Professor Norman Geras: Political philosopher who became an influential blogger
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Wednesday 23 October 2013
Norman Geras was a public intellectual of the internet. After a distinguished career as a political theorist and writer on Marxism, he felt he still had more to say. On his retirement as professor in 2003, at the age of 59, he started a blog: a web log or internet journal. It was a huge success, not in a dotcom bubble way, but in its influence on a group of writers and journalists who divided from the majority of the Left over, and especially after, the Iraq war.
Geras was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, and came to the UK in 1962 to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Pembroke College, Oxford. After two years at Nuffield College, Oxford, he joined the Department of Government at the University of Manchester as a lecturer. In the same year, 1967, he married Adèle, an actress, singer and French teacher whom he had met at Oxford. The daughter of a diplomat, she shared Geras's experience of having been brought up abroad, including in her case Tanganyika, now Tanzania, next-door to Southern Rhodesia. They had two daughters, and Adèle went on to become a prolific children's author.
His books were much admired by fellow revisionist Marxists, including The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg and Marx and Human Nature. The latter, subtitled "Refutation of a Legend" and published in 1983, sought to explain that Marx had not ignored or suppressed human nature and that the only politics worth having was that which accepted it.
He was much loved by his students in Manchester, many of whom were Marxists of various descriptions. He was on the editorial board of New Left Review from 1976 to 1992, and a colleague of Ralph Miliband's on the editorial board of Socialist Register from 1995 to 2003. Some of the last posts on his blog were in defence of the father of the Labour leader, attacked by the Daily Mail as "the man who hated Britain". Like Miliband Sr, Geras called himself a Marxist but also a democrat who loved Britain.
It was at 11.29am on Monday, 28 July 2003 that Geras began his late second career, announcing, in a post entitled "In the immortal words of Sam Peckinpah": "Let's go." Thus was "normblog" born. Another post 16 minutes later explained his motivation. "Since 11 September 2001, I'd come to find much of what was appearing on the opinion and letters pages of my daily newspaper of choice [here he linked to The Guardian website] repellent. And as a supporter of the war for regime-change reasons I was also less than comfortable with the balance of views I was encountering in the circles, professional and social, in which I move."
He had become "hooked" on blogs in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, he said. "There's this global conversation going on out there: argument and counter-argument; thinking aloud; the sharing of information or just stray musings; the sharing of links, of things you want to draw to the attention of others, or merely incidents from your day, likes and dislikes, pictures, jokes, curiosities, you name it … I'm joining the conversation."
He was brilliant at it. With a distinctive style of tightly argued, dispassionate reasoning he expressed the unease that so many felt at the anti-war consensus. He thought that the left ought to be on the side of defending and promoting human rights, rather than – even for the best of reasons – finding excuses for tyrants such as Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein.
He combined seriousness of moral purpose with politeness. He never resorted to insult or personal observations. He would always, always engage with the argument, and, as Nick Cohen observed, his criticism was the more devastating for it. Cohen quoted Geras's response to Karen Armstrong, the writer on comparative religion. "Observe," wrote Cohen, "that Norm's avoidance of polemical bitterness and his observance of the normal rules of polite debate does Ms Armstrong no good: she still ends up in pieces on the floor."
Nor was the blog the whole of his post-Manchester life (he and Adèle moved to Cambridge to be nearer their daughters and grandchildren). In 2006 he was one of the principal authors of the Euston Manifesto, an attempt to set out a left-wing argument for the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad, by force if necessary. Two years ago he published Crimes against Humanity: Birth of a Concept, which sought with his usual clarity to draw consistent principles from the crimes of Nazi Germany to those of the present day.
Yet the seriousness was always lightly worn. As he promised, his blog featured curiosities, including popular music, films and cricket. His last post was characteristic – not just "typical" but "of the essence". It was a list, a device popular on blogs long before it became monetised in today's capitalist form as Buzzfeed. It was a list of novels, 100 of them. It wasn't hectoring or prescriptive or, as he often found with such lists, "a bit oppressive". Lists such as, he said, nine days before his death, "100 Books To Read Before You Die". He advertised it, with characteristic gentleness, as "100 works of fiction you might enjoy". It was a list of books that he had read and liked. "If I make the list myself," he wrote, "I get to have read everything on it. Enough bullying is what I say. You, too, can make your own list and rebel against the tyranny of the book-dictators. I suggest you do it."
Norman Geras, political philosopher and blogger: born Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe 25 August 1943; Lecturer and later Professor of Politics, University of Manchester 1967-2003, then Emeritus; married 1967 Adèle (two daughters); died Cambridge 18 October 2013.
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