The legacy of Norman Geras

Submitted by Matthew on 6 November, 2013 - 12:13

On Friday 18 October, Marxist political philosopher Norman Geras died of cancer at the age of 70. Geras was born in what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1943 and came to England to study at Oxford in 1962. He graduated with a first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1965 and took up a teaching post at Manchester University where he remained for the rest of his academic life, retiring in 2003.

He became more widely known in recent years through “Normblog”, which quickly became one of the most widely read and influential political blogs. Official obituaries, including that from his friend Eve Gerrard in the Guardian, tended to deal exclusively with this late period in his political thought and activity during which he became an advocate, in certain circumstances, of what is now known as “liberal intervention” to avoid humanitarian catastrophes. One consequence of this shift in his thinking was his support for the Iraq war in 2003.

In fact Geras had, by that time, been a Marxist in the classical tradition for many decades and had a long record of involvement in the non-Stalinist left. He was an important part of the New Left movement of the 1960s and an editorial board member of New Left Review, briefly a member of the International Marxist Group and regular contributor to the Socialist Register.

He made a number of distinctive contributions to that tradition, particularly in the 1980s. From the start he was an enthusiast for Rosa Luxemburg, whose contribution to Marxism he examined in his first published book The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (1976). He developed a major concern about the importance of social justice and plurality within any putative socialist society and considered Trotsky and, in particular, Luxemburg to have more valuable and insightful things to say about these matters than Lenin.

He brought these ideas into public view in a collection of essays entitled “Literature of Revolution” and specifically in “Classical Marxism and Political Representation” (1986). For Geras there was no question but that any socialist society worth living in would contain a plurality of different parties including, if supported, pro-market capitalist parties and no question either that this was entirely consistent with the Marxist tradition as he understood it.

He also insisted that the left was wrong, in the face of persistent claims by the right that human nature was intrinsically conservative, to deny its very existence. He argued persuasively and with characteristic rigour (in Marx and Human Nature, 1983) that human nature not only existed but that this was recognised in the work of Marx and was very far from being any obstacle to an egalitarian or classless society. There is no doubt that his work on these areas developed into a comprehensive and settled view that revolutionary socialism had to have a moral dimension at its heart, or would have no hope of winning human emancipation.

His final substantial work was The Contract of Mutual Indifference, which uses reflections on the Holocaust (Geras was of Jewish heritage) to argue that the society we live in is one where the deal is that we generally ignore each others’ suffering as long as it doesn’t immediately impact on us, and that any body of ideas with a claim to human liberation or emancipation must reverse that “contract”. In its place he argued for the “primacy of the human duty to bring aid”. All of this he continued to see as part of and, indeed, a development and enrichment of the socialist tradition.

He ended The Contract of Mutual Indifference with the words “Not responsible for all evil, capitalist social relations and values contribute their massive share to it. Socialism represents the hope of another moral universe”. He presented the key ideas in the book to a discussion session at Workers’ Liberty’s Ideas for Freedom event in 1998.

Norman Geras’s own legacy on the left will be affected for sure by the last decade of his writing and thinking when he supported the Iraq War and was a founder of the predictably short-lived “Euston Manifesto” group in 2006.

Maybe it’s because I knew and was taught by the man, and kept in contact ever since, but I’m inclined to be generous to him on this and to insist on the value of the lifelong body of work in which the consistencies outweigh the contradictions. He wrote perhaps the best available defence of Marxism against post-modernism in his debate with post-Marxist theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantelle Mouffe in the late 1980s (in Discourses of Extremity). Concerns about morality, justice, and human solidarity in the here and now (not simply in the socialist future) saturate all of his work. They weren’t discovered late in life as convenient justification for difficult or apostate political positions. He had no time whatever for those on the left who found it expedient to ignore or make apologies for totalitarianism or deny or minimise the existence of human suffering when it didn’t fit a pre-determined worldview.

He had less time for those unwilling to reflect and think. He distinguished himself in this regard when later, and without giving any ground to the pro-Ba’athist “anti-imperialism” that had gripped much of the left, he conceded that the Iraq war had been a mistake.

He did that on the same basis that he initially supported it; the management of post-war reconstruction was disastrous and the human cost had been far too much though, he insisted, not predictable.

When he was wrong, it was for the very best of reasons. In the case of the Iraq war he was pitted against people who may have been right in the very narrowest of senses (they opposed the US/UK invasion) but often for the very worst of reasons and with little or no concern for how Iraqis were ruled or how they might build a movement to liberate themselves.

Anyone unfamiliar with Norman Geras should not be put off by the fact that he was an academic (a “Professor of Government”, no less). His writing was always accessible, thorough, and explanatory. His style of argument was rigorously logical and methodical and even when he thought an argument was empty and valueless (such as “post-Marxism”), he gave it and the reader the respect of a patient and thorough deconstruction. The effect was all the more devastating for it.

Norman Geras was a man for whom Marxism was a living, evolving body of ideas to be engaged with and developed not a set of immutable texts to be rifled through selectively to justify the latest fashionable left prejudice. We can learn a lot from the legacy of such people.

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