By BARNABY RAINE
On the little island where I was born, where we lack the cultural wealth of cable news – of CNN and Fox – our flagship news programme is perhaps the BBC’s Newsnight. In a bid to educate the public, its presenters occasionally take a break from mortal combat with politicians and serve up notably more deferential interviews with figures of cultural renown. In 2011 John Berger was a recipient of this inappropriate honour. After presenting Berger as an art critic and a novelist, the interviewer turns to reassure himself and his viewing public:
The label “Marxist” that was… put on you; I mean do you see that as in any way helpful?
Immediately Berger shifts. He’s leaning forward, gesticulating, soon his face is scrunched and his eyes are closed in concentration. Clearly, the interviewer is about to be disappointed. “I have claimed myself to be a Marxist!” Berger insists, “it’s not something I deny.” He’s pugnacious. Only four years earlier, Berger had penned his “Ten Dispatches about Place”. There he is as certain, but in more dimensions. Its final “dispatch” reads simply:
Yes, I’m still among other things a Marxist.
I want to focus on those “other things”. I think Berger was a peculiar kind of Marxist. Reviews and obituaries sometimes skim over his politics with the label “Marxist humanist”. “Humanism”: the awkward catch-all for radicals who see around them beauty and not just barbarism. But humanism elevates the human, and Berger resisted that. Spinoza was his favourite philosopher – he had that in common with Althusser, enemy of all humanisms – and in introducing Bento’s Sketchbook, his book-length meditation on Spinoza, he stressed his admiration for the rejection of Cartesian dualism. The world was one for Spinoza, all material and nothing else. In “Looking at Animals” Berger gave us an essay about the splendour of communion with life, the sorrows and the arrogance of our humanist self-celebration, our distance from other lives. His work summons the touch of nature; environmentalism was an urgent intuition for him. Capital alienates. It separates us from our creations, from our work, from our worlds. Alienation on this capacious view extends well beyond the labour process to dislocate us from rocks, rivers and our ancestors too. Berger’s Marxism yearns for totality and its appreciation (praising Rosa Luxemburg, he wrote: “she loved workers and birds”) and he sees capital as that violently fragmenting force that demarcates a sphere of value and plunders the rest. His writing is so often a collage because it strives to undercut not just the commodity fetish but also this wider alienation, to put us back in contact with our world as a whole, the world in colors that usually slip through our fingers. If this sounds like Marxist humanism, even a little like Lukács or Marcuse, that is because the human is indeed a presence here. Berger writes more than once of “the dehumanization of society by capitalism”. Disrupting any equation of Marxism with teleology, he speaks there of things lost, but his is a politics beyond just nostalgia: it seems to me that “the human” is an important image for Berger, but that his human does not yet exist, that it serves as a constituency whose creation is the task of politics. This is very far from the trans-historical fetish of a human essence.
It was in May 1968 that John Berger wrote “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations”. Amid a new, though smaller round of student protest in Britain in 2010, this was the first Berger I ever discovered. He elegized protest not as an appeal to “the democratic conscience of the State” but as a “rehearsal for revolution”. Here we find his human, who does not yet exist. He tells us that the demonstration “congregates in public to create its function”. I love this passage:
The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through, or of the open spaces they fill. They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatize the power they still lack.
The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.
Capital exists in space as well as time. It does violence to space as well as time. The job of critical social theory, in this Berger-esque rendition, is to chart all those anti-human atrocities and to imagine the human as a constituency and a counter-position, capital’s antagonist that only comes into being in the splendour of struggle.
This is no mere observation, it is directly prescriptive. Nestled right in the middle of Berger’s 1975 book A Seventh Man, hidden between the protest of poetry and photography that maps the exploitation of migrant workers, we are given the flash of an address. Berger turns to face the ever-moderate European labour movement, and he speaks to it. He ties servile reformism to suspicion of migrants: both, he says, result from the limited horizon that sees people only as economic functions. If workers are only proletarians, then job-stealing migrants are enemy threats. Politics becomes a defensive game. If, by contrast, the proletariat is capital’s grotesque creation and not a standpoint for critique, if revolutionary politics means not defending present enslavement but imagining a future subjectivity that quashes all the anti-human viciousness the rest of the book documents, then truly all the workers of the world have common cause. The chaos and the savagery of those empowered hands that twist the world is here set against the prospect of universal dignity that these callous fingers fear, or disdain or think not at all about. Pointedly Berger charges that Marxism is not emancipatory until it transcends the standpoint of “labor” as one side in a current antagonism to embrace instead as its optic the human who does not yet exist, which means beginning with empathy and then asking not how to defend current entitlements but how to seize a grander prize. (Incidentally, Verso republished the text in 2010 and its urgency now – a call to remember bygone solidarities – extends in surprising directions; this universalist optic now permits us to undercut the nostalgia for a postwar “golden age” that still predominates on the European Left, a nostalgia whose narrowness of focus is exploded in A Seventh Man as an anti-colonial text, where prosperity for European workers is revealed as reliant on the expropriation of others).
