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A lefty speaks on the war

And I agree with most of what he says!

Norman Geras, who I had not previously encountered until he recently fired up his blog , has an interesting take on things from what appears to be pretty well left of center. I was particularly taken with his thoughts on the war, which echoed some of my own but were much better put (less spluttering and profanity, for the most part).

But opposition to the war – the marching, the petition-signing, the oh-so-knowing derision of George Bush and so forth – meant one thing very clearly. Had this campaign succeeded in its goal and actually prevented the war it was opposed to, the life of the Baathist regime would have been prolonged, with all that that entailed: years more (how many years more?) of the rape rooms, the torture chambers, the children’s jails, and the mass graves recently uncovered.

This was the result which hundreds of thousands of people marched to secure. Well, speaking for myself, comrades, there I draw the line. Not one step.

A spot of googling reveals that Mr. Geras is Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester. His books include Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty, and Men of Waugh: Ashes 2001, and he shows up in rags like Imprints: A Journal of Analytical Socialism (I confess to Windexing my computer screen after that web page opened up). One is always searching for sane lefties to try to gain some insight into the cult of the state, and Norm looks like he may be worth keeping an eye on.

21 comments to A lefty speaks on the war

  • Left-wingers are not insane or loony.

    In my experience they have:
    [1] A strong and quite noble sense of principle overwhelming what they see as narrow utilitarian concerns like profit. [Principle is what you see acting here as Geras criticises his fellow marchers against war on Iraq – note also the socialist George Orwell’s not-often repeated remark that both imperialism and fascism are disgusting, but if you absolutely have to choose, back imperialism {such as the attack on Iraq, he would have said} against fascism {Ba’athist Iraq} every time].
    [2] A genuine difficulty with arithmetic making it hard to explain to them things like how a freely-fluctuating currency is a self-correcting mechanism for countries with debt or inflation, or more generally why markets find prices which are best for all more efficiently than well-meaning committees.

    [1] and [2] reinforce each other, with the innumeracy strengthening the belief that how humans treat each other surely cannot boil down to such bean-counting pettiness, and the sincere principles constantly reviving the idea that perhaps markets only perform better so far because the well-meaning committees were not well-meaning enough.

    One of my best friends is an extremely open-minded Marxist who has both the above qualities. Mind you, he is so open-minded by Marxist standards that he genuinely likes American self-help authors, describes Marx as a “failed healer”, is worried and irritated by Britain’s falling educational standards, and recently suggested to me unprompted that maybe the US was right to go into Vietnam because the “domino effect” makes quite a lot of sense for him now, on reflection. I’m meanwhile the one suggesting in our chats that it is sad that there is not a handful of white people in Bradford [where he works] learning Urdu.

    I think I have quite a good idea of what makes left-wingers tick.

  • Edmund Burke

    Mark, can you figure out what makes this left winger think.

    “However, I often wonder what we, here in the United States, would do, should we ever be clear enough, unified enough and organized enough to actually have a revolution? […] With millions of whites influenced in varying degrees by racism, how would we retrain them? Do we kill everyone that does not agree with the revolution? While some bloodshed will be inevitable, after the seizure of power, are we prepared to put millions of people before the firing squads or do we figure out ways to maintain the revolution and deal with them?”

    That quote’s from Lisa Brock, Associate Professor of African History and Diaspora Studies, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Her influences would seem to be somwhere between Pol Pot, Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Sadaam Hussein. And she teaches young adults!

  • KymarFye

    Thanks for the Orwell on fascism vs. imperialism – where is his comment from?

    On why a guy like Geras can speak so clearly to non-Marxists or non-leftists, it’s worth pointing out that there is no inherent contradiction between an essentially Marxist analysis of history and society and essentially libertarian (or social individualist, or even just democratic capitalist) approaches to political, economic, and social problems. The forced links between the Marxist critique and a certain set of revolutionary tactics was always the weakest, least sophisticated aspect of Marxist politics.

