John Berger: truth-sayer in an age of lies

October 11, 2007 — News

Written by A. Sivanandan

A. Sivanandan welcomes John Berger, who read from a work in progress From A to X (love letters written to a political prisoner serving a life sentence) at an event on 4 October, entitled Against the Great Defeat of the World, to mark thirty-five years since the conception of IRR’s journal, Race & Class.

‘It would be silly of me to introduce John to you because you all know him in one or another of his manifestations – storyteller, essayist, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, critic, playwright, painter, peasant – I could go on. Or, if you are lucky, you will have known him in all his avatars at once, experienced him in all his avatars – as I have experienced him.

His Ways of seeing gave me eyes to see with. His Picasso and his Moment of Cubism put those eyes to use. His essay dissecting, almost, the photograph of Che Guevara’s murdered corpse lying on a makeshift table in Bolivia sent me back to Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy lesson’. His A Seventh Man on the dehumanisation of migrant workers in Europe informed my own work on the colonial forces that had uprooted us Black peoples from our own countries and thrown us up on your shores – and led me to answer those who questioned our presence here with the simple truth: ‘we are here because you are there’.

His story of a country doctor recalled for me the barefoot ayurvedic priest-physicians of my own country. His drawing of an old man in his armchair full of the sleep of fulfilment – that hangs on my study wall – tells me that ageing is an ascent to grace. His novels increased my sensibilities. His polemics and his poetry woke me to battle.

It was no accident, then, that my first meeting with John should be at the barricades, so to speak.

John had just won the Booker prize for his novel G – this was 1972. And, to the consternation of the Booker chairman and everyone else, had in his acceptance speech announced that he was donating half the prize money to the London-based Black Panther Movement – because it was fitting that some little bit of the vast wealth, accumulated by Booker McConnell in its exploitation of the Caribbean for over 130 years, should go to a movement that was resisting such exploitation, both as Black people and as workers, both here and in the Caribbean.

And it was just about this time, in another part of the forest, that the IRR staff in their fight to give voice to the self-same causes, had overthrown the board of management, headed by – guess who – the chair of Bookers (since when the IRR has remained a broke, but effective, collective).

The other half of the Booker prize money, John was to devote to the research and publication of A Seventh Man – the first and still the most evocative account of the plight of migrant workers in Europe. And that at a time when the IRR was, with other Black, migrant and political groups, organising the first pan-European meetings of migrant workers. John was good enough to allow Race & Class to pre-publish a section of A Seventh Man and a few years later joined the Editorial Working Committee.

John and Race & Class have not been parted since then. For many years John and I were fellow Fellows of the Transnational Institute, the Amsterdam-based think tank – both then poverty-stricken, fighting for independence of thinking, for thinking that went against the prevailing grain, comforted only by the knowledge that we had nothing to lose but our poverty.

I value and honour John not just for these things, though, but for who he is – and when he is. A truth-sayer in an age of lies and deceit and spin and disinformation. An intellectual engagé at a time when large swathes of the intelligentsia, in the name of defending liberalism against the inroads of post-9/11 Islam, have themselves defected from the struggle for justice, of people against power, which is surely the bed-rock of all liberatory politics.

And at a point in history when socialists have begun to despair and Marxists have tended to seek refuge in the rigor and, alas, mortis, of old orthodoxies, John has remained an intrepid Marxist dialectician who addresses himself to the historical forces of our time, who dares to catch history on the wing.

Hence an organic internationalist who throws himself as of nature into the struggles of the poor, the persecuted and the powerless against globalisation’s Great Defeat of the World.’

Related links

IRR News story: Against the Great Defeat of the World

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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