“We Are Ourselves”: Review of For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice BrintonBooks
tags: British history, anarchism, socialism, leftists, Protest, Political theory
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and activist and author of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort(AK Press, 2018).
For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton, David Goodway, ed. (AK Press, 2020)
By day, Christopher Agamemnon Pallis was a distinguished British clinical neurologist, scion of a prominent Anglo-Greek family that included poets, soldiers, businesspeople, a botanist, and an authority on Tibetan Buddhism. The rest of the time, he was “Maurice Brinton,” one of the leaders of Solidarity, a breakaway British Marxist group, and the author of a stream of polemics, reporting, and historical works that helped move much of the left from hard Marxism to libertarian socialism—and, in some cases, anarchism. Chris Pallis’s pseudonymous writings, along with those of other maverick materialists, freed the left from its own past and is one of the reasons that today’s left is typified not by party cadres and excruciating sectarian quarrels but by Black Lives Matter, Antifa, anarchists, Mexico’s Zapatistas, and indigenous movements in Latin America and Asia.
For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton is an expanded edition of a collection that first appeared in 2005. It provides more than an introduction to this shadowy but important figure’s work; it includes just about everything important that he wrote under the Brinton byline. British scholar David Goodway, who edited the collection, provides a compact account of Pallis’s life (1923-2005) and unusual career, including the time he was outed under his original pseudonym, “Martin Grainger,” and nearly lost his position as consultant in neurology at the Hammersmith Hospital, as well as an introduction that neatly traces his intellectual development and accomplishments.
Brinton was an excellent writer, scholar, and eyewitness journalist; For Workers’ Power includes political commentary and critique, theoretical writings, his groundbreaking historical work on the Russian Revolution, and powerful accounts of key events in postwar working-class politics, including the May 1968 uprising in Paris and the failed Portuguese revolution of 1974. Two things make Brinton (as I’ll refer to him from now on) and the Solidarity circle interesting and important today: their very serious effort to understand what went wrong with Soviet Russia and the Marxist Left in the decades after the Russian Revolution, and their commitment to finding ways that revolutionary socialists could adjust to the new economic and social realities of the postwar era.
To put this in context, Solidarity and Brinton were part of a generation of postwar thinkers and activists who came of age as Marxists (Brinton joined the Communist Party at university in 1941), then gradually rejected many of the basic assumptions of Marx as flawed or outdated. Some of the biggest names on the Continent were Cornelius Castoriadis (many of whose works Brinton translated into English), Claude Lefort, and Jean-François Lyotard.
Like them, Brinton realized that the kind of proletarian politics that Marxists had practiced in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries wouldn’t work anymore. Ethnic and racial issues were becoming more important; the western working class had grown more prosperous, then splintered and moved to the right (in many cases) as the industrial economy evolved; and women’s and LGBTQ rights (among others) were becoming immediate issues. How, he wanted to know, can you forge a powerful workers’ movement of the left in a world where the sharp definitional lines that Marx drew, suddenly were blurring?
Brinton could see these developments coming years before terms like “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and computerization were common. “New productive techniques have led to greater division between the producers,” he wrote in 1961. “Thousands of jobs and professions formerly requiring skill and training and offering their occupants status and satisfaction have today been stripped of their specialized nature. Not only have they been reduced to the tedium and monotonous grind of any factory job, but their operatives have been degraded to simple executors of orders, as alienated in their work as any bench hand.”
“Marxists,” he added, “would be better employed analyzing the implications of this important change in the social structure rather than waving their antiquated economic slide-rules.” The French crisis of 1968 involved university students who were far from starving and factory workers at Renault and Sud-Aviation who were among the best paid in the country. What was driving them, Brinton asked, and what would drive future uprisings? All working people, and not just those who Marx classified as “workers,” were increasingly cut off from the management of their own lives, and felt it, even if they didn’t always know how and couldn’t find a way to pull together in opposition to the new post-industrial landscape.
