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The unacknowledged legislators

August 30, 2017

Shelley wrote that poets – by which I think he meant all creative artists – were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, in part because through their art they can get closer to truth. How, then, do creative writers engage with issues of justice during and after periods of conflict and political change; and how does the idea of justice evolve and interact with other factors, and especially the need for stability and reconciliation? These are two question asked by Mike Newman in his book Six Authors in Search of Justice, which was published last year by Hurst and Co.

Newman seeks clarity about how justice might be approached in such circumstances, by examining how six writer-activists did so, and how their ideas changed as their circumstances and understanding evolved. His short book starts with a summary of different philosophical and historical interpretations of justice, which is followed by a chapter of around 25 pages each on Victor Serge in revolutionary Russia, Albert Camus in post-war France, Jorge Semprún in Spain from the Civil War through to the post-Franco era, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in colonial and post-colonial Kenya, Ariel Dorfman following the Pinochet coup in Chile, and Nadine Gordimer during the liberation struggle in South Africa.

All six were radicals in their context, embracing the need for transformational change. For example, Serge wanted to overthrow the capitalist system not just in Tsarist Russia but globally, Camus served in the French Resistance, and Gordimer’s fundamental belief in the equality of all peoples burned like an eternal guiding flame. All had an abiding belief in social and economic justice as a central element of the better world they sought. From his reading of their lives and their creative output, Newman maps the journeys they travelled, as their revolutionary dreams were enacted or frustrated, and explores the ways their ideas evolved.

Each lived through times of transition, and their ideas developed as they were confronted with changing political realities, which altered their views of what was appropriate and what was right, fair and just. During the Russian revolution, Serge agreed with Lenin’s view that their goals justified violence and the deaths of many who would stand in their way, to overcome resistance, demonstrate commitment, and in proportion to the fundamental nature of the transformation they sought. But later he became disgusted by Stalin’s use of terror tactics as a method of governing. He held that no revolutionary aims could justify trampling continuously on human rights, nor the use of secret trials, and came to the view that that Marxism and social justice were impossible without freedom.

Camus emerged from his initial belief that the execution of Nazi collaborators was a necessary ingredient of the post-war moment in France. Quite quickly, amid thousands of executions which were carried out in 1944, he came to abhor the scale and manner of what he understood as mainly a retribution process. He became a fervent believer that, even if retribution might have been necessary for a short period following the departure of the German occupiers, it should have been replaced as soon as possible by a project of reconciliation, in order to establish a just post-war order. This was an unpopular view among fellow cadres.

To take another example, Ngũgĩ, having grown up amidst – and been personally touched by – the Mau Mau rebellion against the British, held very powerful beliefs in the need to overcome colonial and then post-colonial domination by the imperial power. He shared with Gordimer an increasing disaffection as their new governments seemed to move away from the economic and social justice project, and become corrupted. He understood that the search for justice was an ever-more complex and comprehensive process, embracing social, economic, political, judicial and cultural dimensions.

For Newman, all six authors illuminate the fundamentally multi-dimensional and nuanced character of transitional justice, and this seems absolutely right. All six shifted from simpler to more complex notions of justice: for example from the fight against Nazism or imperial power, to the struggle for a just society, and for politics and culture emphasising fairness. All, to a degree, witnessed transitional and post-transitional governments fail to deliver and uphold the values which they increasingly saw as essential to justice. Values became more important than other structural factors. Accurate conjunctural and historical narratives were also essential, as they saw truth fall victim to change. As Newman writes, the “attempt to eliminate a particular form of injustice can produce new forms of injustice” which themselves need to be acknowledged truthfully and addressed. The process is a continuous one, not something to be achieved all at once by revolution – even one as transformational as the Russian revolution.

All six also came to understand that the process of achieving justice is contingent on circumstances, involves compromise, and that decisions of emphasis taken today will affect the future. This is perhaps most obviously seen in terms of the balance between punishment (and its close cousins, revenge and retribution), and reconciliation – an important characteristic of most “transitional justice” policies and programmes playing out today. Semprún wanted political stability after Franco, above all, even if this meant sacrificing socialist principles he had embraced throughout his life, and he accepted that crimes committed during and after the civil war could remain unpunished, provided they were at least acknowledged. But as political freedom became more and more bedded in in Spain, he became an advocate for a clearer and more balanced telling of a history in which all sides, including his own, had committed human rights violations.

Newman quotes the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment that fiction can illuminate the truth and ‘infuse the world with meaning’ – which brings us back nicely to Shelley. All six authors in Newman’s book used their art to explore and illuminate critical issues of justice and political moment in their times. But from Newman’s reading, they were generally undidactic in so doing, believing that – as Ngũgĩ put it – they were ‘not in art because of politics; [but] in politics because of [their] artistic calling’. By writing fiction, describing human characters dealing with human challenges and living out human relationships in a fictional context, they not only developed their own thinking but influenced the way their readers encountered and understood the real world. This is a fascinating book which, by exploring the way in which six real-life humans encountered their real-life circumstances, more or less achieves the same goal. For this reader, Newman’s book says emphatically that the search for fairness is a never-ending, multi-dimensional project – one that is intimately bound up with, and ultimately contingent on, freedom, and on people’s ability to shape and constrain the politics of their place and time.



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