Book Review for the Times Literary Supplement
Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.
All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).
In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).
All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.
Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart. Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.