was the investigation of the psychological aspects of authoritarianism, mainly in terms of how people allow others to make decisions for them when those decisions plainly are only in the interest of the order-givers and not those on the receiving end. This finds expression in this book in two ways. Firstly the reviews of two texts by Wilhelm Reich and one by George Frankl and secondly by one of the texts by which Maurice Brinton is best known: “The Irrational In Politics”. I suspect that one of the major criticisms that can be levelled against Brinton in these texts is that he deals almost exclusively with male authors. He simply doesn’t engage with feminism in any direct and meaningful way (no feminist texts are cited, for example.) This is, I suspect, mainly a generational problem, Brinton had grown up in a society where feminism was not a central issue (yes women had the vote, but the working class was seen overwhelmingly as male) - and among revolutionaries the writings of Reich, Lenin, Engels and Freud were taken more seriously than any by feminist writers. It is not surprising then that in the period after the text was first published, the Solidarity magazines had a long-running debate on the issue between those who were advocating a trad rev position and those aligning themselves with contemporary feminist and anti-sexist mens positions.

Another aspect of Brinton’s work was his historical analyses. And that primarily meant the Russian revolution. Brinton’s second major work “The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, 1917 - 1921: The State and Counter-Revolution” is the final section of the book and, in its own terms, remains an exemplary piece of work, showing clearly how the Bolsheviks, under Lenin’s command set about destroying any gains workers had made in the initial stages of the revolution in taking control of the means of production, by a combination of cynical manoeuvring, repression and misrepresentation. (Tactics still used by many Marxists to this day in their attempts to take control of popular movements) it gives the lie to any attempt by the followers of Trotsky, who want to blame just about everyone else except their “man” for the disaster that befell the Russian working class as it, having defeated Tsarism and capitalist social democracy, was in turn defeated by the new rulers the bureaucrats and political place men who, backed to the hilt by Lenin, Trotsky and their followers, destroyed any independent centres of economic or political power and invested it, instead in the central organs of the Communist Party.

This is not, however, the only piece on the topic. He reviews, quite favourably, Paul Avrich’s “The Russian Anarchists” and he also provided the preface to Ida Mett’s text “The Kronstadt Commune”, which Solidarity issued as a pamphlet. The book also includes what is probably his most significant political text published by a different publisher, his intervention in the journal Critique on the topic of “Factory Committees and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Another item is his co-authored text “The Commune, Paris 1871” co-authored with Philippe Guillaume, first published in the journal but later issued as a pamphlet.

The final major grouping of articles (although the items do appear to have been put into a order, which is not explicit in its rationale) is those, which can be summarised as contemporary society and the revolutionary alternatives. Into this section one can put the variations on the theme of “Who we (Solidarity) are and what we believe in”, together with his introductions to a variety of Castoriadis’s pamphlets, which Solidarity issued throughout the 1960’s and well into the 1970s. One should also include his polemical reply to Big Flame’s account of the Merseyside dispute at the Fisher-Bendix factory and his introduction to the (then) anarchist theoretician Murray Bookchin’s “On Spontaneity and Organization”.

The texts are supplemented by a name index (but it lacks a subject index) and the introduction by Davis Goodway does a splendid job of situating Brinton in his time and political reference points. Sadly Chris Pallis, died shortly after the book was published, after a long illness, so is no longer around to defend his works. He did however, outlive the organisation he helped create, with Solidarity finally ceasing publication in 1992. Strangely, there doesn’t seem to have been any successor organisation willing to carry on their good work. This may be accounted for by the fact that, despite Brinton himself refusing the label of “anarchist”, the journal ended its days as a well-produced magazine that no longer had much of a difference, politically, with the rest of the anarchist political scene.

The timing of the publication of this book is exemplary and AK Press has done a splendid production job on it. One could argue that some of the blank white pages could have carried some of Solidarity’s trademark graphics, which would have given some relief to the text. More importantly is the puzzling absence of one of Brinton’s most interesting articles: “Suicide for socialism” which dealt with the Jonestown mass-killing / suicide. This was issued as a supplement to one of the later series of Solidarity magazines and any collection of Brinton’s works really should have it. Luckily it is on the Internet so remains accessible to those who know where to look for it. It would also have been helpful if a full bibliography of the 108 items the Introduction mentions as being identified as being written solely or mainly by Brinton could have been included so that people could search them out.

Probably what is most difficult is trying to work out exactly what the legacy of the Solidarity group and Brinton in particular is. Castoriadis has been well served with collections of his texts and is becoming quite academically respectable (especially since he died) but Solidarity risks becoming forgotten. It was a small group of revolutionaries in a country without a revolution, who didn’t spawn any dramatic off-spring (although it is claimed that Ken Livingston was once a member (nobody’s perfect) and who’d want to claim the Bordigist text machine called “World Revolution”?) It is certain that the worldwide economic crisis in capitalism severely shook the faithful who believed (along with their mentor Castoriadis) that modern bureaucratic capitalism has solved such crises. (Ironically, the fact we are currently living in a period of capitalist stability, doesn’t seem to have revived their fortunes, perhaps because it is coupled with a greater reliance on the so-called “free market” to achieve that social and economic stability.)

And history has been a trifle unkind as some pronouncements currently look a little off target, but one doubts, for example, that he would have been too surprised at the outcome of the Polish workers struggle (also covered herein) which promised so much with the founding of Solidarnosc, only for it to become a free market social democratic government. But overall the critique of capitalism remains as valid as ever. Wage slavery remains and the struggle between workers and their bosses continues, as it will as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system.

I understand that John Quail is currently writing a history of the Solidarity group and one or two memoirs by former members are appearing on the Internet. As yet, however, nobody appears to want to revive the franchise. That said the book is an eloquent testimony to Maurice Brinton’s life and works, but I am sure he would be most disappointed if people see it as an epitaph, as the work he started and the vision he held are as valid now as they were 50 years ago. The struggle, as they say, continues, and there is much here that can inform that struggle.

Overall, a splendid book. Required reading for anyone wanting a view of how libertarians saw the world in the past 50 years.


Richard Alexander

Brinton, Maurice “For Workers’ Power: the selected writings of Maurice Brinton”. Edited by David Goodway. Pbk. AK Press, Edinburgh, Scotland and Oakland CA, USA. 2004. 379pp. index. ISBN 1-904859-07-0. $21.95 / £12.00