    If you’re curious about Geras in particular, he expands upon his views at length in an interesting interview on the “Marxism, the Holocaust and September 11” (at info.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/imprints/normangerasinterview.html). At one point, he explains why he’s “still” a Marxist:

    “First, I believe historical materialism is true. The claim invites misunderstanding, but I put it thus, categorically, to counter the enormous, indeed all but smothering, weight of contemporary intellectual and cultural fashion, according to which historical materialism is – just obviously – outmoded and wrong. I will moderate the claim, though, by saying that I think the materialist conception of history is more true than not. For all of the one-sidedness in its original formulation, and the qualifications that are needed to it, and the ways in which Marxists have historically neglected, understated or misconstrued other important bases of social identity or factors of historical causation, it is nevertheless true that one will understand an amount ranging between very little and next to nothing about the social and political world if one does not give central attention to the distribution of economic wealth and power and the class relations which flow from it. Second, there is Marxism’s enduring commitment to the goal of an egalitarian, non-exploitative society, a commitment I see as being stronger and less qualified than it has been within any competing intellectual and political tradition. Third – and an index of that strength of commitment – I value Marxism’s focus upon what is sometimes called the problem of agency: the problem of finding a route, the active social forces, between existing historical tendencies and the achievement of a substantially egalitarian society.”

    Especially if you’re willing to define libertarians provisionally as “process egalitarians” and socialists as “results egalitarians,” it’s easy to understand how a principled and thoughtful perspective offered by people in one group could end up being quite intelligible, even agreeable, to people in the other.

  • Wow – This hits upon the issue that I was just thinking about a couple hours ago – I have been blogging and writing about this a great deal. My past blog entries have been covering the war issue a great deal, and have been presenting opposition to the war with Iraq from a conservative and pro-liberty perspective. (My past, earlier entries on this issue are also archived here, in a separate blog.)

    Right now, I am guest blogging at the ‘Deux Ego‘ blog (along with two others), and my last entry there deals with the leftist argument that many people are [quite unfortunately] using to justify this war. (That entry is currently second from the top at that site; the permanent entry link is here.) In that entry, I don’t go over this war rationale issue at length, but instead link to four of my recent blog or comment entries, in which I do. Please take a look at some of that material if you get a chance.

    As I have been stating for some time, now, the root motivations for this type of a war lies in a political philosophy that is not conservative – it is actuall neoconservative, and leftist in nature. Those who are ‘bleeding heart,’ big government, statist liberals and socialists should have been supporting the Iraq war (many did), while those of us who are conservatives or libertarians should have opposed it.

    This is not a conservative war.

  • I also wanted to say – I have had Samizdata blogrolled since I think shortly after I started my blog, but this may be the first time that I’ve posted a comment here (or if not, one of the first times…). This looks like a great site, and it is well-designed and maintained. I should have been checking you guys more often… Keep up the good work! 🙂

  • So, what you’re saying is that the reason that Samizdatans supported the war is really a left wing argument. Well, I’d also say that it was a Statist argument as well – but apart from that I couldn’t put it better myself. Although I do have a stab.

  • To all those who don’t bother to read us and yet comment on our support for liberating Iraq: Statist argument? Left-wing argument? My foot. No -isms were involved in our eagerness to rid Iraq of the murderous dictator. For my part, it was the bitter experience of living under an oppressive regime. Can those who oppose ‘war on Iraq’ just get for once that to us it was more important that no individual should suffer under such a system, than some conservative, neo-conservative, libertarian, liberal, leftists, marxist or other goddamn -ism positions for supporting or opposing liberation of Iraq.

    And Emmanuel: So according to your warped thinking the fact that I was supporting a Western invasion of Eastern Europe when I was an anti-communist dissident makes me left-wing…? Go figure!

  • R C Dean

    KymarFyfe – I believe that the gap between “process egalitarians” and “results egalitarians” is much wider than you might realize..

