Reflections on Jerry Cohen the Ex-Marxist

I’ve been reading a book by Jerry Cohen, “If you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?” Cohen used to be a Marxist and now calls himself, I think, an ex-Marxist. The book, based on a series of lectures, is basically him reflecting on how his views, which remain socialist and, as he puts it, egalitarian, have evolved away from Marxism. I’m going to do (hopefully) two posts on comments about his arguments, this first one about his views on ‘scientific socialism’ (which, yes, was part of what stimulated me to write my last post), and the next one specifically about his views on equality.

So Cohen’s not too keen on the whole Marxist view of history – in particular, on the idea that the working class will inevitably revolutionise society so as to bring about socialism and then communism. He identifies two claims which he thinks Marxism was committed to and which he thinks have turned out to be false, and then draws the implication that socialists need to focus on the normative intellectual arguments (i.e. why would socialism be good) which they have traditionally neglected (because they thought socialism was inevitable).

The first claim he feels is false is, as I said, the idea of the proletariat as revolutionary agent. He talks about four key features that Marxists traditionally perceived in the proletariat:

1) They constitute the majority of society;

2) they produce the wealth of society;

3) they are the exploited people in society;

4) they are the needy people in society.

1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them a reason to. He then suggests that these four features have come apart (and indeed were never that close together to begin with) and no single group now has all four features.

The common objection is that the global proletariat does, because it is either about to be or already the majority of the global population, plays the central role in production, and are both needy and exploited. Cohen rejects this on the basis that the global proletariat is light-years away from any prospect of acting as a united global force, especially because it is so stratified according to wealth.

The second point he thinks has been shown to be false is Marx’s optimistic belief that there would come a time when there was such abundance that material equality would be unavoidable, because people could take everything they wanted without harming anyone else. He thinks that global warming (and other green issues) shows us that this is not going to happen: rather, we will have to actually down-grade our level of resource consumption in order to avoid depleting our environment.

As a result, he feels the idea that equality is inevitable has become untenable. This forces us to confront the question of what equality means and whether it is a good thing. In the past, Marxism was able to avoid these questions because it believed that they would be sorted out by the historical process – any debates over abstract principles of justice would just be a waste of time.

Now I largely agree with Cohen’s main conclusion, that socialists shouldn’t disdain ethical arguments, but not really for the reasons he gives. I’ve argued before, for example, that the avoidance of ethics (or, equivalently, normative principles of justice) was a problem for Marxists in the Russian revolution (and in all of its imitators) because, since it clearly wasn’t the proletarian revolution to end capitalism, there was no ‘scientific’ guidance for what to do with it. More generally, if we accept that The Revolution may be a while yet, we need ways to think about what’s just and unjust in the here-and-now (not to mention when evaluating history).

However, I also think that there’s something worth presevering in the idea of ‘scientific socialism’, the idea that people are better able to find solutions to their common problems than philosophers and lefty theorists are. Showing an enthusiasm for dialectics that Cohen might not share, my immediate instinct is to seek a way to combine the two.

I think the connection is something like this: principles of political justice are those principles which enable a group of individuals to be a collective agent capable of solving “it’s” problems. To illustrate what I mean by that, we might consider a schematic and simplistic ‘dictator rules country A’ model. In saying this is unjust we shouldn’t see ourselves as holding “Country A” up to a standard and saying ‘no, you are doing it wrong’. Rather we should see ourselves as observing that because it is ruled by a dictator, country A is not an agent. When its army invades a nearby country, it does not do so on because “country A has decided” that it should, but because one tiny part of country A (namely, the ruler) has decided that, and the country is “psychotic” in that it allows this tiny part to dominate, rather as though a person were to allow a passing whim to determine their whole actions. Similarly, capitalism is condemned as unjust because as long as capitalism endures, the arrangements society arrives at are not “its” arrangements for solving “its” problems, but rather the arrangements of a section of society for solving their problems at the expense of the rest of society.

This would be a way to reconcile a renewed attention to ethical questions, with maintaining the idea that the solutions themselves, the social blueprints, the concrete arrangemens, are not to be the work of isolated intellectuals. The role of those intellectuals is, at best, to identify the unjust structures that prevent people from solving their own problems and getting on with their own lives – i.e. to be, just like in Marx’s famous metaphor, the ‘midwives’ of a better society.

I’ll talk more about this in detail in the next post, using the issue of equality as an example.

But as I said, I don’t actually accept most of Cohen’s arguments. He’s right that we can’t expect consumption to just keep increasing in a linear way, because environmental constraints will prevent that. But I don’t think that necessarily means that we’ll never acheive ‘abundance’. Indeed in some respects I think we already have.

