The Thinking Man’s Marxist

From Montreal youth to Oxford chair, G.A. Cohen became one of our era’s great philosophical minds.

Gerald Allan Cohen was a product of the lost world of Canadian communism. His working class parents were Jewish Marxists who toiled in Montreal’s garment trade. In 1945, when Cohen was four years old, they enrolled him in the Morris Winchevsky School. Morning classes were taught in English and covered conventional topics. But in the afternoon the language of instruction switched to Yiddish and the lessons included the history of class struggle. One day in 1952, Quebec’s Red Squad raided the school, hoping to find communist literature. The political innocence of Cohen and his classmates was preserved by a quick-thinking teacher who put on a happy voice and clapped her hands as the police arrived: “Children, the Board of Health is inspecting the school and you can all go home early.” Cohen and the other delighted students ran outside, unaware they had McCarthyism to thank for their freedom.

The police never found any incriminating documents at Morris Winchevsky. But a second raid at the office of the organization that sponsored the school turned up some left-wing pamphlets. The authorities soon invoked Quebec’s infamous Padlock Law to close the group’s office. Parents withdrew their children from Morris Winchevsky in large numbers and it soon closed. As Cohen would later put it, “we were cast forth, as far as our formal schooling was concerned, into the big wide non-communist world.”

Cohen’s path in that world saw him study philosophy at McGill University and, beginning in 1961, Oxford. The image of a staunch Marxist such as Cohen arriving at Oxford that year is incongruous. Oxford was then a bastion of so-called analytic philosophy, a tradition of thought that traced its roots to British philosophers such as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. Insofar as analytic philosophy of the 1960s took up political questions at all, as it did in the work of Isaiah Berlin, it was explicitly anti-communist. Berlin’s interest in politics however was the exception. Oxford-style philosophy focused overwhelmingly on the philosophy of mind, logic and, above all, language. Political philosophy was so marginal that a year after Cohen arrived Berlin published an essay under the morose title “Does political theory still exist?”

It was a common occurrence during the 1960s for politically committed students to be hostile to analytic philosophy, on the grounds that it was quietist and trivial. “If you are young and left-wing,” Cohen has said, “and you come to university with a thirst for relevant ideas, and academic philosophy of the Oxford kind is the first system of thought you encounter, then it will be hard for you not to feel disappointed or even cheated by it.” But precisely because Cohen was already so politicized, he did not go to class looking for a political system. As a result Cohen was able to engage analytic philosophy on its own terms and excel at it—and, in time, be transformed by it.

The late 1960s saw Marxist ideas gain academic prominence. Works by French thinkers such as Louis Althusser were translated and widely discussed. Cohen’s analytic training made him critical of 1960s Marxism, which he came to term “bullshit Marxism.”

Its practitioners claimed to possess their own intellectual method, known as dialectics. Such claims struck Cohen as an excuse not to observe normal standards of evidence and rigour. When one read French Marxists closely, Cohen felt, their ideas were often expressed in such a gassy way it was impossible to determine if they were true or false. Cohen’s preferred approach was on display in the 1978 book that made his name, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. It saw Cohen give an intellectually respectable account of Marxism by jettisoning Marx’s least defensible ideas and setting out the remainder with ruthless clarity.

Cohen soon became a leader of a school of thought known as analytic Marxism. Analytic Marxism eventually rejected so much of Marx—the dialectics, the scientific pretensions, the claims of historical inevitability—that it has long been debated whether it really is a form of Marxism. Cohen thought the question was misguided. In his view, Marx began a tradition of political and economic equality, and everything else was negotiable. Cohen once noted that Galileo and Newton founded physics, but physicists are never asked whether they are a Galilean. “Physics must contradict (much of) what Galileo and Newton said: only so can it be loyal to the tradition which they founded.” Whatever the accuracy of the Marxist label in other ways, it is definitely misleading if it is taken to suggest that only a Marxist can agree with Cohen’s arguments.

