No sense of history or honour inhibits John Berger from repairing to his Marxist roots in his latest collection of essays. It is a work full of preening self-regard and rancid with bad faithby Frederic Raphael / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Hold Everything Dear: dispatches on survival and resistance, by John Berger (Verso, £12.99)
One of the oldest “contemporary” books on my shelves is John Berger’s Permanent Red. Back in 1960, when I bought it, Berger was already an incarnadine seer whose didactic art criticism matched Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture in proclaiming the Marxist advent. In Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time (1958), the hero is imagined returning to Budapest after the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956—in which 99.9 per cent of the Hungarian population rose against the Russians and their puppets—in order to assist János Kádár, and his Russian goons, in restoring a people’s democracy of the kind which, if we were lucky, might one day be exported to Britain. How grown-up that seemed, how clairvoyant, and now how witless!
The first impressionistic sketch in this collection of essaylets is of the misery of the Palestinians in the so-called occupied territories. No mention is made of the repeated attacks on Israel by Arab forces, which led to the Israeli expansion in the first place, nor of the unceasing promises, not least by Palestinian leaders, to destroy the Jewish state and kill or rape its inhabitants. Berger “identifies,” he tells us bravely, with the victims of the Nakba—”the enforced exodus of 700,000 Palestinians” in 1948, which he terms “ethnic cleansing.”
His grandstanding pity is not unwarranted, even if it is true that the Palestinians have been badly led, and misled, time and again. However, other Arabs and, when it was still the incarnation of mankind’s bright red future, the USSR, their armourer-in-chief, laid their realpolitikal bets on the principle of all or nothing. Like it or not, next to nothing is what, in the event, the Palestinians (whether “innocent” or not) turned out to get. The agony of Palestine/Israel is not to the credit of any of the powers involved, Israel included, but to reduce the whole tangled history to one of Palestinian martyrdom is rancid with bad faith.
Would I have taken a different view of Hold Everything Dear if Berger (pictured, right) had mentioned the Shoah or told us where, in 1945, Europe’s remaining Jews should have made a new life? You never know; a glimmer of fair-mindedness might have been seductive, as would some evidence of respect for facts. We are told, for instance,…