THE MARTLET [Pembroke College, Oxford alumni magazine]: NORMAN MYRON GERAS August 25th, 1943 – October 18th, 2013.

I’m writing this on the first anniversary of the death of Norman Myron Geras (Pembroke: 1962–5). Norm—he was always called that by his friends and family—was my husband for nearly half a century.

I’ve written a great many different things in my time but never anything as difficult and sad as this. What I say about him cannot be called objective by any standard, but I hope that will be forgiven.

Certain facts, the sort of thing you would find in traditional obituaries, are known and can be looked up on the Internet. The reaction there to his death was something that took me and the rest of his family by surprise. If you had told him, during his last illness, that the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian would carry full obituaries, he would not have believed you. The cards and letters and emails I received after his death demonstrated a fact that none of us had quite realised before: that what he’d been writing on his blog from July 2003 till the last week of his life was important to a great many people in countries all over the world.

Norm was an academic at Manchester University from 1967 to 2003. He wrote books (The Contract of Mutual Indifference, Marx and Human Nature and others) and articles and spoke often at conferences and seminars. But it was normblog, one of the first weblog journals, which best displayed Norm’s particular combination of gifts. Everything he wrote was clear and rigorously logical but he combined these qualities on the blog with other things that made him the person he was. He was passionate about cricket, (especially his great love of the Ashes and his unswerving support of the Aussies) jazz, country and Western music, and Manchester United. Also, he was funny and not a little bonkers. Who else would have a strand on his blog where he reviewed different brands of soap, discussing their respective merits in all seriousness?

He became a born—again fiction reader in 2007, while we were on holiday in Florence. He had taken Pride and Prejudice with him and as he read it, I could see him falling in love. That is not putting it too strongly. From that time on, he was a devoted Janeite, working his way joyfully but in a typically thorough fashion through the novels, biographies, criticism etc.

The strongest and most abiding love of his life was his family. His children were more important to him than anything else, and he was immensely proud of both our daughters. He also loved being a grandfather and doted on all three of his grandchildren. I am sad that he did not live to see the new addition to the family, a boy who was born on August 26th, almost on Norm’s birthday but not quite…

He was never boring. He made me laugh. I get emails from friends all the time saying:

“We need to know what Norm would think about this or that issue. We want to know what his views would have been…”

I feel exactly the same. What disappears when you’ve lost someone you’ve loved and been close to for decades is a private, shared language. You no longer have the conversations which have sustained you for most of your life and which you cannot have with anyone else. I miss him every day.

Adèle Geras

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Norman Geras—obituary

The Daily Telegraph

[First published in The Daily Telegraph]

Norman Geras, who has died aged 70, was a Marxist academic, cricket enthusiast and political blogger who broke with Left-wing orthodoxy to support the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Geras, a former Professor of Government at Manchester University, set up his website, Normblog, in July 2003, out of a feeling of alienation “from people I perceived as being in my neck of the woods”—academic colleagues, friends and sundry Guardian writers who saw the 9/11 attacks as a response to American foreign policy (notably its support of Israel), and opposed the invasion of Iraq.

“The next day [after 9/11], or the day after, I open the newspaper and see—within hours—people talking about ‘blowback’, ‘comeuppance’,” he recalled. “They didn”t even have the sense of horror, of shock, to wait. I was just appalled. I thought, ‘That’s it’.” His first post read: “In the immortal words of Sam Peckinpah. Let’s go.”

From then on he blogged almost every day, and his website became essential reading—not only for the tiny ranks of the pro-war Left, but also for the Neocon Right. For, despite his Leftist credentials, Geras praised President George W Bush and argued that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to oust the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. His daily jottings earned him the nickname “Stormin’ Norm”. The Wall Street Journal reprinted one of his articles and his words were often cited by American pundits.

One of Normblog’s constant targets was the selectivity in the way people invoke “root cause”explanations for terrorist atrocities. In the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London, which many pundits on the Left attributed to Muslim anger over Western intervention in Iraq, he observed that while such arguments purport to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements or actions for which their proponent wants to win sympathy.

“A hypothetical example illustrates the point,” he said. “Suppose that, on account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this and express their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame this act of violence on the government’s decision or urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen.”

Geras’s measured and tightly-reasoned critiques of fashionable Leftist nostrums were not universally popular, and he found himself denounced as an “imperialist skunk” and a “turncoat”. In one posting, following the Iraqi elections of 2005, he imagined awakening from a nightmare to see Ken Livingstone, Harold Pinter, George Galloway, John Pilger and other opponents of the war advancing upon him—only to raise a finger stained with the purple dye of an Iraqi voter. “Everybody and his brother has had a go at me,” he said. “But I started the blog because I was fed up with the prevailing left and liberal consensus that the war in Iraq was wrong.”

