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

Submitted by martin on 19 November, 2018 - 3:37 Author: Contribution to debate from Alan Johnson
Norman Geras

Part of a debate

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.

It is well worth using the occasion of Prevent’s intervention to encourage people to read Geras’s essay, which is summarised below. ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution' is 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 the 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’.

It is important not to overstate the distance between Trotsky and Geras (who self-identified as a Marxist and socialist until the day he died). The essay makes the all-important point that social change is constrained by its ugly starting point and not just by its beautiful goal. ‘No treatment of the ethics of revolution would be serious,’ Geras wrote, if it ‘did not give due weight to considerations of historical realism and to the operations of social determinants and constraints.’ And why is this? Because:

…means cannot in general only reflect the ends in view, because they will also reflect their own beginning, so to put it. They are doubly determined: notably by what they are intended to achieve, the putative goal, but by that situation which is their starting point as well. It is the nature of the problem under discussion – of revolution – that this starting point has ugly features, including the mobilization of violence on its behalf. How could the means of opposing it not reflect some of that ugliness … [s]hooting at the direct agents of a hated tyranny is still killing people…’

Geras’s argument proceeds as follows. First, he establishes that revolutionary struggle can be just if it is directed (a) against tyranny – he invokes the Lockean defence of revolutionary violence in defence of fundamental rights, and (b) against ‘serious systemic injustice’. And if the state is the bastion of that injustice, then a political revolution against the state is also just.

He then moves to a second related question of limits: ‘what is morally permissible in the pursuit of a just revolutionary struggle?’ Well, for starters, means must be ‘apt’ i.e. ‘efficacious’ and they must also be the ‘least costly’. So far, so obvious, you might say. But Geras does not leave maters there. Trotsky argued that those criteria can’t determine the permissibility of any particular action because ‘problems of revolutionary morality are fused with problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics’. Geras raises the alarm at that point. Hold on, he says, this is all ‘a bit thin’. It risks licensing too much. More: it often has licensed too much.

Trotsky and Lenin (long before Stalinism) too often dismissed the question of limits and too often licensed too much. By seeing revolution as civil war, and war as pushing aside all morality; by misconceiving the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as violence ‘unrestricted by any laws’; by lacking any conception of individual rights, the very idea of limits was made unthinkable. And even those Marxists who have thought about limits, such as Herbert Marcuse, have failed to specify ‘where such limits fall and why’.

Geras himself approaches the question of limits initially by way of a detour: a reading of Steven Lukes’s critique of the Marxist tradition on morality. After pointing out to Lukes that the faults he identifies in Marxism are not specific to it, being shared by other political traditions, Geras then agrees with Lukes that, nonetheless, ‘Marxist discussion of means and ends has been deficient’. He also agrees with Lukes that making good that deficiency will involve a new focus on what Lukes calls ‘agent-centred restrictions’ i.e. individual rights. A certain Marxist hostility to rights, thinks Geras, has got to go. A new positive attitude to individual rights is needed to make good the tradition on the question of revolutionary violence.

However, while Geras certainly rejects Trotsky’s and Lenin’s all-out ruthlessness, he does not think ‘individual rights’ can be a fully adequate basis for revolutionary ethics either. It is at this point in the argument that he turns to a supplement from the non-Marxist and non-socialist tradition of moral thinking about violence: just war doctrine.

2. Geras and Just War Doctrine

Just War theory is a tradition of thinking about war that famously distinguishes between the right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and right conduct in war (jus in bello). Geras says it is ‘light work’ to use the doctrine to ground a justification for revolution in the face of the oft-heard liberal and conservative denial that revolution is ever justified. According to Geras, ‘If war is sometimes justified, then so too is revolution, the reasons given on their behalf being of a kind: self-defence, autonomy, rights and freedoms, the throwing off of an oppressor, and so forth.’

But what about right conduct in revolution? It was when Geras turned to the centuries of detailed reasoning about jus in bello, i.e. justice in war, that he realised what a neglected resource of great value just war doctrine really is for a revolutionary ethics. Where there was a relative poverty in socialist thought about setting limits to revolutionary conduct, just war doctrine offered a wealth; in the sheer number and complexity of the rules proposed, the welter of qualifications, the situational specificity, and in the long conversation about the practical application of jus in bello, sustained over centuries.

The contrast struck Geras hard: ‘on the one side, only the vaguest of notions; on the other, vast and detailed literature, not to speak of well-developed international codes and conventions’. He concluded that if socialists are to develop a socialist ethic of revolution embodying ‘a precise code of moral limits and moral rules’ than they should view just war doctrine as a resource. His essay is him making a start on that project. In particular, he found just war doctrine helpful in answering the questions who? and how?


Just war doctrine helped Geras to answer the question of who can legitimately have violence directed against them? Here, Geras favours the introduction, adapted, into revolutionary ethics of (i) the distinction in just war doctrine between combatants and non-combatants, and (ii) the notion of non-combatant immunity.