    There is a very great distance between saying that everyone should leave the starting line at the same time and saying everyone should cross the finish line at the same time. Equality of opportunity requires relatively little interference from the “above”. Equality of results requires an enormous amount of social engineering, which inevitably requires that (a) increasing amounts of people’s lives be put under strict supervision to ensure that they don’t outdo their neighbor, (b)increasing wealth transfers be made to tidy up the inequalities that inevitably results, and in too many cases (c) you start imprisoning and shooting the dissidents.

    The equality of results crowd labors under a series of fundamental misunderstandings of human nature, and consequently are inevitably forced to rely on increasing doses of coercion to force a messy society of human beings into whatever outcome is sought.

    While some of the rhetoric of the equality of opportunity believers and the equality of results believers may sound similar at a very high level of generalization, the underlying assumptions are fundamentally at odds.

  • veryretired

    Marxism is not a theory of history or economics or any such dry topic. It is very clearly a heretical form of Christianity, which eliminates the deity while keeping all the “social” or commutarian mandates. This explains the desparate lengths that marxists will go to to maintain their belief in a system of thought that has shown itself to be catastrophic as a blueprint for living on this planet.

    Just as the Adventists simply changed the due date whenever the end of the world didn’t happen as predicted, marxists will constantly find new ways of interpreting their faith, as it struggles to survive the exposure of its responsibility for literally tens of millions dead during its brief rule as a governemtnal and social pattern.

    The reason marxism fails is because it is incorrect at its very core—in the definition of who and what human beings are. Marx was wrong in this fundamental premise, and all the depredations that the subjects of the various states which adopted marxist regimes suffered flows very naturally from this error.

    It is as if one postulated a society of anaerobic beings, and then fed them a steady diet of oxygen. The result would be wholesale death, and utterly grotesque contortions of the survivors just to stay alive. That is exactly what we see in any marxist society. Humans trying to live in an inhuman system.

    This latest attempt at selling the “hey, we really aren’t so bad, ya know” idea by claiming a congruence between collectivist, egalitarian, repressive marxist thought and the libertarian idea of an independent, individualist, and relatively unfettered life as appropriate for human beings is grossly oxymoronic. It is the intellectual equivalent of a sea lamprey attaching itself to a healthy lake trout and then claiming “we’re both just fish, after all”.

    I have read Geras’ critique of the leftist movement’s failure to understand the difference between the moral and the immoral, and it is cogent. However, his claims of morality as being a natural component of the left ring hollow to anyone who knows the history of leftist governance in the 20th Century, and continuing to this very day in the few isolated spots where marxists have managed to cling to power.

    It is not a perversion of marx which causes the North Koreans to eat grass, and their own children, or the Cubans to throw themselves into the sea in an atempt to escape from Castro’s prison, as so many in SE Asia have also done. It is the fulfillment of everyting that marxism truly IS that causes this result. Desparation is the flower that grows from this contaminated soil.

    Do not contaminate the libertarian movement with any association, however slight, with this utter monstrosity of a “faith”. It is, as Michener describes the ancient faith of Hawaii, a dark and terrible nightmare that turns life in paradise into a hellish existence filled with constant terror and death.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Can those who oppose ‘war on Iraq’ just get for once that to us it was more important that no individual should suffer under such a system,

    OK – Saddam’s gone – we can bring the troops home, then. Or are they staying until we’ve fixed the past few thousand years of history in the MidEast at gunpoint?

  • KymarFye


    Because I largely agree with your description of Marxism as it has really operated in the world (though not really with your description of Marxist as heretical Christianity and so on), I would never call myself a Marxist, and am immediately suspicious of anyone who does, and these suspicions are additional to the ones I already bring to discussions with “ismists” of any kind.

    As you probably know, there is a large body of work, much of it by Marxists or former Marxists, examining why the underlying presumptions of Marxism led almost inexorably to the monstrous results of Marxist political experiments. Part of the problem has to do with attempting to force reality to conform to the limitations of theory, and applying even more force when reality remains stubbornly defiant. In this respect one of Marxism’s chief distinctions among utopian ideologies may be mainly that so many fought so hard to bring those hopeless experiments to fruition.

