Chris Pallis aka Maurice Brinton. 1923 – 2005
Below we feature two appreciations by former-members of 'Solidarity', George Shaw and Richard Abernethy.
1 - George Shaw
Maurice Brinton , alias “Chris Pallis”, co-founder of Solidarity (Socialism Reaffirmed), in the lare-1950s, has died after a long illness. He is credited with being the main conduit of the political theories of one Cornelius Castoriadis aka Paul Cardan, founder of Socialisme ou Barberie in France. Brinton was interred 20th March 2005 at Golders Green. Notable Solidarity veterans people present at the funeral were Nick Ralph, Ken Weller, Jon Rety, Alan Woodward, Heather Russell, Dave Goodway, and John Quale. There were also a number of medical colleagues from Hammersmith Hospital. Orations were given by a few people, but with little political content.
Brinton’s co – founder of the Solidarity group in the late-1950s was Ken Weller, a young shop steward working in the motor industry. Both had backgrounds in British Trotskyism and joined Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League. The SLL was founded after the mass defections from the Communist Party in the late 50s, which gave space for a regroupment of ideas and presented a definite need to redefine and demystify the malaise of the political scene in Europe. With the growth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1960s, Pallis and Weller cut their teeth by way of their involvement with the Committee of 100. The Solidarity group, with a journal called the Agitator, resolutely rejected vanguardist politics.
Chris Pallis was no stranger to the ideas of Castoriadis in the latter days of his sourjourn in the Socialist Labour League. He would freely admit he did not contribute much theoretically and saw his role as the articulation and application of the politics of Castoriadis in Britain. Much groundwork was done in the early 60s to highlight the role of the trades union bureaucracy and its role in the policing/controlling industrial workers with the imposition of capitalist thinking and organisational methods. Pallis said that the traditional Left was part of the malaise of capitalism and not the solution, which was in his view to develop the idea of “a self managed society run by autonomous workers.” In the early-1960s in France this idea already an appeal and was to find resonance in Britain central to Solidarity’s activity. More originally, Pallis was to publish on his own account, “The Irrational in Politics” an analysis of sexual repression and authoritarian conditioning, which delved into the writings of Wilhelm Reich. He was also to evaluate Georg Frankl’s “Failure of the Sexual Revolution”. Later to follow was the anti-Leninist tract, “The Bolsheviks and Workers Control 1917 – 1921” and many other papers.
I joined the North London Solidarity group when I was working at Vauxhall Motors Luton Plant in 1965. Solidarity played a part in supporting us in a number of strikes in Luton and particularly when we were attempting to link up shop stewards in the industry. The Oxford Shop Stewards Conference was aborted by the sectarian and vanguardist efforts of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and we walked out. The regret is that we didn’t link up effectively with the Ellesmere Port Vauxhall stewards; we could have posed GM a big problem. Solidarity really helped us to crystalise our view of the union’s role in impeding the progress of the independent shop stewards movement which was fighting speed-up (we at Vauxhall were not on piece work incentives like Coventry and Birmingham).
There were three segments that contributed to the dynamics of the group and perhaps to eventual splits: the anarcho-pacifists, syndicalists, and marxists. But these definitions are not entirely accurate as specific tendencies. Pallis and Weller, as the most dominant members of Solidarity, were to preside over the controversies within a loose organisation that had members in Clydeside, Brighton, Oxford and London in mid-sixties. By the late-sixties Castoriadis in France was ditching Marxism and this impacted on the Solidarity group in Britain. Initial tensions were to evolve with the departure of two prominent members of the group Tom Hillier and John Sullivan, who, in 1968, joined the International Socialists (forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) and left with a departing critique: “Solidarity Forever?” to which Pallis issued a rejoinder. (www.whatnextjournal.co.uk). Both papers are a good insight as to the causation of tensions affecting a number of members at that time. These tensions, as much as they were doctrinal issues regarding the drift away from Marxism, were as much about personalities. The arguments tendered led to degroupment of London Solidarity into North London, with Pallis & Weller as the repository of Castoriadis writ, and in South London, where dissidents espoused varied political stands from syndicalism, libertarian socialism, Marxism to anarchism who carved out their own refuge from the “centre”. The latter were to publish a separate magazine, much influenced by what was going on in civil engineering/big construction sites.
