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, that the Israelis’ defensive wall (albeit ugly, and appropriating) has led to “no significant reduction in the number of kamikaze attacks.” Am I the dupe of propaganda that I have not verified, or isn’t the truth—that boring old bourgeois concept—that the wall, however monstrous, has enormously inhibited suicide bombers?
No sense of history, or of honour, inhibits radical Berger from repairing to his Marxist roots, among which can be found Marx’s own antisemitic pamphlet (used by both Nazis and Stalinists) denouncing the Jews as a “huckster” race. To cover himself, if scarcely with glory, he admits to an ancestral cousinage with “Galicians” of some coyly unspecified kind. Mea minima culpa is just his kind of confession. We are left to infer that Saintly John not only “identifies” with the Palestinians, but has turned his Jewish gabardine to show its permanently red lining.
The warrior rubric “dispatches” suggests that our untiring (class) war correspondent is crawling forward, red-tinted binoculars under that pity-furrowed brow, prepared to sell his life dearly, like his short-measure book (but not to Israelis, the swine). All right, my exasperation may have been primed by Berger’s popularity-boosting anti-Israelism, but what shocked me was his refusal to acknowledge anything that might impel him to look back, forwards or sideways, at himself (although the first person pronoun recurs and recurs). Still infatuated with Frantz Fanon, he reads terrorism as a “counterattack” on profiteering global neo-capitalism and—wouldn’t you know it?—American tyranny. In today’s world, the Diadochoi of communism get an easy ride: neither Putin (what about Chechnya?) nor Mao’s successors (what about Tibet?), neither the Sudanese Arabs (what about Darfur, whose refugees want to go to, of all places, Israel?) nor the “Marxist” Mugabe, neither North Korea nor Iran is so much as lightly scourged. If they did something wrong, it is all down to Threat Zero, the US.
No surprise that Solzhenitsyn, like Orwell, is uncited here, though Pier Paolo Pasolini gets a red halo for his 1963 film La Rabbia which, we are told, showed how “the ancient hopes which flowered and opened out in 1945, after the defeat of fascism, had been betrayed.”
Berger has no more to say about the neo-commie-capitalism which has rescued China’s economy—at whatever ecological expense—from the horrors of Maoism than he or his comrades ever did about the faminisation of the Ukraine under Stalin or about the wholesale transfer to the gulag of Caucasian populations (a wilfully murderous Nakba). In a moment to savour, Berger does bring himself to allude to “Stalin’s faults,” which, he immediately tells us, “were our faults.” Stalin murdered his old friends, starved and slaughtered more innocent people than anyone except Chairman Mao, laid Russia open to Hitler’s assault and mismanaged its defence, used the defeat of “fascism” in order to impose his version of it on eastern Europe, and a lot more stuff that I don’t think was anything like my kind of petty-bourgeois fault.
Amid his preening misuse of language (horses’ legs are said to be “hysterical” compared with those of the donkey), Berger strikes so many noble attitudes that it is hard to be sure which is the most ignoble. Try this for radical daydreaming bullshit: “I see a man in the Friedrichshain quarter of Berlin sitting in his pyjamas reading Heidegger and he has the hands of a proletarian.” What was that horny-handed Berliner doing reading the master’s impenetrably tedious verbosity, and what did he make of it as he ran his exploited thumb along its lines? Who ever composed a less likely vision of proletarian philosophising in all the drivelling history of politico-intellectual fantasy?
Marx continues to be lauded as the “prophet”—no wonder the neo-left dreams wetly of a sweeping victory by the neo-Islamic hordes!—of the “devastation” caused by neo-capitalist profiteers. In fact, the prophetic Marx did not foresee so many things and got so many wrong that Nostradamus, cleverly interpreted, would be a more reliable star to steer by. The very title Hold Everything Dear sounds less like a fraternal call to put warm arms around the damnés de la terre than something Michael Winner might say, with an interpolated comma, in a television commercial selling insurance to your average proletarian with a two-car problem.