One example must suffice. In the 1970s analytic philosophy rediscovered political questions. A major figure in the reawakening was Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick was like Cohen in that he sought to employ philosophical tools on behalf of a political tradition anglophone philosophers had ignored—only in Nozick’s case the tradition was fire-breathing libertarianism. Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia argued for counterintuitive political proposals, such as the abolition of all welfare programs, with great ingenuity and force. Nozick was profiled in The New York Times Magazine and Anarchy won the National Book Award. A young conservative I once knew said that if you agreed with Nozick’s premises then all his conclusions followed as a matter of simple logic. My friend was a social conservative rather than a libertarian, but the fact that he worked until recently in the office of the prime minister of Canada is testament to Nozick’s relevance and reach.

The genius of Nozick’s approach was that it made a case for libertarianism based on moral principles most people already accept. Like many libertarians, Nozick suggested a philosophy of small government was justified by a commitment to freedom. He also appealed to the idea of self-ownership. Most of us feel we have a special authority when it comes to decisions involving our own bodies. If so, Nozick suggested, reason obliges us to take the same view of the fruits of the labour we perform with those bodies. Redistributing wealth, he concluded, is not far removed from slavery.

Cohen wrote a devastating critique of Nozick that had a wide impact. One of Cohen’s simpler points had to do with libertarian-style property rights. Their enforcement requires limiting a great deal of freedom. If I pitch a tent in your backyard, for example, you can call the police to drag me away. If that is the case, libertarianism cannot be justified as a philosophy of pure freedom, as it is actually a complex mixture of freedom and unfreedom, much like other philosophies. Cohen’s analysis of Nozick’s self-ownership argument was more technical, but it showed that more than one arrangement regarding resources was consistent with self-ownership, which was enough to derail Nozick’s claim that once we grant self-ownership libertarianism swiftly follows. Introductory texts in political philosophy now routinely direct students to the 1995 book where Cohen’s critique of Nozick is found, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality. If there has never been another breakout work of analytic libertarianism, Cohen’s cool and unruffled takedown of Nozick is an important reason why.

Cohen took libertarianism seriously and his attitude toward it was respectful. For their part many libertarian philosophers, even though they resist Cohen’s conclusions, regard him as a critic of special insight. “Few if any contemporary thinkers can match Cohen in his ability to grasp what is at stake in an argument and to raise devastating objections,” wrote David Gordon of the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2008. “The questions he discusses are of the highest significance and his answers to them often profound.” I know how Gordon feels. In 2008 Cohen published a book-length critique of one of my own intellectual heroes, liberal philosopher John Rawls. Reading Rescuing Justice and Equality, one instantly has the sense that all other challenges to liberalism are secondary, and that one must grapple with Cohen’s powerful criticisms if one is to maintain any shred of intellectual honesty. Cohen’s untimely death in 2009 at the age of 68 was a major loss. With his passing went one of the great philosophical minds of our time.

Why Not Socialism? first appeared as a chapter in a 2001 anthology on democratic equality edited by former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent. In 2005 Princeton University Press published an 80-page book, On Bullshit, by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, which became a bestseller. Why Not Socialism? is a kind of sequel to On Bullshit. A tiny hardcover, it contains a revised version of Cohen’s essay that runs to 82 small pages.

Cohen begins with a discussion of a camping trip. When people are camping it is normal for them to display a spirit of unforced cooperation. It would be out of place, for example, for one person to charge another a fee for the use of a paring knife or a Frisbee. In the small-scale context of a camping trip, Cohen writes, “most people, even most antiegalitarians, accept, indeed, take for granted, norms of equality and reciprocity.”

Cohen’s goal is to identify the moral principles  that his camping trip example embodies and then to ask two questions about those principles. Would it be desirable to see them realized on a society-wide level? And would it be feasible to realize them on that scale?