I was one of the people who had dissented from the main group and went to South London Solidarity which included Ernie Stanton, a former motor worker and construction industry militant, Lynette Trotter, a publisher, Mike Fearnly, a criminologist, Andre Mann, a Belgian intellectual, and Mark Hendy, an "old fashioned syndicalist" who used to work for Thames and Hudson. Hendy was the one who originally loaned me a copy of Raya Dunayevskaya’s “Marxism and Freedom,” which was to remain with me as the key influence in my later post-Solidarity development.
1972 was to see disagreement with the libertarian-marxist “Big Flame” Merseyside over an article on the Fisher Bendix occupation. Big Flame comrades thought there was a big gap between theory and practice in the method of Solidarity’s way of working and asserted that they felt the group was “divorced from working class struggles.” It was not the first time that the accusation had been levelled against the Solidarity group for being merely just a “pamphleteering group.” But in previous years, when Solidarity had a presence in the Manchester region, much good work has been done on issues thrown up by the clearances of old dwellings, particularly in the Moss Side area.
Despite the underlying tensions in the Group, particularly emanating from the work culture of the North London milieu, Chris Pallis as the founder of the group has a rightful place as innovator in realm of political ideas. Pallis would call himself Libertarian Left as opposed to “pure” anarchist, a term he did not like anyway. Appropriately, the comment was that “one of the greatest pains of human nature is the pain of a new idea.” Pallis never shirked away from a polemic. The three main publications “Paris ’68,” “The Irrational in Politics” and “Bolsheviks & Workers Control” stand the test of time as an articulation of a libertarian critique of the time of working class ascendancy and student unrest critiquing society beyond purely economist issues.
The question of what happens after any future revolution remains to be answered and worked out. But the question of who manages (in the context of autogestion, self management) is not sufficient in dealing with alternatives offered such as a “workers state” and various forms of state capitalism. Whilst Pallis and Solidarity very rightly laid much stress on the issues of production relations and not the property relations – the core issue of labourer and his/her alienation has still to be resolved - and no amount of self – management can give us a panacea, when the word is blatantly used by the employers nowadays. Chris Pallis will be remembered for opening the window on the worst excesses of the state-capitalist model as personified in East Europe in the fifties, and for discussing key questions facing mankind’s domination over his environment and institutions created to solve future tasks in the new society.
Much has changed in the world we live and Chris Pallis conceded to the fact that the theoretical tapestry of Cornelius Castoriadis was showing its tatters at the edges. The projection that capital could stabilize and prevent major crisis has always been questionable. Western economies are now gripped with acute problems, Keynes has been left behind, and the language of “free market” economics being used by Social Democratic politicians swamps us. Chris Pallis also acknowledged the fact that as well the economic parts of Castoriadis’ theory being problematic they are profound difficulties with regard his total rejection of Marxism.
Pallis recognised that the previously submerged Marxist tradition was slowly being rediscovered with newer theorists coming to the fore. Unfortunately this was not reflected sufficiently in the revamping of the magazine Solidarity for Social Revolution (1977 onwards after the merger with Social Revolution) which failed to deal with increasing questions of contestation outside the sphere of production - questions which Michel Albert was beginning to tackle in “Parecon”, not to mention the need to reread the Humanist Marx and “Capital.”
Pallis bequeathed to the non-vanguardist or libertarian British Left a style of articulation that was hard to equal, with an acute sense of minute detail on the most complex of issues. He also left us with a definition of the phenomena of bureaucratisation in the demystification of the State-Capitalist model. This was to find immediate resonance with shop stewards, some in the motor industry and others who were fighting the union officials as well as the factory bosses in the period of late Fordist production speed-ups. There were also substantial contributions from some exceedingly talented members of the original group such as Piotr Cerny, Andy Anderson, John King, Akiva Orr, Joe Jacobs, Nick Ralph, Tom Hillier and Ernie Stanton (the last two were industrial workers). The sheer volume of Pallis’ writing, whether translations from his political mentor Cornelius Castoriadis or his own, deserves more than a casual look if only for the succeeding generation to learn from Solidarity’s history and it’s mistakes.
2 - Richard Abernethy writes.
The sad news that Chris Pallis, alias Maurice Brinton, had died recalled for me the period, between 1974 and 1978, when I was a member of the Solidarity group in Oxford. I liked and respected Chris, but did not know him very well, so I really can’t add to the fine obituaries that have already been written, including George Shaw’s on this website.
