Norman Geras passed away on 18 October 2013, after a long struggle with prostate cancer – he was 70 years old. Norman was my PhD supervisor at the University of Manchester from 1996-2000. I last saw him in Manchester in September 2012, when he gave a paper on G.A. Cohen’s little book Why Not Socialism?
Norman was an important Marxist thinker. Essays such as ‘The Controversy Concerning Marx and Justice’ and ‘Essence and Appearance: Aspects of Fetishism in Marx’s Capital’ shaped the academic discussion on these themes. His polemic (in the best sense of the term) against the post-Marxists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, generated one of the most obscurantist responses by the authors it is possible to image. This did not stop Norman returning for round two! And his book on Richard Rorty’s ‘post-modern bourgeois liberalism’ exposed the hollowness at the heart of Rorty’s denial of human nature.
Such discussions do, however, to the world outside of academe, appear as rather obscure. It is perhaps (or perhaps not!) ironic that it was not until he left academe that Norman’s work came to be disseminated more widely to a ‘popular’ audience. For Norman’s retirement as an academic brought his intellectual rebirth in cyberspace as a ‘blogger’, the author of Normblog. (As academics we are all expected to have a social media profile – to tweet, and to give out our wisdom. Last time I spoke with Norman, I mentioned this, and he recoiled with horror! Blogging was something which he felt internally compelled to do – it should not be forced via external compulsion.)
From the mass of comments following his death, it is clear that blogging brought Norman many new friends. However it also brought him new critics, and indeed enemies. His support for American intervention in Iraq for many on the left constituted a break – a rightwards lurch in Norman’s ideology. I remember a conference in London at which Norman was a keynote speaker. The other keynote was Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers’ Party. In the middle of his paper giving an egalitarian critique of Rawls, Callinicos went completely off at a tangent, to accuse Norman of being a war monger, and espouser of the Bush Doctrine.
At first, I did not agree with Norman’s position on Iraq. I have shifted further towards the interventionist argument since, in part as a result of the persuasiveness of Norman’s moral arguments.
Many of his critics got Norman wrong. Norman was no warmonger. And he was no friend of the barbarous agents of global capitalism.
Slavoj Žižek recently called for a new expression of the ‘communist idea’, one which rejects the hegemonic liberal discourse of justice, rights and fairness. In its place, Žižek calls for an ‘egalitarian terror’. The left needs a new ‘Master’. Norman rejected this sort of ‘left-fascist’ nonsense. Many of the failings of the left in the twentieth century resulted from its neglect for basic Kantian principles of human dignity and respect for others. A ‘communism’ which failed to acknowledge the dignity of the individual was a communism not worth having – a form of totalitarianism as awful as all the others. Norman’s liberal interventionism was grounded in this basic commitment.
It was with this commitment that Norman criticised those on the so-called left who seemed more concerned to demonstrate their anti-Americanism (dressed as form of anti-imperialism) than they were to speak out against those neo-fascist dictatorships across the globe who regularly tortured and murdered men, women and children.
The egalitarian and democratic left may have lost one of its greatest intellectuals, but we are all the worse off for Norman’s passing.
One final point – Žižek may well be the ‘Elvis of philosophy’, but Norman would – as his colleagues in Manchester knew very well – have wiped the floor with him in a karaoke contest!