Book Review from the June 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
For Workers' Power. The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton, edited by David Goodway. (AK Press. £12)
One of the features of the radical political scene in the 1960s and 70s was a magazine called Solidarity which used to publish long and rather boring accounts of factory life and of particular and now long forgotten industrial disputes. There were also translations of equally long articles by someone identified as "Paul Cardan" (later revealed to be the French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis) offering a replacement critique of capitalism to that of Marx judged outdated and wrong. Those behind it had been in the Communist Party and, though for a short while only, in the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League. One of them was Maurice Brinton (also known as Martin Grainger and Chris Pallis), a selection of whose articles over the period 1960 to 1985 has just been published (For Workers' Power. The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton, edited by David Goodway. AK Press. £12), and who appears to have been its leading theoretician. Born in 1923 he died earlier this year.
What characterised Solidarity was its complete rejection of Leninism and the concept of the Vanguard Party and its advocacy of Workers Councils (as opposed to parliament as well as the vanguard party) as the way to socialism. In their view, a revolutionary organisation should not seek to lead the working class but simply to be an instrument that workers could use to transform society; at the same time it should try to prefigure in its organisation and decision-making what future society should be like, practising "self-management" and encouraging workers to rely on their own efforts rather than trust in leaders. So, some of what Solidarity was saying was more or less the same as we were. For example: "If the working class cannot come to understand socialism - and want it - there can be no socialist perspective. There can only be the replacement of one ruling elite by another" (March 1969).
"For us, revolutionaries are not an isolated elite, destined to any vanguard role. They are a product (albeit the most lucid one) of the disintegration of existing society and of the growing awareness of what it will have to be replaced by" (February 1972). "We consider irrational (and/or dishonest) that those who talk most of the masses (and of the capacity of the working class to create a new society) should have the least confidence in people's ability to dispense with leaders" ("As We Don't See It", 1972).
Like us, they mercilessly denounced Leninism, Trotskyism and Vanguardism as not only mistaken but as positively dangerous, as the ideology of a new would be ruling class based on state capitalism.
There were differences of course, particularly over Workers Councils as opposed to Parliament as well as over the continuing relevance of Marx's analyses and over the content of a socialist society. Because we saw the basic division in capitalist society as being between owners and non-owners we saw common ownership, and the consequent disappearance of buying and selling, money and the market, as a necessary feature of socialism. Solidarity was not so clear on this. Following Castoriadis it saw the basic division in capitalist society as being between order-givers and order-takers and so the basic feature of future society as being "self-management" (which would of course be one such feature, what we call "democratic control"). From this angle, the disappearance of money and the market was regarded as secondary: whether or not to use them being a mere policy option open to those around at the time.
This became clear in the translation published in 1972 under the title Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society of a long article by Castoriadis, written in 1957, which was basically a blueprint for the workers self-management of a market economy. Brinton was aware that this was controversial and in the introduction (reproduced in this book) he wrote (in a thinly disguised reference to us) that "some will see the text as a major contribution to the perpetuation of wage slavery - because it still talks of 'wages' and doesn't call for the immediate abolition of 'money'".
He was right. Some did, and not only us. Such "councilism" (management of a market economic by workers' councils, which we denounced as "workers' self-exploitation") led to the breakaway of groups which later became the "left communist" CWO and ICC of today, which despite their partial return to Leninism, at least adhered to the view that socialism/communism had to be a moneyless, wageless society.
This, in fact, is not the only place where Brinton looked over his shoulder at us. As early as 1961 he was explaining that "whilst rejecting the substitutionism of both reformism and Bolshevism, we also reject the essentially propagandist approach of the Socialist Party of Great Britain", a theme he returned to in 1974 in a review of a book on the sexual revolution which advocated achieving this through education: "to confine oneself to such an attitude would be to restrict oneself to the role of a sort of SPGBer of the sexual revolution".
In fact, in his two main writings, both published in 1970, The Irrational in Politics and The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control he felt the need to have a go at us. In the former he suggested that the Socialist Standard only discussed economic and political topics and ignored the problems of everyday life (not true as a look through the issues of the time will show). In the latter he wrote that we, like some anarchists, took the view that nothing particularly significant had happened in 1917: "The SPGB (Socialist Party of Great Britain) draw much the same conclusion, although they attribute it to the fact that the wages system was not abolished", adding in a wild caricature of our position "the majority of the Russian population not having had the benefit of the SPGB viewpoint (as put by spokesmen duly sanctioned by their Executive Committee) and not having then sought to win a Parliamentary majority in the existing Russian institutions". Of course, our analysis was much deeper than that.
To be quite honest such criticisms did find some echo amongst some of our members in the 1970s who eventually got themselves expelled for publishing material advocating workers' councils rather than parliament as the way to socialism. But this was later to cause a problem for Brinton and Solidarity since the ex-SPGBers in question became the "Social Revolution" group which, as Goodway records in his introduction, merged with Solidarity to become "Solidarity for Social Revolution".
For all their other disagreements with us, these ex-members still retained the conception of socialism as a moneyless and wageless as well as a classless and stateless society, and insisted on the new merged group adopting this position. Brinton eventually went along with this, though reluctantly, and afterwards revealed (see his 1982 article "Making A Fresh Start") that he regarded this merger - which didn't last - as bringing to an end Solidarity's golden age of 1959 to 1977. Ironically, something seems to have rubbed off on him, as the last-dated article in this collection (from 1985) ends: "A socialist society would therefore abolish not only social classes, hierarchies and other structures of domination, but also wage labour and production for the purpose of sale or exchange on the market".
Brinton is a good writer, so this book reads well and stands as a record of one strand of radical thinking in the 1960s and 70s. It goes well with the part of our own centenary publication Socialism Or Your Money Back that also reproduces articles from this period.