Why Not Socialism? 
by G.A. Cohen.
Princeton, 83 pp., £10.95, September 2009, 978 0 691 14361 3
Show More
Show More

‘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.

It is true, as the Guardian observed, that what Cohen and his ‘analytic Marxist’ colleagues liked to call ‘non-bullshit Marxism’ dragged Marxist theory ‘into mainstream bourgeois social science’ by applying to it the linguistic and logical techniques of analytical philosophy; and this alone was a considerable feat. The theory he was defending, the substance of which was a technological determinism, may have owed less to Marx himself than to later interpreters like Georgi Plekhanov; but it had become the essence of historical materialism as understood by both Communist Party ideologues and the most rabid anti-Marxists. What made Cohen’s project still more remarkable was that, by the time his defence was published, this orthodoxy had been powerfully challenged, especially by historians working in the Marxist tradition, from E.P. Thompson to Robert Brenner; and the old technological determinism was already giving way to very different interpretations of Marx.

Cohen’s account of Marx’s theory of history, for all its ‘analytic’ refinements and ‘functional’ explanations, in the end comes down to this: history is, even if in complex ways we still don’t understand, inevitably and naturally driven by the progress of the technical ‘forces of production’, and each prevailing social form will necessarily be replaced by another more congenial to technological improvement. The full force of this technological determinism can best be gauged by contrasting it to the then emerging Marxist alternative, especially in Brenner’s work, according to which history is not driven by the transhistorical laws of technological progress, and historical evidence does not support the contention that each social form must be succeeded by a more productive one. This interpretation does not deny that there have been great advances in technology in various times and places, or even that there has been, on balance and overall, a general incremental tendency to technological improvement throughout history, if only because, once discovered, no advance is ever likely to disappear completely. But the overriding compulsion constantly to improve the technical forces of production is not a general law of history. It is – for better or worse – specific to one social form, capitalism. Its particular mode of exploitation, unlike any other, creates an unavoidable compulsion, as a condition of survival, to improve the productivity, and thus to lower the cost, of labour in order to compete and to maximise profit.

Although the historical inevitabilities of Cohen’s technological determinism were translated by other analytic Marxists into the language of ‘rational choice’, there seemed little scope in it for moral choice or motivation as driving forces of history. Yet his career thereafter was devoted to the question of socialist justice and equality, which stands at the core of this last book. This seems a very long way from his own brand of Marxism; and since he came to describe himself as an ‘ex-Marxist’, we may be tempted to leave it at that: to conclude that, having repudiated Marxism, and with it any illusions about the necessary course of history, he was free to think about socialism not as a historical inevitability but as a moral choice.

Yet that is too simple. If we consider Cohen’s Marxism against other available versions, what is striking is the congruence between his early technological determinism and his later moral philosophy. This is so not only in the sense that he remained passionately committed, from beginning to end, as an ex-Marxist no less than as an orthodox Marxist, to socialist values and especially to equality. The theory of history is connected to the moral philosophy also in the sense that both are at bottom ahistorical. This is obvious enough as a comment on the logical abstractions of analytic philosophy, but it may seem an odd thing to say about a theory of history. The point is simply that it’s very hard to sustain this kind of transhistorical determinism without disengaging from the processes of history: not only the particularities and the contingencies of time and place but the distinctive operating principles of each historically specific mode of organising social life.

The kind of determinism once espoused by Cohen can’t explain how non-capitalist societies operate, let alone the historical shifts from one social form to another; but neither can it illuminate the capitalist society that is his main target. On the contrary, it has the effect of obscuring what is specific to capitalism, precisely because it extends capitalist principles to history in general. Thus it dissolves the distinctive properties of capitalism – its very particular constraints of competition, profit-maximisation and increasing productivity – into a ‘law’ of history so diluted that it has no explanatory value. It explains nothing because it must explain everything, covering all possibilities, from moments of revolutionary advance in technology to periods of technological stagnation and even regression. It’s a fairly safe bet that technological advances will occur somewhere, sometime, sooner or later; but is that really a theory of history?

Cohen once described his book on Marx’s theory of history as the ‘repayment of a debt’ to his Communist childhood, and it may even be that he was simply trying, once and for all, to make the clearest and most ‘parsimonious’ statement of technological determinism he could without truly believing in it. But having put it behind him, he was left with very little history at all; and, having absorbed the operating principles of capitalism into a general law of history that didn’t allow for a historical explanation of how capitalism differed from other social forms, it now seemed reasonable to explain its specificities in purely moral terms.

