On Norman Geras’s ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’

Norman Geras and Alan Johnson launching The Euston Manifesto, 2006.

A friend has assigned one of Norman Geras’s essays (Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution) for his undergraduate course, and as a consequence all the students have to fill in a special form, in accordance with the university’s implementation of the Government’s ‘Prevent’ policy. – Tweet by Cambridge University academic Chris Brooke on 6 November 2018.

Alan Johnson is the author of ‘On Geras’s Marxism’ in The Norman Geras Reader, edited by Ben Cohen and Eve Garrard, Manchester University Press, 2017. In this post he argues that it is well worth using the occasion of Prevent’s intervention to encourage people to read Geras’s essay  ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’ as a sophisticated left-wing argument against terror, an important critique of the mistakes of the Bolsheviks regarding the use of revolutionary violence, and a valuable attempt to set out an ethics of revolution that learns the lessons of those mistakes.

1. Geras’s Question

The question Geras’s essay answers is this: ‘by what normative principles socialists might be guided, whether in judgement or in action, when it comes to revolutionary change.’ Geras’s answer draws on the insights of the ‘just war’ tradition because he came to believe that ‘by way of a normative code’ socialists have ‘nothing either as concrete and detailed or as compelling as was embodied in just war thinking’.

The essay (Prevent staff take note) seeks to expel ‘beyond acceptable limits’ much that has been viewed hitherto as a legitimate part of a just revolutionary struggle. Trotsky’s essay Their Morals and Ours – from which his own title is surely taken – comes in for particularly sharp criticism from Geras. He thinks Trotsky bequeathed only ’generalities about means, ends and class interests, capable of answering no specific question as to what is permissible in revolutionary struggle’ and so he allowed revolutionaries to feel that, under pressure, they could ‘relax all moral limits’. READ ALL.