Norman Geras, 1943-2013

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November 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Leslie Evans

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200Norman Geras died in Cambridge, England, on October 18 of prostate cancer; he had turned seventy in August. He was little known in the United States, but was a seminal figure in a decades-long battle to rescue the humanitarian and democratic traditions of the socialist Left from a drift toward support to right-wing totalitarian governments and movements in the Third World, particularly Islamic radicalism, in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism. He was also a voice of reason in opposing the wave of demonization of Israel that has grown up into a distinctive form of left-wing antisemitism.

I never met him. A Jew, born in Southern Rhodesia when it was still a British colony, he emigrated to England with his family at the age of nineteen. For thirty-six years he taught philosophy and classes on Marxism at the University of Manchester. He wrote books on Marxism and one on Rosa Luxemburg, retiring early, at sixty, in 2003.

I should have heard of him while, from 1967 to 1979, I served on the literary staff of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in New York. I somehow did not. Norman in those years was also a Trotskyist, a leader of the Manchester branch of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International. My SWP was effectively the American section, though barred by the Voorhees Act from official membership. I met several leaders of the IMG: Alan and Connie Harris, who were the American SWP’s special cothinkers, Pat Jordan, John Ross, and Tariq Ali.

Norman even in his Trotskyist days had a certain humanist streak that coexisted poorly with the authoritarian doctrines of his sect. In a September 1977 talk on Leninism to the International Marxist Group he tried hard to see a distinction between Trotsky’s view of the revolutionary party and Lenin’s, arguing that because of the years when Trotsky was, with Rosa Luxemburg, opposed to Bolshevism because of its authoritarianism, that after Lenin’s death Trotsky had softened his concept of the party through opposing the Stalinist Lenin cult. (file:///C:/Inet%20web%20materials/Shaggyman%20current%20stories/13-11-Norman%20Geras/NORAMN%20GERAS%20AND%20LENIN.htm)

Norman was on the editorial board of the famed New Left Review, along with Quintin Hoare, also from the IMG. He served from 1976 to 1992. His resignation was prompted by an administrative shakeup led by Perry Anderson, who had long withdrawn from active involvement in the journal’s editorial work and taken up a professorship at UCLA, where I had a slight acquaintance with him. For thirty years the journal’s editorial decisions and selection of its chief editor were made by the Editorial Board. Each serving editor was rewarded with some amount of stock in the NLR company. Anderson in the autumn of 1992 staged a coup in which he, with his brother and a few other current and former editors, with controlling amounts of stock, stripped the Editorial Board of its decision making power. Norman Geras and several others resigned. The following March another layer of editors followed them, including Quintin Hoare and his wife, Branka Magas, amounting in total to no less than 19 of the 27 members. In the aftermath, Anderson gave special new responsibilities to Pakistani Trotskyist and IMG member Tariq Ali and to Alexander Cockburn, who had not had any association with the journal for many years and was then running Counterpunch, a publication that became strongly identified with leftist hostility to the United States and Israel.

At the time, this split seemed to be over purely administrative matters. Over the years it became apparent that profound political differences were involved, and the New Left Review split was replicated among other left groups throughout the Western world. These solidified over the decades into what Christopher Hitchens called the anti-imperialist Left versus the anti-totalitarian Left. Norman Geras was firmly in the latter camp.

Tariq Ali, in an interview with Counterpunch on February 26, 2008, said openly that “there is no doubt that there was a division on the Yugoslav war.” Most of the world, including Norman Geras and the other dissenters on the New Left Review Editorial Board, viewed the Serbian attacks on the Bosnian Muslims as a war crime. These assaults came to a peak in July 1995, when the Serbians massacred 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in Srebrenica, a crime branded as genocide by the International Court of Justice in 2007.  Ali, even after the court’s decision, still insisted that the Serbs bore no special guilt and the Yugoslav breakup was solely  “a civil war brought about by the European Union and by German intervention to break up the country.” That is, one side in this dispute among Western leftists was prepared to recognize war crimes when perpetrated by a minor player in the world system, while the Tariq Alis could only see guilt if the perpetrator was the European Union, or its similar, the United States.

The Yugoslav case was the beginning of this split, and it became a bitter division when NATO, in April 1994, began bombing in defense of the beleaguered Bosniaks. Those, like Tariq Ali, who found inconceivable a humanitarian military action by an advanced country, denounced the leftist supporters of the NATO intervention, including Norman Geras, as betrayers and apologists for imperialism. Norman bore a great deal of this kind of abuse from then on.