The first principle Cohen discusses is an uncompromising form of equality of opportunity. Few people today would support a law that said someone born a servant must remain a servant forever. There is also widespread support for the idea that unchosen social disadvantages should be corrected for, at least to some degree. Cohen gives the example of the Head Start Program in the United States, which tries to help poor children succeed at school. The principle of equality Cohen favours endorses those familiar views, but goes further. He also wants to make an issue of differences in abilities, such as our differences in strength or intelligence. Cohen’s concern is not the differences themselves, but the different levels of wealth they can give rise to. “The inequality that arises out of native differences [is] a further source of injustice, beyond that imposed by unchosen social backgrounds, since native differences are equally unchosen.”

This view of equality would allow inequalities brought about by choice. (If you gambled
your mortgage payment at the casino and lost your home as a result, that would be too bad on Cohen’s principle, as you did so knowing the risks.) Cohen, however, also defends a principle of community that would rule out extreme inequality even when it was the result of choice. Cohen’s rationale is that such inequality “cuts [people] off from our common life.”

Cohen’s vision of community also involves a commitment to reciprocity, whereby people help each other for their own sake. If you or I fall on the camping trip, we will use the first aid kit on one another even though there is no financial gain for doing so. Cohen contrasts such “community reciprocity” with the inferior version of recipro­city he sees at work in markets. The key difference is the motivations involved. “People can engage in market activity under other inspirations, but the motives of greed and fear are what the market brings to prominence,” Cohen writes. “I serve others either in order to get something that I desire—that is the greed motivation; or in order to ensure that something that I seek to avoid is avoided—that is the fear motivation. A marketeer, considered just as such, does not value cooperation with others for its own sake.”

Cohen finds both principles—strong community and deep equality of opportunity—desirable. But where an old-fashioned socialist agitator would next launch into a discussion of how feasible such principles are, Cohen notes that desirability and feasibility are distinct questions, and that all the evidence to date suggests that a socialist economy is not feasible, at least not yet.

Cohen endorses one of the classic arguments against socialism, made famous by Friedrich Hayek, that central planning is impossible because modern economies cannot function without the information signals contained in prices. This is what separates a national economy from a scenario such as Cohen’s camping trip, where people do not need as much information to plan their face-to-face activities. “The socialist aspiration is to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life. As I have acknowledged, we now know that we do not now know how to do that.”

Cohen’s conclusion is thus a mixed one. We should endorse his two moral principles even though there is no sign they will lead to socialism any time soon. But perhaps they could have some application here and there, as in the education or health spheres. Or perhaps one day our circumstance will change and socialism will become possible. Cohen’s closing lines refer to markets as systems of predation. “Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.”

What are we to make of Cohen’s curious essay? The principle of equality he defends is sometimes called luck egalitarianism. It has recently been the subject of much debate among philosophers. Luck egalitarianism is worth taking seriously in precisely the way—more philosophically than politically—Cohen suggests.

Imagine someone in the ancient world being faced with the question of whether slavery is just. Slavery was widespread, and would continue to exist for thousands of years. It would have been futile, if not dangerous, for any individual person to act on an opposition to slavery. There were thus huge feasibility problems for the anti-slavery view. Nevertheless, the question of the morality of slavery had a truth that was independent of its practical challenges.

Luck egalitarianism is worth contemplating in a similar way, with the question of its truth carefully separated from the issue of its immediate practical relevance. Whatever the political implications of luck egalitarianism, discovering moral truth is its own reward. The dominant view of our society seems to be a kind of part-time luck egalitarianism, as we try to correct for some inborn differences, such as physical handicaps, but not others. Grappling with a challenging principle like luck egalitarianism can help shed light on whether our everyday view is correct from the point of view of pure justice.

