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
·         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).,,1444577,00.html#article_continue
·         Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 25 2005: “A socialist for all seasons.”
·         George Shaw and Richard Abernethy, ‘Chris Pallis aka Maurice Brinton: 1923 – 2005’, The HobGoblin 
           [n.b. Linked version contains numerous copy errors (and some highly debatable comments).]
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
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).
<< The eminent neurologist Christopher Pallis, who has died aged 81, was also the principal writer, translator and thinker for the libertarian socialist Solidarity group, which was most influential during the 1960s and early 1970s. As a neurologist, his concept of and criteria for brainstem death have been internationally adopted; and his entry on death for Encyclopaedia Britannica is a masterpiece of historical and medical summary […] 
As a reviewer and polemicist, Pallis wrote very well. His style was punchy, accessible and wickedly funny. Especially noteworthy are his vivid reports from upsurges of popular self-activity: the Belgian General Strike of 1960-61, Paris in May 1968, and Portugal in 1975 and 1976 […]
His original work went beyond Castoriadis in certain areas. The pamphlet The Irrational In Politics (1970) explores the role of sexual repression and authoritarian conditioning in generating conformity. While derivative of Wilhelm Reich, as he acknowledged, he convincingly identified 1960s sexual permissiveness as a breakthrough in the "undermining of tradition" and terminating a vicious cycle.
Pallis's political chef d'oeuvre is The Bolsheviks And Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The State And Counter-Revolution (1970). It traces the obliteration of the Russian factory committees of 1917-18 so that by 1921 factories and trade unions had been subordinated to the new Bolshevik state and the party […] >>

Paul Anderson in Tribune likewise concentrates principally on the political Pallis, and on Solidarity, from a more personal, ‘insider’ (for a time) viewpoint.
<< 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 […] 
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

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.”
Always forceful in Solidarity discussions. Above all he was a demystifier. This was also a fundamental scientific and political objective. On the one hand were the centralist Leninists and Trotskyites, and on the other were the subjective and frequent woolly ideas of various anarchists, peaceniks, and supporters of cults. Both sides were subject to his criticism. Likewise in medicine. Marshalling scientific and historical material in support of a neurological definition of death he demystified the cardio-centrists and their traditional definition on the one hand and the frequently woolly and subjective ideas of the bioethicists, philosophers and personal identity theorists on the other hand.
Then there was his wit, which he considered essential in the presentation of arguments [...]
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.”
<< Chris Pallis stepped into the centre of this controversy. As a neurologist with a strong interest in general medicine, and working in a hospital that was a transplant centre, he was accustomed to diagnosing brain death. He was, moreover, an outstanding writer and teacher. He took on the unenviable job of persuading the profession and the public that brainstem death was true death, and, indeed, that it could be diagnosed at the bedside without the need for high-tech imaging. He was the author of the BMJ's ABC of Brainstem Death (1983, second edition 1995), which remains a masterpiece of clear exposition. >>

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.)
The developments in the idea and diagnosis of brain-stem death came as a response to a conceptual challenge. Intensive-care technology had saved many lives, but it had also created many brain-dead patients. To grasp the implications of this situation, society in general--and the medical profession in particular--was forced to rethink accepted notions about death itself. The emphasis had to shift from the most common mechanism of death (i.e., irreversible cessation of the circulation) to the results that ensued when that mechanism came into operation: irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness, combined with irreversible apnea [inability to breathe]. These results, which can also be produced by primary intracranial catastrophes, provide philosophically sound, ethically acceptable, and clinically applicable secular equivalents to the concepts of "departure of the soul" and "loss of the breath of life,' " which were so important to some earlier cultures.
Copyright © 1994-2000 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. [highligting added]
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 his 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.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent and informative piece on Chris, Liz. I learnt things about him that I didn't know. Pete.