Norman Geras's work on the subject of Karl Marx's antisemitism involved significant dissent from the Marxist tradition in which he located himself, precisely because unvarnished honesty prevented him from glossing over the many troubling ideas and notions that, simply, are there. His Normblog demonstrated how Geras, as a Marxist, took on the shibboleths of the postmodern left, and in particular the relativism whose malign influence he had noted when writing his book on Marx's conception of human nature. 'The principle of self-emancipation', wrote Geras in 1971, 'is central, not incidental, to historical materialism.' This book shows how the materialist usage of 'powers of human nature', 'natural desires', 'natural character' play an important role in the formulation of Marx's theory of history. It explores Richard Rorty's various usages on the question of human nature and the tensions and anomalies as well as then theses on utopia. The book also reviews a fast-growing sector of the current literature on Karl Marx, i.e. whether Marx condemn capitalism in the light of any principle of justice, and the controversy that has fuelled its growth, and distinguishes three meanings (personal, intellectual and socio-political) of 'being a Marxist'. It discusses the significance of the Euston Manifesto, antisemitism on the left anti-Jewish stereotypes, and Marxism before the Holocaust. The book concludes with insights into the 9/11 incident, the principle of humanitarian intervention and international law for military intervention.
The phrase 'what's there is there' is taken from a 13 May 2009 blogpost by Norman Geras on the subject of Karl Marx's antisemitism. Many Marxists have been, at best, unwilling to deal with these less savoury aspects of Marx's thought and character. Much of the work of Geras involved significant dissent from the Marxist tradition in which he located himself, precisely because unvarnished honesty prevented him from glossing over the many troubling ideas and notions that, simply, are there. The willingness to draw out the good in liberalism from a Marxist standpoint was one key reason for the distinctiveness of Geras's approach to modern political theory. Normblog, launched by Geras in 2003, demonstrated how Geras, as a Marxist, took on the shibboleths of the postmodern left, and in particular the relativism whose malign influence he had noted when writing his book on Marx's conception of human nature.
This chapter reviews a fast-growing sector of the current literature on Karl Marx, i.e. whether Marx condemn capitalism in the light of any principle of justice. It surveys the case for thinking he does not and the case for thinking that he does. Beginning with a preliminary sketch on the general lines of Marx's account of capitalist exploitation, the chapter reviews the texts and arguments put forward by those who deny that Marx condemned capitalism as unjust and the texts and arguments put forward by those who claim he did so condemn it. It also offers some conclusions, and argument in support of them. Marx's impatience with the language of norms and values is global in range. And yet he himself, despite it, does plainly condemn capitalism; for its oppressions and unfreedoms and also, as the argument of this chapter has been, for its injustices.
With the aid of the crime of 9/11, many on the Western left shielded themselves from realities they did not want to see or to assign their proper weight. In this article, first published in Dissent in 2005, Geras comments on some aspects of this theoretical nexus. He begins from a short essay by Paul Berman entitled 'A Friendly Drink in Time of War', which appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Dissent. In that essay Berman offers six reasons why many on the left did not see things his way over the war in Iraq, which he supported. Abbreviating them, and also adding a seventh to the six that he enumerates, Geras sets out those reasons, addressing the two faces of the United States: as being the foremost embodiment of global capitalism, on one side, and regimes and movements of an utterly ghastly kind politically, on the other.
It is remarkable that many have discerned, with the emergency of the materialist conception of history, a dismissal by Marx of the idea of human nature. The German Ideology, expressly criticizes the mistake of those who, ignoring what it terms the 'real basis of history', thereby exclude from the historical process 'the relation of man to nature', create an 'antithesis of nature and history'. At one point it echoes a passage from The Holy Family just in emphasizing nature's internal and external dimensions. In this chapter, Geras shows how the materialist usage of 'powers of human nature', 'natural desires', 'natural character' plays an important role in the formulation of Marx's theory of history, showcasing the concepts and arguments placed in these two works and the Theses on Feuerbach. The Holy Family is an 'early' work; it antedates historical materialism, while The German Ideology itself proposes the theory of historical materialism.
One philosopher who expresses himself emphatically about human nature, and whose works have attracted wide interest, is Richard Rorty. In this chapter, Geras explores Richard Rorty's various usages on the question of human nature and the tensions and anomalies they display. Rorty is an astute and provocative as well as influential thinker. An analysis of what he says about the idea of human nature, then, may serve a wider effort of clarification and exchange. Though Rorty's own relationship to post-modernism is not an altogether enthusiastic one, anti-essentialism is a trope he has in common with it. After some preliminary remarks, the chapter reviews the critical uses and rhetorical emphases of Rorty's omnipresent rejection of the idea of human nature. It offers a few reflections on the story they conjointly tell. The rhetoric of emancipation is not so distant from the rhetoric of 'utopia', which Rorty seems quite happy to employ.
This chapter offers a few reflections on Geras' minimum utopia. They do not trace out a history of the concept, nor do they attempt to explore its thematic range and variety. They are simply one person's thoughts on the subject as we approach a new century and millennium. They have been arranged into ten summary theses. Some of them are: socialism is utopian, including in its most influential version to date, namely Marxism; one should unashamedly embrace utopia; maximum notions of utopia have their indispensable place; minimum utopia is a revolutionary objective; minimum utopia is to be conceived not only as socialist but also as liberal; and embracing utopia means embracing an alternative ethics.
In this chapter, Geras distinguishes three meanings of 'being a Marxist': personal, intellectual and socio-political. For someone to be a Marxist, in the first sense, he or she must subscribe to a significant selection of recognized Marxist beliefs, and describe him or herself as a Marxist. The second is that, as well as having some relevant combination of Marxist beliefs, a person can work, as writer, political publicist, academic, thinker, researcher, within the intellectual tradition begun by Marx and Engels and developed by later figures. The third this that a person is a Marxist if they belong to the Marxist left. Unless a Marxism of personal belief and a Marxism of creative intellectual work both thoroughly renewed and wrested once and for all from the grip of anti-democratic and illiberal themes and concepts, Marxism as a political force might just as well be dead and buried.
This chapter presents the text of the 2006 Euston Manifesto, in which Geras outlines the principles for a democratic and anti-authoritarian left-wing politics. The initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the 'blogosphere'. The broad statement of principles that are outlined is a declaration of intent. The initiative sets forth that leftists must define themselves against those for whom the entire progressive-democratic agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic 'anti-imperialism' and/or hostility to the US administration. The values and goals which properly make up that agenda i.e. the values of democracy, human rights, the continuing battle against unjustified privilege and power, solidarity with peoples fighting against tyranny and oppression, are what most enduringly define the shape of any Left worth belonging to.
In this article, which was first published in 'New Left Review', Geras begins from an astonishing fact: Leon Trotsky's prediction of the impending Jewish catastrophe, which is a common and well-grounded theme in the literature of the Holocaust that the disaster was not really predictable. He offers some general reflections on Marxism as a body of theory in relation to the Nazi genocide against Jews, presenting a couple of brief phrases on the singularity of the Holocaust and a critical review of Ernest Mandel's thinking on the subject. Mandel connects to a wider historiographical, socio-psychological and other literature on the Holocaust, adding to it, to be sure, what Marxism is best-placed to add. He asserts that the Holocaust was an extreme product of tendencies which are historically more general. But he perceives a need to balance the assertion with an emphasis on the singularity of the fate of the Jews.