Thursday, August 6, 2009

G.A. Cohen (1941-2009)

The Canadian-born political philosopher and author of the 1978 Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense, Gerald Allen Cohen, died yesterday of a stroke. My encounter with his work as an undergraduate was an important part of my intellectual and political development, and I regret that I never had an opportunity to meet him. Despite having never met him, I was pained by a feeling of loss when I read of his death last evening.

I read KMTH as well as If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? and History, Freedom and Labour at a time when I had come to believe, as a result of the general trajectory of Anglo-American political philosophy, that Marxism was an intellectual dead end. Cohen's sharp critical writings and intellectual rigour changed this considerably. It wasn't that I'd read and been dissatisfied with other radical thinkers on the Left at that time: I simply hadn't read them for the reason that Left politics had little voice or presence in the mainstream philosophical literature.

I recall reading Robert Nozick's defense of right-wing libertarianism in Anarchy, State and Utopia and feeling really disturbed by the position it put me in. On the one hand, I've never had any sympathy for Nozick's pro-capitalist libertarian conclusions, but many of the arguments he put forward against egalitarianism were formidable. The eye-opening thing for me was that the replies from the liberal-left, primarily from John Rawls, always left me wanting a more forceful and fundamental rejection of the trajectory of Nozick's project. It seemed to me at the time, given the way I felt about Nozick's brand of bare-knuckles capitalism, that Rawls shared too much with Nozick for me to feel comfortable with his arguments against libertarians. I was left with a series of questions: What about capitalism itself? What about racial oppression? What about the wage system as such? What about ownership of the means of production? What about class power?

It was at this time that I read Cohen's book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality in which he took Nozick seriously and gave a sharp socialist response to many of the central premises of Nozick's neoliberal tract. What was most influential for me was that Cohen didn't take for granted that 'capitalism is the best we can do'. I felt like this opened up an entire universe of possible political options that had hitherto been unfathomable within the horizons of the language of "liberal vs. conservative" that dominates so much of the narrow discussion of politics in the US. In a way I suddenly felt like politics Left of 'liberal' was a live option.

I've always found Cohen's writings to be tightly argued, refreshingly Left-wing, readable, as well as acerbic and witty to boot. His most recent effort, Rescuing Equality and Justice, is no exception. This is a serious loss.

(PS: keep an eye open for the book pictured above "Why not socialism?" which will be coming out this month in a similar format to Harry Frankfurt's popular "On Bullshit".)


Arvilla said...

What a nice tribute post. I really want to read some of these works. Even though I'm already at a place where I see Marxism as "alive," I sometimes feel inept to defend that viewpoint when I'm confronted by liberals and conservatives alike. I'm glad to be made aware of his work and hope he rests in peace.

ln said...

I think this is a wonderful tribute post too! Well-written and very significant. It's great to read about how Cohen shaped, in many ways, the person that you are. Imagine how many people must share your sentiments. Wow.