Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Maurice Brinton's "For Workers' Power"

[The following is a book review I wrote for the journal International Labor and Working Class History in 2005. It was published a year later, but without any notification. I stumbled upon it while doing a database search on "anarchism" and "labor movements". How ironic. Also, I have since been contacted by a comrade of Brinton who informs me that Brinton was concerned with questions of race and colonialism, but that such essays were not selected for this volume. I fear my review may have underestimated the nature and tenor of the British anarchist movement during Brinton's writing, but one could claim that Marxist-Leninism dominated the Left more than anarchism did--perhaps unlike today.]

Maurice Brinton is the pen-name for the distinguished British neurologist and revolutionary socialist Chris Pallis. As “Brinton”, Pallis wrote highly influential propaganda for the British group Solidarity from the early 1960s through the 1970s. Solidarity published a magazine of the same name for years, and participated in the UK’s anti-nuclear and labor movements. According to this volume’s editor, David Goodway, Brinton was the intellectual mainstay of Solidarity and was the group’s most frequent author.

For Workers’ Power is a rousing collection of dozens of essays written over a period of decades by Brinton, including analytical and philosophical pieces, eye-witness accounts, and book reviews. He was widely known as the English translator of the French libertarian-socialist Cornelius Castoriadis--and this volume includes a number of reviews and introductions to Castoriadis’s work. All of Brinton’s essays simmer with an intensely critical eye toward how every day working people have and can liberate themselves from the oppression, drudgery, and weight of capitalism, while avoiding what Brinton saw as the pseudo- or counter-revolutionary methods of many leftists.

Brinton slays many of the Left’s sacred cows: he hits the left-liberal political parties for their reformism, big trade unions for their hierarchy and disconnect from rank-and-file, and the main socialist and Leninist-Marxists groups for their power-lust and vanguardism. He even gives the anarchists--with whom he has the strongest affinity--an occasional lashing for some of their adherents’ rashness and fantasy.

But, he reserves his strongest criticism for his fellow so-called revolutionaries who adhere to the dogma of Marxist-Leninism. Although he continually--and sometimes favorably--returns to quoting Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, he still laments their actions as activists and the actions of those who later use their words for a laundry-list of what Brinton perceives as sell-outs of the working class. His favorite criticism of Lenin, which appears repeatedly throughout this volume, is Lenin’s distrust and lack of faith in everyday working people. Brinton, as a proponent of revolutionary social action by all people, particularly workers, finds Lenin’s position abhorrent: “the working class... is able to develop only trade union consciousness”. Brinton’s own eye-witness accounts of workers in Belgium, France, and Portugal, as well as his analysis of workers elsewhere seems to suggest the opposite (and the obvious); workers have repeatedly acted beyond the confines of their union and forged revolutionary situations which have allowed for larger gains than a union bureaucracy could. To further illustrate his argument, Brinton notes how the very followers of Lenin are often those who work to reign in the very workers who are “unable” to rise above union consciousness, but seem to be doing it all the same. The “functionalist” role of unions to buffer the working and elite classes, and to normalize and regulate class conflict is implicit in Brinton’s observations, just as in Aronowitz’s (1973) important work, False Promises.

Brinton’s political ideology is explicitly anti-authoritarian socialist. To the average observer, this critique would seem, superficially, no different from the average capitalist cheerleader. However, Brinton’s continuous flaying of Stalinist, Leninist, and Troskyists stems not just from a political repulsion to their writing and spoken dogma, but from his repeated observations of these forces selling-out working class interests when solidarity is needed most. His writing thus appears to be more “left” than even the so-called “ultra-left”. He lambastes the Belgian Communist Party for trying to takeover and control the country’s general strike in late 1960. Using compelling evidence, he accuses the French Communist Party of sabotaging the popular strikes in Paris in 1968 by trying to encourage workers to return to their factories in exchange for miniscule improvements in their jobs--and political rewards for Party honchos. Brinton’s popular pamphlet The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (fully included in the volume) is a merciless critique of how Lenin squeezed economic control from the Soviets by the cynical idea of “worker control”, which amounted to little control, let alone self-management.

A few pieces in For Workers’ Power are introductions to or reviews of articles about historic events. Brinton provides a critical lens to new interpretations of historic events like the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt in the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the factory committees by the Bolsheviks. He also editorializes from afar about unfolding events in Europe, including a general strike in Ulster, Northern Ireland, a factory occupation in Kirkby, England, and the materialization of the independent labor movement in Poland during 1980.

In addition to the excellent first-hand accounts of workers involved in struggles for self-management, the surprising treat in For Workers’ Power is Brinton’s review of the influential books of his time. It is easy in retrospect to critique decades-old works with 20-20 hindsight, but Brinton applies a thoughtful analysis of books at the time when the events were still taking place. The Paris student and worker uprising of May 1968, captured in Cliff and Birchall’s pamphlet France: The Struggle Goes On and the Cohn-Bendit brothers’ Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative book are dissected as the hot, current events they were at the time. Contemporary readers would be left digesting these works three decades after being published, without knowing how authoritative other activists viewed them to be.

If one expects a dry, unemotional account of these momentous events, Brinton’s activist-cum-historian writing will be startling. Although very precise and accurate with his accounting, he clearly has taken sides in these matters--he is on the side of the workers, always. His writing intends to inform readers about past events, but it is always directed toward the goal of solving the shortcomings of the working classes in these events; he uses history as a tool to inform future uprisings, strikes, and revolutions.

One wonders what he might have thought about non-European revolts, such as the anti-colonialist movements, or civil rights in the US (such as the urban riots of the 1960s). Would his critique of class allow for the consideration of racial conflict? This omission may be a simple reflection of where Brinton’s focus tends to be: on European class conflict. During the period he writes of, most anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles took place in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The reader could count on one hand the number of times that race is even mentioned, and it is usually done descriptively, not analytically. Very little is written about nationalist movements, nor on other issues of contemporary concern, such as today’s so-called “new social movements” like the peace, environmental, feminist, and GLBT movements--although this deficit may be the result of a deliberate choice made by the editor, not the author.

Although eschewing the “anarchist” label, Brinton’s work is undeniably anarchistic in nature. Yet, during the period in which he mostly wrote (the 1960s and 1970s) the British anarchist movement was lackluster to say the least. As such, Brinton seems to have a lack of anarchist writing in his background and subsequently does not pull ideas from anarchist or libertarian works as much as he does from Marxist-Leninist ones. As a result, in his review of Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists, he misunderstands Kropotkin’s basic argument in Mutual Aid (1902)--that cooperation is merely another force of human evolution, not the counter-point to competition as Brinton implies (p. 86). Additionally, he misses the many sources where Kropotkin observes and does argue for class conflict; Brinton is thus caught replicating the common Marxist-Leninist arguments against and misunderstandings of Kropotkin and other anarchists.

These deficits aside, the anarchist publisher AK Press saw fit to publish this historically-important and contemporary collection of essays. Brinton’s writings have long-inspired left and radical movements, and hopefully with this printing will reach even wider audiences.

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