Norman Geras

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2003

I see that Norman Geras has joined the blogging community. Norm was involved in some of the early discussions around Crooked Timber and even suggested the name. He’s the author of many books on subjects as wide-ranging as Rosa Luxemburg, the holocaust, and cricket and he’s also been a contributor to one of my other collaborative projects, Imprints, which featured an interview with him recently (the current issue has his take on Polanski’s The Pianist). I’m sure that Norman’s blog will be one of my regular visits and I already see plenty to argue with, including his inclusion of Jules et Jim in his list of 20 best films when, as any fule kno, Les 400 Coups is superior. (Norman goes straight into the academic part of our blogroll under political science/political theory).



Martin Wisse 07.29.03 at 2:57 pm

Personally I find the post in which all the shibbolets of the post-left are repeated (the left didn’t condemn 9-11, war against islamofascism good, war against Iraq is a war of liberation) far more troublesome than whether or not he put the correct French movie on his list…

He may be an intelligent and engaging fellow, but so far on his blog he’s just another InstaHitchens.


Chris Bertram 07.29.03 at 3:22 pm


Those are indeed weightier questions than the film one. As a matter of temporal record, I posted before Norman put up his longish piece on the Iraq war. IMHO it is an eloquent and well-argued piece of writing, though one with whose conclusion about the justification of the Iraq war I disagree (despite agreeing with Norman that the ending of the Baathist regime on Iraq is a very good thing indeed). Personally I was a non-supporter of the war rather than an opponent (and I know that there are a range of different views among CT contributors).

As for the point about 9-11, it is quite true to say that many on the left said some pretty disgraceful things – are you denying that? Some examples: in Britain the New Statesman, rhetorically answered its own question about whether the victims of September 11th were innocent with a “yes and no”, as if somehow some of them were deserving of their fate. Britain’s leading left environmentalist, the columnist George Monbiot, failed dismally to rise to the moment, and in his initial reaction to the events centred on them providing an opportunity for Tony Blair to approve a nuclear reprocessing plant. An article in Britain’s Radical Philosophy magazine stated “the attacks are a continuation and escalation of a war for the colonial subjugation of the Middle East that has been fought more or less continuously since World War II between the USA and its proxy state Israel on the one hand, and their locally based opponents on the other.” And that the “anti-imperialist impulse” pulls “towards a positive defence of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, as the current representatives of Middle Eastern resistance to imperialist power, in their war against the USA and its proxies”.

So please don’t pretend that such sentiments were never voiced.


back40 07.29.03 at 5:29 pm

I suspect that Norman will be one of my regular visits too. I’m enjoying the interview you linked. Thanks for the pointer.


drapetomaniac 07.30.03 at 12:18 am

>it is quite true to say that many on the left said some pretty disgraceful things

about as true as ‘many’ on the right said some disgraceful things, from jerry falwell onwards.

i think that as a generalization, ‘many westerners on the left took it as an opportunity to vent racist invective and get their war on’ would be about as true.

i leave it to readers to work out how true that is.


Martin Wisse 07.30.03 at 8:13 am


_some_ people on the left said some stupid things, yes, but that’s not what Norman said. He said that “the left” as a whole was willing and eager to blame the victims and uncaring about the suffering these people went through.

As somebody who is on the left, this sort off offends me.

Furthermore, this attitude is a stale piece of recieved wisdom which has been used from September 12 onwards to beat up on anybody who actually wanted to explore why, you know, these attacks happened other than “Osama Bin Laden is evil I tell you, evil!”

Case in point: that Monbiot’s reaction as characterised in your comment above. Is pointing out cynical abuse of a tragedy wrong now? Or is it just that he spent too little time talking about the attacks themselves? In the latter case, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of course. I can well understand not wanting to be the umteenth writer condemning the tragedy, adding little to the conversation.

Especially when even shortly after the attack showing your revulsion became as much a ritual of righteousness as it was a genuine display of emotion; you got to show the proper attitude[1]. (In the same way that you now have to emphasise that Saddam Hussein was a Bad, Bad Man before you’re allowed to criticise the US occupation of Iraq.)

I dislike this attitude of the exleft and hate having to jump through their hoops to be counted as one of the socalled “decent left”, which is why I don’t like Norman’s blog. Let’s not even mention that he’s wrong on this.

