|Among those who attended Chris’s funeral – family, medics, politicals – on 20th March 2005 were at least two founder members of RaHN, Alan Woodward and George Shaw|
Monday, March 9, 2015
Remembering Chris Pallis
a.k.a. Maurice Brinton, Martin Grainger, N. Kastings (and possibly more)
10 years on – An Integrated Brainy Life
Christopher Agamemnon (he kept that pretty quiet) Pallis died on 10th March 2005. Obituaries that appeared in the British Medical Journal, Guardian and Tribune (among others) testified to the extraordinary contributions he had made both in his profession of neurology and in the sphere of left-libertarian politics. Some extracts are given below along with added recollections and documentation.
· BMJ 2005;330:908 (16 April), doi:10.1136/bmj.330.7496.908 http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/330/7496/908
· David Goodway and Paul Lewis, An irreverent critic of the Bolshevik revolution. The Guardian Thursday March 24, 2005 (Corrects some minor biographical inaccuracies in the BMJ account). http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1444577,00.html#article_continue
· Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 25 2005: “A socialist for all seasons.” http://libsoc.blogspot.co.uk/2005/03/socialist-for-all-seasons-paul.html
· George Shaw and Richard Abernethy, ‘Chris Pallis aka Maurice Brinton: 1923 – 2005’, The HobGoblin, - sorry, this link no longer works but the item is quoted elsewhere online.
The headline on The Guardian obituary – “An irreverent critic of the Bolshevik revolution” was putting it mildly. The authors’ emphasis is on Chris’s writing for Solidarity, a selection of which David Goodway edited under the title For Workers' Power (2004), including the three most substantial and influential ‘Maurice Brinton’ texts: Paris May 1968; The Bolsheviks And Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The State And Counter-Revolution (a book in itself) ; and The Irrational In Politics (1970).
Paul Anderson in Tribune likewise concentrates principally on the political Pallis, and on Solidarity, from a more personal, ‘insider’ (for a time) viewpoint.
Another ex-Solidarist, Dave Lamb, who developed an interest and expertise in the philosophical implications of the brain-death debate, has pointed out in an appreciation of Chris that “it might be worth considering how his contribution to both areas overlapped and complemented each other.”
Fair enough, and it will strike a chord particularly with those who were in on the brain-stem death debate and heard that famous, memorable lecture – and saw the slides, not all grim (a wiry tangle captioned “Woolly thinking” – “Don’t copy that down”; a device for sending a signal from inside a coffin, “so that if people felt they had been buried alive ..”) The primacy of consciousness and the favouring of human decision-making based on rational assessment ("in full knowledge of the relevant facts") over a mechanistic ‘fix’, as well as the humanitarian imperative to prevent suffering, are obvious points of contact and carry-over.
Sometimes the medical-political overlap was visible and the connection spelt out, an early example being Abortion: Law and reality”, Martin Grainger’s review in Agitator no.5 (pp.14-16) of Law for the Rich, by Alice Jenkins (Gollancz, 1960). He praised the book for doing “more than to present a well argued case against the prevailing laws. It deals systematically with all the objections, medical and eugenic, ;scientific’ and irrational, that the opponents of legalised abortion put forward from time to time.” It was an unusual choice of subject for a left-wing paper at this time, and its level of well-informed seriousness probably unique. Chris was to continue to uphold women’s right to choose, and was ready to deploy his expertise in opposition to attempts to turn the clock back after the 1967 Act. As with other issues, his support was not abstract and theoretical; he would appear on demos, handing out leaflets and selling papers, regardless of anonymity or pseudonyms. He extended his criticism of the status quo to the medical profession itself, and was concerned about developments in the NHS, as shown in a detailed critique of bureaucratic changes in 1978, reproduced earlier on this blog.
The BMJ called Chris the “Neurologist who defined brainstem death”, recalling the kerfuffle over a Panorama programme in October 1980 which “alleged that patients certified as brain dead sometimes recovered, and hence that the supply of transplantable organs was skewed by doctors wanting to remove organs from trauma patients who might have recovered.”
