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.

2 thoughts on “EVE GARRARD: Norm’s influence on me

  1. Brian Goldfarb

    I would like to add a comment I left at The Tablet obituary for Norm:

    This is upsetting: I met Norm in the 1990s, when I started attending his once-a-term seminars on the Holocaust for graduates and practising academics. It led to me writing a paper for his seminar and, later, a further development of that as a paper for the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference.

    He led that seminar with grace and gentleness, just as Ben Cohen describes him doing in his seminar on Marxism. In the seminar I attended, his Marxism, while it clearly influenced his chairing of these meetings, never obtruded into the discussion in any disruptive way. It was there that I made the acquaintance of both Eve Garrard (who guest-posted on Normblog) and David Hirsh, who went on to become the founding editor of engageonline, as well as both get his PhD and publish the expansion of his thesis as a good book.

    Norm never permitted comments on his blog (quite right too: it wasn’t that sort of blog and, anyway, it would have taken far too much of his time moderating the comments). He’d rather get on with life: taken his morning walks around Cambridge (to which he and Adele retired once he left Manchester), reading the papers and the various books he was reading, writing his blog, and so forth. However, I was privileged to have his email address, and occasionally, very occasionally, I would send him an email to comment on a particular item he had published. I always received the courtesy of a reply.

    I met Norm once more after Manchester: a friend runs a monthly discussion group for the small Jewish community and had invited Norm to address “her” group. When I said that I knew him, she invited us (my wife and I) for dinner with Norm and Adele. It was a delightful evening, even if Norm was embarrassed to be asked (by me) to sign my copy of his book (Contract…): he had to ask Adele, a successful author in her own right, how to do it!

    I shall miss him. The worst of it is, once I get over the lack of his voice, that he was only a year

  2. Pingback: BOB FROM BROCKLEY: I miss you Norm | normfest

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