Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Norman Geras – a Beloved Comrade, Passes.

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Norman Geras 25 August 1943, – 18 October 2013.

I just would like to add a tribute to Norman.

Geras’ writings were an inspiration to the left .

The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (1976) and  Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend will remain as landmarks of  socialist thought.

Like many comrades I had the privilege of meeting Norman – in particular as a member of the Socialist Society.

We had a correspondence about ethical theory.

I am sure that many other comrades who knew him well will add their memories.

One of the most cherished memories for me is at the Ralph Miliband  memorial meeting at the LSE.

He explained his ethical stance, which later took him into directions which not many of us on the Marxist left shared,

A superb  thinker and a great human being.


Written by Andrew Coates

October 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Culture, Left, Marxism, New Left

Tagged with ,

18 Responses

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  1. “A superb thinker and a great human being”: nail, head, nut, shell, bulls, eye. Hear, hear!

    Jim Denham

    October 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm

  2. Whatever good stuff he wrote years back, and I include his book on Rosa Luxemburg amongst it, his political role over the last decade or so has been quite negative. Here’s a clip from something I wrote about the Euston Manifesto which takes up one of his latter-day traits:

    ‘What the Eustonites are trying to do here is to imply that those who consider that the attacks on 11 September 2001, and other examples of Islamist terrorism, are a response to Western policies towards the Middle East and Islamic countries are effectively endorsing those attacks. The handicraft of Geras is clear here. Writing in the Guardian on 21 July 2005, he considered that those — like this writer — who state that the British involvement in the war against Iraq was a prime factor behind the suicide bombings in London two weeks previously are essentially apologists for the bombers, irrespective of the fact that we uniformly condemned the attacks. Just like Tony Blair (and unlike practically everyone else), the Eustonites patently refuse to consider that one can strongly condemn these atrocities whilst considering that they were a response — an appalling, misguided and unjustified response, but a response nonetheless — to imperialist policies. Indeed, not only do the British security services consider the bombings a response to foreign policy, so did the spokesman for the bombers himself. New Labour’s foreign policy has greatly increased the danger of Islamist terror in Britain. One cannot say for sure that had Blair not become involved in the Iraq war, the Islamist terrorists would not have struck in Britain, but his enthusiastic involvement made them a distinct possibility, if not an inevitability.’

    Dr Paul

    October 18, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  3. Dr Paul, Dr Paul, Dr Paul….

    In one of his moments of lucidity Enoch Powell observed that all political lives end in failure,

    Such as it was Norm’s political life ended that way too – he lived long enough to see the New Left of which he was once a significant player destroy itself utterly and to see the ‘decent left’ he tried to help create pathetically stillborn.

    But given the catastrophic failures of the last decade what prominent leftist has had a truly positive role?

    For thirty-odd years we’ve all failed horribly, completely and shamefully to defend our ideas and our class effectively and those of us who are left behind can now do nothing other than impotently observe our civilisation slowly destroy itself.

    But Norm in any case was never primarily a political activist but a theorist, a teacher and for the last decade or so a retired professor sharing his thoughts on Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah and Jane Austen.

    And its that almost daily presence and the long, long list of mostly excellent recommendations of stuff to read, listen to and watch that I will genuinely miss.

  4. Doc Paul: you complain that Norm “considered that those — like this writer — who state that the British involvement in the war against Iraq was a prime factor behind the suicide bombings in London two weeks previously are essentially apologists for the bombers, irrespective of the fact that we uniformly condemned the attacks”:

    But he was correct about that wasn’t he?

    Jim Denham

    October 19, 2013 at 12:34 am

  5. I was thinking of your article Paul when I wrote this.

    The Eustonites asked me to sign.

    I wrote a piece in the Weekly Worker on the Euston stuff. There was good article in the Chartist attacking them by someone a lot closer to their line than either Paul or I.

    I deliberately avoided commenting on our political differences.

    Like, I imagine many of us I have copies of his books and articles.

    Roger hits the nail on the head when he says, that Norman “never primarily a political activist but a theorist.”

    And he was great, approachable, and well, good.

    Andrew Coatesliquide4

    October 19, 2013 at 11:00 am

  6. Do you mean “well, good” or “well good,” Andrew? Both, of course, apply, though I suspect Norm would have disliked the second.

    Jim Denham

    October 19, 2013 at 1:06 pm

  7. I shall have to consult my Fowler, and Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Jim.

    But no doubt Jim is keen on what we in French call to pinailler.

    I will list the conjugations of this verb

    je pinaille
    tu pinailles
    il pinaille
    nous pinaillons
    vous pinaillez
    ils pinaillent
    Passé composé
    j’ai pinaillé
    tu as pinaillé
    il a pinaillé
    nous avons pinaillé
    vous avez pinaillé
    ils ont pinaillé
    je pinaillais
    tu pinaillais
    il pinaillait
    nous pinaillions
    vous pinailliez
    ils pinaillaient
    j’avais pinaillé
    tu avais pinaillé
    il avait pinaillé
    nous avions pinaillé
    vous aviez pinaillé
    ils avaient pinaillé
    Passé simple
    je pinaillai
    tu pinaillas
    il pinailla
    nous pinaillâmes
    vous pinaillâtes
    ils pinaillèrent
    Passé antérieur
    j’eus pinaillé
    tu eus pinaillé
    il eut pinaillé
    nous eûmes pinaillé
    vous eûtes pinaillé
    ils eurent pinaillé
    Futur simple
    je pinaillerai
    tu pinailleras
    il pinaillera
    nous pinaillerons
    vous pinaillerez
    ils pinailleront
    Futur antérieur
    j’aurai pinaillé
    tu auras pinaillé
    il aura pinaillé
    nous aurons pinaillé
    vous aurez pinaillé
    ils auront pinaillé

    que je pinaille
    que tu pinailles
    qu’il pinaille
    que nous pinaillions
    que vous pinailliez
    qu’ils pinaillent
    que j’aie pinaillé
    que tu aies pinaillé
    qu’il ait pinaillé
    que nous ayons pinaillé
    que vous ayez pinaillé
    qu’ils aient pinaillé
    que je pinaillasse
    que tu pinaillasses
    qu’il pinaillât
    que nous pinaillassions
    que vous pinaillassiez
    qu’ils pinaillassent
    que j’eusse pinaillé
    que tu eusses pinaillé
    qu’il eût pinaillé
    que nous eussions pinaillé
    que vous eussiez pinaillé
    qu’ils eussent pinaillé

    je pinaillerais
    tu pinaillerais
    il pinaillerait
    nous pinaillerions
    vous pinailleriez
    ils pinailleraient
    j’aurais pinaillé
    tu aurais pinaillé
    il aurait pinaillé
    nous aurions pinaillé
    vous auriez pinaillé
    ils auraient pinaillé

    aie pinaillé
    ayons pinaillé
    ayez pinaillé


    avoir pinaillé

    Andrew Coates

    October 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm

  8. Did he ever admit he was mistaken about Iraq? If not it is impossible to see how one can ignore it, especially when one takes into account the venom of the Euston crowd. Come on, he sided with the most reactionary bunch of cut throats when there actions were proving disastrous for all but the industrial, financial, military and political elites. Dead Iraqis, dead squadies, dead Londoners, the middle east in meltdown, that was not a mistake but just about the biggest betrayal a working class militant could make. There is just no way back from that on a political level, no matter what he was like over a pint.

    But hey, so what, we were once comrades and old Norm wrote perfect prose, what bourgeois twaddle.

    Give me strength.

    Mick Hall

    October 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm

  9. Jim — Do you feel that it is correct to assume that the four men who killed 50 or more people in the London bombings in July 2005 were not encouraged in their act by Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq? Odd, then, that the spokesman for the bombers, in his statement justifying their act, said precisely that it was. Odd, too, that the intelligence services have also stated that British military involvement in the Middle East would encourage Islamists to commit acts of terror in Britain.

    To try to explain the motives of a person who commits a heinous crime, to try to comprehend why he did it, is not the same as trying to justify his act, to see it as a legitimate act. A psychiatrist who attempts to comprehend the rationale of, say, a murderer is usually not trying to declare that the killing was a legitimate act.

    If one cannot or will not attempt to comprehend the violent actions of a jihadist in the light of the circumstances that encouraged him to engage in violent activity, the objective conditions that directly and indirectly influenced the development of his thinking, to try, as in this instance, to comprehend what made three young British men of South Asian Muslim background and a convert to Islam of West Indian background to adopt a virulent archaic form of Islam and to engage in acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens, then exactly how can one explain such actions?

    One can, I suppose, talk of ‘evil’ and so on, but such assertions are banal in respect of mentally-ill perpetrators of violent crimes, and totally inadequate in respect of those responsible for political violence, and actually obstruct (whether by accident or design) an investigation into their real motives. Finding out the essential driving forces of Islamist violence, and indeed probing the objective basis of the rise of fundamentalist brands of Islam is, one might think, of considerable importance for the left.

    For Geras to assert that I and others who see a causal connection British involvement in wars in the Middle East and Islamist terror at home are apologists for such acts of terror — that is to say, to assert that we see such acts of terror as a justifiable and legitimate response to that involvement — is actually libellous. It is a lie, and by stating this Geras was a liar.

    It is often said that one should not speak ill of the dead. But when the deceased publicly declared that I and others of a similar outlook consider that the bombings of July 2005 were justifiable and legitimate acts, then I will speak very ill of him, for that is what he deserves.

    Dr Paul

    October 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm

  10. Apologies for people who got caught up in the Spam Box.

    This is the kind of comment I get there, “Un excellent moment passe en votre compagnie, un enorme compliment et felicitation. Merci bien pour cette bonne lecture.”

    Andrew Coates

    October 21, 2013 at 3:08 pm

  11. For someone who is first and foremost a political operative – a Healy or a Cliff for instance – a post-mortem should be primarily a political settling of scores.

    For someone who was an academic and an intellectual who did many other things with their life than attend political meetings or publish partisan rants – not just Norm, but a Ralph Miliband, an E.P. Thompson – that stuff is far less central.

    Ralph Miliband’s wider contribution to Marxism was not invalidated by the positions he took on Cambodia and Uganda and the Falklands any more than Norm’s was by what he wrote on Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Once upon a time Marxists were still sane enough to be able to make such a distinction and one finds a Lenin or Bukharin writing appreciatively about the contribution of a Plekhanov or a Bogdanov even after they have been tried, found wanting and cast into the outer darkness (or at least from the party) for taking a wrong line on an important issue,

    But we being mere degenerate epigones can seemingly never forgive nor forget a deviation from the true shining path.

    R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    October 21, 2013 at 3:25 pm

  12. You’ve got a long one of mine in spam which I hope you’ll rescue,

    R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    October 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm

  13. Mick,

    Andrew’s spam filter doesn’t seem to like links or indeed most of my comments here but Norm did indeed write in October 2006:

    I am bound to acknowledge that, though I never expected an easy sequel in Iraq, much less a ‘cakewalk’, I did not anticipate a failure on this scale, and had I done so, I would have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.

    (google normblog failure in iraq for the entire piece).

    R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    October 21, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  14. Norman Geras for us meant a lot.

    It would take us a long time to go through his truly valuable writings, on Marx and Justice for example.

    Or his truly great work on Rosa Luxemburg.

    Nobody has so far mentioned this but he was member of the International Marxist Group.

    As was I.

    But personally I do not forgive the Eustonies, for their pretensions to be some kind of British incarnation of the droits de l’homme people in France.

    Mick and Paul and no doubt others have pointed out in detail why this was wrong.

    I forget to mention that the AWL also published some good criticisms at the time.

    Andrew Coates

    October 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm

  15. Dr Paul,

    At what point did Norm personally libel you?

    My recollection is that he wrote pieces like this from July 27 2007:

    Perfect piece: from Mandela to the London bombings

    Jenni Russell today contributes to the comments pages of that newspaper the perfect Guardian opinion piece. It’s perfect in the sense that it expresses in pristine form the kind of Guardianista soft moral philosophy that has so often disfigured those pages over the last few years. By its representivity in this regard her article also gives the lie, yet once more, to a theme favoured amongst certain parties made stupid by the misapplication of their intelligence – the theme, namely, that the criticisms levelled in the Euston Manifesto at a section of the anti-war liberal-left apply in reality to no more than George Galloway and a few discredited crazies.

    Russell’s framing context for the article is introduced with the story of a man she knew, an Eritrean revolutionary, who was ‘driven by the conviction that he should fight in the war of liberation for his country’. From him we are led to the generality of others who ‘turn their backs on easy lives because they prefer to fight for whatever values they believe in’, and then, later, to people who committed ‘acts of sabotage against apartheid’. And all of this in aid of what exactly? In aid of better understanding people whose values encompass blowing up travellers on the London underground or at Glasgow airport. Why, it’s just as if there’s a straight line leading from Amilcar Cabral and Nelson Mandela to those who, for the ‘values they believe[d] in’, destroyed the World Trade Center and the people in it, or who ended so many lives in Bali, in Madrid, in London…

    Don’t say that one or two of these values, which they believed in, are just no damned good. No, say rather, with Jenni Russell, ‘same sense of mission’; say ‘belief that they are fighting for a better world’; scratch your head over others who ‘refuse to understand anything about their motivation’.

    What Russell herself fails to understand is that it is possible to recognize the sociological truth that not everyone embraces the same values, not everyone grows up with, is taught, the same values, and still think that one has to make a distinction between better values, like, say, helping others in emergency or dire need, and worse ones, like randomly maiming and murdering innocent people. She fails to understand that no ‘refusal to recognise others’ search for meaning in their lives’ is involved in thinking that some meanings are more harmful than other meanings and therefore open to criticism, fails to understand that rejection by some of what she describes as Western values can be understood and at the same time condemned.