[1] What began to annoy me after a while as well was the over the top pomposity that certain elements treated the attacks with. Yes, they were bad, but they were not even in the top 100 of bad things that happened in the last 100 years. Martin Bloody Amis and his “i don’t know if I can ever write a novel again” and “what is the role of a writer in a post-911 world?”


Chris Bertram 07.30.03 at 8:38 am


Norman can certainly speak for himself. But what he actually says of the left is “The response on the part of much of it was excuse and apologia.” That’s demonstrably true, at least in the UK which is the context that both he and I are most familiar with.

As for beating up on those who offered explanations, I refer you to Norman’s measured (IMHO) discussion of this matter in the interview mentioned in the post.

I’m somewhat bemused also, Martin, by the fact that you (rightly) object to blanket characterizations of “the left” but consign those who disagree with you to the “exleft”.


drapetomaniac 07.30.03 at 8:46 am

>What began to annoy me after a while as well was the over the top pomposity that certain elements treated the attacks with.

Exactly. Some leftist reponses look strange as reactions to 9/11 itself, but they weren’t just reactions to 9/11, they were reactions to the absolutely disgusting and sanctimoniously right-wing nonsense that filled the airwaves and to a lesser extent, the air, shortly afterwards.

my friend who had been in downtown manhattan when the towers fell, and i who could not go back to my apt bc of it, sat and watched bush on tv saying ‘america has now seen evil’ and of course we reacted by thinking of america’s own complicity in evil and american involvement in the spurring of osama. it’s not bc we didn’t recognize the tragedy for what it was, it’s not bc we ‘blamed america first’, it’s bc the right-wing reaction was an insult to our intelligence.

i say right, tho frankly, there were some shocking examples of total and reprehensible sanctimoniousness was from the left-in-name. imperialist blow-back may not be the full explanation of 9/11, but it’s less trivializing and idiotic than suggesting that it’s bc they hate our sexual openness (which was more or less said in a New Yorker article).


Chris Bertram 07.30.03 at 9:00 am

I refer you to my previous reply (yawns) ….


Martin Wisse 07.30.03 at 1:25 pm


I didn’t seen that apologia, I saw people trying to explain why America was attacked in the first place and that this wasn’t just because they ‘hated our freedoms’…

Not everybody that disagrees with me is exleft, but there arguably are quite a number of rightdrifting leftists (C. Hitchens and Michael Walzer being prominent examples) for whom the September 11 attacks were the excuse to cross over, or so it seems from my point of view. Somebody like Josh Marshall, who did at first reluctantly support
the war against Iraq is not exleft, just wrong.

(Though I could go so far as to argue that you cannot be leftist and support this war against Iraq, because it means signing up for neo-imperialism. Certainly if you still support this war now, after it’s become clear all the high minded reasons why a liberal person would support it, were actually lies.)

As for that interview you linked to, when you originally pointed to it in your own blog I was as much annoyed with it as I am now. It’s still an unjustified dismissal of criticism with the hoary notion that “the left” is excusing terrorism. I quote:

“Half the world aghast, and half the left or more could not bring themselves to respond at the level of the tragedy before them, saying only, in effect, this is bad but it is not special.”



Chris Bertram 07.30.03 at 1:45 pm


There comes a point where one has said what one has said and there doesn’t seem much point in going round the houses again. I’m sorry that you are confident that “all the high minded reasons why a liberal person would support [the war], were actually lies.” My own confidence is somewhat disturbed by the mass graves containing the many, many victims of the Baathist regime. Human rights were clearly a reason why a left or liberal person might have been led to support the war, and, whether or not you think those reasons sufficient, I see no cause to doubt the good faith of those who took that view (*those* reasons weren’t lies, even if many of the other ones were). I’ll be linking to the next Imprints interview very soon, and I assure you, you’ll just love it. Meanwhile, I’m happy to live in a world where you don’t get to decide who is and who isn’t an apostate.


back40 07.30.03 at 3:58 pm

What is interesting to me about Geras is that he seems to be quite the opposite of an apostate. He clings to his youthful ideas not by denying their defects, but by carefully sorting the sound parts from the mistaken ones and concluding that the balance is still favorable.