To weigh the merits of both sides in this controversy it is necessary to say a few words about its history before the 1990s. The Marxist anti-imperialist current has its origins in Lenin’s policies following the defeat of the post-World War I European Communist revolutions in Germany and Hungary. Still banking on a proletarian uprising, somewhat delayed, in Europe’s future, he sought to supplement the current Communist weakness by enlisting the anticolonial movement of what later came to be called the Third World. “Imperialism” then had a definite meaning and content. Britain ruled India, Egypt, South Africa, and half a dozen other places. France held Algeria and Indochina and was claiming Lebanon and Syria. Germany, a late comer, had Southwest Africa. Beyond that, until its defeat in World War I, the Turkish Ottoman Empire had ruled over the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Jews of the Middle East, and Russia over its prison house of nations.

Lenin’s expectation was that the rising colonial resistance to imperialism, whatever the views of its current leaders, would eventually turn to communism and become part of the world communist government that he assumed as the end product of the Russian Revolution.

History moved down different pathways. The German working class in its majority turned to National Socialism and voted for Hitler. In the decade and a half after World War II the old colonial empires were dismantled. A greatly weakened imperialism then presided over a brief period of neocolonialism, where it provided funding and military support to indigenous rulers that it actually controlled. Later the advanced countries would pay such governments to achieve partial aims without being able to control them, viz, America’s current relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt, and even postwar Iraq.

Chief among the putative imperialist powers, the United States, had a two-pronged foreign policy toward the Third World from the late 1940s through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the neocolonial side it sought to control resources in poorer countries by controlling their governments. The other prong was a historic battle with the Communist states, which ruled 40 percent of the world’s people. It was in this second effort that the U.S. committed the worst of the crimes that outraged the Marxist and much of the liberal left: the CIA coup against Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the Vietnam War, and the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Pinochet’s coup in 1973. The U.S. often conflated purely nationalist independence movements with its Communist nemesis. But Communism, whatever its pretensions about the wonderful future it was promising, was a horrendous system, responsible between the Soviet Union, its Eastern European fiefdoms, Maoist China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, for the deliberate murder of more than 100 million of its own people and the condemnation of the survivors to a life of serflike control by the one-party state. America’s worst crimes, and they were real enough, were not those of a predatory empire trying to establish colonial rule over other peoples but part of a broader conflict between world systems in which the Communist side had proved itself an enemy that needed to be fought.

After the collapse of Communism it is hard to square the term imperialism as a description of Europe and the United States with the meaning of that word in Lenin’s day. Europe has largely shrunk in on itself. America’s wars of the twenty-first century have been with radical Islam, a movement that shares nothing with the professed aims of Communism or of any kind of Western democratic values. That section of Islam boldly proclaims its own aspiration for a world revolution, as grandiose as Lenin’s dreams, but this one to impose Sharia law and destroy the infidel states.

That section of the Marxist and socialist Left that still imagines they are fighting the imperialism of the 1920s has become a more and more reactionary current, despite a genuine admixture of progressive goals that remain part of its outlook. As colonialism retreated further into the past and countries outside of Europe and America became more assertive, many devolving into various forms of tyranny, this political division among Western leftists became deeper. One side more and more could only see evil if “imperialism” was the agent. And by extension, it began to look to enemies of the advanced countries as potential allies. The other saw many new forms of oppressive rule outside of Europe and North America in which sometimes even military intervention by the democracies was justified.

The anti-imperialist Left, with the Soviet Union gone and China turning capitalist, looked more and more uncritically to Third World governments and non-state movements that were hostile to Europe and the United States. Many of these were right-wing, theocratic, and antisemitic – Islamic terrorists, or the various anti-Western dictatorships that are fundamentally opposed to political democracy, religious liberty, women’s and gay rights, trade unions, or virtually any of the humanistic values that had been essential to at least an important section of the traditional socialist left. A hallmark of this Western leftist politics has been unremitting hostility toward the Israeli Jews, generally including support to calls for the destruction of Israel in the name of Arab rights to the whole of the non-Persian Middle East.

Apart from the section of the Left that had always been totalitarian – the Stalinists and Maoists – this antidemocratic turn by a good part of the remainder was a new phenomenon. It flowed from the reduction of the once-vast socialist states, however deformed, to nothing but North Korea and Cuba, the clear disinterest of workers in the advanced countries in socialist doctrines, leaving as the only meaningful constituency with any power the visible enemies of the advanced countries. Thus an article of faith was retention of an unexamined ideology that Western imperialism remained the greatest evil on the planet, including the Israeli Jews, who were dismissed as a US outpost.

A single example from the real world should indicate the extreme decline of the advanced countries as alleged imperialist powers. From the 1930s to the 1970s the world’s most valuable commodity, oil, was dominated by the Seven Sister oil companies. Five of these were American. In 1973 the Seven Sisters controlled 85% of the world’s petroleum reserves. Today 77 percent of world oil reserves are owned by state-owned companies, in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mexico, Iraq, China, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Venezuela. Most of these are hostile to the United States and Europe. The only private oil company that even makes the top ten is Exxon. And despite leftist claims that the U.S. fought the Iraq war to capture the country’s oil, Iraq today exports to 35 countries, its biggest customer being China, and much of the rest goes to India and Europe.

Norman Geras proved to be a key figure within the socialist Left in rejecting the dead-end path of the die-hard anti-imperialists, though it was not until 2003 that he began most seriously to engage in this debate. In 1995 he joined the board of the Socialist Register, where he served until 2003, resigning when he also retired from teaching. This was still a pretty orthodox Marxist publication, with a Trotskyist leaning. It featured articles by Isaac Deutscher and Ernest Mandel, but also intellectuals from the Communist movement: Georg Lukacs, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm.

The Euston Manifesto

Norman’s final views took shape after he retired. He immediately started his own website, Normblog (http://normblog.typepad.com/). He insisted that his friends call him Norm (I have always had a taste for formality in people’s names). He wrote almost daily, on politics, on cricket, music, films, and, with greater frequency over time, on left-wing antisemitism and the growing tendency on the Left to see Islamic radicals as allies. He made a daring initiative in April 2006 as the principal drafter, along with Observer and Guardian columnist Nick Cohen and a few others, of the Euston Manifesto (http://eustonmanifesto.org/).

I discovered the Euston Manifesto about a year later, sometime in 2007, coinciding with Nick Cohen’s publication of What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, which developed the same viewpoint. The Manifesto made a defense of classical democratic values, condemned the growth of corporate power and economic inequality, defended the rights of women, gays, and trade unions, but firmly opposed the drift toward support to totalitarian Third World rulers and movements:

“We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently ‘understand’, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy – regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.”

I had withdrawn in 1986 from the last of a series of small Trotskyist groups and largely given up on Marxism. This became definitive in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A central credo of the Trotskyist brand of Marxism had been that the Communist states represented a superior form of society than capitalism and that the workers of those states would defend the nationalized property relations from any effort by the bureaucrats to compromise it. In the event, no hand was raised to defend the nationalized property. It was not the workers who clamored for reform but the Communist bureaucrats, and their reform consisted in the abolition of Communism, in both the Soviet Union and in China, though with different results. As Bernard Shaw observed in Man and Superman, “There are limits to what a mule or an ass will stand; but Man will suffer himself to be degraded until his vileness becomes so loathsome to his oppressors that they themselves are forced to reform it.” This told me that communism was not, as the Marxists imagined, the next inevitable and desirable stage of human civilization, but a hugely costly experiment imposed by implacable ideologues that had gone horribly awry, not different in kind from Savonarola’s religious dictatorship in fifteenth century Florence.

By 1987 I was a follower of such defenders of militant democratic liberalism as Isaiah Berlin and Leszek Kolakowski. I would not use the term “progressive,” as it had been for generations a euphemism and code word by which American Communists avoided spelling out their full program. I felt the same about the term “socialist,” though my sympathies were with the northern European social democratic parties. I did not much think of myself as a leftist, though plainly, while I was against a wholesale nationalization of productive property as inherently preparing the ground for tyranny, I supported a fairly radical redistribution of income, the union, women’s, and gay movements, and many other elements of the leftist canon. I pondered whether I belonged with a group that chose to describe itself as leftist rather than liberal, and finally submitted my signature.

Important to me in that decision was the Manifesto’s specific rejection of blanket anti-Americanism and its support to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Manifesto added:

“Some exploit the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people under occupation by Israel and conceal prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula of ‘anti-Zionism.’ We oppose this type of racism too, as should go without saying.”

Most of the signers were British and unknown to me. There were a few I knew of and respected, mainly Nick Cohen, Paul Berman, Marc Cooper, Quintin Hoare, and Walter Laqueur.

A key issue was the war in Iraq, in 2006 in its fourth year. The Euston Manifesto signers came to be widely regarded as supporters of the war. That was largely but by no means exclusively so. The opposition to the war came from two camps. The largest was American liberals who hated George Bush and could care less what happened to the people of Iraq. The other was the far left “anti-imperialists,” who on principle opposed any U.S. military action abroad. Many of this last came to be public supporters of the Sunni jihadi “insurgents” and their foreign Al Qaeda-type allies.

What the Euston Manifesto did was to strongly endorse, on humanitarian grounds, the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship:

“We  recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for the Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted – rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.”

This echoed my own view of the situation.

After Norman’s death I saw one internet post that claimed he had in 2006 renounced the view that Saddam should have been forcibly removed from power and came out against the continuing the war. I searched Normblog and here in full is the last entry in 2006 that dealt with Iraq, dated October 31:

“The notion that in withdrawing from Iraq we would enhance our security by removing a cause for provocation is the merest superstition. That’s Oliver Kamm commenting on a new piece by Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens for his own part opposes a withdrawal from Iraq. I liked this passage:

“‘Many of those advocating withdrawal have been “war-weary” ever since the mid afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered that the source of jihadist violence was U.S. foreign policy… To this way of thinking, victory is impossible by definition, because any response other than restraint is bound to inflame the militancy of the other side. Since the jihadists, by every available account, are also inflamed and encouraged by everything from passivity to Danish cartoons, this seems to shrink the arena of possible or even thinkable combat. (Nobody ever asks what would happen if the jihadists had to start worrying about the level of casualties they were enduring, or the credit they were losing by their tactics, or the number of enemies they were making among civilized people who were prepared to take up arms to stop them. Our own masochism makes this contingency an unlikely one in any case.)’

“And people don’t much consider in this context whether someone’s propensity to get inflamed is a useful guideline in determining the actions of others.”

Some 2,800 people signed the Euston Manifesto. By the time I submitted my signature the website had gone dead, lists for several letters of the alphabet were left out and new signatories were being ignored. It was a noble effort thrown out into a churning maelstrom of public opinion that ranged from totalitarian-minded conspiracy theorists on the far left to Christian theocrats and racists on the right, with every imaginable variation in between competing to be heard.

I began to regularly follow Normblog. I sent Norman a copy of my memoir, Outsider’s Reverie, when it came out early in 2010. We became friends on Facebook and I often shared his posts. He would usually thank me when I commented on them. Most of what I shared were his skewering of biased coverage of Israel.

Israel’s 2009 Invasion of Gaza

The most trying event in that regard was the Israeli invasion of Gaza in February 2009 in Operation Cast Lead. I pick it because it is the most extreme example in recent years in which Israel appears in the wrong. Virtually the whole of the liberal Left exploded in opposition. That Hamas claimed to be actively at war with Israel for years beforehand, and had lobbed some 3,000 rockets into Israeli border towns seemed forgotten, as though Israel had acted for no reason at all. It is hard to imagine any country in the world that would have allowed such a bombardment to continue for years on end and not responded, or that when it did, with an opponent entrenched among civilians, that there would not be an unavoidably large number of casualties. Notably, Israel refrained in the end from attacking the hospital under which the Hamas leadership were encamped, counting the inevitable civilian casualties as too high. Few other countries would have done this.

I had at that time for some eight years been in regular correspondence with a Trotskyist friend who I had been close to for almost forty years. She, although Jewish, had become a firebrand supporter of the Palestinian cause, denouncing Fatah and Abbas for being insufficiently militant and praising Hamas and Hezbollah. In my last email to her, during the invasion, I recounted running into a Jewish friend, Martin Weil, a distinguished historic restoration architect who died a few days later. He said to me that he could understand opposition to Israel’s action, but that when it was accompanied by a refusal to condemn the Hamas missiles it became antisemitic. I said in my email to my Trotskyist friend that I had agreed. She never wrote to me again.

