History Matters


By David Brown

A ‘Lost Text’ from 1975 rediscovered: David Brown on the ‘Illusions’ of Maurice Brinton and Cornelius Castoriadis

Editorial notes by the Hobgoblin Collective, 21 January 2011

We publish for the first time the following text, written in 1975 as a letter to the membership of the Solidarity group – also known as ‘Solidarity For Workers Power’. This group was founded in 1960 by Chris Pallis, an eminent neurologist who wrote under the name “Maurice Brinton,” and Ken Weller, a young shop steward working in the motor industry. The group, initially known as Socialism Reaffirmed, published a journal, Agitator, which after six issues was renamed Solidarity. Both Brinton and Weller had previously been members of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League, founded amidst the mass defections from the Communist Party after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. As Richard Abernethy put in an obituary for Chris Pallis in Hobgoblin in 2005,

“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.”

The Solidarity group, despite never having much more than a hundred members, was influential, not least because Solidarity became the main conduit of the political theories of Cornelius Castoriadis aka Paul Cardan (1922-97), founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie in France.
The following resignation statement by Solidarity member, David Brown, was written at a time (1975) when the group was in decline, facing splits and having to deal with the fact that Castoriadis/Cardan had, following the demise of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1965, moved to the Right. Brown, was influenced by French ex-Bordigist, Jacques Camatte, some of whose writings he translated, by the Russian value-theorist, II Rubin, and by Karl Korsch, author of Marxism and Philosophy.

According to Brown, Castoriadis and Solidarity shared with the traditional left a restricted understanding of Marx’s ideas, not recognising the liberatory core of Marx’s Capital, and taking the shortcoming of the traditional left as grounds for breaking with Marx. Brown argues that Castoriadis, Brinton and the Solidarity group misunderstood the cardinal term of the Marx’s critique of political economy – value. Brown writes:

“The attack on the labour theory of value is only a prelude to a more general attack on the materialist conception of history. By reducing the general conception of the mode of production to mean technology and the word ‘determine’ to mean the same as ‘cause’, a simple transformation of marxism into banality follows.”

Castoriadis had argued that,

"The revolutionary movement... must become the place (the only place in contemporary society, outside the factory) where... individuals learn about collective life, run their own affairs and fulfill and develop themselves, working for a common objective in reciprocal recognition."

Brown finds this position to be “entirely false,” and argues (following Jacques Camatte) that “all organisations are despotic” because, basing themselves on “critique of other organisations and individuals” they are “already” the conception of competitive capital.

Two of the editors of The Hobgoblin (Richard Abernethy and George Shaw) are former members of the Solidarity group. As Marxist-Humanists, we do not agree with a lot of the positions David Brown expressed in 1975. If the statement that “all organisations are despotic” means that all attempts to overcome atomization and individual isolation are doomed, then we certainly disagree, believing, as we do, in a philosophically-grounded alternative to capitalism (something Castoriadis, as a “positivist,” never even considered). Nor do we agree that “support for oppressed peoples” was part of the degeneration of Marxism (this in spite of Marx's own statements on Ireland, Poland etc), or that people who voted Labour in 1974 "voted for capitalism."

We are publishing this text not only because of its historical interest as a critique of a (dead) organization of the Left, once significant (and still influential “beyond the grave,” through the works of its theoreticians and the legacy of its activists) , but also because of the general theoretic questions it raises have, in the 21st century Left, not been surpassed.


By David Brown


1 Explanatory Introduction

2 To the membership of ‘Solidarity’ (London)

3 Afterword

4. Appendix, a text distributed after the Coventry meeting 5 July 1975

1. Explanatory Introduction [see footnote a.]

The letter of resignation needs some sort of explanatory introduction in order that the former should not be misunderstood. Firstly, a detail that might be rather obscure. The text on Poland referred to in the first paragraph was a study, begun in late 1973 and completed in mid-1975, on the revolt of the Polish workers in 1970-1 [with] a mass of historical detail. The text was NEVER discussed by the London group, except in literary terms, its “boring” nature etc. (one can get this kind of thing from any publishers). It was even suggested that the massacre of thousands of Polish workers was treated too somberly and should be written up with greater liveliness and humour! No one outside the London group expressed such philistine sentiments, either of the literary or of the humorous nature, and many other people have read it without any sensation of boredom. One can thus only seek the source of the boredom elsewhere.

