[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.
His acute insights and coolly analytical style of argument were admired by columnists across the political spectrum, who grew accustomed to checking their opinions on topical issues by considering what he had to say.
Norman Geras was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1943. He arrived at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1962 to read Law. On his first day he met a friend who was to read Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE); Geras had been unaware of the existence of this celebrated degree course and instantly switched to it. He graduated in 1965 with a first.
At Oxford he met his future wife, Adèle, who was studying Modern Languages at St Hilda’s College. She was to become an eminent and prolific novelist for children and young adults. They married in 1967 and moved to Manchester, where Geras took up his first academic appointment. He remained in the same department till his retirement in 2003.
His academic specialism was the theory of Marxism. He was steeped in its literature and contributed to it some notable and original studies. A forbiddingly abstruse type of Marxism associated with the French communist intellectual Louis Althusser became popular with European radicals in the 1970s. It stressed the purportedly scientific character of Marxist analysis. Geras was highly critical of this school and sought in his book Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983) to establish a humanistic type of Marxism, which took seriously human nature and its capacity to develop and change.
Geras also wrote a study of the thought of Rosa Luxemburg, the chief theorist of the German far Left, who was murdered during the crushing of the revolutionary uprising of 1919. She had been prescient in her warnings of the dictatorial character of Leninist rule in the nascent Soviet Union.
Geras was at the time of publication associated with a Trotskyist organisation called the International Marxist Group. He set out to defend (as he would then have seen it) Luxemburg’s Marxist orthodoxy. It may seem perverse to Geras’s later admirers across the political divide that he would then have regarded this as a point in Luxemburg’s favour, but the quality of his scholarship was undeniable. He showed that Luxemburg had largely shared Lenin’s own pre-1917 analysis of the revolutionaries’ task.
Though Geras never ceased to regard himself as a Marxist, his political interests were wider and his views always more heterodox than the doctrinal rigidities characteristic of that school of thought.
In The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust (1998), he turned his attention to the great humanitarian evils of the modern age. He asked why such catastrophes as the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s or the ferocious xenophobic persecutions in Bosnia in the 1990s produced the phenomenon of bystanders—those who know that something terrible is happening yet are locked in a pattern of indifference. He proposed that the first task of politics was the “moral necessity [of] mutual human support and aid, the universal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of others”. Any politics that excluded this primary duty to give aid and support was inadequate.
This conviction explains much of Geras’s post-retirement life, in which he became known to a far wider audience than he had enjoyed in the academy. In the digital age, political commentary could be instantaneous. Geras read some of the earliest political blogs and decided to start his own, called “normblog“. He launched it in 2003 and for the next ten years posted to it almost daily. His principal interest was the humanitarian theme of his political philosophy: that bonds of human obligation do not stop at national boundaries. It led him to conclusions radically different from those of his former allies on the Left.
Geras had been a prominent member of the editorial board of New Left Review, the radical theoretical journal, from 1976 to 1992. He was appalled, however, by the attitude of much of the Left to the attacks of 9/11. While former comrades had typically interpreted these atrocities as a response, however brutal, to Western imperialism, Geras saw in Islamist extremism everything he reviled. Believing in liberal democratic rights, female emancipation and secularism, he supported the interventionist policies of Tony Blair.
He was one of a small group of left-wing commentators to support military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
A secular Jew, Geras was also disturbed by an increasing tendency in Western commentary, not only on the Left, to smuggle the premises and language of anti-Semitism into ostensible concern for the just cause of Palestinian statehood.
A great deal of his polemical and intellectual effort was devoted to exposing the moral confusions of those who looked at the imperfections of democratic societies and fastidiously saw little to choose between them and anti-Western dictatorships. He helped to draft a statement known as the Euston Manifesto in 2006, setting out a set of principles from the Left that uncompromisingly attacked ideological apologetics for tyranny and terrorism.
Geras had prostate cancer diagnosed in 2003. It did not prevent him pursuing his interests and enthusiasms, which he rarely did in moderation. His remorseless blogging influenced and informed commentators who were close to his way of thinking, such as Christopher Hitchens (obituary, December 17, 2011), and many more.
He also used the medium as an outlet for other enthusiasms, among which sport was prominent.
He had run two London marathons and was a cricket fanatic who amassed a library of some 2 100 books on the subject. Having resolved in his youth that he could not give support to South Africa in Test match cricket, owing to his revulsion at apartheid, he gave it instead to Australia in preference to the old colonial power. His interest in games extended to devising his own board games, including one involving Marxists called (invoking a dictum of Marx’s) “The Point is to Change It”.
Geras and his wife moved to Cambridge in 2010 to be closer to family. His cancer returned this year. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.
Norman Geras, political philosopher, was born on August 25, 1943. He died on October 18, 2013, aged 70
Pingback: THE MARTLET [Pembroke College, Oxford alumni magazine]: NORMAN MYRON GERAS August 25th, 1943 – October 18th, 2013. | normfest