ROBERT WARGAS: A Marxist who defends the open society? Yes, it is possible (though, alas, he’s just died)

a thoughtful polemicist

a thoughtful polemicist

Robert Wargas

[first published in the Telegraph Blogs]

When you learn of an honourable person’s death, even that of someone you don’t know personally, a strange anxiety overtakes you. It is the feeling that you must race against some kind of imaginary clock to let the world know how much you admired this person.

I learned last week of the death of Norman Geras. Norm, as he was known to everyone, was not a pundit in the conventional sense. We can all thank our lucky stars for that. He was instead a man of ideas in an age of impulses. A relentless defender of the open society, he was one of that rare breed of writer who had admirers across the political spectrum.

I did not know Norm, and we corresponded only briefly near the end of his life. I never heard his voice and can’t seem to find any videos of him on the Internet, if any exist. But I sensed the kindness in his manner. Knowing he was ill, I made one of those embarrassing and flailing attempts to somehow offer my help to him, even though I didn’t actually know him, live across the Atlantic, and have no practical skills that might have helped. Oh, the things we say when we really don’t know what to say!

I knew him, instead, though his writing. He maintained a blog of uncommon insight. It’s the kind of writing that seldom appears anymore in our hit-and-run political culture, where the goal is character assassination rather than debate. It seems to have been lifted from an older time, when men like Leszek Kolakowski and Sidney Hook walked the Earth.

Like those figures, Norm was at one time a committed Marxist. But he eventually rebelled against the belief, held by nearly all extremists, that the bourgeois West is incurably evil, and that its most potent method of exporting this evil is through its foreign policy.

Thus many on both the Left and Right could delight in Norm’s fight against reactionary radicalism. A former professor of political philosophy, Norm demonstrated the thinking man’s approach to polemic. His was a staid, almost detached anger. He could be acid-tongued, though, as Nick Cohen has written, this never degenerated into cheap theatrics. I leave you with one sample among many:

“If there’s an anti-democratic organisation or movement anywhere, an individual dictator or a tyrannical regime, then it’s a safer than safe bet, because it’s a certainty, that somewhere or other a commentator on the Western left (verkrappt section) will be telling you that the said organisation or movement, dictator or regime, isn’t as bad as all that. And it’s a near certainty that one of the somewheres he or she will be telling you this is in the Guardian.”