In 2006 he launched a more wide-ranging assault in what became known as the “Euston Manifesto”, a proposal for a renewal of progressive politics, which he put together with others in a Euston pub. The document called on the Left to support universal human rights; to abandon anti-American prejudice; to see all forms of totalitarianism as being essentially the same; to be willing to support military intervention against oppressive regimes; and to promote democracy, equal rights and free speech.

The manifesto was billed as an attempt to reclaim such principles for the Left, but it served only to highlight the gulf between the socialist democratic tradition represented by Geras and the anti-democratic, neo-isolationist and reflexively anti-American tendencies of the contemporary Left.

“I have been flattered by an invitation to sign the manifesto,” wrote another renegade Leftist, Christopher Hitchens, “and I probably will, but if I agree, it will be the most conservative document I have ever initialled. Even the obvious has become revolutionary.”

Norman Geras was born to Jewish parents in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, on August 25 1943, and studied PPE at Pembroke College, Oxford. After graduating with a First, he took up a post at Manchester University, where he remained until his retirement in 2003 as Professor of Government.

Responding to his critics on the Left, Geras was always keen to prove his radical credentials: “I am part of the 1960s generation. I was no Tariq Ali but I took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War… I was at an academic conference in Italy the day the Left-wing Allende regime was overthrown by a coup in Chile in 1973. I left the conference to join a march in the streets.”

Geras wrote some eight books, ranging from rather obscure works of political theory (Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind; The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty) to books about cricket (for some reason he supported Australia).

In The Contract of Mutual Indifference (1998), perhaps his most important work, he sought to remedy the inadequacy of response to the Holocaust in political philosophy. Focusing on the so-called bystander phenomenon—the inaction of ordinary Germans, Poles and others while the Jews went to their deaths—he identified a “contract of mutual indifference”, a sort of inversion of the you-scratch-my-back code.

This ethos, he argued, is morally indefensible, yet it still prevails today, reflected in widespread indifference to torture, hunger and other varieties of suffering across the world. Any political philosophy which neglects the primacy of the human duty to help others, he concluded, is short-sighted and shameful.

It was from this perspective that he supported the invasion of Iraq.

After retiring from Manchester, Norman Geras and his wife Adèle, an award-winning children’s writer, moved to Cambridge.

She survives him with two daughters, one of whom is the poet and crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah.

Normblog Remembered—a political bloggers meet-up

Fellow Eustonite Paul Evans has kindly organized a real-world celebration of Norm and his blogging in London, UK at the end of this month. The event has a Facebook page, but the basic details are as follows:

LOCATION: The Yorkshire Grey pub, 2 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PN

TIME: 1930hr GMT to 2200hr GMT

DATE: Wednesday, 27 November 2013

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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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THE TIMES: Professor Norman Geras

Oliver Kamm

[first published in The Times]

Wide-ranging political philosopher who was an unswerving enemy of tyranny and terrorism and found late fame as a blogger

Norman Geras was a penetrating political theorist who found fame in retirement as a pioneering blogger.

In his scholarly work he made substantial contributions to the study of Marxism and of international ethics. He served his entire academic career at the University of Manchester, where he was head of the Department of Government from 1998 till 2002, and ended as Professor Emeritus of Politics.

He then made skilful use of the new medium of the internet to inform and entertain a much wider audience. In dismay at what he considered their failure to defend Western democratic values against totalitarianism, he broke with many of his former comrades on the Left.

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PAUL EVANS: Encormium

Paul Evans

[first published at Never Trust A Hippy]

Prominent bloggers probably get more obituaries than most, and I don’t think that I can add much to the tonnage of praise and regret that has marked the passing of Norman Geras, late of Normblog.

However, I do have a three-part theory about why Normblog was so important.

Turning off the comments

Sure—the quality of writing and thinking on the site were pretty impressive. It stands to reason that retired Professor who is on a mission is likely to produce something worth bookmarking. But the site’s success can be traced to Norm’s decision not to enable the ‘comments’ function on his blog.

Even if you don’t write about anti-semitism, fielding comments can be a fairly soul-destroying experience. Once you start blogging about the You-Know-Whos, it gets a great deal worse. Norm’s combination of patient rigour and (almost) faultless civility would probably not have lasted long with that additional burden.

A lot of us started blogging to expose our thinking to a critical audience in order to develop our voice. We needed the commenters. We’d be depressed if we didn’t get them.

Norm didn’t have that need. His postings were unusual in that they tended to reflect thinking that was at a more advanced stage of gestation. Turning off the comments feature on his blog undoubtedly suited Norm, but it created a temporary vacuum that allowed this thinking to take on viral properties.

