John Berger belongs to a school of European intellectualism in particular that is internationalist, humanistic and strongly left-wing. Once all-pervasive and still dominant in some areas (labor unions come to mind), it can be found scattered among journalists, artists, academics, novelists, film directors, critics, and many other fields.
Some of the general characteristics of the group are supremely evident in Berger’s writing: polyglot sensibility, enraged attitudes, acting out of political points (correctness), combativeness, artistic sensibilities, comradeship and sympathy for folk. If you follow reading Pablo Neruda with something by Berger you may get the impression that all
writers have roughly the same feelings and intentions. Or dozens perhaps hundreds of other authors. On the other hand, if you have just finished something by William Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet, or even more contemporaries than make up the other group, you may wonder how Berger even came to be.
He is a survivor of the Marxist and Bolshevik sentiments that strongly motivated most intellectuals originating in the 1920s, and despite continuous attacks by outright fascists or just plain right-wingers, that struggled on into the 60s. It was perhaps the strongest cultural tendency in most non-communist countries such as Berger’s France for at least those forty years. Its hallmarks were faithful loyalty to the goals of the Soviet Union or other countries where strong communist parties had emerged, and commitment to liberate or otherwise assist groups and peoples who were felt to be oppressed. Its adherents all knew “The Communist International” even if they didn’t sing it.
Beginning with the assasination in Mexico of Leon Trotsky for his differences with fellow leading Russian revolutionaries, followed by the Hungarian rebellion against Soviet domination, and extending to the recent fall of the Soviet Union itself, there has been a drift away from this position. Except for countries where there is an overwhelming majority of poor, lower class people, it doesn’t have the innocent glamour of past days. “Failed” is an overly strong term. It simply didn’t deliver for the majority who it was supposed to serve and thoroughly corrupted its leadership, and is in the greatest danger of being swept away in those places where it has lasted longest. It takes a martyr’s kind of stubbornness to keep pursuing this direction.
So what about John Berger who admits, “Yes, I am still a Marxist among other things.”
It could be wished that this is what happened to all Marxists. Berger persists in staying up with the world by visiting Palestinian homelands under Israeli concentration camp-like confinement. He reads and is inspired in a healthy way from present-day, non-Marxists thinkers and artists who he admires. He has developed an allegiance to soul and place that replaces whatever may once have been found in ideology. Above all, Berger accepts the immediate, moment-bound nature of beauty, success and freedom that transcends the old belief in progress for the masses that was clogging up the modern vision of humanity.
October 16, 2008