Much more important, though, is the theory of the group, the theoretical critique etc., which the differences over the Poland text are, I feel sure, only an expression. Thus, according to Solidarity
"The revolutionary movement... must become the place (the only place in contemporary society, outside the factory) where... individuals learn about collective life, run their own affairs and fulfill and develop themselves, working for a common objective in reciprocal recognition." ('Modern Capitalism and Revolution', 1974 edition, p.94 // 11 and ‘Redefining Revolution' p.l8 //41).

This I find to be entirely false. All organisations are despotic in a double sense. They behave despotically in order to sustain themselves in this society. But this is merely to state what is even deeper: all organisations are personifications of a theory and a critique of other organisations and individuals. The critique form is merely the continued form of theory from the bourgeois revolution, the form necessary to combat adversaries which, did or would, constitute the vast majority of society.

All organisations hold this form, or try to attain it. But all that this is is the searching for the best form in which they will personify the basis of the bourgeois revolution, capital, and individual capital, real in some cases, fictitious in most. But the organisation as an entity is not the root of the problem. It is in the relation of the group with others that capital realises itself as the supreme mystification of man by his own creation. Thus, the group does not control its internal functioning, not because of the pressures of capitalism “outside,” i.e., through competition, but because it is already the conception of capital.

This is also a rejection of the theory of the revolutionary. But most of all it means the overthrow of the critique form of expression of ideas and most especially all the “new ideas” movement and the voluntaristic surpassing of this and that theory without at all understanding what this means in real terms rather than the self-refining of the theory. The critique form will otherwise return to claim its own. Historically speaking, Aristotle's view on revolution has never been more surpassed and less realised. [Editors’ note: Aristotle’s views on revolution, which lack any notion of historical progress, are completely political, objective and value-free; revolution is simply regime-change.]

This is where one can discuss the nature of Marx's work. The letter itself gives many interesting cases of the greater or lesser extent of misunderstanding of Marx by Solidarity (see also footnote ‘b’ to this introduction). But Solidarity has never treated the question of what Marx's writings represent and why they are insufficient (which is because Capital was a description of the rise of capital - not even capitalism - in western Europe up to 1860's, and not its entire course, particularly as the revolution forseen in Capital did not occur and so end capital). This has nothing to do with the vague polemical attitude to Marx and marxism. It is nothing short of intellectual aristocratism (or Bourbon monarchism, because there is an inability to learn anything new or to forget the old) to believe that Marx can simply be surpassed by the uttering of a few pages of critique, especially when the debate is always posed in terms of the banalisation of marxism or the usual quotation-clipping and paste-up of the quotes in a rearranged order. This is the invention of the ideologically redundant.

One may one cite here one of the most important recent works: Norman Levine's 'The Tragic Deception: Marx Contra Engels' (Clio Books 1975) which shows the strong contradistinction between the linear approach to history of Engels’ and Marx's approach to communism as a movement in all society and not just the alpha and omega of society. [see footnote b]

Having discussed organisation and theory in a thoroughly traditional order, one can now go on to practice. Solidarity abounds with the Lenin quotes, e.g. “without revolutionary theory no revolutionary practice,” or its activated form, inserting “development of” in two cases. Let us use this statement as a measure for its own users. How was it that the works of Cardan which Solidarity has published (nearly all from the last 10 issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie) were produced simultaneously with what Richard Gombin call Cardan’s "Leninist" period, in which Cardan's conception of the organisation "...bears a certain resemblance to the Bolshevik type of party" and "entirely in the tradition of the Trotskyist groups..." (R Gombin, The Origins of Modern Leftism, Penguin books 1975. Trans. from French ed. 1971 (p101-101)