“We live in neither the Petrograd of 1917 nor the Barcelona of 1936,” Brinton wrote in 1972. “We are ourselves: the product of the disintegration of traditional politics, in an advanced industrial country, in the second half of the 20th century. It is to the problems and conflicts of that society that we must apply ourselves.”
By and large, the supposed leadership of the working class wasn’t much help, because it didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, what was changing. Time and again—in Hungary in 1956, in Belgium during a 1960 general strike, in France in 1968, in Portugal in 1974—a potentially revolutionary movement, bringing together industrial and agricultural workers, students, and other dissidents was discouraged not by a right-wing government but a sclerotic Communist Party that was suspicious of any formation that didn’t fit its ideological preconceptions. Social democratic and labor parties in Europe and North America play a similar role in the neoliberal present.
Even in the days of the Russian Revolution, Brinton argued, Marxists were wrong to think that working people’s lives were entirely defined by economic circumstances, and many of their mistakes sprung from their failure to understand the other aspects of human existence. In an approving article about the renegade psychoanalyst and sometime Marxist Wilhelm Reich, Brinton quotes Reich’s 1934 pamphlet, What is Class Consciousness?, which was becoming a popular New Left text. Mass consciousness, Reich wrote, is “made up of concern about food, clothing, family relationships, the possibilities of sexual satisfaction in the narrowest sense, sexual pleasure and amusements in a broader sense, such as the cinema, theatre, fairground entertainments and dancing.” It is concerned “with the difficulties of bringing up children, with furnishing the house, with the length and utilization of free time, etc.”
The conclusion, for Brinton, is that a revolutionary party can’t create revolutionary class consciousness; it has to come from the bottom up, from working people themselves and their understanding of their lives. What’s left of Marxism, then? Not much, but it’s important: workers’ control of production. Socialism isn’t about who owns the fields, the factories, and the workshops, but who controls them. States can expropriate real estate, factories, and data sets—as was done in Russia in 1917 or China in 1949—but if it puts them in the charge of a professional managerial class, that’s not workers’ control.
Brinton stakes out an uncompromisingly radical position that would be familiar to many anarchists today: socialism and economic democracy can’t be achieved through reform or even a revolution within the State, like the one the Bolsheviks pulled off. They require a “total social revolution,” including workers’ management of production. A “meaningful” social revolution only comes about “when a large number of people seek a total change in the conditions of their existence.”
Just as a practical matter, simply taking over the government, and even the levers of the economy, is not enough. “No island of libertarian communism can exist in a sea of capitalist production and of capitalist consciousness,” Brinton wrote; any attempt to do so will revert to a capitalist model, sooner rather than later.
Does this make Brinton an anarchist? He lamented that Marxist revolutions all too often produced authoritarian regimes, and he rejected scientific socialism—the theory that the study of historical trends can predict their future development. “Genuine creation is the act of producing that which is not totally implicit in the previous state of affairs,” he wrote. “By its very nature it defies the dictates of predetermination. For those who see history as the unfurling of a dialectical process which leads inevitably ‘forward’ towards a particular brand of ‘socialism’ … there is no real history. There are just mechanisms.”
Those certainly sound like the words of a contemporary anarchist; “Brinton’s politics are fully anarchist,” Goodway firmly asserts. But I’m skeptical. While he rejected much of Marxism, Brinton still relied on Marxist terminology and categories of thought. The few references to major anarchist thinkers like Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin suggest that he never seriously grappled with their ideas. A better way to view Brinton—and Chris Pallis—is through the lens of the history that succeeded him.
Today, much of the left is more concerned about building social movements than political parties or with seizing power. Anarchists, libertarian socialists, Indigenous organizers—even Black Lives Matter—would likely agree on the need to keep agency in the hands of these movements, not cede them to a clique of politicians or a revolutionary conspiracy. That’s a demanding assignment; Brinton was unsparing at defining the terms and exposing the pitfalls.