Professor Norman Geras: Political philosopher who became an influential blogger

 

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.

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits