Graham Taylor on G.A. Cohen

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Tue Nov 23 08:43:48 MST 1999

I found the following review of G.A. Cohen's 1995 book
*Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality* on the Democratic
Left's web site (  It orignially
appeared in their journal New Times.  Longtime subscribers
to this list may remember that Democratic Left is the political
home of Chris Burford and that Democratic Left was formed
from the former euro-communist wing of the old CPGB
which broke apart back in 1991.  So one should not
be surprised that the reviewer's poilitical sentiments
seem to be not unlike Burford's and that the reviewer
is sympathetic towards Cohen's political trajectory.

Jim F.

 Philosopher's Progress Graham Taylor finds himself
                 empathising with G.A. Cohen
                 Tony Blair last year remarked that all his political
                 life the Labour left had been echoing the opinions of
                 the Tory right. Indeed, it is striking how often the
                 Morning Star and Socialist Worker repeat the arguments
                 of The Times and The Telegraph. Scargill has often
                 praised Thatcher, discerning not a difference in values
                 between himself and her but only a difference of class
                 power. In the 1970s the far left joined Thatcher in
                 condemning the Social Contract, the Bullock Report, the
                 European Community, Keynesianism, as if in demonstration
                 of the fact that the political spectrum is circular, not
                 linear, and the far left stands closest to the far
                 right. Now the philosopher, G. A. Cohen, though no
                 Blairite, has analysed a profound agreement between far
                 left and right which has hitherto been buried deep in
                 the heart of Marxist theory.
                 In Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality, his latest
                 book, Cohen traces through an endearing,
                 autobiographical collection of essays his pilgrim's
                 progress from a communist upbringing by Jewish parents,
                 of Russian and Lithuanian origin, in Montreal, Canada,
                 to arousal from his `dogmatic, socialist slumber' in the
                 early 1970s, down to his current state of defiant
                 disillusionment. What goaded him into training his
                 Oxford Analytical Philosophy onto his own Marxism was a
                 book by Robert Nozick, a libertarian doyen of the new
                 Right, called Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Cohen
                 was unnerved to discover that he found Nozick's
                 arguments - in particular one about basketball star,
                 Wilt Chamberlain, whose admiring fans would not begrudge
                 rewarding his skills with millions of dollars - deeply
                 disturbing. He was even more unnerved when he found that
                 liberals such as Rawls and Dworkin found Nozick far less
                 troublesome than he did, though he was far more
                 left-wing. After years of heart-searching Cohen finally
                 concluded that libertarianism was based upon a principle
                 called self-ownership (people and their capacities
                 belong to themselves and they owe nothing to anyone
                 else): and the reason for his inability to handle it, he
                 admitted to himself with horror, was that the
                 self-ownership principle underpinned Marx's theory of
                 capitalist exploitation (the labour theory of value) -
                 which he had believed in passionately all his life.
                 For left liberals, who based themselves on ethical
                 values grounded in reason, the self-ownership thesis
                 looked ethically dubious straight away. So there was no
                 problem. But for `dogmatic' Marxists, it was not clear
                 how to reject self-ownership without also rejecting
                 their belief that workers owned what they produced and
                 capitalists had no right to steal from them. Wasn't Wilt
                 Chamberlain, as a worker, right to accept millions from
                 basketball fans who loved him? Wasn't Nozik right to
                 condemn socialism and the welfare state, which took
                 millions in taxation from individual workers who did not
                 For Cohen this was a bitter pill to swallow. `Orthodox'
                 Marxists, it now appeared, had inherited a critique of
                 capitalism which relied unthinkingly on a libertarian
                 assumption, and this assumption turned out to be the
                 very one used by Thatcher and the new Right to dismantle
                 the welfare state. But this was not all. Abandoning a
                 foundation-stone of his Marxism was bad enough, but he
                 was also assailed by doubts about Marx's doctrine of
                 historical materialism (that progress in history comes
                 from the growth of productive forces and of a working
                 class that will one day end capitalism and establish a
                 classless society).
                 As the 1980s proceeded, he found that the productive
                 forces ran into the buffers of green constraints, while
                 the working class fell into an abyss of defeat and
                 disintegration. The book ends in the 1990s with Cohen's
                 moving essay from New Left Review entitled `The Future
                 of a Disillusion', in which he tries to come to terms
                 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and to explain to
                 himself why, given decades of criticising the USSR, he
                 now felt so sad: there is `a vast difference between
                 nourishing little hope and giving up all hope. The small
                 hope that I kept was, as it were, an immense thing,
                 since so much was at stake.'
                 I will not spoil this book for the readers it deserves
                 by revealing how Cohen extricates himself from the Wilt
                 Chamberlain dilemma, despatches Nozick and painfully
                 reassembles what is left of his socialism. For the joy
                 of the book lies precisely in following the steps of the
                 argument, as Cohen leads the reader with clarity but
                 amazing exactitude through the philosophical labyrinth.
                 What does demand explication, however, is the book's
                 undoubted appeal, even though it contains technical
                 philosophy and Marxist assumptions few would share.
                 Clearly, the Wilt Chamberlain argument and
                 libertarianism have a practical resonance. They are
                 recurrent themes in the Sun newspaper. Clearly it is a
                 topical insight that, in shoes of moral value, liberals
                 and Blairites can stepdance more agilely through the
                 Thatcherite minefield than Marxists in clogs of surplus
                 value, and corsets of dialectical materialism. But
                 surely few can stomach Cohen's `orthodox' Marxism? I,
                 for one, found Cohen's earlier Marxism (which revolved
                 around economic equality, exploitation theory,
                 substituting `real' democracy for bourgeois democracy,
                 and utopian abundance) quite at odds with my own early
                 Marxism (including personal freedom and fulfilment,
                 alienation theory, anti- utopianism and acceptance of
                 representative democracy). Cohen's later Marxism
                 (renouncing the role of productive forces and rising
                 classes on the unhistorical extrapolation of a mere
                 decade) - I found equally unacceptable.
                 Cohen's secret pull, I believe, is that he speaks to the
                 heart and what he speaks is always worth hearing. When
                 Marcus Roberts makes much of Cohen's surrender to
                 liberalism; when John Gray mocks his regurgitation of
                 criticisms levelled at Marx long ago by Popper; when
                 Alan Ryan declares Cohen's new-found ethical
                 egalitarianism not Marxist at all, such attacks seem
                 Is a convergence of liberalism and Marxism not to be
                 welcomed? Perry Anderson arrived at a similar conclusion
                 via Bobbio. If such a convergence takes place is not
                 Marxism merely `coming home' to its Enlightenment and
                 Romanticist parents? Cohen speaks to the heart. His
                 mother's journey from Stalin's Russia to Montreal
                 communism and his own journey through Oxford philosophy
                 to `Analytic Marxism' are personal quests, integral to
                 his philosophising. When he ends his book with Engels'
                 defiant `And we are not near losing courage yet', we
                 know that his pilgrim's progress may yet discover new
                 Graham Taylor
                 Published in New Times, Issue 123
                 G. A. Cohen's Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality (CUP,
                 pb. £14.95 and hb. £40.00)

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