[Fwd: [PEN-L:20649] Re: GA Cohen]
cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Sat Jun 24 11:05:02 MDT 2000
Lou just posted an exceptionally good article to pen-l. I
thought it ought to be made available to marxism subscribers.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [PEN-L:20649] Re: GA Cohen
Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2000 08:25:29 -0400
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com>
Reply-To: pen-l at galaxy.csuchico.edu
To: pen-l at galaxy.csuchico.edu
>But Cohen is hard work. You can't just skim him. You
>have to work through it, page by page, argument by argument.
G.A. Cohen's Marxism is a curious business. He tries to restore Marxism
its "orthodox" roots but his project ends up as a defense of a "stagist"
conception rather than of anything Marx had in mind. Once he establishes
this rather bogus "orthodoxy", he speculates on the political
His speculations have very little to do with the actual history and
of the revolutionary movement.
In "Karl Marx's Theory of History", Cohen singles out a paragraph from
Marx's Critique of Political Economy that serves a guide to the sort of
Marxism that Cohen endorses:
"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite
that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of
production which correspond to a definite stage of their development of
their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of
production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real
foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to
which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of
production of their material life conditions the social, political and
intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men
that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being
determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development,
the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the
existing relations of production, or -- what is but a legal expression
the same thing -- with the property relations within which they have
at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces
relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social
revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire
superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed."
If one attempts to build a Marxism around this rather abstract set of
ideas, it is entirely possible to go off in the wrong direction,
on the question of how one stage of development supersedes another. Is
the case that one stage replaces another when the previous one is a
"fetter" on the means of production?
If Marxists posit a capitalist class that becomes "decadent" in the way
that that the feudal aristocracy had became decadent and an impediment
further productive growth, then one runs into a big problem when
with the real capitalist world.
For instance, Lenin's "Imperialism--the Latest Stage of Capitalism"
reflects this "fettering" notion is a poor guide to understanding the
explosive and *dynamic* growth of capitalism over the last 50 years or
China's embrace of capitalist property relations and its phenomenal
growth-rate over the last 10 years or so should tell you that the
"fettering" concept does not exactly describe the current stage of
capitalism. What is more is that the whole notion of stages --
capitalism and socialism -- might have to be seen in a more subtle
The 3 stages might not only coexist in the same society, but there is no
ruling out the possibility of going backwards from socialism to
or from capitalism to feudalism.
Cohen lacks this type of dialectical insight and goes whole hog into the
embrace of the crudest sort of stagism. This falls within the general
rubric of what he calls the "Development Thesis", namely that productive
technological forces develop in history and revolutions occur when one
of production can not sustain the further growth of productive or
This amounts to a form of teleological progress that is a caricature of
what Marx had in mind. In "History, Labor and Freedom", Cohen defends
thesis in the following manner:
"In the global presentation of the Development Thesis, there need be no
society which develops the forces from their initial rudiments to the
consummation of abundance. There may, instead, be what Ernest Gellner
called a 'torch-relay' pattern of development: having brought the forces
to a certain level, an erstwhile pioneering society retires in favour of
another one, which it has influenced..."
History is not a relay-race. In a relay-race there is a goal: to get to
finish-line. One is always moving forward. In real history, capitalism
not be analogized to a relay-race since this assumes that one can detect
the finish-line after a certain number of laps. Looking back in history,
you would be tempted to assign the mid-1700s as the last lap for
even if this is arguable. Can one find such a last lap for capitalism?
By Cohen's own criteria, this would be very difficult indeed. Capitalism
was a very dynamic system in Marx's era and remains so. The problem with
capitalism has never been that it will run out of steam, but rather that
will destroy the underlying productive forces including labor and nature
before it runs out of steam. Capitalism is not a "fetter" on the means
production in China today. It is freeing up labor and land and natural
resources in a way that the socialist means of production never could
In the process China is turning into a formidable industrial power while
destroying rivers and forests and throwing the countryside population
chaos and desperation while making some winners. In other words it is
functioning exactly the way it did in the 1800s in Manchester.
Once again when we turn to Marx's writings on the actual class struggle
opposed to abstract constructions such as the kind that G.A. Cohen
himself to there is little evidence of such crude "stagism". For
in the "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League", Marx
Engels point to the very likely event that feudalism will be replaced by
socialism in Germany, and not by the logical next stage of capitalism.
have no interest in seeing Germany go through a prolonged stage of
"[The workers] must drive the proposals of the democrats, who in any
will not act in a revolutionary manner but in a merely reformist manner,
the extreme and transform them into direct attacks upon private
thus, for example, if the petty bourgeois propose purchase of the
and factories, the workers must demand that these railways and factories
simply confiscated by the state without compensation as being the
If the German workers are not able to attain power and achieve their own
class interests without going through a lengthy revolutionary
they at least know for a certainty this time that the first act of this
approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of
their own class in France and will be very much accelerated by it.
But they themselves must do the utmost for their final victory by
clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are, by taking
their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not
allowing themselves to be seduced by a single moment by the hypocritical
phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the
independent organization of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be:
Revolution in Permanence."
There is little evidence of a "relay race" conception here. Marx and
did not urge the workers to turn the baton over to the capitalist class
since it was their job to carry it for the next 500 yards or so. They
instead urged the workers to carry the baton themselves and overturn
feudal and capitalist property relations at the same time.