Cohen’s philosophy of moral choice was, to be sure, very fruitful. He was especially effective in his challenge to the right-wing libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, who had translated into complex philosophical terms a conventional attack on socialism on the grounds that its commitment to equality represents a threat to liberty. He also convincingly criticised John Rawls – most recently in Rescuing Justice and Equality – for fundamental weaknesses in his conception of equality. But it is not at all clear that the question posed by Cohen’s last book, ‘Why not socialism?’, can be answered in the terms in which he casts it.

There are very strict limits to what we can learn about the market as a mode of organising social life, or about the feasibility or desirability of an alternative, by ascribing it to ‘shabby’ motivations. It may be fair enough to say that a market society, or capitalism, encourages such ‘base’ motives as greed. But we can’t really know how capitalism works unless we understand why, even in the absence of such motives, people are driven to pursue a ruthless, never-ending quest for boundless profit.

Nor can we judge the limits of a ‘socialist’ market without asking whether, or to what degree, its success as an economic regulator depends on subjection to the same compulsions that require capitalists to pursue ‘maximising’ strategies: the imperatives of market competition that can be met only by constantly increasing productivity and profit, which means constant pressures on the costs of labour; the necessary primacy of profit over human needs or ecological sustainability; a tendency to economic crisis, and so on. And if we’re asking whether socialism is desirable, we may have to pose the question differently once we accept that capitalism is not above all driven by ‘repugnant’ motives.

Cohen would probably argue that the motives he ascribes to the market are not judgments on the moral character of individuals engaged in it but just a vivid, even metaphorical way of characterising market principles; and he surely had a complex understanding of how capitalism actually works. When he tells us that even market socialism must inevitably be driven by ‘low-grade’ motives, he nearly gives the game away. He seems to be insisting on the irresistible force of the market at the expense of moral choice. But he clearly believed that his philosophical enterprise obliged him to set aside much of what he knew about the political economy of the capitalist system.

So the question must be whether, or to what extent, this kind of enterprise is capable of dealing with the task he sets himself. How much can it tell us about why or how we might choose socialism? This is not to say that moral judgments don’t come into it. Much as some socialists, and Marxists in particular, have tried to avoid the ‘unscientific’ language of justice, a commitment to socialism and to the values of equality must, when all is said and done, come down to moral choice. But even if we reject capitalism on the grounds of its morally reprehensible outcomes – for example, the kinds of outcome recently described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level – it surely makes a difference whether those outcomes are produced by base motives or systemic imperatives.*

This isn’t just a matter of the old philosophical conundrum about whether ‘ought’ must imply ‘can’ – though it would certainly be unreasonable for a moral philosopher to demand the impossible. The point is not that people aren’t free to change the system in accordance with their moral principles. It’s rather that, if we repudiate the effects of capitalism as morally repugnant and unjust, and if we have a wish to overcome them, we have to be very clear about what produces them.

In the current economic crisis, for instance, our collective moral indignation directed at the personal flaws of CEOs and bankers (no doubt richly deserved) has deflected our attention from how the system works and exactly what it is that has caused the crisis, at the cost of many people’s savings, pensions, jobs and homes. This has made it far too easy for governments, particularly in the UK and the US, to proceed on the assumption that, if we can just get through the downturn with a fair amount of (short-term) extra spending and a touch of (temporary?) regulation, we can and should essentially restore the status quo ante. Things look very different if we take the full measure of the constraints and compulsions imposed by the market. That would certainly require a more honest confrontation with the causes of economic crisis; but it might also compel us to acknowledge that, short of socialism, a commitment to liberty, no less than to equality, requires taking as many goods and services as possible out of the market – that is, ‘decommodifying’ them – in order to free ourselves from its coercive power.

Cohen says things that need to be said, often better than anyone else; and his last book is especially effective as an argument against the obstacles to socialism typically ascribed to human selfishness. His style of argument is very accessible, and it is certainly a more attractive mode of persuasion than dreary analyses of how capitalism actually works. But there is surely a way of being morally persuasive while still coming to grips with the realities of capitalism and what would really be required to correct its injustices.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences