Norman Geras supports war in Iraq, or, a new Manchester school emerges

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Wed Jul 30 11:33:01 MDT 2003

What terribly shocking news ! I recall meeting Norman at the memorial
conference for Ernest Mandel, at the IIRE in 1996 (a book was subsequently
published of papers at that conference, edited by Gilbert Achcar (ed.) The
Legacy of Ernest Mandel). I appreciated Norman's writings on Marxism (Rosa
Luxemburg, Human Nature...), which often contained very important socialist
insights which went beyond a dogmatic Trotskyist theoretical stance, a
genuine radical humanism. But now Norman seems to have lost the plot

Even in philosophy, it must be quite evident, that it is one thing to judge
that a foreign regime is oppressive (or morally repugnant), it is quite
another thing to say that "therefore we have the moral right to overthrow
that regime from the outside militarily, without demonstrated mass consent
among the population (I cannot think of any case where such mass consent was
explicitly given, ever)". Even at this most basic level, the case for
humanitarian imperialism is forced to make a leap in logic.

Marx's insight into human nature led him to say that no people or nation can
be genuinely free or attain liberation or emancipation, if it oppresses and
exploits another people or nation. On this basis, living in London, he
thought it was very important in raising the political consciousness of
English workers, to focus on the role of British imperialism in Ireland and
the Irish liberation movement. If there were prejudices and hostilities
among English and Irish workers within England itself, tacit endorsement of
British imperialism in Ireland was an obstacle to the unity of the working
class in England, and the growth of its political awareness and class
consciousness. Another way of putting this, is to say that so long as
English workers tacitly or endorsed the role of the British state, the
industrial bourgeoisie and the land-owning class, in Ireland, then they had
not really grasped the class nature of the bourgeois political state yet.
But at a deeper level, what Marx's stance referred to was the libertarian
principle of self-emancipation, of proletarian self-emancipation, that one
has to work oneself and with one's comrades to achieve one's own
emancipation, because it ain't going to be delivered from on high by a
ruling class. One cannot help emancipate people in a patronising,
paternalistic, top-down way never mind emancipate them again their will. One
can only "help" them to do that, but that "helping" must be looked at
carefully in terms of its real motivation, since one might also be "helped
into hell" with the best of intentions and a false analysis. Why else bother
with "scientific socialism" ?

Now Norman recants his former view. Marx was wrong; he could have won a car,
a nice girlfriend and lots of pretty friends if he had played cricket with
the middle classes and a good boy. Next thing he might be saying is, that if
Marx had played the middleclass cricket game, then he wouldn't have had such
a difficult life, more money, and wouldn't have been led astray in
developing all sorts of godawful ideas and waste his time writing obscure
tracts that nobody read anyway, ending up with an Eagle eating at his liver.
But that is of course not what we do, rather we consider the social nature
and politics of cricket, and play games among our own kind !

Actually, I felt that Norman had lost the plot already in his contribution
to the seminar I mentioned above. His paper was called "Marxists before the
Holocaust: Trotsky, Deutscher, Mandel". His complaint was that Mandel
offered "precious little sense, and certainly no attempt at an elaboration,
of the singularity or specificity of the Shoah" (this is a bit like saying
that Jurrian didn't write a book on Green Feminism, a very powerful
"critique" to be sure). He considered that "A Jewish socialist ought to be
able to find some special corner of his or her heart for the tragedy of the
Jewish people". Even so, he hadn't actually read everything that Mandel
wrote on the subject.

Fact was, Ernest Esra Mandel (1923-1995) was himself Jewish, and as an
aspiring university student was prevented himself from pursuing his studies
by the Nazi occupation of Belgium, who shut down the university. He wrote
his first political leaflet at age 16. In 1941, he co-founded the
Revolutionary Communist Party with Abram Leon (Abram Wajnstock) among
others. He was active in the anti-fascist resistance continuously. He was
arrested for distributing seditious leaflets to German soldiers and
imprisoned, but managed to escape, possibly through intervention of his
father Henri (according to his brother Michel). He was arrested again and
placed in a workcamp, but escaped again.  In February 1944, he participated
in the first European conference of the FI, by on 29 March 1944 was arrested
for distributing illegal pamphlets at the Cockerill factories in Liege.
After being sentenced on 12 May 1944 to several years of forced labour, he
was deported to Germany on 3 June 1944. He spent time in prisons and work
camps at Rheinach, Siegburg, Dieburg and Nieder-Rosen/Wollwald. Another
escape attempt was unsucessful, and he was freed on 26 March 1945 by the
United States Army, for whom he worked for a month in Darmstadt as a
translator, whereupon which he returned to Belgium.

And then along comes Mr Geras in  his rheumy old age, with a paper
criticising Mandel's attitude to holocaust studies, because "A Jewish
socialist ought to be able to find some special corner of his or her heart
for the tragedy of the Jewish people". What a fucking nerve !!! The reality
was that Mandel promoted Nathan Weinstock's book Zionism: False Messiah,
which was published by Ink Links in Britain, and had numerous contacts with
Israeli socialists in Israel, Mazpen, Warschawsky, the lot. But he
personally did not want to pipe on about Jewish problems constantly, and he
had good reasons for doing so; flaunting a concern with Jews and being a Jew
could be politically and physically lethal, and a dead revolutionary never
made a socialist revolution or assisted it. Then there were the anti-semitic
Stalinists to contend with as well, who loved to invent CIA conspiracies
around Trotskyist personalities. Even after he became more "respectable",
Ernest still did not talk much about the Holocaust and Zionism, essentially
for political reasons: he did not want to get trapped in middle-class
victimology, viewing Marxism precisely as the revolt against oppression, and
seeing the Zionist state essentially as a middle-class project (for the
latter, see his comments in Trotsky as alternative).

Mark Jones commented to me that humanism is a tricky subject. There is
revolutionary humanism, conservative humanism and all sorts of humanism,
because we are all human. But here again Geras has lost the plot, providing
not just an intellectual apology for the Zionist state, but now also
endorsing humanitarian imperialism. Just how "humanitarian" that imperialism
is, Norman can read in the newspaper delivered to his doorstep, no doubt.

In analysing the politics of humanitarian imperialism, we must always
distinguish carefully between the real class project of the bourgeois
elites, the political-ideological conjuncture within which the bourgeoisie
operates, the specific marketing techniques used to package its imperialism
in a humanitarian way, and the reception and dissemination of the package by
gullible middleclass intellectuals and other people seeking to grab some of
the spoils and spin-offs from this activity.

This may be very simplistic Marxian socialism, not so erudite, not so
intellectually embellished, not so sexy, but it has the advantage that it
goes straight to the heart of the matter.

For the rest, Norman Geras might like to read Ernest's article "Learn the
Lessons of Germany", in John Lister (ed.), Ending the nightmare. London,
1995, listen to his lectures on fascism (IIRE tapes, November 1987),
Mandel's review of Jacob Taut's book in IMR vol. 3 no. 2, Autumn 1988; and
his article "Zum historikerstreit: Ursprung, Wesen, Einmaligkeit und
Reproduzierbarheit des Dritten Reiches". But I am not going to specify the
locus of this article, that is an intellectual challenge I offer to Norman


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