Interview with Chris Pallis (aka Maurice Brinton) produced by Agora International during the Cerisy Colloquium. He talks about the importance of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (aka Paul Cardan)’s ideas in his break from Trotskyism, and the ‘Solidarity’ group, of which he was the most prominent member.
Agora International: First question we have for you is: How you first encountered the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis and Socialisme ou Barbarie?
Maurice Brinton: Well, I was in Paris in 1948, and at that time I considered myself a radical and I was influenced by Trotskyist ideas, and I got to know Georges [Petit] – who I think you already interviewed – quite well. And we travelled around quite a bit and we discussed ideas and there was no disagreements between us. And then I happened to be back in Paris, I think two or three years later, and I still subscribed to those ideas at that time, but I discovered that Georges had broken with them. And we had quite heated arguments about a different set of ideas which were similar in some respects but radically different in other respects. And he gave me some papers to read and I was really quite impressed by what I was reading there. And I think then another year or two must have pasted and then I was in Paris again and we met again and we started our discussions and he said: “You must come with me to a chap I know, and have a discussion with him; maybe he’ll convince you.” And I think we went to a café then, and I think I must have spent about three hours arguing heatedly with Cornelius Castoriadis, and he gave me such a bashing on every one of my ideas that I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. He absolutely demolished every one of the basic ideas I had at that stage. I remained influenced by the Trotskyist ideas for some time but very uneasy about them, and every time I came to France I would read later issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie and became more and more convinced. And that was the original contact.
AI: What happened with these ideas that were working on you? What did you do with them?
MB: Instead of just say what one does with ideas, I broke eventually completely with the Trotskyist group I’d been associated with in the 1960s – the very early, I think in 1960 – and whereas most people who broke with Trotskyism would criticise the organisation they’d just left for not being a real Trotskyist organisation, because I’d read so much of the writings of [?] the group of people I was associated with made a completely different critique of the experience we’d just been through. We said that organisation we were breaking with, the problem with it wasn’t that it wasn’t a Trotskyist organisation; the problem with it was that it was a Trotskyist organisation. And this led us then to critique – fundamental critique – first off the whole theory of Trotskyism and Trotskyism in practice, that lead us very quickly to a critique of Leninism and Leninism in practice, and then of the whole Bolshevik conception of revolutionary action, and then gradually to a… initially a Marxist critique of Marx, and then gradually to a more open critique of Marx, and the acceptance of many of the ideas which Cornelius Castoriadis was developing in France at the time.
AI: Can you talk a little bit about Solidarity, especially in the ‘60s when it had an experience in relation to Socialisme ou Barbarie and also had an existence that was developing in England?
MB: The group of comrades who left the Trotskyist organisation grouped themselves in an organisation called Solidarity, and Solidarity was also the name of the paper which we started publishing. In a sense, we didn’t have to go through many of the rather heated discussions which had taken place in the previous years in France, I mean we sort of stepped into the scene in 1960, so we didn’t have to go through all the disputes they had in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. And we based ourselves very much on their ideas; we were an activist group and I think we… I think we personally inherited some of the better features of the organisation we had broken with, I mean we wanted very much to put the ideas into practice, not just discuss the ideas. We constantly had arguments with other groups around us; they were all saying, making a general proposition, that without a revolutionary theory you couldn’t have any revolutionary action, and we were counterposing to that one of Cornelius Castoriadis’s ideas that without the development of revolutionary theory you couldn’t have a development of revolutionary action, which is a very different kind of proposition. And Cornelius Castoriadis came to London on two or three occasions in the early ‘60s and held discussions and we organised public meetings with him. They were usually quite heated public meetings because they would be attended by all sorts of people hostile to the ideas, people belonging to the traditional organisations. And I remember very loud, very clearly one of the leaders of one of these Trotskyist sects denouncing Castoriadis’s ideas as anarchism disguised as Marxism. And the other critique which we were making, which constantly got under their skin, is a critique that said basically that all these revolutionary organisations were really reproducing within their own ranks the divisions between leaders and led, order givers and order takers, which were the characteristic divisions within the society around us, and that there’s no conceivable way in which organisations structured in that way could produce any different kind of society. If you had a hierarchically organised authoritarian kind of organisation that would produce a hierarchically organised and authoritarian kind of society – it seemed to us self-evident, but clearly wasn’t evident to them. And then there was also the continuous critique of the Russian society.