Abundance and scarcity are relative to people’s desires. I would venture to suggest that the means now exist to provide every individual in the world with not just sufficient, but security of sufficient, food, shelter, transportation, communication, access to information, healthcare, and most “basic” amenities (for some non-trivial definition of “basic”). Many people want more, they want the latest invention and an enormous sports car and two homes, but with desires of that kind, I’m certainly inclined to wonder if it’s those goods themselves that are really desired, or if other desires have been displaced onto them. The fact that such desires often do not go away when their objects are acquired reinforces this suspicion.

Because some sorts of very valuable goods, like respect, affection, social acceptance, freedom, etc. are always potentially abundant. A society with more of those could, I think, be satisfied with a lot fewer sports cars.

So I don’t think that abundance is imminent in the sense of complete freedom to consume however much you want of everything. But I think that our current means, if employed wisely and justly, could provide abundance in the sense of satisfying people’s significant needs and desires with only moderate and bearable limitations.

Similarly, while I think Cohen is right to suggest that the traditional conception of the revolutionary proletariat is now very questionable, I think we need not abandon the ‘faith’ that socialism is ‘inevitable’. We might ressurect this faith precisely by taking what “utopians” have tended to appeal to – namely, the good sense and rationality of people – and treating it materialistically. We might then argue somewhat as follows: human knowledge – technological, psychological, sociological, ecological – is cumulative and hence indefinitely increasing, as are the means (travel, communication, the internet) by which individuals can access it and develop their awareness. As it increases, it will bring people more and more to recognise their own interests. If it is true that socialism is in the interests of the great majority of people, and in particular in the interests of those who are exploited and oppressed, then their non-recognition of this fact cannot be maintained indefinitely in the face of advancing self-understanding by humanity. Since this non-recognition is all that holds socialism back (for no army can stand against the organised might of society itself) socialism is inevitable.

We should still retain a conviction that the precise mechanisms of social change will be ‘material’, in the sense of a group united by shared interests, a ‘class’ in some sense, but we cannot yet predict exactly what class it will be – or what type (an economic class? a sexual class? something else?). The optimism remains, but grounded in a somewhat more Hegelian-sounding version of ‘materialism’, with the more precise how and why questions requiring further analysis and, frustratingly, probably requiring the future to have happened first – i.e. we may not be able to discern in advance how classlessness (in every sense) will come about, stuck in the early 21st century.

So that’s my various ways of going part of the way along with Cohen but not the whole way. Next post will be more specifically about how some of these issues apply to the specific concern of ‘equality’.

11 Responses to “Reflections on Jerry Cohen the Ex-Marxist”

  1. Reflections on Cohen and Equality « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] on Cohen and Equality Like the previous post, this one is prompted by reading Jerry Cohen’s book “If you’re an egalitarian, […]

  2. Duncan Says:

    I love Cohen’s stuff, but I think you really have to read it chronologically to fully appreciate his evolution from *fairly* orthodox Marxist to “If you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?”.

    If you don’t you miss his neat intellectual trick where every time he produces a new book or set of essays he answers all the criticisms his work has accumulated since his last publication before stating he now disagrees with his previous conclusions, but not for any of the reasons his critics identify.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ha, sounds like a dude.

  4. Duncan Says:

    While I think of it, he’s giving a talk in Balliol tomorrow evening.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Oh cool. When/what topic? It doesn’t seem to be very well advertised, the faculty websites and stuff don’t seem to have it up.

  6. Duncan Says:

    He’s speaking to Cerberus, the Balliol PPE society, who aren’t technically part of the university and never advertise anything to non-Balliol students. It’s open to all though.

    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=52047986089

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ah I see. That’s basically the same topic he talked about when I got him in to Socrates Society, although in more philosophical style I imagine.

  8. John Quiggin » Marxism without revolution: Class Says:

    […] are the exploited people in society; 4) they are the needy people in society. To quote this summary from the Directionless Bones blog, 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the […]

  9. Irish Left Review · John Quiggin | Marxism without revolution: Class Says:

    […] are the exploited people in society; 4) they are the needy people in society. To quote this summary from the Directionless Bones blog, 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the […]

  10. Club Troppo » What working class? Says:

    […] Quiggin argues that after we exclude business owners, people on welfare and non-needy workers, we’re well short of a majority. And it seems that any definition of the working class that stretches to a majority will include many people who are not exploited or desperately needy and therefore do have something to lose from revolution (Luke Roelofs has more on this). […]

  11. Traducción: “Marxismo sin revolución: Clase” | tresrosasamarillas Says:

    […] la discusión previa en el blog Directionless Bones, las condiciones 1 y 2 le dan al proletariado la capacidad de revolucionar a la sociedad, y las […]


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