    There is much, much more that could be said on this subject. To be brief, Marxists have mostly operated according to naive assumptions about the relationship of theory to practice. Historical materialism could be “true” (in Geras’s sense) without necessarily implying that those interested in a better world had to organize workers, form revolutionary cells, sell newspapers, write unreadable books, and get a kick out of Pete Seeger – or seize state power and apply it aggressively – or even accept that any collectivist program was or could ever be the best way to proceed.

    I agree with Geras that there is no reason why Marxism needs to be treated dogmatically, either by Marxists or by anti-Marxists. Elsewhere in the above-cited interview, he says, “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.”

    In short, there may be much in the vast body of Marxism that’s uniquely useful, even if the overwhelming majority of Marxist literature is garbage or (much) worse. Geras apparently has a different estimation of the Marxist gold-to-garbage ratio than I do, and thus remains comfortable calling himself a Marxist, but one need not treat Gerasism as either a seamless whole or nothing…

  • KymarFye

    RC Dean,

    Thank you for your perceptive comments and let me add that my response above to veryretired also was intended as a partial answer your post.

    I don’t underestimate the gap between equality of material results and equality of opportunity. In my opinion, it’s not just a gap, but an abyss. However, it could and has been argued that the only way to reach the best (not the most equal) practicable and sustainable material (and other) result is precisely through the privileging of liberty as both means and end. That, to me, is American ideology in a nutshell, and world history to this point appears to me to offer strong evidence in its favor. It would seem to be the closest humankind has come to joining an ideal political theory to successful practice, but I suspect the reason is that, at its core, the ideology is anti-ideological (and thus more open to evolution and improvisation), just as its politics are anti-political (and thus more open to pragmatic compromise), and as even the mega-state that it has produced remains in critical respects an anti-state.

    If the “equal results” one seeks are formal or processorial rather than simplistically material – equal liberty, equal right to be left alone, equality before the law, equal right to excel materially or otherwise, and so on – then the abyss described above may suddenly cease to exist. Something similar can occur if one remains focused on material results, but substitutes “better” for “equal.”

  • David Crawford

    The worst feature of “equality of result” is its very denial of the existance of the individual. (And that is why the left has no problem supporting it.)

    Could someone correct me if I’m wrong but in Marx’s writing does he ever acknowledge the individual as part of the greater population? God knows he goes on about various groups in the population.

  • KymarFye

    David Crawford,

    Marx at his most utopian did offer up some generalized visions of what life for individuals would be like under communism. He imagined the typical individual enjoying tremendous freedom to pursue varied interests. Needless to say, real formerly existing socialism never got there for more than a tiny percentage of the population.

    The whole Marxist theory of value creation and exploitation under capitalism begins with the idea that, for a capitalist enterprise to realize profit, each individual worker must necessarily give more in labor than he receives in wages.

    And Marx and Marxists also commonly argue, of course, that human potential is stifled under capitalism.

    Is that what you’re asking about?

    By the way, I hope you all are keeping in mind my consistent and fundamental criticisms of Marxism. I really don’t want to be cast as a defender of the creed. I’m just in favor of objective, open-minded assessments.

  • Gabriel,
    You seem to have a problem following this argument. A left winger is someone who subscribes to left wing arguments, so obvious that it’s redundant. The argument that Iraq is entitled to be liberated by us is a left wing one[1]. Roger Dean subscribed to it. Therefore on this subject Dean is a lefty winger. And other Samizdata writers have been using the liberation argument as the main argument for going in.

    To repeat it is the arguments employed and assented to and not the conclusion one draws that makes a person left wing.

    Show me where I’m wrong without relying on an ad hominem attack.

    [1]There are of course arguments for the invasion of Iraq that are not left wing, but the idea that we are our second-cousin’s keeper is boiler plate left wing. Indeed I can’t think of a better description of what being left wing means.

  • I do agree, veryretired, that successful visions of Marxism are the true horror.

    Edmund Burke’s quote is a nice illustration. I would say, Edmund, she is motivated by a kind of priggish, moralising certainty – in this case clearly well over the fanaticism horizon. She might have made a zealous and dedicated Inquisitor in another era, purifying souls in the “cleansing flames” and so on. Popper’s remark in Open Society etc about all those aiming to build “perfect societies” being prone to totalitarian evil on a grand scale is the key quote, I think.

    And KymarFye, sorry, I can’t source Orwell’s remark about always backing imperialism against fascism [if you have to make that choice between what he would call two evils]. I think it’s in his journalism. It is interesting that we owe the two sharpest critiques of socialism to a fiercely honest and critical socialist, Orwell – though apparently H.G.Wells was one of the few to visit the Soviet Union soon after 1917 and not be taken in. It took Wells about five or six days, supposedly, to politely decide he had not just seen the future, and that it didn’t work.

  • Scott Cattanach

    There are of course arguments for the invasion of Iraq that are not left wing, but the idea that we are our second-cousin’s keeper is boiler plate left wing. Indeed I can’t think of a better description of what being left wing means.

    Particularly since the left that supported Clinton in Kosovo would have been perfectly willing to support President Gore in Iraq. Their only objection is that the war is helping a Republican president’s approval rating instead of a Democrat’s.

  • R C Dean

    I believe that the campaign in Iraq was a strategically sound piece of our overall war on terrorists, and was fully justified on purely self-serving strategic self-defense grounds. The fruits of this campaign are already being harvested all across the mideast.

    To me, the humanitarian arguments in favor of the campaign were useful and interesting (primarily as a way of neutralizing opposition), but were neither necessary not sufficient to justify the campaign.

    I thought Mr. Geras did a very nice job of crystallizing just how the anti-American left utterly debased itself by opposing the campaign, and of explicating in general the humanitarian reasons for the campaign. Since the anti-American left generally has no real use for personal liberty of any kind, I sympathize with anyone who is willing to show them up for the murderous hypocrites or purblind fools that they are.

  • Ron Leighton

    The only problem I have with Geras’ sort of reasoning is that it could have been used in defense of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 (a rightwing dictatorship at the time) and against anyone who opposed the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

  • chola

    RC Dean:

    I’m interested to find out how you consider that “campaign in Iraq was a strategically sound piece of our overall war on terrorists” or that “The fruits of this campaign are already being harvested all across the mideast.” Are you referring to the fact that Iran is now aggressively pursuing a Nuclear program and that no one seems to have the resources to prevent them from doing so? (Can you imagine? A pack of psychotic, power-hungry, religiously fanatic, western-hating mullahs with nuclear capability). Or that Iran is refusing to cooperate with Americans regarding the captured Al Qaeda terrorists? Or that Saddam Hussein, who has nothing to lose in banding with terrorists now, but rather a greater motivation to do so, is still not behind bars? Or could you be referring to the most interesting development of Iraq’s present metamorphosis into a magnet for foreign terrorist elements who mean to do Americans harm? The Middle East has become a nicer and safer place since Operataion Iraqui Freedom? What in God’s name are you talking about?

    Americans are blowing a billion dollars a week and what do we have to show for it? Not much.

    No one loves Saddam Hussein, not even those pinko commies marching in the streets. If some of us protested the war it probably has more to do with the dismal lack of post-war planning of the Bush Administration, than any love for Saddam Hussein or terrorists. It take more to liberate a country than to drop bombs. If you didn’t bother to bring a reasonable clean-up crew along, all you’ve done is create a big, anarchic mess, which can only serve to breed some nasty elements.

    I don’t think Bush ever had any clue of the magnitude of the task at hand. I did not oppose taking Hussein out; I simply didn’t think George W. was the man to do it in a way that would foster an end to terrorism.