In the United States, where the Constitution not only defines the political compact but has formed the basis for the national civic covenant, the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom from governmental suppression of thought, expression, and association has also yielded an almost reverential respect for ideas—even bad ideas. In societies without such regard for the inviolable sanctity of one’s own head, ideas are as subject to regulation as any other enterprise. Indeed, as the United Kingdom’s “Prevent” program demonstrates, the proscription of ideas perceived to be dangerous is a national imperative.
That voluntary program, which may yet become compulsory, is designed to prevent the dissemination of information that has the potential to radicalize. Texts singled out for censorious “trigger warnings” range from plays by Shakespeare to genuinely distressing works. Norman Geras’s 1989 essay in the Socialist Register surely deserves to be considered distressing, and the U.K.’s University of Reading is taking no chances.
The Guardian’s report on this formerly “essential” essay reads like instructions for handling radioactive waste. “Third-year politics undergraduates have been warned not to access it on personal devices,” the dispatch read, “to read it only in a secure setting and not to leave it lying around where it might be spotted ‘inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it.’”
This is a tragedy on a variety of fronts. Creating a taboo around this essay and driving its consumption underground is only likely to enhance its appeal among the very people this university hopes to shield from its nefarious influence. More important, the loose prohibitions on Geras’s ideas will only prevent a broader reckoning with them and frustrate critics who are engaged in the necessary work of confronting and discrediting them.
His essay, “Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution,” is more a tract on the ethics of revolutionary violence than the necessity of socialist revolution itself. Perhaps because of the publication in which it appeared, the virtues of the socialist program are assumed, so the only question becomes how those reforms are best implemented.
Though some aspects of a pre-revolutionary bourgeois state must survive if only to legitimize a socialist government, Geras insists there can be no truly socialist government without insurrectionary (or “extra-parliamentary”) activity. A militant wing of any successful socialist movement may appeal to violence because “to deprive people of all weapons save passive resistance” to oppression and violence is immoral. Therefore, the thinking goes, it is necessary to define legitimate and illegitimate forms of political violence to preserve the authority of the revolution, and Geras does so with some specificity.
Because it goes into rather elaborate detail of the horrors associated with violent revolutionary activity, this essay is particularly soul-crushing. While the essay is unsparing in its criticisms of indiscriminate terror as both tactically foolish and grotesquely immoral, the conduct it does not proscribe—terror, torture, and cruelty—is bloody work indeed. This is a slog of an essay, not because the prose is cumbersome, but because the concepts and themes are so mercilessly Hobbesian that reader can’t but emerge from it with a grimmer view of his fellow man. It is a document that most certainly has the capacity to incite.
And yet, relegating this essay to the bin of unmentionables would deprive it of due opprobrium. There is plenty in this essay to argue with, which more effectively blunts its justifications for violence than censorship could.
First is Geras’s tendency to impose on all revolutions the character and nature of the Bolshevik revolution. Any effort to engineer a social reversal, he suggests, is more likely than not to be bloody because “the violence of oppressors tends to breed violence amongst those they oppress. Their brutalities are brutalizing.” It is a great irony that these words were written on the eve of the bloodless Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the orderly collapse of Communism in Bulgaria, and the implosion of the socialist governments in Hungary, Poland, and the German Democratic Republic. The dissolution of the Soviet Union itself was a product of political exhaustion and faithlessness, not violent revolutionary struggle. The experience of democratic movements in Yugoslavia, Romania, and the People’s Republic of China were quite different, but Geras washes his hands of complicity for “violence in the counter-revolutionary cause.” After all, “Those are their crimes. They are their morals; they cannot be ours.” But they most certainly are, whether Geras admits it or not.
Excessive cruelty, the author submits, is proscribed not just out of utilitarian concerns but by a Kantian understanding of absolute moral imperatives. “Unless, that is, it is allowed that the ethics of socialism may embody, as a component, some fairly terrible theory of retributive punishment,” Geras writes. “I assume without argument here that they may not.” But socialism as an ethos is founded upon the notion that collective retributive punishment is not merely justified but a necessary stage of human political evolution. His philosophy requires social leveling predicated on the notion that society’s most privileged have achieved their status through unjust means. They are the beneficiaries of oppression, and oppressors must be subjugated if the oppressed are to be hoisted up. The reduction of whole classes to their economic status deprives them of individuality and humanity, which creates a political environment conducive to violence and terror. Why did Geras think the Communist world produced so much of it?
Finally, Geras dwells for some time on a society he saw as prototypically indicative of capitalism’s capacity for brutality and oppression: Apartheid South Africa. The kind of racist persecution to which South Africa’s black citizens were subject surely justified revolutionary activity on the part of the oppressed, even the sort that was violent. But the kind of repression to which the South African government appealed was also a product of the centralized economic environment to which Geras voices no objections. While Pretoria was an anti-Soviet ally of Washington during the Cold War, the South African economy overruled market forces to preserve “civilized standards for European workers.” Black-owned business were prohibited from expanding beyond set sizes and from carrying certain goods. Employment opportunities were fixed along racial lines. Whites enjoyed preferred access to public-sector services and had preferential access to managerial positions. After 1953, African workers were prohibited from joining trade unions. And so on.
Insurrectionary actions against the South African government surely contributed to the system’s unsustainable internal contradictions, but it was parliamentary activity that undid the Apartheid government. The abolition of mixed marriage, Group Areas, and pass laws, the colorblind constitution, and Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election to the presidency was a product of traditional politics. The oppressive conditions into which black Africans were consigned under apartheid was the result of top-down economic regulation.
None of this, it would seem, can be discussed at the University of Reading. It’s all too triggering—too traumatic for those who would like to pretend that political violence is the sanitized and romantic stuff of pop-cultural fantasies. But it’s not. Political violence is what Geras describes: reptilian mobs in the streets killing, raping, and disfiguring strangers. That’s horrible stuff, but it’s also real life. And the sooner we stop whitewashing it for the benefit of fragile egos in universities, the sooner we can recognize it when it is upon us and resolve to pump the breaks. Let’s hope wiser minds prevail.