Once this distinction is introduced, he thought, a revolutionary struggle against a tyrannical or grossly unjust regime must distinguish between ‘its direct agents of oppression and everybody else’. Once adopted, that distinction rules out ‘terrorism in the true sense’, ‘more or less random violence against whole populations’, ‘indiscriminate terror’. (Yes, there is an absurdity about Prevent making students sign a form before they can read an essay which makes a left-wing case against… terrorism. But let’s leave that aside for now, and follow the argument.)

For example, Geras sharply criticises Trotsky’s practice of taking hostages, ‘non-participants’, as violating the rule of non-combatant immunity. Trotsky’s justification of this practice on the grounds that these hostages have ‘ties of class and family solidarity’ is, Geras says, simply ‘awful’. As, he believes, was Trotsky’s blurring of another critical distinction – between intentional and non-intentional injuring or killing of non-combatants. We might mention here Lenin’s staggering 9 August 1918 letter to G. F. Fyodorov ordering him to "appoint three men with dictatorial powers (yourself, Markin and one other), organise immediately mass terror, shoot and deport the hundreds of prostitutes who are making drunkards of the soldiers".


Another question better answered with the aid of just war doctrine, Geras believed, was ‘how might those who are properly targets in war be killed?’ Just war doctrine says: with minimum force and without seeking ‘gratuitously to accentuate suffering’. Again, this rules much out – some weapons, some methods of killing, torture. The seperation of jus ad bello and jus in bellos is so valuable, says Geras, because it makes us see that the justice of a cause does not make just every means employed in its pursuit. He cites several examples of unjust means being used in just revolutionary struggles.

3. Geras’s Principle

Geras then sets out some principles. Just war doctrine forces us to admit that even after the legitimate demands of historical realism are acknowledged, the force of other demands must still be felt. ‘The leaders, the militants, of a movement against injustice are obliged for their part to try, as far as it is on their power, to bring a disciplined, scrupulous, discriminating, ethical code into the dark history they are fighting to transform.’ Geras is advocating ‘discipline and scruple … self-imposed by a revolutionary movement in the light of a defensible code of ethical principles and constraints…’

Pulling it all together, Geras sets out a categorical imperative (my words not his): ‘individuals have rights – against being killed or violated – rights that may not, in general, be set aside; unless they forfeit them by making war themselves in defence of tyranny or grave injustice’ (46). History tells us that if we do not spell out clearly, in advance of a revolution, ‘the extent to which the relevant rights may be forfeit’, then, likely as not, ‘the rights … are not worth a fig’.

Geras goes on (in words which, I think justify my use of the term categorical imperative): ‘These individual rights constitute a limit upon consequentialist calculation. They cannot be disregarded in favour of, traded off against a hypothesis or speculation of there being, some greater benefit derivable from such trade – even if this supposed benefit is itself computed in terms of rights’. Deeming these individual rights ‘all but absolute’, he insists that ‘no one’s life or person may be simply discounted,’ and certainly not for ‘what are by their nature uncertain, sometimes highly speculative, projections’.

And what of the problem of ‘dirty hands’? (i.e. the scenario in which one finds that one has to kill an innocent person to save a city, the subject of so many moral philosophy seminars.) One can override these rights ‘if and only if doing so is the sole means of averting imminent and certain disaster’ Geras argues. He stresses ‘sole’ and ‘certain’. Only if we face ‘impending moral catastrophe’ can we do a moral wrong. And if we do, he thinks it remains just that, a moral catastrophe.

4. Is there a right to revolution in a parliamentary democracy?

Yes, says Geras, but not on grounds of tyranny. Rather, on grounds of the ‘grave injustice’ that is ‘capitalist forms of power, wealth and privilege’. This right has to be qualified by the fact of ‘popular consent’. In fact, ‘the stronger the basis for a presumption of freely given consent to some particular set of social relations, the more qualified must be the practical conclusions that can be drawn from any judgement of injustice pertaining to them’.

So, first, revolutionaries must wait until ‘those on the receiving end’ act themselves in ways that show they too recognise the injustice. This gives the revolution ‘democratic credentials’. Second, the revolution must offer, and gain majority support for, ‘an alternative form of democratic legitimacy’ (not a lawless ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’). Consequently:

"The road of social revolution cannot therefore simply bypass the institutions of parliamentary democracy. It either runs through them as a gateway or, being blocked in the attempt, shows in practice that they are not one, but are a fortress rather, a bastion against social revolution, just or democratic as it may be; and shows the location of a genuine gateway at the same time."

Geras rejects ‘pure parliamentarism’ and ‘pure insurrectionism’ arguing, in effect, for a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle in ‘a more or less well-articulated assault on the positions of capitalist power and wealth’.

I read ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’ as yet one more example of Geras’s contribution to a self-accounting of the Marxist tradition, sitting alongside his remedial work on Marxist thinking about human nature, justice, ‘the party’, the institutions of a socialist democracy, the Holocaust, and much more. The essay is another demonstration of his near-unique determination to confront as a Marxist what Perry Anderson once called ‘the internal obstacles, aporias, blockages of the theory in its attempt to approximate to a general truth of its time’.

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.

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