I know lots of people who are good at more than one thing, but very few who could match Chris Pallis, who died last week at the age of 81. From the early 1960s until the early 1980s he managed to combine being both one of the world’s leading authorities in neurology and one of the most innovative and stimulating voices in British left politics.
Tribune readers can be forgiven if the name doesn’t ring a bell. His medical accomplishments, working as a consultant at the Hammersmith hospital, were extraordinary — his work on brain death remains the basis for decisions about when the life-support machinery can be turned off — but they were not the stuff to get him noticed among most politicos. More important, he did not do politics under his own name. For political purposes, he was first (briefly) Martin Grainger and then Maurice Brinton, under which pseudonym he was the leading light of the libertarian socialist group Solidarity throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a brilliant reporter and polemicist and an accomplished translator.
To cap it all, this was rather a long time ago and well outside the political mainstream. Solidarity was never very big: even at its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s it had hundreds rather than thousands of members, making it a minnow by comparison with the main Trotskyist groups, let alone the Communist Party or the Labour Party. And the group has not been around for ages: it disintegrated as a national organisation in the early 1980s and became no more than a magazine, the last issue of which was published way back in 1992, by which time the byline Maurice Brinton had not appeared for the best part of a decade.
In its time, however, Solidarity was a key player on the British left, notable both for its exuberance and for its originality. It played an important role in the direct action wing of the early 1960s peace movement (it was the inspiration behind Spies For Peace in 1963, which blew the gaffe on the regional seats of government at the heart of the state’s preparations for nuclear war), was instrumental in reviving the squatting movement later on in the same decade and was influential in the wave of shopfloor militancy that swept Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1980s, the group played an major part in the creation of the Polish Solidarity Campaign and came close to being prosecuted for distributing what the right-wing press called a “do-it-yourself abortion guide”. (It was actually nothing of the kind, but the story is too complex to relate here.)
Most crucially, Solidarity had something different and relevant to say. While the rest of the far left was recycling the tired old platitudes of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Solidarity, inspired by the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie (led by Cornelius Castoriadis, whose writings, written under the pseudonym Paul Cardan, were first translated into English by Brinton), carved out a political space for a revolutionary libertarian socialism, opposed to the cautious bureaucratic reformism of Labour and the trade unions, hostile to the police-state “socialism” of Soviet-type societies and dismissive of the deluded authoritarianism of latter-day Leninists.
Its magazine and, particularly, its dozens of pamphlets shaped the thinking of a generation of libertarian socialists. Among the pamphlets were several by Brinton: the group’s manifesto As We See It; Paris May 1968, his brilliant eyewitness account of the near-revolution in France in 1968; The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, his classic debunking of Lenin’s hostility to workers’ self-management; and The Irrational in Politics, a restatement and development of the early work of Wilhelm Reich. Some of the pamphlets are still in print; many more have been republished on the web.
I joined Solidarity in the late 1970s and never actually left, but I didn’t know Brinton well. He semi-retired from the group in 1980 just as I was getting involved. All the same, I’d say he had a bigger impact on my political outlook than anyone apart from my grandfather and George Orwell, both through his own writings and through his Castoriadis translations.
I was reading his work again when I heard he had died: a collection of his essays and pamphlets, edited and introduced by David Goodway, has just been published, and I was working on a review. I had been struck by how exciting I still found his writing. Brinton’s style is aphoristic, his approach to received wisdom scornful, his erudition apparent but never intrusive. Very few political writers are thrilling: Brinton was, and still is. It is very sad that he has gone, but Goodway’s book is the best possible guarantee that he will not be forgotten.
For Workers’ Power, a collection of writings by Maurice Brinton edited by David Goodway, is published by AK Press at £12
The Guardian ran an excellent obituary yesterday by David Goodway and Paul Lewis (click here).