After Norman died I looked back to see what he had said about the Israeli operation in Gaza. I found a lengthy February 4, 2009, post. He did not deny that Israel could be accused of using excessive force. He began by citing extensive quotations from the British press and political figures of the liberal left accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza. He noted the disproportionate number of deaths from the IDF and those from Hamas’s rockets – 1,300 Palestinians killed during the Israeli invasion compared to 20 from the Gaza rockets, not counting injuries and the constant threat of the bombardment. The rockets were generally passed over in silence by the critics. Hamas’s greater war crime, he asserted, was committed in Gaza, not in Israel. This was its decision to use unwilling human shields; firing on Israeli troops from civilian-occupied schools, hospitals, and mosques; setting up rocket firing installations in alleys flanked by inhabited civilian housing. He cited numerous reports of these tactics and showed that they are strongly prohibited under the Geneva Convention and ranked as war crimes. Also under the Geneva Convention, military action against armed opponents is not prohibited if there are civilians nearby, and especially not if the opponent is deliberately fighting surrounded by civilian shields. Some of the press reports said that Palestinian civilians were threatened with being shot by Hamas if they protested the firing of rockets from their land or homes.

Norman pointed out that under the Geneva Convention both sides in an armed conflict are required to refrain from deliberately involving civilians, no matter which side claims it has the more moral cause. He raised this while disbelieving that morality lay with Hamas, but to make it clear to those who do so think that this does not give Hamas a pass to deliberately get civilians killed.

That Israel’s critics in the Gaza affair almost universally ignored Hamas’s human shield policy, as well as its rockets, Norman Geras branded as unconscionable bias. It treated international law “as a mere convenience, something to use rhetorically and polemically when it suits you to do so – but only then. If there are war crimes on both sides of a single conflict and you condemn one side alone as in breach of the law, this is not respect for law; it is an unprincipled politicization of it.”

His conclusion summed up core beliefs of his long life and his attempt to rescue a humanitarian kernel of the Marxist project. I close by quoting it as his legacy:

“For some time it has been clear beyond reasonable doubt that a wide swathe of the liberal-left has learned nothing, and will learn nothing, from its sorry historical experience in the 20th century. Fellow-travellers to Stalinism, the greatest political disaster for the left since ‘the left’ became a concept, then celebrants of or apologists for one undemocratic and illiberal, sometimes murderous, enterprise after another – here Mao, there Castro and Guevara, today Chavez, and more or less every day one bunch of terrorist thugs or another – there are always leftists ready to believe that if a movement has some justice to its cause, a progressive component in its programme or outlook, it is to be supported. And that means its crimes and deficiencies must be passed over, be silently ignored or at the very least played down. Today Hamas is the beneficiary of this complaisance and this complicity. Because the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance (which they do), every ‘misdemeanour’ of their political representatives is to be overlooked or excused: anti-Semitism, programmatically encased; anti-democratic practices of every stripe; torture of political opponents (torture exactly as lamented and condemned, and correctly so, when countenanced by a Western government); and now war crimes. But say nothing or else mutter inconsequentially – this is the formula of the learn-nothing section of the left.

“To hold Israel to the standards of international humanitarian law, the elementary standards entailed by codes of human rights, is only right and proper. But to hold Israel to those standards, but not also its regional adversaries, suggests a special hostility towards it that needs some explanation. Not all of this hostility can be accounted anti-Semitic. But some of it is. Only the blindest can ignore the plain manifestations of anti-Semitism now evident both amongst Israel’s regional adversaries and within the worldwide protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza and disfiguring them. As worrying is the fact that the same liberal-left aforementioned that populates these protests and in doing so looks away from the crimes of Israel’s opponents, a liberal-left that is, to a man and a woman, proud of its anti-racism, proud of its sensitivity to ‘Islamophobia’, is silent about this growth of anti-Semitism, shamefully silent, having forgotten in just the one case its avowed duty of solidarity with the victims of prejudice everywhere. Not much more than 60 years after the Jews of Europe were nearly annihilated, before the world stood back aghast to take the measure of what had been done and allowed to be done, the Jewish state has become an object of special opprobrium – opprobrium beyond that criticism which is justified, equitable, applied in equal measure to other nations when it fits. And the Jews of other countries are once again anxious – almost unthinkable, this, only a decade ago – as to how many friends the Jews have.

“In the outpouring of hatred towards Israel today, it scarcely matters what part of it is impelled by a pre-existing hostility towards Jews as such and what part by a groundless feeling that the Jewish state is especially vicious among the nations of the world and to be obsessed about accordingly. Both are forms of anti-Semitism. The old poison is once again among us.”

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