Remembering John Berger through ‘A Seventh Man’

Juan Mora-Torres Publicado 2017-01-02 09:47:04


“It can happen,” John Berger recently noted, “a book, unlike its authors, grows younger as the years pass.” Berger meant that certain books do not age, but rather remain as relevant in the present as they were upon the first day of publication. This is the case of A Seventh Man: a Book of Images and Words about the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe (The Viking Press, 1975), a book that was out-of-print and, until recently, hard to find in bookstores. It is not only one of the best journalistic accounts of the lived experiences of migrant workers in industrialized Europe, but also one of the earliest comprehensive studies on post-World War II international migration that clearly demonstrates the ways in which the prosperity of the wealthy nations depends on migrant workers from poorer countries.

Berger (b. 1926) does not need much of an introduction. He is one of the last remaining survivors of a generation of politically engaged public intellectuals whose expertise covered vast disciplinary territories. He is an accomplished novelist, actor, poet, translator, play writer, teacher, drawer, journalist, essayist, sociologist, literary and cultural critic. He has written close to fifty fiction and non-fiction books, not including numerous essays published in newspapers and magazines. Among the many recognitions that he has received are the prestigious Booker Prize for G (1972) and the New York Critics Prize for the Best Scenario of the Year for the film Jonah Who Will Be Twenty-five in the Year 2000 (1976). An unrepentant Marxist and staunch anti-imperialist, a good part of his writings deal with the meaning of work and the fate of the peasantry in the contemporary world.

Success came early for Berger. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, one of the main literary prizes in the world, and published Ways of Seeing, an influential series of essays written as an accompaniment to a BBC television series. Even before winning the Booker Prize Susan Sontag regarded Berger as “peerless” in “contemporary English letters.” He had become a celebrity in Great Britain, a must read for anyone with intellectual pretensions.

Berger could have built on this fame by continuing to write best-selling novels on trendy themes. Instead he went against the grain, moving in a new intellectual direction. After donating half of the Booker’s cash prize to the Black Panther Party of Britain, he used the other half to support his travels, research, and other expenses related to A Seventh Man. This study on migration did not receive much recognition, perhaps because Berger’s many readers considered the theme of migrants as marginal, uninteresting, and unfashionable. (On the other hand, the extreme right-wing, especially the National Front, targeted immigrants as the main threat to British identity).

As one of Berger’s least known works, A Seventh Man is perhaps his most politically charged book. It deals with the “big” sociological questions about the social and economic forces driving immigration such as why do industrial countries seek migrant workers, and why do migrant workers leave home to perform the most dangerous and unrewarding labor in Europe. Unlike most academic books on immigration, Berger gives migrant workers a human face. As a work of social reportage, he cooperated with Jean Mohr, a photographer, in capturing their fears, frustrations, aspirations, and hopes. Largely grounded on the testimonies of immigrants who reported on their understanding of village life, their departure, the work they perform, life in cities, and return to their villages of origin, the work also incorporates photography (over one-hundred photographs), drawings, statistics, theory, and poetry.

Berger borrows the title of his book from a poem by Attila József, a Turkish poet. It is a reference to the fact that one out of seven manual workers in the industrialized countries of Europe, such as in Germany and Great Britain, was an immigrant during the mid-1970s. Divided into three parts, “Departure,” “Work,” and “Return,” the book investigates the impact that social structures have on individuals. These structures include the role of global capitalism’s intrusions into Europe’s Third World backyard (Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain, and Greece) and the location of migrants within the economy of the industrial countries. He used statistical data, theory, and historical information to explain the structures. The main weakness in this study is the absence of immigrants from Europe’s former colonies such as Pakistan, India, Caribbean, and North Africa.

This study is innovative in the way it makes sense of the impact that these structures have on individuals, a difficult task that involved entry into the world of the migrants. Following the leads of two other of his works, Another Way of Telling (1982) and Ways of Seeing, he uses “words,” mainly testimonies, and “images,” primarily photographs, in his quest to articulate the voices of those who could not yet articulate their world and concerns. As an outsider to the world of peasant-immigrants, Berger earned their trust and allowed entry into their circles. As one of the few public figures who voiced his solidarity with immigrants in an era when these workers had few allies, he became an interpreter of the lived experiences of the inarticulate, the peasant-immigrant worker.


Photo from A Seventh Man

“Departure” discusses how capitalism intrudes on the life of the peasantry, eroding many aspects of “traditional society,” and ending of ways of life that that had been evolving since the domestication of agriculture. One of the main transformations that global capitalism has had on the rural society was the decline of agricultural labor, forcing many peasants to cease being peasants and, thus, ending with the oldest class in world history. In their search for subsistence, they migrate to cities and, in the case of Berger’s subjects, to the wealthy European countries.

The section on “Work” focuses on the lived experience of migrant workers as it relates to their transformation from peasant to worker. Immigrants experienced alienation, powerlessness, and isolation in this transformation but also the creation of new solidarities among themselves. Much of their powerlessness and isolation resulted from their rejection by the dominant population, especially the native working class, trade unions, and political groupings of the left. In one of his most powerful statements, Berger noted the detrimental effects of the native worker and immigrant divide: “This is why the working class, if it accepts the natural inferiority of the migrants, is likely to reduce its own demands to economic ones, to fragment itself and to lose its own political identity. When the indigenous worker accepts inequality as the principle to sustain his own self-esteem, he reinforces and completes the fragmentation which society is already imposing on him.