One of the points that is made in the debate over luck egalitarianism is that even if it is true, it is not clear that it leads to socialism. People often suffer misfortune as a result of their own choices, critics have pointed out, whether it be getting in a car accident without insurance or building their home on a flood plain. Luck egalitarianism says outcomes that are the result of choice are fair. By that standard, people who succumb to foreseeable risks can be left to die. That seems undesirable, and is no doubt why Cohen introduces his principle of community, as a bridge between luck egalitarianism and socialism. Yet his community principle does not seem as attractive as his equality principle.

Cohen’s community principle has the worthy aim of ruling out extreme inequality. But there are other grounds on which we can justify such a goal. Some studies suggest for example that people at the bottom of the economic ladder suffer health and other problems simply because they are at the bottom. We could thus potentially invoke a principle of equal respect or harm prevention to help them. The problem with Cohen’s strong principle of community is that it opposes inequality in the name of not seeing someone cut off from our common life. But there are many practices that in some sense cut people off from the larger community. They include speaking a minority language, practising a minority religion or having a minority sexuality. A strong commitment to community of the kind Cohen proposes may counter economic injustice only at the expense of creating injustice in other spheres.

If Cohen had written a book called “Why Not Luck Egalitarianism?” it would have seen him playing to his philosophical strengths. As it is, however, his desire to say something about socialism sees him addressing more real-world subjects in a less persuasive way. Nowhere is this truer than his discussion of markets.

References to the “repugnant motives” and the “moral shabbiness of market motivations” appear frequently in Cohen’s essay. Yet business books often note that the hardest product for any salesperson to sell is one he or she does not believe in, and the surest path to business failure is to think only of your own needs, not your customers’. Cohen’s one-sided rhetoric contains a strong element of prejudgement, of a kind that will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked in sales or run his or her own business.

But let us say for the sake of argument that Cohen is right. The problem with his focus on motives can be seen by noting the experience of Population Service International, an aid organization working in Africa. PSI distributes mosquito netting to prevent malaria. When the nets are given away people do not use them, as they do not value things they receive for free. So PSI sells the nets at a below-market rate. Doing so has ensured that people actually use the nets, and lives have been saved as a result. The difference between PSI and an organization that gives away mosquito nets is not one of motivations. Both groups want to help. But the two approaches—one involving market transactions, the other not—have different consequences. And surely we should judge market exchanges by a standard that puts consequences first.

Putting consequences before intentions would mean praising some things about markets and condemning others. The entry of large numbers of women into the labour market since the 1960s, for example, has made them less economically dependent on men. That is a moral gain even though few firms hired women with that goal in mind. Corporations undermining the democratic process through campaign financing, destroying the environment or becoming price-gouging monopolies are less appealing outcomes of capitalism requiring strong regulation. Cohen’s emphasis on intentions is unhelpful because it blurs together good and bad market outcomes.

What explains Cohen’s dark view of market motivations? I believe it stems from his definition of greed as any desire that is self-directed rather than other-directed. This view admits no difference between self-interest and selfishness. It will be self-interested of you not to mail your next paycheque to me. But is it really selfish? You worked for it, and so surely you have a more legitimate claim to it than I do. Selfishness implies not merely acting in self-interest, but doing so to a degree that exceeds what you actually deserve. Cohen seems to think market motivations are selfish simply because they are self-interested, but that does not follow. If a group of factory workers goes on strike to protest dangerous working conditions the workers are asking for something that is in their immediate interest. Cohen’s standard would suggest their action is thereby selfish. That not only seems wrong, but it is also a view no self-respecting leftist should flirt with.

Reading Why Not Socialism? I wondered if Cohen’s real gift was criticizing other philosophers—whether Marxists, libertarians or liberals—rather than presenting his own diagnosis of modern politics. The book also sees him writing at a lower level of abstraction than usual, and is, of course, very short. Whatever the precise reason, Why Not Socialism? is a disappointing book that does not exhibit the same level of insight as his more sustained works. It is as the author of those books that G.A. Cohen will rightfully and permanently be remembered.