That we owe a duty of help to those who are suffering under terrible oppression


Eve Garrard wrote about Norm Geras for the Guardian last Sunday. She’s a colleague and friend of his, and one of the editors of Thinking Towards Humanity.

His interests were rich and varied, but his thought and writings form an integrated whole. He was centrally and always a man of the left, but one who became a scourge of those parts of left/liberal opinion which, in his view, had slid away from commitment to the values of equality, justice and universal rights, and in so doing ended up by excusing or condoning racism and terrorism.

And sexism – the most godawful sexism on the planet.

From his perspective, the response to the events of 11 September 2001 was appalling. He found the readiness of many to blame the US for bringing the terrorist attack down on its own head to be intellectually feeble and morally contemptible. He argued that this section of the left was betraying its own values by offering warm understanding to terrorists and cold neglect to their victims. He detested the drawing of an unsupported and insupportable moral equivalence between western democracies and real or proposed theocratic tyrannies in which liberty of thought and speech, and the protection of human rights, would play no part. Norm wanted to engage in this debate and not just with academics. So he went online, to provide himself with a space in which he could express these and other views, and Normblog was born.

It was a runaway success. Thousands of readers all over the world were drawn by Norm’s mixture of serious political and philosophical reasoning, and more lighthearted pieces on cricket, Manchester United, country music, films, books – whatever he was currently interested in. The most striking feature of the blog was Norm’s distinctive arguing style: independent, rigorous, fair to adversaries, exceptionally clear, always (well, almost always) civil – and that in a blogosphere noted for widespread vituperation and insult.

I was one of those thousands, right from the beginning.

Norm’s original area of research was Marxist political theory and he produced some highly influential books in this area, including The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (1976) and Marx and Human Nature (1983), in which he argued, rather against the progressive orthodoxy of the time, that there is such a thing as a determinate human nature, and that Marx himself had recognised this. His work inspired a generation of Marxist scholars. His concern about human nature, especially its darker elements, led him to explore the Holocaust: he was among the first to examine this terrible event from within the discipline of political theory.

Out of this research came his book The Contract of Mutual Indifference (1998), in which he argued that we owe a duty of help to those who are suffering under terrible oppression. He contrasted this duty with the practice of so many who observed the Nazis’ genocidal activities and did nothing, suggesting that what we actually believe in is something like a contract of mutual non-assistance: I won’t help you in your desperate straits, and I won’t expect any help from you either. This, as Norm argued, is morally intolerable: our common humanity makes claims on us, to protect each other from catastrophe, if we can.

Yes. That is what I think too.

 

Comments

  1. Minnow says

    He was a great man, and a terrific writer. I loved his books and his blog and the fact that he made it possible to be a marxist after all. He was very kind too, and always answered emails, even when he was very ill. I will miss him as if I knew him, he was that kind of voice.

    He had a remarkable family too. If you don’t know the work of his daughter Sophie (Hannah) I recommend it to you. Her poetry is great and often very, very funny and she writes truly creepy and tense thrillers as well, if you like that sort of thing.

  2. freemage says

    I agree with the ‘duty to help’. It IS immoral to leave people trapped in these circumstances and not provide some form of aid. My difficulty is in the next step–the ‘how to help?’ The methods of imperialism–military invasion, economic dominance–have been colossal failures. I see the occasional small-scale approach that seems to work, but they seem to go under as often as they produce positive change, and they often fail to translate into larger movements because they relied on local factors.

  3. Omar Puhleez says

    Normblog and B&W have been frequent stops for me in cruising the Net.

    Eve Garrad summed Norm’s blogging up well:

    “From his perspective, the response to the events of 11 September 2001 was appalling. He found the readiness of many to blame the US for bringing the terrorist attack down on its own head to be intellectually feeble and morally contemptible. He argued that this section of the left was betraying its own values by offering warm understanding to terrorists and cold neglect to their victims. He detested the drawing of an unsupported and insupportable moral equivalence between western democracies and real or proposed theocratic tyrannies in which liberty of thought and speech, and the protection of human rights, would play no part. Norm wanted to engage in this debate and not just with academics. So he went online, to provide himself with a space in which he could express these and other views, and Normblog was born.”

    In my lifetime, the major political movements of the world have been the massive contest for world dominance that was WW2, the subsequent breakup of the European empires and the great power rivalry that was the Cold War, with its pivotal and bloodiest contest in Vietnam.

    The people struggling and fighting against colonialist oppression were naturally seen by many as the heroes in this global morality play, but both sides of it treated liberalism as secondary to victory and power. Norm was one of those on the left who (correctly in my view) saw that if liberalism was not treated as unconditional and non-negotiable, dire political consequences would automatically follow.

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