The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

John Berger

Transcending the old Europe

John Berger, Patricia Macdonald 'Once in Europa' London 2000, pp130, �20

There is no formula for being human, as Rosa Luxemburg once remarked. Yet there is a widespread conviction on the left that Marxists themselves should live their lives in a kind of formulaic workerist pattern - fantasies largely perpetrated by those unable to comprehend the reality of global capital.

Traditional conceptions of the worker-intellectual-activist are doubly confounded when confronted by the life of someone like John Berger, who simply does not conform to the British left's idea of how a Marxist should act. All the more surprising then that Berger has led a life in which Marxist aesthetics, the art of liberation and communist revolution have been constantly entwined - not least in the basic everyday practice of living. A suburban bourgeois who embraced Marxism, an anti-Stalinist who regretted the passing of that alternative civilisation, a cosmopolitan intellectual who lives a life of seclusion in a peasant community in the French Alps - his life is certainly contradictory. Yet at no point has Berger abandoned his own peculiar reading of Marx or surrendered the Marxist project of the emancipation of the oppressed.

Berger's early fictions, such as A painter of our time, The foot of Clive and Corker's freedom, were marked by a diversity of theme, but his works on aesthetics have been constantly concerned with realism and the capacity of different art forms to witness the oppression of industrial and agricultural labour across the world. Both his fictional and non-fictional works since the 1960s have tended to focus on the experience of peasant emigration and exile. A seventh man, Another way of telling and Keeping a rendezvous - works often entwined with the photography of Jean Mohr - have documented the peasant experience, as that way of life dies or is transformed by the new social relations of global capital. Recent work has concentrated on the nature of the Zapatista experience in Mexico and, importantly, on Sebasti�o Salgado, the Brazilian activist-photographer who has done so much to uncover the nature of global working class experience over the last period.

One of Berger's concerns in relocating to France was to physically shift himself away from the terrain of metropolitan capital to what he considered to be the peripheral agricultural peasant communities of the French Alps in order to engage in a witnessing or t�moinage of the dying peasant class. Berger was clear from the beginning that his work was not designed to contribute to the survival or the sustaining of the exploitative peasant experience, but to explain to himself and others the following conundrum: why does a class which should already have been eliminated persist as a specific mode of experience?

Berger's obsession with the dissolution of the peasantry has led him to a deep and consistent reflection on that process by which the peasant is transformed into proletarian. This happens in a number of ways. Firstly, there is the geographical shift from periphery to metropolis. Secondly, the economic supersession of agricultural labour and the transition to factory work. Thirdly, there is the cultural shift allied to this, which not only entails the severing of workers from their ancestry and locality, but also reveals a transition from peasant individualism towards the solidarities and cultures of the urban proletariat. In fiction, photography and philosophy Berger has explored this moment of transition, or Aufheben, where a mode of experience is at once cancelled, elevated and preserved in the higher social formation.

Nowhere are these ideas better expressed than in his trilogy Into their labours. A magnificent reconstruction of the peasant transition to worker, it documents the dying social relations of the peasant class in all their complexity and darkness. The first part of the trilogy, Pig earth, is concerned with the glimpses of the industrial future. The second, Once in Europa, focuses on the moment of transition, and the third, Lilac and flag, witnesses to the experience of the peasant in the metropolis itself. The second part of the trilogy consists of a series of stories about that moment of transition, the most successful of which is that reprinted here with photographs by Patricia Macdonald.

The story is quite simple. Odile Blanc is the daughter of a peasant farmer in the Alps, whose farm, over the years, has been nearly swallowed by the ferromanganese factory next door. It is the early 1950s. She is at first taken on a date by a communist worker called Michel Labourier, who subsequently loses his legs in an accident in one of the furnaces. Odile then falls in love with Stepan, a Ukrainian emigrant worker, and moves into the �migr� barracks, nicknamed Europa, until his death, again in the furnaces. Finding herself bereft and pregnant with a son, she eventually finds love again with Michel Labourier many years later.