Another example should drive the point home. In the article "On Social
Relations in Russia", Engels the "stagist" who everybody loves to hate
nowadays polemicizes against Pyotr Tkachov who thought that socialism
precluded in Russia since "we have no urban proletariat" and "we also
no bourgeoisie". Engels reply is to simply state that socialism might
out of *pre-capitalist* formations, the rural communal ownership of
He says, "It is clear that communal ownership in Russia is long past its
period of florescence and to all appearances is moving toward its
disintegration. Nevertheless, the possibility undeniably exists of
this form of society to a higher one, if it should last until
are ripe for that, and it if shows itself capable of development in such
manner that the peasants no longer cultivate the land separately, but
collectively; of raising it to this higher form without it being
for the Russian peasants to go through the intermediate stage of
The Russian peasants do not have to go through the intermediate stage
as the German workers did not. There is little engagement in Cohen's
writings with actual history since he is preoccupied with a theory of
history rather than real societies placed in time. This accounts for his
inability to see the contradictory aspects not only of 19th century
and Russia, but contemporary society as well. His work, like Elster's,
preoccupied with theory rather than the messy details of real life.
In the twentieth century a "stagist" conception of Marxism drawn from
same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the
2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky's conception of Permanent Revolution
a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas
even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen's
desire to return Marxism to some sort of "orthodoxy" is a misbegotten
project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx's ideas
history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright
bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.
The question of *why* one should be a socialist revolutionary is in
eyes a major problem since Marx and Engels said in the Communist
that the "fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat
inevitable." Cohen is thrown into a profound political and spiritual
by this conundrum. He raises his eyes to the heavens and cries out,
if the advent of socialism is inevitable, then why should Marx and
and those who they hoped to activate, strive to achieve socialism?"
Is this not the silliest question you have ever heard in your life? How
the world did Cohen get such a first-class reputation among socialists?
can understand how he might impress a don or two at Oxford but this is
very dumb. There was nothing "inevitable" about socialism in the eyes of
Marx and Engels.
The direct testimony of Marx and Engels' lives should tell you how
they believed in "inevitability." Nearly every moment was consumed with
building socialist parties and the First International. In their
with anarchists and utopian socialists, they made it very clear that
politics and correct strategy would ensure success and nothing else. If
revolutionary socialist party was not at the head of the worker's
then defeat was inevitable.
Cohen is not that interested in politics. The question of revolutionary
politics becomes one of trying to decide what to do with one's life in
face of the "inevitability" of socialism. Why go out and pass out
if the revolution is inevitable? You might as well stay at home and wait
for the inevitable. As incredible as it may seem, Cohen is preoccupied
how to answer this concern. He argues that one has an *obligation* to be
revolutionary since more revolutionaries than fewer will hasten the
He comes up with the bright idea that "although it is inevitable that a
socialist revolution will come, it is not inevitable how long it will
for it to come. It is therefore rational for us to dedicate ourselves to
the revolutionary movement, in order to make socialism come sooner
than later. The sooner socialism comes, the smaller will be the amount
suffering imposed on people by continuing capitalist oppression."
Anybody accustomed to the hard work of building revolutionary parties
read stuff like this and rub their eyes in disbelief. What in the world
Cohen talking about? People join revolutionary parties not because these
are *rational choices* but because they are moved by a hatred for
capitalism. Furthermore, we understand that there is nothing
about socialism. If anything the entire evidence of twentieth century
history shows that capitalism has much more inevitability attached to it
The reason that Cohen is speculating on such manners is that he feels
need to defend the socialist project from the challenge presented by
bourgeois political and ethical philosophy. Liberals like John Rawls and
conservatives like Robert Nozick have written a number of books that
attempt to defend just societies and the forms of political action
necessary to achieve them. They also have a great deal of credence in
academic circles Cohen travels in.
Cohen wants to make socialism appear as a rational choice in the face of
their challenges but he ends up conceding much too much to them. The
concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of the
individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster's
hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen's work
to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the guise
moral dilemmas to individuals.
For example, in chapter 12 of "History, Labor and Freedom" he takes up
question, "Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to
Hazardous Jobs." What a peculiar subject for an "orthodox" Marxist to be
tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more interest
class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues
as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his
Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices
an "imaginary worker in an imaginary situation." He is one of the 7,000
unemployed people in the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population
33,000), to which the Beryllium Corporation came in 1956, offering
hazardous jobs." "Our worker, whom I shall call John, took one. He was
confronted with a choice between employment and health, and he chose the
former. Was he forced to take the health-endangering job? did he, in
it, contract freely?"
Of course the question of the "contractual" basis of justice lies at the
heart of John Rawls' liberalism and one could write at length about how
preposterous this notion is and how pointless it is to engage Rawls'
thinking on his own terms.
I will rather conclude with several obvious conclusions. To begin with,
study of individuals and their moral problems is not the subject-matter
Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist's time would
to study *actual* rather than *imaginary* workers in identical
It would be useful to explore how capitalism tends to threaten the job
safety of the working-class even in the expansionary period of 1956 or
for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties
in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept
It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such
conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen's work.
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