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The Norman Geras Reader: A review

Norman Geras (1943-2013) was a significant political theorist, but was better known to most here as the creator of ‘Normblog’, a compelling blend of politics, culture, cricket and much more – Harry’s Place readers will remember his regular interviews with fellow bloggers and his eclectic ‘Writer’s Choice’ guest spots.  Whenever some contentious political or moral issue was in the news I would always turn to Normblog, eager to find out what his take on the latest controversy would be.

There was of course much common ground between Normblog and Harry’s Place (and I discovered them around the same time.) Geras was the principal author of the Euston Manifesto, and a leading light in what came to be known as the ‘Decent’ left (a term he disliked). Eve Garrard offers a succinct summary of his political outlook here.

He was centrally and always a man of the left, but one who became a scourge of those parts of left/liberal opinion which, in his view, had slid away from commitment to the values of equality, justice and universal rights, and in so doing ended up by excusing or condoning racism and terrorism.

However there was one vital difference from HP – Norm never opened his posts for comments …

The Norman Geras Reader: What’s There is There’ (eds Ben Cohen and Eve Garrard) brings together these different sides of Geras’ legacy: academic discussions of Marxism, highlights from Normblog, both light and serious, and companion essays by Alan Johnson and Terry Glavin.

Geras’ Marxism puzzled some of his liberal admirers, and one of the focuses of this volume is his insistence on the common ground between Marxism and liberalism, together with his commitment to anti-authoritarianism and humanitarian intervention.  As a fan of Normblog, I found it rewarding to discover here more detailed and extended discussions of these key topics; In ‘Minimum utopia: ten theses’, for example, he discriminates carefully between the benign and destructive tendencies of both liberalism and socialism, promoting a kind of synthesis between forces sometimes viewed as incompatible. The best institutes and practices of liberalism:

should not be set aside, in particular, on the basis only of a present confidence in some future spontaneous harmony. The great evils we hope to be able to remedy include precisely evils against which liberal institutions have given some protection.(p. 56)

His dislikes, ‘the shibboleths of the modern left’ and ‘morally blind anti-imperialist politics’ (p. 4) also feature prominently in the volume.  In ‘What does it mean to be a Marxist’ he writes eloquently about a fatal blind spot on (sections of) the left: the tendency to treat capitalism as the sole adversary and gloss over evils with a different provenance:

… the democracies of the West flawed, at fault, hypocritical, aggressors, and so forth, while quite appallingly anti-democratic movements and regimes are made apology for, and bathed in the mitigation of that shallow root-causes sociology to which I earlier referred – root causes for which some proximate ‘we’ is always said to bear the ultimate responsibility. Tyranny, terrorism, even genocide, almost cease to be horrors in their own right, evils to be opposed alongside economic exploitation, inequality, poverty and other byproducts of global capitalism. They are, as it were, ‘levelled’ by always being traced back in their turn to capitalism and imperialism, so that they become lesser evils and their direct agents and perpetrators lesser enemies. (p. 113)

Antisemitism was a significant theme in Normblog, and it was good to revisit his excellent essay ‘Alibi Antisemitism’, and its searing critique of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Seven Jewish Children’:

Churchill, however, disavowed [the charge of antisemitism]. She did so on the grounds of what one might call an innocent mind. No anti-Semitism had been intended by her. On the one hand, the blood libel analogy had not been part of her thinking when she wrote the play; on the other hand, those speaking the offending lines in it were not meant to be Jews in general, merely individual Israelis. Churchill is evidently innocent here of any memory of the figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, long thought of, despite his being only one character, as putting Jews in a bad light. She is innocent, too, of her own generalizing tendencies in naming her play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ and then linking the broad themes of the Jews as victims of genocide and as putative perpetrators of it in their turn.

The responsibility to protect, the concept of the ‘contract of mutual indifference’, were key concepts both in Geras’s academic writings and in Normblog. In his essay ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ he explores the history of support for this concept, and the problems involved in negotiating competing goods: the integrity of the sovereign state and the imperative to protect. He also reflects on the question of thresholds – how severe must the crime, the human suffering be, in order for humanitarian intervention to become justifiable, particularly when weighed against the risk of an escalation into full scale war?

Although there is much here about war, politics, bigotry and suffering, The Norman Geras Reader doesn’t neglect the lighter side of Norm’s work.  Included here are blog posts on Jane Austen, jazz, cricket, Bob Dylan and Dickens.  I thoroughly recommend the volume to old devotees of Norm’s work – and new admirers.  Terry Glavin, in his epilogue, perfectly sums up what it felt like to first stumble across Normblog:

Reading Normblog always meant learning something, and it was what I imagined it must have been like, hearing the reassuring sound of far-off voices from a wireless in a fishboat galley, with news and analyses of the most momentous events of the day. Normblog was an unapologetically left-wing place, of at the very least a liberal milieu, and yet neither the host nor any of the contributors had lost their damn minds. (p. 249).