To either challenge or develop Norm’s thinking, you had to set up your own site or comment on the sites of others who linked to him. The need to respond, or to drag a tangent from one of Norms posts brought many of us over the tipping point.

Each new post, sparked by one of Norms, sent dozens of new readers Norm’s way and attracted comments of their own.


Norm’s politics had some of the properties we find in an Internet meme, or at least, one that works for the people who read newspaper op-eds.

It appealed to the innate fascination that politicos have for ‘revisionism’, and (treading carefully…) it was a sign of the muddle that the wider left was in at the time that an assertion of rational enlightenment ideas, or a rejection of anti-semitism, made his posts read like revisionism.

Many of us went through a cycle of curiosity, discomfort, reflection followed by the partisanship of the convert. But even for those who didn’t, the challenge was compelling.

A good example

Most instances of Internet activism have been about harvesting existing support or giving energy and efficiency to already-existing viewpoints. Norm established what the necessary conditions are for the creation of an online project that actually changes minds.

I actually can’t think of another project that has changed minds as effectively as The Euston Manifesto. With all due respect and apologies to the other people involved, Norm was the one who co-ordinated the thinking.

It was his incremental work that smoothed the rough edges off it. Ideas that are going to gain traction need this kind of streamlining, and by the time The Euston Manifesto was published, it could be said to have created a new model for the promotion of political ideas.

That’s my fourpence worth. On the wider question of “political blogging”, October 2013 feels like the end of an era on that one. As the old ‘personal blogging’ space gives way to the social networks that are displacing it, it may be the case that we will soon be drawing a line under this particular episode and reaching our conclusions.

Has it improved the way we think, and talk about politics? The jury is still out on that one. But Normblog did. It cascaded and catalysed.

SHUGGY’S BLOG: For Norman Geras

[first published on Shuggy’s blog]

I’m late—again. Like so many who followed his blog and corresponded with him, I was not surprised, yet shocked nevertheless, to hear that Norman Geras had passed away after a long illness. Having read a number of the touching tributes to him, I’m struck by how little I could say that is in anyway original. Not that originality is what is required at such times. Many have talked about his writing, what it meant to them, and what they did and didn’t agree with. I recognise much in what has been said but would want to stress the way in which I found, as many others obviously did, normblog to be an invitation to have a conversation, whether you agreed with him or not. This could, and did, take the form of reciprocal posts across the blogosphere—which were then carried on to the email circuit.

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MARTIN BRIGHT: Norman Geras—the man who changed the way I think

[first published in the Jewish Chronicle]

Following the news of the untimely death at the age of 70 of thinker, teacher, writer and pioneering blogger Norman Geras, I have been re-reading his essay, The Contract of Mutual Indifference, first published in 1998.

It is a masterpiece of the form—just over 80 pages of knot-tight argument on the ability of human beings to live their lives in apparent contentment even when living alongside others who suffer.

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ANN STIEGLITZ, née Bischoff: Our Childhood Friend

Norm, just before he left Bulawayo for Oxford

Norm, just before he left Bulawayo for Oxford

Ann Stieglitz and Perlie Harris née Lederer

I was so happy to meet Norm on Facebook a couple of years ago, and then to meet him and Adele in London at a cake shop, Patisserie Valerie, in Soho. When I walked in, I saw Adèle with her back to the door, and felt I had known her forever; then Norm came in, and it was as if I was seeing the seven-year old boy I had first met at Baines School, Bulawayo, in the 1950s–in my eyes, he had hardly changed—and the lovely photo I took, with his cheeky smile, shows, this, I think.

Norm smiles, London, 2011

Norm smiles, London, 2011

I had brought in my school photos, and we pored over them, one of the whole of Standard One, where we were all so sweet. I think he was delighted to see them, and Adèle and I resisted the cakes, spending the time chatting. It was all too short, for a few months later Norm told us how ill he was.

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SHALOM LAPPIN: A kindred spirit and a true friend

Shalom Lappin

Norm Geras was a kindred spirit and a true friend. He embodied the liberal values and commitments of the social democratic left that have always given me my political bearings. His courage in defending these values against apologists for extremism and bigotry, posing as prophets of an “anti-imperialism” of fools, was an inspiration to all of us. The patience and rigour with which he systematically dismantled unsound arguments for misconceived views offered a model of civilized discourse. He effortlessly cut through the noise of partisan rhetoric and polemical hyperbole to penetrate to the core of the most complex issues of the day. He combined a deep loyalty to his Jewish roots with a strongly universalist view of moral obligation and cultural engagement. He was above all a person of decency and moderation, who embraced friends with affection, while sustaining respectful dialogue with adversaries. The world is a better place for his having been in it. I will miss him deeply.