reformatted post

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sat Jun 24 15:19:05 MDT 2000

On Sat, 24 Jun 2000 13:00:57 -0400 Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> writes:
> Lou just posted an exceptionally good article to pen-l. I thought it
> ought
> to be made available to marxism subscribers.
> Carrol
> >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 to
> 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
> consequences.
> His speculations have very little to do with the actual history and
> dynamic
> of the revolutionary movement.

Actually if one has been following Cohen's more recent work then
one would realize that Cohen has pretty much given up on Marxism
as such.  See his books *Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality*
and *If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?*.  SInce
1978 when he published his *Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence*
Cohen himself, has come to perceive the inadequacies of a stageist
conception of history.  Since Cohen identifies stagism with historical
materialism then for him that means that historical materialism itself
has been shown to be inadequate.

> 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:

Essentially, Cohen's approach was rather similar to that taken by
many of the writers of the Second International especially
Kautsky and Plekhanov, something which he freely acknowledged
in *Karl Marx's Theory of History*. So consequently, his interpretation
of historical materialism and Marxism was similar to that of those

> "In the social production of their life, men enter into definite
> relations
> 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 that
> 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 for
> the same thing -- with the property relations within which they have
> been
> at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces
> these
> relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social
> revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire
> immense
> superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed."

> The question of *why* one should be a socialist revolutionary is in
> Cohen's
> eyes a major problem since Marx and Engels said in the Communist
> Manifesto
> that the "fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the
> proletariat are
> inevitable." Cohen is thrown into a profound political and spiritual
> crisis
> by this conundrum. He raises his eyes to the heavens and cries out,
> "But,
> if the advent of socialism is inevitable, then why should Marx and
> Engels,
> and those who they hoped to activate, strive to achieve socialism?"

In fairness to Cohen, he thinks that such a question ought to be taken
seriously because in his opinion the Marxist understanding of how
socialism was to develop from capitalism has been falsified by recent
history including the collapse of the USSR.  Cohen like many ex-Marxists
of the past has become convinced that the proletariat can no longer
be counted upon as main force that will drive the transition to
The achievement of socialism when and if it occurs will in his view
be most likely to occur through the efforts of an inter-class coalition
(of which workers will undoubtedly constitute the main portion but
will also also include many non-proletarians as well).

As Cohen sees it traditional Marxism has relied upon the self-interest
of workers driving them towards socialist revolution as their
deterioated under capitalism.  Cohen contends that such a scenario
is unlikely and that therefore any plausible political coalition in
favor of socialism will have to rely in large part upon moral appeals.
This in his view justifies his concern with moral & political philosophy
as practiced by people like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Ronald
Dworkin.  Hence, his tendency to reduce socialism (and what remains
of his Marxism) to a kind of left-liberal political philosophy.

> Is this not the silliest question you have ever heard in your life?
> How in
> the world did Cohen get such a first-class reputation among
> socialists? I
> can understand how he might impress a don or two at Oxford but this
> is just
> 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
> little
> they believed in "inevitability." Nearly every moment was consumed
> with
> building socialist parties and the First International. In their
> polemics
> with anarchists and utopian socialists, they made it very clear that
> politics and correct strategy would ensure success and nothing else.
> If a
> revolutionary socialist party was not at the head of the worker's
> movement,
> then defeat was inevitable.

I think that part of the problem with Cohen is that he originally
his understanding of Marxism from the millieu that surrounded the
Canadian Communist Party which seems to have had such an
conception of Marxism.  Although, Cohen later moved far beyond
his origins in the Jewish working class of Montreal, his conception
of what Marxism is about did not fundamentally change.  When he was
trained as an analytic philosopher at Oxford (under people like Gilbert
Ryle and Isaiah Berlin), he attempted to use his training to elucidate
and defend the "orthodox" Marxism that he had first imbibed in his
youth.  Hence, his *Karl Marx's Theory of History*.

Jim F.

> 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 the
> face of the "inevitability" of socialism. Why go out and pass out
> leaflets
> 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 with
> how to answer this concern. He argues that one has an *obligation*
> to be a
> revolutionary since more revolutionaries than fewer will hasten the
> "inevitable".
> 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 take
> for it to come. It is therefore rational for us to dedicate
> ourselves to
> the revolutionary movement, in order to make socialism come sooner
> rather
> than later. The sooner socialism comes, the smaller will be the
> amount of
> suffering imposed on people by continuing capitalist oppression."
> Anybody accustomed to the hard work of building revolutionary
> parties will
> read stuff like this and rub their eyes in disbelief. What in the
> world is
> 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
> "inevitable"
> about socialism. If anything the entire evidence of twentieth
> century
> history shows that capitalism has much more inevitability attached
> to it
> than socialism.
> The reason that Cohen is speculating on such manners is that he
> feels the
> 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 the
> 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
> worst
> concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of
> the
> individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster's
> outright
> hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen's
> work is
> to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the
> guise of
> moral dilemmas to individuals.
> For example, in chapter 12 of "History, Labor and Freedom" he takes
> up the
> question, "Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced
> to Take
> Hazardous Jobs." What a peculiar subject for an "orthodox" Marxist
> to be
> tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more
> interest in
> class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues
> such
> as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his
> interest.
> Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices
> before
> 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
> taking
> 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, the
> study of individuals and their moral problems is not the
> subject-matter of
> Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist's time
> would be
> to study *actual* rather than *imaginary* workers in identical
> situations.
> 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 1997
> for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties
> share
> in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept
> going.
> It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such
> oppressive
> conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen's work.
> Louis Proyect
> Marxism mailing list:

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