That ability to reason in good faith coupled with his caring temperament makes him someone I will listen to carefully.


pathos 07.30.03 at 5:01 pm

The problem with the response of many persons on the left, and why they have been given the label of “Blame America First”-ers is that what might possibly be intended as an intellectual pursuit of truth in fact more often comes off as blame.

Take, for instance, the common argument that “they hate us” because “we” support Israel against the Arab nations. Is this true? Possibly, it could be one motivation.

But what to be done? Was supporting Israel the right thing to do before the attacks? Either yes or no. If the answer was Yes before the attacks, does it change to No after? Of course not. You do not change a policy you feel is just due to terrorism.

So, many on the Left have a problem with how America operates in the world. Fine. They should forcefully argue that America should behave differently. But, when a Leftist links the problem with America with a terrorist attack and says, “See, this is what happens!” he make his case weaker, not stronger. The implicit argument is that what is described as a cause is actually a partial justification.

Of course, many do not say these things, and many more who do do not intend the natural conclusions that are reached from them. But the image that remains after all the Leftists are done talking is a little boy whining for an ice cream cone. His mother says no. Then, there is a terrorist attack and thousands are killed, to which the little boy responds, “See, you should have given me an ice cream cone.”


dsquared 07.30.03 at 7:19 pm

What I didn’t like (on either Norman’s blog or Junius, where it also appeared) was the apparent assumption that the onus of proof is always on the person who opposes a war to show why it would necessarily have identifiable bad consequences. I don’t like this because it appears to go hand in hand with a refusal to allow people more cautious about war to make use of slippery slope arguments that proposed humanitarian war A makes not-yet-proposed, non-humanitarian wars B, C …. Z more likely, and that the benefits of A should be set against these larger costs. Which appeared to me to be the core argument which a lot of the people Norman objected to were groping for (it’s also the mainstay of Jim Henley’s position, and of libertarian doves in general).

So when people on “the left” make the genuine and not unreasonable claim that we are more scared of the long term effects of establishing a general principle of at-will military intervention, than we are of Saddam’s Iraq, then we tend to get strawmen thrown back at us that we think the USA “is worse than Saddam”. Which gets wearing after a while.


back40 07.30.03 at 8:25 pm

Slippery slope arguments are made all the time. They just aren’t convincing. They cannot be utterly refuted but are seen to be remote possibilities and so are dismissed as sophomoric belaboring of the obvious.

Most often, these weak arguments are made as thin cover for the very thing Geras complains of, the refusal to consider the moral case for intervention and “a displacement of the left’s most fundamental values by a misguided strategic choice, namely, opposition to the US, come what may.” This is important, as Geras notes, since “it has produced a calamitous compromise of the core values of socialism, or liberalism or both…”

There is a small but cautionary role for slippery slope arguments. There is a huge and persistently relevant role for moral arguments.


dsquared 07.30.03 at 8:33 pm

>>Slippery slope arguments are made all the time. They just aren’t convincing.

Nonsense. Some are, some aren’t. The particular argument that if you allow someone favourable outcomes from small acts of violence they will progress to larger acts of violence was convincing enough to be used by both sides on the Iraq war issue.

>>This is important, as Geras notes

Factive use alert!

Opposition to the US, come what may, is not obviously a misguided strategic choice; the USA, practically alone among global purveyors of violence, is a democracy, and thus the marginal return to rational argument is likely to be much greater there.


Chris Bertram 07.30.03 at 9:22 pm

I’m somewhat perplexed that a friendly pointer to someone’s new blog should have 15 entries in it prior to this one!

I certainly meandered a great deal on Junius about the war, and I can’t be sure that I didn’t say something about burden of proof along the lines D^2 indicates. (In the face of an argument I found compelling, I may well have thought the onus was on me to given a response). I can, though, quote myself on Sept 12 2002:

Those who want to use coercive force have to make their case. They have to show that the clear and present danger is such that the normal constraints on the use of force should be abandoned, and, crucially, that there is no better way of achieving peace and security. Since there are policy options other than war, such as containment, they have to show why those are inadequate in order to pass the test of “last resort”.

Daniel also writes:

Opposition to the US, come what may, is not obviously a misguided strategic choice; the USA, practically alone among global purveyors of violence, is a democracy, and thus the marginal return to rational argument is likely to be much greater there.