The following remarks are a brief reflection on Solidarity, as an organisation and a body of ideas. They represent a personal view, based on no research other than delving into my own memory.
Solidarity punctured and deflated some favourite left-wing illusions. It recognised that there was no actually existing socialism, no worker’s states, in the world. Notwithstanding all differences between the Western capitalist bloc, the Eastern bloc ruled by Communist parties, and the Third World, the basic divide between rulers and ruled existed everywhere. It was from a Solidarity pamphlet that I first learned about the Hungarian workers’ revolution against totalitarian state-capitalism in 1956. Still more controversially, Solidarity published an analysis of the Vietnam war as an inter-capitalist conflict, and the totalitarian character of the North Vietnamese state, at a time when many on the Western left held to a mythic vision of the Vietnamese struggle. (Old comrades may remember that I had certain illusions myself, about self-management in Yugoslavia, which took me some time to shed.)
Solidarity rejected the idea of a vanguard party to lead the struggle for socialism (as represented in 1970s Britain by the International Socialists, who later became the Socialist Workers’ Party, and a host of smaller organisations). It sought instead to develop decentralised and non-hierarchic forms of organisation. It went some way towards developing a positive vision of a new society, based on the idea of self-management, in the form of workers’councils.
For a time, Solidarity’s distinctive form of libertarian socialism posed a serious challenge to the orthodoxies of the traditional left. Why then did it fail to develop beyond a certain point, but go into a process of slow disintegration? I think there were a number of reasons.
Having determined that it was not a prospective vanguard party, Solidarity remained uncertain about its own role and purpose. This identity crisis came to a head as the group grew, acquired more local groups, and attracted new members who didn’t share the political experience of the founders.
Some questioned the need for any kind of formal organisation, however democratic and decentralised. Some were so committed to ‘spontaneity’ that they were suspicious of any attempt to influence the masses – except, perhaps, to warn against the traditional left. Some were mainly interested in personal and lifestyle issues.
By the later 1970s, it became increasingly difficult to say what Solidarity stood for. There were two magazines, one produced by the London group and another whose editorship circulated among the local groups. Each issue tended to contradict what had been said in the previous one. A lively internal debate is part of the life of a healthy organisation, but in Solidarity the differences exceeded the point where they could sensibly remain in the same small group.
One might have expected Solidarity to have an affinity to the women’s liberation movement, which took off in Britain in the 1970s. Both sought to challenge interpersonal power relations, within the left as well as more widely in society; both favoured decentralised and non-hierarchic organisation. Although some of us did try to develop a libertarian, socialist feminism, what eventually came to characterise the group was a strange, ultra-left anti-feminism, in which objections to the extreme attitudes of some feminists were taken to justify a rather sweeping rejection of the whole movement. I believe this was mostly an expression of male anxiety. Feminists were assigned a place alongside Trotskyists in the group’s demonology.
Solidarity’s main theoretical influence was Constantine Castoriadis (alias Paul Cardan) who argued that it was necessary to abandon Marxism in order to remain revolutionary. Now I would argue that Castoriadis and Solidarity shared with the traditional left a restricted understanding of Marx’s ideas, not recognising the liberatory and humanist essence of Marx’s philosophy; and while the old left based themselves on that constrained concept of Marxism, Solidarity took it as grounds for breaking with Marx.
After leaving Solidarity I became a Marxist-Humanist. Solidarity in Britain and the News and Letters Committees in the United States both arose during the Cold War, rejecting both dominant power blocs and both hegemonic ideologies in the world at that time. The two tendencies both refused to choose between Western bloc and Eastern bloc, private capitalism and state-capitalism; both were inspired by anti-Stalinist revolutions like Hungary 1956, and held that socialism, a future global classless society, must be inseparable from the freedom of each individual human being. This idea had been inherent in Marx’s original concept, but had been repudiated, forgotten or sidelined by the main currents of left thought (and many minor currents too). While Solidarity tried to develop a post-Marxist socialist theory, News & Letters returned to the humanism of Marx, working to recreate it for our times as Marxist-Humanism. As I see it, a living, evolving body of ideas rooted in Marx’s thought has remained relevant and engaged in understanding the contemporary world and the effort to change it, while the seemingly more radical attempt to supersede Marx has not stood the test of time.