The Contract of Mutual Indifference

  • Mark Cowling


This lengthy chapter discusses what is generally acknowledged to be some of Geras’s finest work, developed from his extensive knowledge of the Holocaust. He was particularly interested in the relative indifference of bystanders to the fate of Jews. Cowling challenges this, emphasizing that Germans continued to treat Jews decently until they were intimidated away from this by the threat of prosecution by the Gestapo. However, he acknowledges that the point Geras develops from indifference is that very large numbers of people today also display indifference to poverty and gross human rights abuses. It is as if, he says, there was a contract of mutual indifference. He argues that, to escape the contract of mutual indifference we should assert that there is a duty to bring aid to people in extreme need. Cowling agrees that this is a worthwhile idea, but queries some of the detail. Geras also wrote two essays about Marxist theories relating to the Holocaust. He argues that Ralph Miliband failed to take into account the possibility of humans doing evil, and argues that, because of this ongoing possibility, a socialist society would need plural democracy and liberal rights. Cowling concurs, but notes this involves a move away from Marxism towards social democracy. Geras’s second essay is a discussion of the way in which Mandel assimilates the Holocaust to one of a variety of evils of capitalism. Geras argues that this is far too unspecific. Cowling concurs but comments that Geras is effectively moving away from Trotskyism, but without saying so. In an excellent essay Geras discusses the question of whether the Holocaust was unique, and argues that this is a moral question best answered by saying that it shares a family resemblance with other genocides but none of the others has exactly the same major characteristics. Cowling questions whether Geras’s technique would be useful for other examples of putative historical uniqueness. Cowling then questions whether Geras has feet of clay the sense that he broadly supported the State of Israel, which many on the left argue was founded on ethnic cleansing. He attempts a brief investigation in the style of Geras and concludes that Geras’s position can be justified. Linked to the material of this chapter, Geras wrote briefly about anti-Semitism. Cowling argues that his views can be supported, but notes that there is a massive literature in this area.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Cowling
    • 1
  1. 1.Teesside University [retired]MiddlesboroughUK

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