So, if one measures by Lenin's statement, one finds precisely Lenin's solutions, because a certain and rigidly determinist division (here, that practice is within theory) and the very separation theory-practice leads to one end. It is not the end that would be achieved if the point-of-departure were the examination of the movement of communism and not the theoretical device for inventing a new way of viewing society. Solidarity has never noticed this nor Socialisme ou Barbarie's support for the "struggles of colonial peoples", its indecision on trade unionism (in 1968 Cardan supported the CFDT, in 1975 he wrote for its “trade paper”). In short, the practice of S. ou B. can be seen in its theory too. Much of what Cardan wrote was and is thoroughly admirable and could even be the foundation for other work, but to blur the edges and to ignore the limitations is to transform from appreciation to hagiography, of which there is already enough.

All these reasons would not be enough to persuade any individual to leave a group. It is when the individual characteristics of the group are seen as part of a general tendency that everything comes out into the open. Taking a case in early 1974 [when] there was great social tension [and] parts of the bourgeoisie panicking, some members of Solidarity decided to support capitalism and voted for the Labour Party. This did not lead to organizational dissolution, expulsion or any other action. Why? Because a common point remained: the organisation. Whether or not we dress this up in fancy names such as “collectivity” or “affinity group,” just as Gramsci rewrote the despotic state in terms of “praxis,” is irrelevant. Similarly, because of this, it is impossible to form an organisation or anti-organisation within Solidarity (London) because this would be to exclude de facto what is the basic point of contact, the organisation. One would become at best a circus bear, growling when provoked but really quite impotent and not at all menacing. This author refused this role, left and is circulating this text.

This is not at all to suggest that the membership of Solidarity (London) is a group of evil, scheming people. Nor is it good enough to lend a crucified look and say “forgive them... they don't know what they are doing.” Both views are incorrect and instead one could say that “up to now, man has made a false representation of himself.” The organisation is both personal and impersonal force, the question is whether it is human or not. This is far from being a theoreticist wrangle over whether the author is an “economic determinist” or not (the allegation is that of the London group). This characterisation originates almost exactly in the “false representation,” which is all that is to be challenged.

Summing-up, it is impossible for me to adopt the forms of action of those I wish to see through; here, the form critique, the relation of theory-practice and the group practice. Such an enterprise would merely be a return to the origin in the foundation of another organisation and its attempt to dominate and defeat. Instead I have tried to state a few facts, in the fullest sense of that word. If this draws the characterisation of “'economic determinist political views” I regret it because this is a profound misunderstanding .

The general tendency of any group that has separated theory from practice is to make itself central, either per se, or in the theoretical sense and as "the only place..." Hence an intellectual centre, a real aristocratism, the real court of the King. Except that the courts were historical forms of domination; the group tries instead to be non-historical, even trans-historical, an objective scene not on the broader canvass. To be blunt, one cannot see a revolutionary movement in the terms of organisation or of its theory, classist, populist etc. On the contrary, such views are merely to limit activity to a spectral form that appears to walk through the very walls of the structure of capitalist society, but, actually, is only another illusion of the reduction of the revolutionary movement.

Thus I have rejected the theory of the organisation (which does not mean the rejection of organisation), the critique form of theory and the concept of activity based on a programme. Capitalism came into being on the destruction of other modes of being, most especially the communism of the peasant communities (e.g. the Russian mir) nomade (e.g. the Amerindians) and, later, modern communism, as much as it existed, in Russia and elsewhere. Capitalism cannot tolerate other modes of production and ceaselessly obliterates all attempts to overthrow it. It would be a miracle if it were to tolerate the “communism” of the groups. But it tolerates the groups, why? Because it shares an illusion with them, that of politics.

