COLIN TALBOT: Norman Geras: For Human Nature

Colin Talbot

[first published on Colin’s blog]

Marx And Human Nature, 1983

Marx And Human Nature, 1983

Norman Geras died today. Many people will never have heard of a retired politics professor from Manchester, who wrote books on obscure German revolutionaries (Rosa Luxemburg) or human nature in Marx. Some may have seen his more recent normblog or maybe even heard about his support for the Iraq war. But Norman’s influence has been profound on many people, including me.

I met Norman back in the early 1970s when I joined the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. The Manchester branch of the IMG was a revelation to a working class boy from Barrow—full of powerful intellects like Norman and Ian Gough, and teeming with debate and ideas.

I haven’t seen Norman in many years, although we did exchange some emails when I came back to Manchester a few years ago. He’d retired by then and was writing Normblog and I was busy with my academic and domestic life, with a new son to look after. We said we should meet up, but it never happened.

When I found out Norman had died this morning my first reaction was to find my copy of one of his books, from 1983. Here’s why:

Steven Pinker said on desert island discs recently that he’d like his legacy to be having brought human nature back into social science.

Norman Geras already made a big step in that direction when he published “Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend” in 1983.

Norman’s central argument was simple: Marx did not deny “human nature” as many Marxists, and others, asserted. Moreover Marx was right not to do so, for both empirical and normative reasons.

It’s hard to convey just how radical this challenge to prevailing orthodoxy was. As Pinker has pointed out in his book The Blank Slate, for many progressives the absence of any innate human nature was a pre-requisite for social change. Whatever version of utopia they were pursuing—usually some form of socialism—would only work if it could be argued human beings were “perfectable”.

Moreover to admit to human nature was to capitulate to those on the right who used “human nature” (or rather their own projection of “human nature”) to justify existing social arrangements. Inequality—it’s human nature. Women are oppressed—it’s human nature. Some people are wicked, aggressive and violent—sorry, it’s just human nature. Anyone who raised the banner of “human nature” scientifically was pilloried as a conservative at best, or Nazi at worst (e.g. E. O. Wilson). So Norman Geras’ polemic from within the Marxist tradition was truly brave and rigorously argued and—to me anyway—convincing.

A decade after poring over Marx and Human Nature, I started to come back to the issues it raised. I was interested in people’s contradictory behaviour in organisations and politics and sensed it had something to do with human nature. Another decade of thinking about it and I wrote my own small attempt to make sense of human nature—The Paradoxical Primate (2005). It’s a subject I return to again and again.

Re-reading Norman’s book today, especially the last chapter (“For Human Nature”) I realise just how profound an influence Norman has had on my thinking over nearly 40 years. Not just about human nature, but his profound sense of materialism, or what today we’d probably call realism, in science. His magnificent, if sometimes almost too meticulous, analytical rigour, and above all his warm, polite, humanity. He’s a sad and important loss.