I don’t quite remember how I began reading the weblog of Norman Geras. I know it was before I began my Master’s in 2006, because perhaps his greatest book, The Contract of Mutual Indifference, was on the course reading list. It must have been before that, because I remember it taking several months before I realised that this Norman Geras with the weblog was the same Norman Geras who appeared on my university reading list. I was so taken aback that I emailed him to check that I hadn’t made a mistake. “I’m only surprised,” he wrote, “that you didn’t see the Norman Geras connection earlier”.
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.