Harry of Harry’s Place

[first published at Harry’s Place]

Professor Norman Geras has left us too soon and his daily contribution to political debate will be sorely missed by those who appreciated his warm personality, sharp intellect, humane spirit and his ability to argue a case thoroughly, elegantly and stridently without ever resorting to the cheap shots which characterize far too much of modern debate.

As with that other great left-wing thinker and writer who was taken by cancer, Christopher Hitchens, it is not hyperbole to note that Norm is irreplaceable. There is no-one else who is producing comparable material to Norm on such a frequent basis and from such a unique perspective.

While I only met Norm in person on a handful of occasions, I was fortunate to be blogging at high-volume at the time when the Professor was cutting his teeth in the medium. He was an early reader of Harry’s Place and we shared perspectives on many of the major issues at that time via email and over the phone, as well as swapping notes on some of the technical aspects of the medium. He was fascinated by the ability of the blog format to engage readers in a way that the traditional political printed publications couldn’t and he embraced it fully, producing a unique site that very quickly established itself and his voice in the debate.

He made a nonsense of the term ‘retirement’, because as much as his academic work is respected and appreciated by so many, he leaves us remembered at least as much for his post-University work, which turned him into a widely respected public intellectual and writer. Few people are able to turn their “retirement” into a productive second career but he did and those of us who enjoyed reading him regularly are grateful that he chose that path.

When I first met Norm in Manchester, we spent a long afternoon in a café drinking cups of tea and talking about blogging, politics and of course, a little cricket. What struck me afterwards was how, for a man with such a deep and wide knowledge and impressive intellect, he was at least as interested in listening as in expounding his own ideas.

The political world and the journalistic world have no shortage of people who love the sound of their own voice and who are convinced of their own rightness and that can too often translate into hectoring forms of argument. Norm was about as far from that approach as is possible. For someone like myself, a little intimidated by intellectuals or academics, he put me at ease immediately, but I had the impression that wasn’t a conscious approach for him and was simply the way he was—he was interested in what people had to say to him, he was fascinated by ideas. He was a lovely man, kind and considerate, warm and engaging. Like so many who read his blog, I wish I had been able to get to know him better.

At the time of the build-up to the Iraq war, several political trends converged to create a broad school of thought on the left that eventually found a voice in the Euston Manifesto, which Norman had a huge personal role in bringing to life. Harry’s Place was, at that time, written mainly by people who had drifted away from organised politics and who were reawakened by the debates of the post-September 11 period. Most of us had spent time in organized groups on the radical left and were angered by the Stop the War movement. While we raged against the Guardian-consensus in propaganda fashion, Norm reasoned against it, patiently compiling the alternative case, presenting the moral and ethical case for humanitarian intervention.

At the same time, Norm maintained his core commitment to the socialist ideal. The terms “liberal hawk” and “liberal interventionist” were banded around at that time but the Professor’s politics were more complex than those catchphrases and, to put it in very basic terms, he did not believe that the capitalist system was the peak of human achievement. He remained a Marxist and his work is proof that an understanding and appreciation of that political philosophy does not exclude a humane ethical worldview and a serious and deep commitment to democracy and individual liberty.

Others are better placed to expand on that and other aspects of Norm’s political legacy, I would merely wish to say that, whatever debates remain about the term socialism and Marxism, they will surely be informed by Professor Geras’ work—from both his careers.

My thoughts today are with the members of Norm’s family, who he spoke about with such obvious love and pride, as they cope with their loss.