I just stumbled across this old interview with Norman Geras, I believe Professor Emeritus at Manchester University. His writing is one that I admire for its consistent depth and clarity, and his very humane form of Marxism.
A few paragraphs are especially interesting. On the validity (or otherwise) of the Marxist tradition:
You sometimes come across an assumption that this sort of simultaneous taking and leaving of various components of Marxist thought is not available to Marxists: as though either Marxism is a seamless whole or it is nothing. That is the very assumption, however, for which Marxists used to be criticized, as propounding a dogma. No one need accept it. I think of myself as being a liberal-minded kind of Marxist, in more than one sense of this qualifier.
On the erroneous presumption that the starting point of all conflict is American hegemony:
The arguments concerning America’s global record, for all the truth they have, do not explain the crimes of September 11. If they did, it would be a mystery why so many other movements against injustice and oppression have not felt impelled to fly aircraft full of civilians into skyscrapers full of civilians, or carried out atrocities of comparable scope. Not only the Chilean movement in response to that other September 11 – of 1973 – but also the PAIGC and FRELIMO fighting Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and the ANC fighting apartheid, and the guerrillas of Fretilin in East Timor, waged long struggles without recourse to the mass murder of civilians. If one is sincerely interested in explanation, explanation which does not condone, the most that can be said is that in conditions of oppression and injustice hatreds are more likely to take root and vicious ideologies to feed off them. This is why people of progressive outlook have always argued that removing injustices and alleviating suffering are the best route to pacifying conflict. It has never spared us the necessity, however, of calling the more poisonous and deadly political tendencies which can emerge in circumstances of social crisis and despair by their proper names, and recognizing that they have to be fought. A clear parallel is fascism. It has been noted often enough that fascist movements prosper most in conditions of economic dislocation, insecurity, unemployment, loss of hope. But outside the disastrous example of Third-Period Comintern policy, socialists and democrats have not generally allowed this fact to obscure the character of fascism as a dangerous enemy of their own values and ideals.
Geras’ blog, which on Sunday passed its 10th anniversary, can be found here. Always brilliant for sport, philosophy, history, Marxism, literature, politics, film, music.
This has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It sums up my attitude towards the debate over greenhouse gases. Although one should never take scientific consensus as proof (take Copernicus), if in the modern age 97% of scientists agree that humans cause climate change, there’s not a lot of point denying it. But even if we’re wrong, what exactly have we lost?
It was at his 2004 State of the Union Address – in the midst of an ongoing hunt for those pesky WMDs – that George Bush declared:
I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime – a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States – and war is what they got.
Exaggerated – and I trepidly suggest fictitious – claims of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam aside, the language here is telling. “Justice” has always been the most obvious choice of populist rhetoric; its ambiguities are concealed by the universally agreeable passion it provokes. Central to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a just war was its “just cause”: as soon as justice is given common definition both in statute and in the popular worldview then so many actions and institutions are legitimised.
And look at the delicate euphemism behind Bush’s speech: we will meet the challenge of “chaos and carnage” with our own, with more than “legal papers”. I keep trying but I can’t imagine Blair ever saying this. Both are devout Christians, so you might have thought such moral-stuffed language would come merrily; so it’s a cultural distinction. Specifically, the attitude towards capital punishment. Polls do occasionally show majorities or pluralities of Brits in favour of it for the most abominable crimes, but that’s never true of the political classes. The fact that it’s far more acceptable in America makes banging the drums a little easier, wouldn’t you say? It’s easier to imply that justice will be violent when “an eye for an eye” sits behind a constitution.
What was always so remarkable about the American revolution was how mob warfare did not become mob rule in triumph. Unlike France later on, America built its institutions around strict codes, establishing a state subservient to absolute laws that derived their authority from secular rather than religious morality. But I find the death penalty to be an excess of this. The constitution should never have been revered – since it took a civil war to drive out slavery – and the elimination of murder as a form of justice would I think improve it that little bit more. It makes war far harder to justify.
For example: people like myself, for whom it is contemptuous that a state might assume so great a moral authority than it can kill its citizens, find an anti-war position instinctive. To support the killing of the foreign “enemies” to which Bush alluded conflicts with the view that death should never be an instrument of justice. It’s sometimes made more bearable through talk of “collateral damage”, where death is recognised but it’s penciled in coolly without the shallow confidence. In other words, paradoxes have to be overcome before a war is supported, and so it makes it all the more important to weigh up reality against idealism; war would have to be a last resort, and it would have to be purely strategic. No gleeful yodeling at the death of an enemy, no talk of “justice”. Only pure, cold, calculated facts.
Or at least, one can hope.
And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed, and
yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck’d or unreck’d, duly with love returns.)
I think this is a rather wonderful representation of Whitman’s, or indeed the ideal, humanism. To the chaos of conflict and the discord of psychology there is a kind of fellowship, the spirit of which does not need to be driven by divine forces; people can create and sustain one another like the earth upon which we live. I’d be tempted to say that the poem is powerful in a very literal sense too; the largest populations gather where the land can grow food, and so regions with decent rainfall, more than areas dry and arid. But as soon as the archetype of the African drinking toxic water out of thirst steps into view, that all falls apart.
Nevertheless, there’s a small amount of internationalism here: wrought from nature we’ve a duty to share in it equally. Relevant, I think, to my last post.