    In fact, to see antipathy to the murder of the innocent as a specifically Western value nicely concentrates the limitation visible in Russell’s own moral and cultural understanding, in what is an egregious little essay in apologia, such as has been too frequent in the pages of that great Guardian of British liberalism.

    Now if you really want to align yourself with the likes of Jenni Russell and all the other Guardianistas I’d say it is you who has the problem.

    R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    October 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm

  16. Here goes, Geras from the Guardian on 21 July 2005, that is, before Russell’s piece:

    ‘The “We told you so” crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London. How do they know this, these clever people? For what they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. If it was only an influencing motivational cause among others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then it’s not the case that the London bombings wouldn’t have happened but for the Iraq war.

    ‘Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never go for the most obvious of these. This is the cause, indeed, which shows, by its absence, why most critics of the Iraq war or of anything else don’t murder people when they are angry. It is the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder. That cause somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes.

    ‘There are apologists among us, and they have to be fought intellectually and politically. They do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we all share. Because we believe in and value these, we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to challenge their excuses without let-up.’

    As I wrote above, the spokesman for the July bombers said that it was precisely the British war in Iraq that spurred he and his pals to carry out the attacks. It was the ‘motivating cause’. The spooks also stated that the British involvement in Iraq would encourage Islamist terror. So for stating this, we are ‘apologists’ for the bombers, giving ‘excuses’ for what they did, for stating what the actual bombers said themselves, as if stating their rationale is the same as justifying what they did.

    I do not let Islamist ideology off the hook; it is a reactionary ideology and its proponents are guilty of many crimes. However, were Islamist ideology the pure-and-simple basis for the bombings, we would not have had to wait for the attack on Iraq, or on Afghanistan, before a bomb went off in London. The underlying cause is these individuals’ adherence to Islamism, the ‘motivating cause’, the trigger-point, was the British government’s leading involvement in the war in Iraq. This is not to make ‘excuses’ for the bombing or to ‘apologise’ for it, or for that matter to minimise the responsibility of the bombers for what they did in the name of their ideology, but to try to comprehend what motivated them to carry out this atrocity.

    Geras wished to remove the responsibility of the British government in its providing a ‘motivating cause’ for these Islamists to act, and he did not stoop from the vilest of accusations: that those who link the British involvement in the invasion of Iraq to the bombings as ‘apologists’ who make ‘excuses’ for the bombers. My contention is this: one cannot state that had Britain not become involved in the war, there would have been no acts of Islamist terror; however, Britain’s leading involvement in the war made an act of Islamist terror extremely likely if not actually inevitable. That is what Geras wanted to dodge around; and the only way he could do was by making lying accusations about his opponents’ motives, to smear the reputations of those who had the temerity to show the existence a direct link between the Iraq war and the London bombings, a link that the bombers themselves admitted and to which the intelligence services also referred.

    I therefore stand by my accusation that Geras was being dishonest in his above article.

    Dr Paul

    October 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm

  17. There were many things wrong with the Geras articles of that time.

    But one point Paul, Islamist groups (the GIA – which is now Al-Qaida au Maghreb) had been murdering large numbers of people in Algeria, starting with leftists, feminists and intellectuals, for a long time before the Iraq war.

    Andrew Coates

    October 23, 2013 at 5:31 pm

  18. Dr Paul,

    You really seem so intent on feeling personally insulted that you literally can’t see the plain meaning of Norm’s words even when you choose to quote them directly.

    He did not for a minute deny that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a motivating cause.

    His accusation was that a class of apologists willfully ignored that the terrorists were not mere marionettes reacting purely to Western stimuli but have an ideology which literally preached mass murder long before a single Western bomb fell on Kabul or Baghdad and would do so whatever foreign policy the governmments of the Dar al-harb adopted.

    But you apply to him the very reductionism you imagine he accuses you of by the claim that for him that ideology alone was a ‘pure and simple basis for the bombings’ and attack him on the basis of an absurd straw man argument that he doesn’t actually make.

    Only an idiot – the last thing Norm was – would deny that Islamists who set off bombs at a particular time and particular place have specific reasons for choosing that time and place.

    What provoked him was the failure of specific commentators to state clearly and unequivocally precisely what you have in fact said here: that Islamism is a reactionary ideology whose proponents are guilty of many crimes.

    Say that (and more importantly mean it) and you are off Norm’s hook and really can add whatever analysis you like of why these particular Jihadis chose to blow themselves up at those particular places in London on that particular day,

    R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    October 24, 2013 at 1:15 am

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