Berger, a Marxist, views this peasant to proletariat transition not only as one shaped by economic forces but also one that involves cultural shifts, recognizing the power that peasant traditions wields in this transformation: “Their thought is traditional-either Catholic or Muslim; their expectation of change, their humanism, is gathered into hopes of individual and family achievement.” Faith and family are engrained in their hopes and understanding of the world.

In “Return” Berger enters into a dialogue with the immigrant. In this dialogue the immigrant expresses his hopes and ambitions. The migrant pointed out, “I’d always choose the life at home in my country. One day it will be better at home than abroad and, when I go back there, I’ll be able to work for myself and I’ll build myself a house. It’ll be a kind of a paradise. If only the wages at home were a bit higher and if everyone could find work there, nobody would leave to go abroad.” Hope is engrained in the belief system of the migrant, but it is also a two-edge sword.

On the one hand, hope serves the migrant in coping with the harshness of life, from loneliness and isolation to all types of humiliations that they sustain as “foreigners.” On the other, hope is also a prison in which there is no escape: “The final return is mythic. It gives meaning to what might otherwise be meaningless. It is larger than life. It is the stuff of longing and prayers. But it is also mythic in the sense that, as imagined, it never happens. There is no final return. Because the village has scarcely changed since he left, there is still no livelihood there for him. When he carries out one of his plans, he will become the victim of the same economic stagnation which first forced him to leave.”

In the end, immigrants not only lose their villages but failed to accommodate to the city. Berger regards the many dimensions of migration as one of the consummate experiences of our times. This movement mainly involves peasants as they migrate in the millions to cities and wealthier nations. The growing mega slums of the world are products of these migrations. Accordingly, migration ends with the peasantry as a class, giving birth to new urban subjects.

After meeting the many subjects of A Seventh Man, Berger pointed out that the majority of the migrants were sons of peasants. He wrote “now certain things in their lives I could imagine as a writer: the city’s impact, the solitude.” The difficulty he faced in his quest to articulate their lived experiences was that he “couldn’t imagine what they had left behind, what were the peasant’s values, his views of his own destiny. . .” Seeking to know peasants better “before they were gone from the earth,” in view of capitalism’s destruction of the peasantry, he moved to an isolated village in French Alps in the mid-1970s. Consequently, A Seventh Man directly led Berger to search for the peasantry, writing Into Their Labours, a trilogy of novels that follows the trek of the French peasants from their villages to the city. This village has been his home to the present and has served as the basis for Into Their Labours trilogy. Aiming to apprehend the peasants’ “a last image of itself,” Lilac and Flag, the last novel of this trilogy, deals with the migration of peasants to the city.

Almost forty years have passed since the publication of A Seventh Man. In these four decades immigration in Europe has moved from what was regarded as a politically marginal concern to one that is central to the politics of the wealthiest countries. Today there are close to 200 million immigrants worldwide, most living in a dozen wealthy countries. The world of the immigrant that Berger reported on has also changed. “Fortress Europe” has made immigration more difficult, expensive, and dangerous. Immigrants and their children now constitute a sizeable “minority” and are thus rapidly changing the demographic, religious, and cultural make-up of Europe. Not including their European-born children, immigrants make up at least 10 percent of the population in seven European countries. Former emigration sending nations such Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Italy are now immigrant receivers (for example, immigrants make up 12 percent of Spain’s population). All these developments feed the European fascist right as it has grown due to their appeal to the anti-immigrant sentiment spreading throughout the continent in light of high unemployment and other social and economic problems. On the last point, nativism is now on the political mainstream and opposition to immigration is the single issue that all extreme right-wing movements have in common in almost all the wealthy countries, including the U.S. where the Tea Party forms a powerful block within the Republican Party.

While Berger’s work centered on Europe, the book is relevant to the United States and its’ “Third World” backyard, the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico. Today “a Seventh Man/Woman” in the U.S. is a Latino who make-up over 16% of the U.S. population and of the total labor force. The book list on Latino immigration is quite large. However, a Latino version of “A Seventh Man/Woman,” à la Berger, is still in the waiting. Berger recently wrote on the criminalization of the undocumented workers, “[t]he Gulag equation “criminal=slave laborer” has been written by neoliberalism to become “worker=hidden criminal.” The whole drama of global migration is expressed in this formula; those who work are latent criminals. When accused, they are found guilty at all costs of trying to survive. Over six million Mexican women and men work in the U.S. without papers and are consequently illegal.” This is the logic behind the current massive evictions of undocumented immigrants.

Today the U.S. is the world’s largest country of immigration with 46 million immigrants (14.3% percent of U.S. population). Mexico is the world’s largest country of emigration with over 11 million Mexican immigrants residing in the U.S. Bearing in mind the centrality of immigration to Mexico and U.S. coupled with the stature of Berger as well-known public figure (he is one of the EZLN’s most outspoken international supporters), A Seventh Man had not received the attention in Mexico that it deserves. Few Mexicans and Latinos know about this book.

Recently Sur +, a small press in Oaxaca, published A Seventh Man (Un séptimo hombre). This publication made Berger very happy, declaring that Mexico is “the place of emigration, which gives me the gratifying feeling that the book has at last return to what it was originally about.” Un séptimo hombre/ A Seventh Man is a timeless book that, in spite of its age, continues to speak to the present, perhaps in a louder voice today than in 1975. This might be one of the reasons that led Verso Press to republished A Seven Man in 2010 and sur + in 2011. Berger was right in declaring that certain books “grow younger as the years pass.”

Photo from A Seventh Man

Juan Mora-Torres. Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. A former Teamster, he has worked in the agricultural fields, canneries, and as an adult education instructor. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001), and he’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte (I’ m Going North): The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. The Making of the Mexican Border. won the Jim Parish Book Award. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.





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