A review of a selection of writings by Maurice Brinton.
Maurice Brinton, For Workers’ Power
Publisher: AK Press
Released: August 4, 2020
Karl Bookchin, Murray Marx, Maurice Brinton.
As they used to say on Sesame St “One of these things is not like the other!”. While this trio of names is made up, only one had an actual person behind it. Brinton was the pseudonym of Chris Pallis (1923-2005). He was the Indian-born scion of an Anglo-Greek family, educated in Switzerland and a neurologist by training (try saying that sentence after 4 vodkas and a Molotov cocktail!). He lead a distinguished medical career while simultaneously engaging in revolutionary Left-wing politics in England, hence the use of a cover name. This saw him embark on a trajectory from ephemeral Communist Party membership caused by expulsion for questioning the leadership, to membership in one of the small Trotskyist sects. This too resulted in expulsion by the group’s odious leader, causing Pallis/Brinton and other expellees to establish the group Solidarity. This group was always small but gained a foothold on the Left in Britain, especially as the 1960’s progressed. Its position is probably best described as a kind of iconoclastic libertarian strain of Marxism.
Recently AK Press produced a collection of Brinton’s writings under the title For Workers Power. To some today that title will seem archaic and off putting. That’s partly because the neo-liberal Right has been very effective on a super-structural level in atomising working people, causing us to perceive ourselves as individuals. We are not encouraged to identify ourselves as a unified class, with agency and shared interests. Coming from a different perspective, some on the contemporary Left will balk at what they see as an implied class reductionism in the title. It doesn’t appeal to a sense of intersectionality, but comes across as a crude throwback to a late industrial age that hasn’t got much to say to us today. While the title may dissuade some from delving into the content of this collection, he arguably still has something to say to today’s Left.
Stylistically Brinton is at his best when describing events he personally witnessed. For example, he provides entries from his diary as a witness to a General Strike in Belgium in 1960. His use of the active voice and often short sentences “It is an impressive sight. The crowd swarms over the pavements, overflows the neighbouring streets.” (p.37), provides vivid descriptions that often put the reader in the midst of the action.
Likewise, his fortnight among the workers and students in France during the uprising of May 68 yielded a diary with a similarly propulsive feel. For example “We wave. They wave back. We sing the Internationale. They join in. We give the clenched fist salute. They do likewise. Everybody cheers. Contact has been made [between youthful workers and students]” (p.305).One vignette concerns an activist from a small unnamed Left group who arrives in a crowded street with a suitcase full of leaflets. “There is an unquenchable thirst for information, ideas, literature, argument, polemic. The man just stands there as people surround him and press forward to get the leaflets. Dozens of demonstrators, without even reading the leaflet, help him distribute them. Some 6000 copies get out in a few minutes. All seem to be assidulously read. People argue, laugh, joke. I witnessed such scenes again and again.” (p.285). At times he can sound quite poetic, like one of the slogans from May 68 itself “The reality of today, for a few hours, has submerged all of yesterday’s patterns” (p. 288).
Occasionally the writer sounds a bit clunky. For example the alliterative excess of “Those who are not prepared to allow workers to control their own organizations here and now serenade sundry simpletons with fanciful tunes as to their fate in the future” (p. 210). Mostly Brinton writes plainly, though assuming a readership familiar with the basic jargon of classical Leftist discourse. Given his target audience, which is not the political neophyte, this is largely excusable. A lot of the time acronyms are explained and this helps keep the actors in events clear. Otherwise it could be hard for those English monoglots not well versed in the Portuguese Revolution of 1975 to figure out that the IRA is actually the Institute for Agricultural Reorganization! (p.229). Oh and anyone who can say with absolute confidence that they instantly know what “edentulous” (p.231) means, needs to get more fresh air.
Moving from style to substance, it has to be acknowledged that Brinton was not a major theorist and never claimed to be. He was primarily a capable polemicist and populariser of ideas that had limited circulation at the time he wrote. In the early 60’s the UK Labour Party and authoritarian Left had the union bureaucracy and a lot of other institutions sewn up between them. This changed somewhat later in the decade as society as a whole and the student movement in particular became radicalised globally. However, Brinton and his associates’ contribution in keeping the spark going during the dark times should be more widely remembered. Likewise his often excoriating invective directed at the authoritarian sects was an important contribution to dissident Left-wing observation.
His close observations of the counter-revolutionary machinations of the Stalinists in France is a telling indictment of the latter. The Trotskyists also come in for moments of derision, as in this passage about events in Portugal “At the end of the procession a mass of red flags and a few hundred very young people shouting raucously: ‘Unidad sindical, unidad sindical’. One might be dreaming. They want the PCP [Communist Party of Portugal] and PS (Socialist Party) to take power, in order to expose them. And Intersindical [union] too. To form a government ‘without generals or capitalists’. Yes, the Trots. In their rightful place. The tail end of an Stalinist demonstration” (p. 239). Likewise the Maoists are blasted “The proletariat, as seen by the Maoists is clearly more brawn than brain the sort of animal any skillful Leninist could easily ride to the revolution!” (p. 238). For anyone thinking of being a Tankie, Brinton’s description of what happened in Portugal, where Left-wing elements in the military, Stalinists and Maoists interacted, will hopefully disabuse them of that weird modern inclination (pp. 248-251).
Lest any Anarchists get smug about Brinton’s choice of targets, he also had the occasional barb for some among our number. He rightly describes Bakunin as “muddleheaded” (p. 113) and the chronicler of the Russian Revolution Voline is accused of having “…an over-simplified analysis” (p.373) of those events. Possibly valid comments of individuals not withstanding, Brinton sometimes oversteps the mark a bit. For example, his comment in a preface of another writer’s work that “We won’t be examining what happened in Spain in 1936…because it only has limited relevance to the problems of an advanced industrial country, in the last third of the twentieth century.” (p.172) still seems uncharitable in 2020. Overall, Brinton’s Orwell-like iconoclasm towards the Left while still being on the Left, was a healthy quality many would do well to emulate now. As he points out “The revolution is bigger than any organization, more tolerant than any institution ‘representing’ the masses, more realistic than any edict of any Central Committee” (p. 285). Brinton was specifically referring to France in 68 but it still has general applicability as a warning to the present and future.
One of Brinton’s most useful contributions to historiography was probably ‘The Bolsheviks and Workers Control’ which was published as a substantive 100 page essay and is re-produced in this selection. It has been translated into a number of languages, seen multiple editions and has been widely read. It breaks down into slow chronological chunks the steps that lead eventually to the crushing of workers power and potential grassroots democracy and its replacement with a hideous one-party dictatorship. It isn’t a unique account, but its contribution of a Libertarian Socialist perspective to the vast historiography on the subject is one that should be appreciated. Likewise, The Irrational in Politics, a booklet that explores the role of sexual repression in causing political and social obedience via a Reichian paradigm, is testament to the fact that Brinton’s concerns were not solely related to workers in the workplace.
To conclude, if your sole concern is the use of personal pronouns, you won’t be happy with Brinton’s area of focus or style. However, if you are open to considering questions of the best and worst ways for working people to escape the current system of economic and political domination, he still offers something worth thinking about. Why? Well, the answer and last words should be Brinton’s…”But men and women have always dreamed ‘impossible’ dreams. They have repeatedly sought to ‘storm heaven’ in the search for what they felt to be right. Again and again they have struggled for objectives difficult to attain, but which they sensed to embody their needs and desires. It is this capacity which makes of human beings the potential subjects of history, instead of its perpetual objects” (p. 255).