Sound and mystery

John Berger - Selected essays - Bloomsbury 2001, pp588, £25

There are many of us on the revolutionary left who know John Berger in at least one of his incarnations. He is at once an art critic, novelist, philosopher, artist, poet, Marxist - or, as Berger himself would have it, storyteller. He is also an enigma. Born in London in 1926, he was led towards Marxism because of his experience at a "totalitarian" prep school and his first glimpses of working class solidarity in the army at the close of World War II. As an art critic at the New Statesman in the 1950s, he was widely regarded as the bête noire of the art establishment. He was the leading critic of an abstract expressionism which, he argued, was deeply anti-humanist and one of the major cultural components of American cold war ideology. Amongst other things, Berger's early novels documented working class experience in the 1950s and featured characters based on the émigré Marxist intellectuals who had tolerated and educated this naive, middle class intellectual. His non-fictional documentary books and films such as A fortunate man and Another way of telling were superb examples of how we understand seeing and storytelling from a deeply humanistic, Marxist position. Moving to France in the early 1970s, he began to write his masterpiece, the trilogy Into their labours - a massive fictional account of the historical elimination of peasant experience. He is still writing and producing profoundly beautiful work. Yet Berger's work is highly contradictory. His early Labour Monthly articles, his politically engaged novels, his financial support for the revolutionary movement and his active exposition of Marxist philosophy mark Berger as a theorist of some substance. My own assessment of him is that he is possibly the finest Marxist writer on art in the 20th century. However, since the late 1960s Berger has retreated from any substantial role in the British communist movement to live an isolated existence in the French Alps. He continues to write and still considers himself to be a Marxist, but his work has redemptive qualities rather closer to biblical messianism than to the Marx he still so much admires. He is deeply distrusted by some sections of the left for what they perceive as his abdication of the struggle and his descent, as they see it, into ponderous, opaque mysticism. We cannot, however, accept this assessment of Berger. That very retreat 'into the watchtower' displays something truly great about Berger. As I pointed out recently in Race and Class, Berger's work is attempting not only to rectify Marxist conceptions of the peasantry, as they are expressed in Kautsky, Lenin and so on; he is also trying to document the historical elimination of this class in order to understand how capitalism as a social force is to be properly resisted. This assessment of Berger's work points to something of enduring political significance - the capacity of Marxists to understand the nature of historical defeat in the 20th century and how we orient to that defeat without abdicating the historical mission of the proletariat to liberate humanity. In his own terms this is what Berger is attempting to do. He has presented an unflinching accounting of the balance of forces in the last century, as witnessed by himself - in art, in literature, in revolution. Berger often speaks and writes of 'going closer' in order to clarify and render visible the nature of class experience in art and in history. It is in that spirit that we need to read Berger and critically support the kind of philosophical project he has sustained for so long. The essays under review here are, however, problematic. Because of a misunderstanding of Berger's work it is often left to non-Marxist writers like Nikos Papastergiadis and Geoff Dyer (the editor of this collection) to interpret and disseminate. Dyer's earlier book on Berger seems to me to distort the nature of Berger's project and it certainly relegates the revolutionary aspect of his work. Berger himself is not accountable for his lesser epigones, but non-Marxist readings of his corpus cannot remain unchallenged. Berger is still a revolutionary absolutely committed to human liberation, as his recent writings on the Zapatista uprising display. His work on the photography of resistance of Salgado also demonstrates his commitment to revolutionary anti-capitalism. The American Marxist, Harvey Kaye, has pointed to Berger's deep affinity with British communist historians like Christopher Hill and EP Thompson. This is all downplayed in Dyer's short introduction, where he mystifies Berger's whole project. In fact this edition of essays did not really need an editor at all - they are simply reprints of substantial parts of Berger's earlier books and a couple of more recent pieces. However, several key articles are omitted. The editor seems to be there not to help us grasp Berger, the revolutionary, but to get rid of Berger's best work from the collection. Still, in substance, the essays are unparalleled in their clarity and commitment and could serve as a template for anybody seriously trying to understand art and revolution. In the opening pages of the book Berger makes clear his project: "There is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property - unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further." Whether dealing with the greatness of Goya, the degeneration of Picasso, or the superficiality of abstract expressionism, the essays on art in the collection bear witness to a kind of anger which makes us look closer and not turn away. Where he entwines art and politics, such as his essays on Guevara, Serge and Zadkine, he beautifully transcends both the rigid, destructive dogmatism of socialist realism, whilst refusing to accept the rise of art which, in being anti-realist, is simply anti-human. Berger uncovers in the best of these essays the mystification of social relations in art and uses those ideas as a bridgehead into the possible society of the future - where we will look back on today's world as dark ages bereft of justice, but where people constantly resisted. I will mention in particular an article which, when I first read it, completely changed my conception of human liberation. This is the essay, 'Ernst Fischer: a philosopher and death', where Berger recounts the last days he spent with the great Austrian Marxist and critic. It is a moving testament not only to Fischer, but to that generation of revolutionaries who resisted fascism until it destroyed them. In the last moments of Fischer's life Berger looks at his hands - "like the forefeet cut off from an animal found dead in the forest". Berger witnesses the death - "I can make no sarcophagus carving," he says. Discussions, in those last days, on Ovid's Metamorphosis point to the dialectics of love and of history. It is a fine essay, standing as a monument to the greatness of our common struggles and communist culture. Nevertheless there is one aspect of the collection which is impossible to justify: the editing displays something Berger has consistently fought against - the historical and cultural elimination of a class. This is the reason we cannot allow Berger's project to be taken over by those who are not revolutionaries. In 1992 Berger published one of his best collections of essays Keeping a rendezvous, which for the most part is reprinted here. However, some of its best revolutionary content has been deleted. A poem on the Chilean revolutionary murdered by Pinochet, Orlando Letelier, has disappeared, but particularly difficult to accept is the absence of what I consider Berger's finest short essay, 'Miners'. This was written to accompany Knud and Solwei Stampe's portraits of British miners. The essay is a justification of revolutionary violence and an open letter to the British working class and revolutionary intellectuals everywhere. In rectifying this terrible omission I will give you an extended quote from it which surely demonstrates why a bourgeois publishing house like Bloomsbury would want it suppressed: "When the just cause is defeated, when the courageous are humiliated, when men proven at pit-bottom and pit-head are treated like trash, when nobility is shat upon, and the judges in court believe lies, and slanderers are paid to slander with salaries which might keep alive the families of a dozen miners on strike, when the Goliath police with their bloody truncheons find themselves not in the dock but on the honours list, when our past is dishonoured and its promises and sacrifices shrugged off with ignorant and evil smiles, when whole families come to suspect that those who wield power are deaf to reason and every plea, and that there is no appeal anywhere "¦ When gradually you realise that They are out to break you, out to break your inheritance, your skills, your communities, your poetry, your clubs, your home and, wherever possible, your bones too, when finally people realise this, they may also hear, striking in their head, the hour of assassinations, of justified vengeance." This is the Berger it is so important to reclaim. Martyn Hudson