- Six Authors in Search of Justice: Engaging with Political Transitions by Michael Newman
Michael Newman's new book, Six Authors in Search of Justice, is an unusual study. It is the sort of work, I surmise, that can only have been written by a scholar who, looking back on an accomplished career, no longer feels the need to acquiesce to the disciplinary divisions that define success in most scholarship and publishing.
Six Authors in Search of Justice is a work of literary history by a political scientist that takes as its topic, broadly speaking, patterns of aesthetic and ethical reflection during times of political transformation. The monograph seeks to bring together two audiences: on the one hand, literary scholars who might be attracted to the case studies of writers Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ariel Dorfman, and Nadine Gordimer; on the other hand, political scientists who might be interested in the case studies, respectively, of Stalinist Russia, Vichy France, Spain under Franco, post-colonial Kenya, Chile under Pinochet, and apartheid South Africa. With this as its aim, Six Authors in Search of Justice must thread a needle, simplifying each discipline to appeal to the other. The risk is that literary scholars will find Newman's readings of the selected oeuvres insufficiently [End Page 763] rigorous and dismiss the book; or that political scientists will judge his analysis of regime change theoretically lightweight and likewise turn away. The payoff, however, is that if Newman gets the balance just right between the two disciplines, he wins over both, bridging academia's version of the red state-blue state divide—that is, social sciences and humanities—and thereby contributing to the salutary breakdown of hyperspecialized academic silo-ism.
In the end, I think Newman gets the balance just about right—but I have caveats. Before my disciplinary quibbling, however, a quick summary. Newman's goal is to shed light on "problems of justice and injustice in relation to political transitions and transformations,"1 by tracking the evolving ethical and political reflections of prominent authors living through major regime change. His introduction offers a brief biographical introduction of each author and then moves quickly to frame subsequent chapters by mapping out two primary areas of concern: theories of justice and the relationship between literature and politics. For the former, Newman takes the reader on a quick scamper of political theory from John Locke to John Rawls, focusing primarily on justice in liberalism and Marxism. He then briefly catalogues a range of other concepts of justice, including social justice, which focuses upon issues of inequality and redistribution; legal justice, which prioritizes procedural regulations for and between the state and its citizens; historical justice, which demands recognition and redress of past wrongs; and transitional justice, which encompasses a wide range of judicial and non-judicial action to stabilize and heal nations moving out of conflict or state repression. For his shorter primer on literature, Newman uses Sartre's reflections on "committed" literature to pose the question: Does literature that engages with urgent political problems succeed because it brings nuance and depth to issues that might otherwise be simplified for ideological purposes? Or does it fail because it sacrifices aesthetic integrity in favor of didacticism and the inelegant expression of soon-to-be-outdated political commitments?
Newman then moves on to the authors. Serge, Newman writes, moved from a Marxist view that demanded revolutionary overthrow of the system to a curbed radicalism that acknowledged the need for institutional checks against dictatorial powers. Camus served in the Resistance to fight what he viewed as the absolute evil of Nazism, but after the war became suspicious of all forms of extreme ideology and violence, in particular shifting to an anti-communist stance. Semprún's and Dorfman's paths were distinct, but similar in the broad sense that they moved from leftist resistance to dictatorship to, with Semprún, anti-communism and, with Dorfman, human rights activism. Ngũgĩ initially focused upon colonialism as the world...