Footnotes to part one.
a. For me, the term "economic determinism' is either a contradiction or a repetition. It is based on the a priori division of social, political and economic factors and their separation. Such a method is theoretically impotent, lacking all idea of a general equivalent. Let us see what Marx meant by ' economy' :

"On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle, etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on the economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself." ('Grundrisse', Pelican ed. 1973 pp 172-3).

Thus to say that economy determines politics is basically true, but that is because politics is within the “economy of time.” But “economic determinism” is a tautology… if “determine’’ is supposed to be cause, this is to assume that the whole creates its parts, or, again, that politics is separate and hence autonomous in its “laws of motion”; but really the economy determines (causes) politics. Thus one is using a theory worked up from abstract categories and then applied to the concrete and found to be self-contradictory ("..as if the task were the dialectic balancing of concepts, and not the grasping of real relations" -- ibid. p.90). It is only the bourgeois theories of the economy that try to create autonomous areas of politics and society in the theory of the civil society and equality before the law. Once again, to see politics as autonomous is to recreate the reality of the bourgeois revolution (development of politics) in the reality of the capitalist despotism where politics have become the mask, the illusion, and not the grasping of the “real relation.” But the "concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse." (ibid. p. 101l)

(One should read the rest of this section of the Grundrisse to see that Marx's ideas were very much more interesting than ever envisaged by Solidarity). As to my alleged “economic determinist political views,” in neither case does this deal with the nature of politics and the nature of the economy. There is no notion of process. For instance, one cannot talk of the spheres of society and nature; as the former “metabolises” the latter, humanity creates its nature. To take another example, in Marx's notes from Morgan's Ancient Societies, "The element of property, which has controlled society to a great extent during the comparatively short period of civilisation, gave mankind despotism, imperialism, monarchy, privileged classes, and finally representative democracy." (Marx, 'Ethnological Notebooks', Krader ed. p.233). Seeing this in liason with the fact that Marx saw property and production as combined, one can state how it is the mode of production as a whole that determines the form of the parts too, that property is a united whole in its development and cannot be altered by some autonomous moment such as the vulgar attitude to politics.

“All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society. In this sense it is a tautology to say that property (appropriation) is a precondition of production. But it is altogether ridiculous to leap from that to a specific form of property, e.g. private property. (Which further and equally presupposes an antithetical form, non-property.) History rather shows common property (e.g. in lndia, among the Slavs, the early Celts, etc.) to be the more original form, a form which long continues to play a significant role in the shape of communal property. The question whether wealth develops better in this or another form of property is still quite beside the point here. But that there can be no production and hence no society where some form of property does not exist is a tautology. An appropriation which does not make something into property is a contradictio in subjecto. [Grundrisse pp. 87-8])

So, far from being a criticism of this author, or of Marx (my “return to Marxism”), the phrase “economic determinist political views” does not even mean anything except a most banal and incomplete theorisation. Engels' famous “final instances” (e.g. in his last letters, to Schmidt 5/8/90. and Bloch 21/9/90 etc,) were attempts to combat the charge of “economic determinism,” but from the standpoint of a linear type historical explanation which had little to do with Marx's work (incidentally, Karl Korsch had shown this earlier, more fully and better than Cardan did, with many imperfections, in 'History and Revolution'; see Korsch’s 'Karl Marx' 1938 pp.221-4).

The arguments here do make a case for a “return to Marx,” but for very good reasons that I shall now expand. It is precisely because the Solidarity attack on marxism is so inexact and selective (one quote from the 'Grundrisse' , none from the various late notebooks on Wagner and Ancient Society, nothing from the 'Theories of Surplus Value' etc.) that one has to go back to Marx to go beyond him. This cannot be conceived voluntaristically. It requires profound study of history and the nature of the continuity of the communist movement in all societies, Marx having largely failed (for lack of material) here. Also, Marx was a moment in this continuity and to try to open him up by the critique form is to apply the same method to him as the application of modem arms to the plains Indians; it is a reference from the bourgeois forms of domination.