AI: What sort of activities did Solidarity engage in the ‘60s? I believe it was active in the–
MB: Solidarity was quite active in the… both in the universities and in the trade union movement. In the trade union movement, it was constantly campaigning for more democracy in the unions, for the election and recall of all trade union officials, made with the fundamental critique of how the trade union bureaucracy had arisen. And in the universities, the main critique which we were making was the critique of [?] as being the main obstacle to any kind of emancipation.
AI: You’ve also done some work of reflection in writing on your own, how have the ideas of Castoriadis influenced you in that way?
MB: Well, I became quite familiar with the ideas of Castoriadis because I translated quite a number of the texts he’d written in Socialisme ou Barbarie. I was also personally involved in a certain amount of writing and I felt a familiarity with Castoriadis’s ideas, [which] helped me understand what was going on to a great extent. I personally was in Paris during the events of Mai ’68 and I wrote an account of what I’d seen and perceived, which was, I think, very much influenced by the concepts which Castoriadis was developing.
AI: What would you say is the [meaning?] historically and also today of Castoriadis’s work and the work of Socialisme ou Barbarie?
MB: I think there is both an importance in what it succeeded in criticising, within a sense partly destroying, and in an importance significance in what it put in its place. I think that it contributed massively to the undermining, and eventual explosion I think, of Marxism as a dominant tendency in people who wanted to consider themselves radicals or revolutionaries. I personally considered, I’ve always considered [over] the last few years, Marxism is a monstrous mystification, in fact one of the last manifestations – this might sound really bizarre – one of the last manifestations of bourgeois ideology. And what is extremely positive, I felt, in Castoriadis’s writing was the fact that he didn’t just make a critique but he was positing an alternative; it was a concept of autonomy and self-determination and so on, and he was making a critique of modern society which was showing what the elements were which were preventing people from acquiring autonomy, and helping people to develop self-activity and autonomy.
AI: Could you elaborate on what you think about this idea of autonomy, so we’re not just talking about Castoriadis, but also about your thoughts on how he has developed this idea?
MB: I don’t know how he has developed the idea; I think that’s a question you’d have to direct at him, about when he first became aware of it. But it seemed to me very clear, looking at the experience of history, that whenever there were major events taking place, looking at the history of the last hundred years or so, one saw a [?] emerging whereby masses of people would come onto the historical scene and try and become subjects of history instead of just objects of history, and try to take the fate of society into their own hands, and try to change things, and then each time organisations would appear on the scene and tell people: “Leave it to us; we know best. You’ve done your job, you’ve generated the change. Go back to where you were; we’ll undertake the basic transformation.” One sees this repeatedly leading – particularly the example of the Russian Revolution is perhaps the best example of all – repeatedly leading to the creation of bureaucracies and new kinds of hierarchical society.
AI: Looking now at this question a little bit more of autonomy, what do you think are the principle obstacles to the realisations of [?]?
MB: I think there are many things that make it difficult for people to act in an autonomous way, going right back perhaps to the influence of parental upbringing. Starting with the family, then through school, then through experience of work, then through experience in politics, every time they come up against influences which make it difficult for them to act autonomously and try and constantly force them to behave in a way dictated by the norms of others.
AI: Are there any things you’d like to add?
MB: I’d like to add that I’ve always enjoyed hearing Castoriadis speak because of the really encyclopaedic nature of his knowledge. And whenever I hear him speak, I always learn a great deal. And now at 67, I still find that coming to these meetings I rather learn a very great deal.
AI: If I can one more question, a question we’ve asked before to other people; we’re just starting out, we’re very young, very fragile, you’ve had a lot of experience: If you have any advice…
MB: No, it’s not for people of my age to give advice; people will have to make their own experiences, learn their own lessons. But that doesn’t mean that they have to knock their head against the same brick walls that we knocked ours against. I think they… I encourage them to read something of the experience of others and then make their own experiences.
AI: Thank you.