The story is framed by a gliding trip with her son: she surveys the fields and factories below her in which her tragedy and redemption has occurred. The observation of the Europa barracks instigates a complex reflection on the nature of Europe and the relationship of labour to the fields and the factories, displaying concisely the transition from peasant to worker. At the heart of the story lies a constant emphasis on struggle and progress, whilst recording the eclipse of the old, dying class of the fields.

There are a series of antagonisms apart from that of labour: town and country, �migr� and local, field and factory, progress and acceptance of defeat. Odile is frantic when she realises the implications of migrant industrial labour - "It had never occurred to me before that somebody could choose where to live. It seemed unnatural. No, said Stepan, it's simple with these - he held up both hands over my face - I can work anywhere in the world. Where, where will we go, Odile?"� (p63).

The nature of the factory which maimed Michel and killed Stepan is one in which their creative labour is stifled and distorted - it becomes a place of darkness and death to Odile: "Each wall, each opening, each ladder was like the bone of a sheep's skull found in the mountain - fleshless, emptied, extinct. The furnaces throbbed, the river flowed, the smoke, sometimes grey, sometimes yellow, thrust upwards into the sky, men worked night and day for generations, sweating, retching, pissing, coughing, the factory had not stopped once for seven years, it produced 30,000 tons of ferromanganese a year, it made money, it tested new alloys, it made experiments, it made profits, and it was inert, barren, derelict"� (p87).

After the death of Stepan Odile's life becomes hard to bear. She endures as the peasant endures - life goes on and on. It is only when she falls in love with Michel again that she realises the difference between endurance and struggle. Michel "said something which impressed me, for he said it so slowly and emphatically: things can't "� go on "� as they are"� (p108). Odile points out that things do go on and then we die. Only then does Michel make clear that his conception of life is resistance and the culmination of this social struggle is progress - but a progress which transcends the progressive forms of capital. He recognises that the route to the future lies in moving beyond the dark factory rather than turning back to the fields of the past.

The reflection on social struggle goes hand in hand with a reflection on love and physicality. Odile has a further child to Michel and in her children she sees Stepan and Michel embracing across the years, even though Stepan's body was never recovered and lies as ash in the piles of slag outside the factory. The dialectic of love leads Odile back to the peasant past of her father working in his orchards with the firestacks of the factory towering over the trees and the cliffs. In her love for men she expresses the ways in which her children are born and new classes emerge - not through a simple severing or supersession, but through the complex dialectic by which old histories and processes are elevated in the new social forms and relationships of the future. Her father grafts new strains onto the old wild apple trees. Odile grafts herself onto Stepan. New fruits and people are born. As the grafted apple is bound with cord, so our bodies are bound into the new form. This is also the way with the transition of social formations.

The new pictures accompanying the story, taken by Patricia Macdonald, are reason enough for the republication of Once in Europa, which first appeared in 1989. They forcefully express the way in which our idea of Europe has changed with the new compositions of capital. We share Odile's travels with her - we see the factory from its gates and then we see it from above, gliding over the fields and rivers. The industrial, agricultural and natural features of the landscape merge together. The power of capital to shape the world is unparalleled and there is no simple attempt to counterpose industry and nature in any simple sense here. They are both the territories of humanity. The darkest pictures, however, are the unnatural sulphuric oranges of the ferromanganese and the bricks burned and without life. But, much like Berger's text, they express the landscape in which human beings have to live and resist.

Nowhere in his work does Berger express doubt about the necessity for the peasant way of life to be transcended by newer forces and relations of production. This is because he has never wavered in his confidence that those forces and relations themselves will be, in turn, transcended.

Berger is sure of that, but he also leaves us with the smaller hope that, in that supersession, some part of the old forces, the old loves and the old traditions will find their place in the new relations of Europe beyond the moment of transition.

Martyn Hudson

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