Tag Archives: The Holocaust

THE TOWER: The Decent Marxist

John-Paul Pagano

Editor’s Note

[Norm told me more than once to my face that, even when it was used ironically, he detested the term “Decent Left”—not least of all for its presumption of moral superiority. It was used in to mock him (and the rest of us) on more than one occasion, but he never to my knowledge used it of himself. Because of that, I’m pretty sure that he would have disliked this article—respectful, admiring and well-written as it is.

As with the other entries in this archive, I have cleaned up the HTML source of the text of this essay for mark-up consistency, typography, semantic tagging, and formatting; but, despite my strong reservations, I have not changed its title or content. I just felt I owed it to Norm to add this note.]

[first published in the The Tower magazine]

Until his final blog post, Norman Geras dedicated his life to showing that you can be a faithful member of the hard Left without submitting to the temptations of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism.

When I heard the news that blogger, activist, and political philosopher Norman Geras—known affectionately to all of us as “Norm”—had died on October 18, 2013 at the age of 70, the first thing I thought of was, strangely enough, the day of the September 11 attacks. A native New Yorker, I was far from home when the attacks occurred, and I learned of them from a stranger on a quiet train platform in Hungary. Like many Americans overseas, I was promptly stranded for days, trying to find a way to get back to the United States. I made it as far as London, and was made to wait there indefinitely.

To add insult to injury, I had just been robbed. So there I was, living on limited, borrowed funds, barely enough to pay for the use of Internet kiosks and despondent visits to pubs. During one of these visits, I happened upon a large Englishman slumped in front of a pint. He had a tabloid open to a picture of a radical Muslim, who was demonstrating either against the U.S. or in favor of the attacks. I grimaced and felt forced to say, “I’m from New York.” He gestured toward the guy in the picture and, with a look of bovine malice, replied, “Well, I think he’s got a point.”

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EVE GARRARD: Norm’s influence on me

Eve Garrard

Like many other people, I was influenced by Norm in a lot of ways. The most obvious one was on how to combat anti-Semitism: here I had a great deal to learn, and I learned much of it from Norm (though still not enough—again, like many people I’ll feel the loss of Norm’s steadiness of principle and purpose for years to come). We argued about many things, including meta-ethical issues about the objectivity of moral judgements (I still maintain that I was right and he was wrong); the value of spectator sports (I did finally acknowledge to him that he was right and I really was wrong); the existence in practice of exceptionless moral principles (he was right there too). But thinking about it, I see that the most unexpected influence he had on me was to change my view about Marxists.

Where I grew up, the Marxists around the place (and there were plenty of them) were often Stalinists: ‘I never could see what was so wrong about Joe Stalin’ was a common refrain. Well, even in my adolescence I could see a bit of what was wrong with Joe Stalin, and then as I read Orwell and Koestler, and the political philosophy of Karl Popper, I came to see quite a lot more, and also came to feel that Marxism—Stalinist or otherwise—was an irremediable threat to the kind of liberal democracy that I was coming to think of as the only hope for the protection of human rights. So my view of Marxists was that they were at best deeply mistaken, and at worst murderous totalitarians. No doubt I would have refined my views a bit more respectably if I’d been a political philosopher, but life being short, I concentrated on my main interest in moral theory, and left my political views on the back burner.

And then I came across Norm. Here was a Marxist who clearly wasn’t making any simple mistakes, nor had he any totalitarian leanings. Here was a voice from the Left which had spoken out against the horrors of the Soviet regime well before it became easy and fashionable to do so, and who wrote magisterially on the Holocaust and its implications (I never disagreed with him about a word of that). Here was a secular philosopher who took seriously the idea of human evil, a subject on which all too many impeccably liberal thinkers had nothing of serious interest to say. In the face of that, it was impossible for me to maintain my shamefully crude dismissal of Marxists. Listening to Norm, reading his work, and thinking a bit harder than I’d been accustomed to do about politics, I came to see how it was possible for a person to be both a Marxist and a democrat, and in Norm’s case, to be an absolutely outstanding defender of the universal human rights which play so important a role in liberal political thought.

Damian, in his excellent piece about normblog, A Fine Site, explains why he admires Norm in spite of his Marxism, which Damian entirely rejects. To my considerable surprise, I no longer share this view. I’ll never be a Marxist myself, but I now think that Norm’s liberal and democratic form of Marxism was a powerful element in his distinctive moral stance, the stance which made him the splendid thinker, blogger, and comrade-in-arms whose loss so many of us are now mourning.