In an unpublished text on Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher, I tried to show the importance of showing that, for Marx, the concept of the mode of production cannot be reduced to technology (as Cardan does) or to the structure of labour (as the structuralists and their critics e.g. Baudrillard in The Mirror of Production and the Bolsheviks do). Marx had a very rich notion of the mode of production and the economy. (This is the text referred to in the letter). Unfortunately, Solidarity does not seem able to see the world except in terms of marxism-anti-marxism, leninism-anti-leninism, those who are the problem and. those who are the solution, or, finally and most arrogantly, as those who accept the system and those who fight it. (Solidarity is more reticent than Cardan here, see Redefining Revolution footnote.23). But Cardan (Castoriadis) states that "The level of wages interpretation... used consistently and on a world scale.. would require us to say that the least paid wage-earner in a developed capitalist country is still an exploiter of two thirds of humanity." (see 'Interview with C. Castoriadis' in Telos #23, p.150, my emphases). Solidarity, for its part, is forced to find leninists to criticise as its raison de etre, even to invent them, such as with the group which distributed “To the silent majority” and then formed a council-communist group and later "World Revolution.” This group opposes all united fronts, trade unions, parliamentary tactics, anti-fascist fronts, national liberation struggles etc., all decisions of the first three congresses of the Comintern, which Maurice Brinton repeatedly said they support. Moreover, they strongly base their critique of the Comintem on that of the left-communists who were expelled from the Comintem at the Third Congress. Such is their alleged “Leninism”!

For my part, I shall not engage in a full rejection of the characterisations made of me. Instead the reader can see from what I have written here what arc my real views. .

b. The following is an extract from an unpublished review of Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher:

Incidentally, the critique of Marx by Cardan, “History and Revolution,” states that Marx reduces human activity to "the level of the 'productive forces' i.e. in the end to the level of technology." [p.7] This critique is symmetrical to the bolshevik idea of marxism and as such is anti-leninist while calling itself a critique of Marx. One has to refute the belief that Marx's work was technological-determinist, either approvingly or disapprovingly. Marx was quite clear on the significance of technology - or technique:

"Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer." (Capital p.515, 1889 pagination)”

Note: capitalist production and technology are not synonymous and that it is not technology that causes capitalist development (literally, deus ex machina) but the reverse.

"Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations and of the mental conceptions that flow from them." (Capital I, p.367 fn.1)

Note: technology discloses and does not cause; it lays bare and does not define.
"...capitalist production...revolutionises, through the organisation of the labour process and the enormous improvement in technique." (Capital II, p.37, Moscow 1971)

For Marx the productive forces was not a listing of machinery, his conception of the productive forces was not reductionist:

"Religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its (production and consumption) general law." (Marx, Collected Works III, p. 297)

"It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a ‘productive force'." (Marx/Engels, The German Ideology, London 1971 P.50)

"Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself." (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p,151, Moscow 1955)

"The development of fixed capital shows to what extent general social knowledge has become an immediate productive force, and thus up to what point the conditions for the social life process are themselves subjected to the control of the general intellect, and are remodelled to suit it, and to what extent social productive forces are produced not only in the form of knowledge but also as the direct organs of social practice; of the real life process." (Marx's Grundrisse, trans. ed. David McLellan, St. Albans 1973, p.166)

"It (the division of labour in manufacturing) is completed in modern industry, which makes science a productive force distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital." (Marx ,Capital I, p.355)" [see footnote c. in part two of this document 'To the Membership of Solidarity']

I hope that this selection, which could be greatly prolonged, is sufficient to show the nature of the “metabolism“ of nature by humanity and that Marx never held a technologically determinist position (least of all a causal position). This is important because it divides off Marx from the notion of the development of technology as a prerequisite for socialism and re-places him in what I mentioned earlier, the communist movement. Cardan quite correctly condemns technological determinism as the legitimation of bourgeois practice in so-called socialist organisations. But he never traces the break and is faulty at every step he takes to reduce Marx to social-democracy, bolshevism etc.