If this is a humanism at all, think how far it is from the liberal humanism that structures pro-migrant politics in America today. “Love trumps hate”, we are told. I wish I could have heard Berger’s verdict on that; as a statement of ultimate promise he might have found it believable enough, but as a view of the present it is worse than asinine – coming from an admirer of Henry Kissinger, it’s downright disingenuous. Hate usually has the bombs. “We are all immigrants” is another favourite catchphrase, as if refugees and slaves are really just the same as the zealots who colonised this country. A Seventh Man is solidarity without anything so saccharine. It manages to banish sentimentality precisely because the human subject that forms its constituency and its celebration is not the universal human in the here-and-now that liberal humanism imagines so mistakenly, but is instead a spectre pitted against the anti-human violence of the present.
Here is a declaration that will feel bizarrely cold, and certainly a little passé: John Berger was a revolutionary because he was a dialectician. He poured loving attention upon the world, though it was filled with monstrosities, because he saw all around him documents of barbarism pregnant with barbarism’s opposite. Yesterday Teju Cole mentioned Berger’s commitment to solidarity with the Palestinian people. Here was a place torn and punished by colonialism. But the thread that flows through Berger’s writing on Palestine is humility in the face of all the courage so often generated by cruelty. He meets Palestinian militancy and sees as others have seen dynamism amid desolation; amid gory, unqualified destruction; amid death. In 2005 he wrote a piece that begins with rubble and checkpoints but ends with the following observation about the Palestinian struggle, an observation that escapes specificity to rise and address those everywhere tempted by the allure of hopelessness:
One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments: the time of Becoming, before Being risks to confront one yet again with undefeated despair.
There is a vibration, an eruption there. If there is a category alien to slapdash, mechanistic historical materialism and rescued by John Berger, it is not in the end “the human” but “hope”: and who else parses hope from naivety so adeptly, to give us hope and a world that crushes hope all at once? Cling with love and fury to every gruesome moment, he says, to every inch of time and space. Within each is encased the seeds of the human, that oppositional possibility of becoming the world’s enemy and then remaking the world after our image. Capital is not so dazzling on this view, its work is always partial and unstable and shards of the human survive its sledgehammer. All of Berger’s writing is engaged in the project of documenting those human splinters, insisting on their existence which has furious and wondrous implications for politics. Walter Benjamin wrote: “every second of time is a strait through which the Messiah might enter”. Berger and Benjamin frequently occupy the same breath. Ways of Seeing was, of course, inspired in part by The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. But I find in Berger the last, fleeing Walter Benjamin – not only the Benjamin of high modernity (Parisian arcades) nor even of late modernity (technology), but the Benjamin unbowed by fascism, who reached far beyond the fragments of our world to build a continuum of time and space whose beauty amid the carnage offered him sustenance, and should nourish us now too. I am going to finish with two quotations. As I read them, I remember Berger’s stated goal in life: to be a “witness”, as he once told Geoff Dyer. I feel certain that for him to witness meant to salvage, to rescue hope by kindling the fires of our present and our past. While the Left searches for theorists of Trumpism, Berger is instead a theorist for the crowd at JFK, for people who resist and for people who want to know how to think about resisting. We need not agree with him always – I diverge from some of the thinking I’m attributing to him here – to find much of this moving. His is a lesson about ways of seeing and ways of learning from all the beauty capital strives to hide. Seeing, he knew well, is believing. If he upended the objectivism of that cliché, he did so not only by telling us how and why we see and then believe partially and distortedly; his assault was bathed in sunlight too. He clung to the crystals in the air, to the chance of a different way of seeing all the clutter of space and time. That way of seeing quashes the haughtiness of alienation to draw us back into our world, the world we share with the distant and the dead. This is Berger for politics, and for historians too. Here is John Berger, from “Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead”:
How do the living live with the dead? Until the dehumanization of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead were inter-dependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this inter-dependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.
And this is Walter Benjamin, joining with Berger in protesting that elimination. We are brought to this room today by one dead man, and I can think of no finer tribute:
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that threatens to overpower it… Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Barnaby Raine is a PhD. student in the History department at Columbia with interests in modern European political thought.