This episode led to Chris becoming recognised internationally as an expert on the subject, invited to travel and spread the word, and to write on ‘Death’ for the Encyclopædia Britannica, an assignment he undertook with typical thoroughness and enthusiasm, hunting up relevant sources and allusions in the library and keen to share his discoveries. At the same time he was deeply convinced of the seriousness of the project; it mattered to him that the criteria should be understood and accepted in different cultural contexts, not only to facilitate transplants and save lives, but to prevent the distress caused to relatives and waste of resources involved in ‘ventilating a corpse’. (This concern was no doubt a factor in his continuing insistence on preserving the Brinton pseudonym for his political writings, in case anything else he wrote might be dismissed out of hand as coming from a Red or loony-leftie.)
It was a heady time to observe the Pallis phenomenon, especially for anyone able to see both facets of his super-activity. In the midst of the writing, lecturing, TV interviews and incisive debate (“What was the primary pathology?”), he was also keenly interested in what was happening in Poland, where the Solidarnosc movement was kicking off in a big way, and was involved in organising the meeting that led to the formation of the Polish Solidarity Campaign. (Ian Kennedy’s 1980 Reith Lectures on ‘Unmasking Medicine’ fed into the intellectual buzz too, appealing to his conviction that issues of medical ethics could and should be explained and understood outside the profession.) Once, at the height of his media celebrity, after delivering his tour-de-force lecture on brainstem death to a large and appreciative audience, Chris made his way through the eminent colleagues and others milling round to comment and congratulate him, to ask a member of Solidarity (who happened to be employed in a lowly clerical capacity in a unit on the Hammersmith Hospital/Postgraduate Medical School campus) something about a meeting or leaflet. Whatever the demands on his attention, he could find time, for example, to collaborate on a leaflet and to discuss whatever was going on.
His political commitment was an open secret in his work environment, even if its details were hazy to many there. The word among some overseas students was that his promotion to Professor was blocked because he was a “communist”. It was not always easy to get across the ideas either that someone of his views may not have wanted a Professorship, or precisely what those views were. Conversely, he was always known by his own name in and around Solidarity, the pseudonyms being for writing only, and comrades were aware of his profession, most probably with comparable vagueness. It was an open secret to the security services too; the risks he ran were real. As early as 1945, when he was still a student (and unregenerate Trot), his cover had been blown:
National Archives file HO45/25486: a report on the RCP and the Trotskyist movement: "In 1946 attempts to build at Oxford University and the name of Christopher Pallis, a medical student at Balliol appears who, it is said, spoke at the Neath by-election under the name of N. Kastings."
and - in Extract from New Scotland Yard (Special Branch) fortnightly summary No. 122 for the period ended 30-11-45 - "The Revolutionary Communist Party is endeavouring to secure a footing amongst students at Oxford University, and it has printed a four-page pamphlet entitled "The Manifesto of the October League" for distribution among the students. One of the leaders is Christopher PALLIS, a medical student at Oxford, who, under the alias of N. KASTINGS, spoke at a number of Jock HASTON's election meetings in South Wales during March."
The anti-worker, blacklist-promoting Economic League reported on a meeting held at his house in 1961:
National Archives file LAB 43/368 Economic League: statement on subversive activity in the motor industry 1961 (was SECRET). File contains an Economic League Report of 27-6-61, received by the Ministry of Labour, mostly concerned with the CP and World Federation of Trade Unions. Also mentions the National Committee of Shop Stewards as a `Communist subsidiary organisation', lists a number of firms supposedly being targeted by subversives, refers to strikes of 1957-58. At the end, page 6, the report adds: `Together with the Communist-organised activities, note has also to be taken of a new subversive movement recently set up in the engineering industry. Last March a school for practical and theoretical training of industrial agitators was held at a private house ... The "instructor" was an A.E.U. shop steward from North London, who laid it down that extremist activities in the workshops must be independent of union control and that at all costs union officials must be kept out of the factories...'
In the furore after the Spies for Peace revelations his name came up again.
[The actual perpetrators were never discovered]
A full biography would doubtless have much more to reveal about this fascinating and significant life; if the insiders’ history of Solidarity comes to fruition it may contribute to this. In the meantime we have an interview, some account of is early political trajectory, and of course his own writings, many in print and/or online, plus much still to be unearthed from the faded crumbling pages of our old magazines.