Such a policy couldn’t be made public, since the recipients of your arguments would then take them as (a) not made in good faith and, arguably, (b) not rational (since in principle unresponsive to their counterarguments). I take it, though, that this suggestion was made as an interesting hypothetical and not as a morally or practically serious proposal.


Chris Bertram 07.30.03 at 9:28 pm

BTW that (or at any rate this) was my last contribution to this particular thread.


back40 07.30.03 at 9:30 pm

What you evade is Geras’ point that opposition to the US, come what may, misguided or not, has resulted in “a displacement of the left’s most fundamental values”. Whether opposition to the US is misguided or not isn’t the thrust of his complaint that the left has abandoned it’s core values and replaced them with something much less admirable.

When you read his longer pieces about his struggles to remain a Marxist while being intellectually honest enough to fully face its defects on fundamental premises it is difficult not to take his views on 9/11, Iraq and war morality seriously. Carefully reading his careful thoughts is profitable even when you come to different conclusions. Give it a try.


dsquared 07.30.03 at 9:53 pm

>>Such a policy couldn’t be made public, since the recipients of your arguments would then take them as (a) not made in good faith and, arguably, (b) not rational (since in principle unresponsive to their counterarguments). I take it, though, that this suggestion was made as an interesting hypothetical and not as a morally or practically serious proposal

I think it was this sort of thing I was dimly remembering, but I can’t find it either, so I apologise for suggesting it was there without checking. I think it’s an entirely seriously defensible moral and practical proposition, but I suspect that I should write a proper post on the subject, so I will also refrain from commenting any more on this thread.

Back40: According to your post above, you only heard of the guy on 29 June 2003 at or around 5.29pm. That’s four and a half hours ago. It is perhaps a bit presumptuous of you to say “give it a try to me” as if you’d been studying Geras’ work all your life and I’d never even considered his arguments. Please don’t patronise.


back40 07.30.03 at 10:13 pm

What a silly statement. Even overlooking your difficulties with time calculation what possible difference could it make? How long does it take to read an essay? Hint: when you are in a hole stop digging.


dave heasman 07.31.03 at 10:09 am

Geras is “still” a Marxist? Didn’t look like it to me, unless Marxists now side with the guys with the biggest bombs. Which I suppose they mostly do. Anyway, I was more interested in Geras’ take on Louis Armstrong. Knocking down the jazz fans who think jazz began with Charlie Parker (are there such people?) he lists a couple of Armstrong records and doesn’t say anything much about them. What a well-rounded fellow. Even Hobsbawm is more interesting.


Brad DeLong 07.31.03 at 9:10 pm

So what’s the title of the book about Rosa Luxemburg, the Holocaust, and cricket? That must be one strange read…


Martin Wisse 08.05.03 at 1:40 am

Chris, I agree that going round and round on a subject is usually pointless, but I already paid for this trip, so…

Humanitarian concerns where not why the war was fought whether or not any leftist took that as a reason to support it. In your last response to me you did exactly what every war supporter did, make it seem as if the people who didn’t want more innocent iraqis killed by your governments “precision bombardments” don’t care about innocent lives. May I remind you that the majority of those graves were dug during a time your government, as well as the US hailed Saddam Hussein as a stalward fighter against Khomeini?

They’re not *my* fault. They were allowed to happen by the same bastards who earlier this year urged us to go to war supposedly because of those mass graves.

Meanwhile, high ranking US officers casually mention arresting family of ex-Iraqi military people as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to do and large parts of Iraq are still without water, gas or electricity.

In short: no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found so far (lie 1), hence Iraq was no immediate threat (lie 2). There have never been proof of ties with Al Quaida (lie 3) and the US/UK’s own actions belie the humanitarian concern (lie 4).

If you, as a leftist, supported the war for any of these reasons you’re at best an useful idiot, sorry.

(And yes Chris, I do get to decide who is and is not on the left anymore, just as you do.)


motorola 01.13.04 at 9:59 pm

Mein Hobby ist es Gästebücher zu besuchen. Das ist immer ganz interessant und widerspiegelt so, was die Leute im Internet wirklich denken. War auch interessant bei Dir ! Bis zum nächsten Mal. All The Best OfNew Year. Sorry for my english i’am from Germany.

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