Happy Campers

Ellen Meiksins Wood

  • BuyWhy Not Socialism? by G.A. Cohen
    Princeton, 83 pp, £10.95, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 14361 3

‘Socialism’, Albert Einstein said, is humanity’s attempt ‘to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development’, and for G.A. Cohen ‘every market … is a system of predation.’ That is the essence of his short but trenchant and elegantly written last book – Cohen died last August. His object is to make what he calls a ‘preliminary’ case – a tentative case that may, in the end, be defeated by inescapable realities – for a socialist alternative. Is it desirable, he asks, and if desirable is it feasible, to construct a society driven by something other than predation, which doesn’t answer to the ‘shabby’, ‘base’, ‘repugnant’ motivations of the market but is guided instead by a moral commitment to community and equality?

In his characteristically lucid, engaging and gently humorous style, Cohen begins by imagining a group of people on a camping trip. In such circumstances, he suggests, most people would ‘strongly favour a socialist form of life over feasible alternatives’, conducting themselves on principles of equality and community very different from normal market behaviour. The question is whether these camping trip principles could or should be implemented throughout society. His view is that it would be desirable, in order to avoid the inevitably unjust results of market mechanisms and the inequalities associated with them. But is it also feasible? On this, the jury is still out. It is important, Cohen insists, to distinguish between two contrasting kinds of obstacle, the limits of human nature and the limits of social technology; and he concludes that our main problem is not human selfishness but ‘our lack of a suitable organisational technology’. It is, in other words, a problem of design. But just because we don’t yet know how to design the social machinery that would make socialism work, this doesn’t mean we never can or never will.

Cohen considers the idea of ‘market socialism’: a system that would still be based on the price mechanism but would prevent the concentration of capital that produces the gross inequalities of the capitalist market. On balance, this would, for him, be better than nothing. It is ‘the genius of the market that it recruits low-grade motives to desirable ends’, but what market socialists forget is that it also has undesirable effects and that even their kind of market must be driven by those ‘shabby’ motives. So he would still prefer to look for a means of achieving productive economic effects based on other motives.

The moral preoccupations of Cohen’s philosophy and, in his analysis of markets, his emphasis on the morality of motives, may at first seem very distant, even diametrically opposed, to the work that first made his name, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978). The Guardian’s obituary for Cohen, which described him as ‘arguably the leading political philosopher of the left’, called the book a ‘revolutionary reinterpretation of Marxist theory’. In fact what Cohen produced was even more daring. It was less a reinterpretation of Marx than an uncompromising defence of the most orthodox interpretation.

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[*] The Spirit Level was reviewed by David Runciman in the LRB of 22 October 2009.