Gerald Allan Cohen (1941-2009) political philosopher
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/08/16/19:01

Gerald Allan Cohen (1941-2009)
Political philosopher who produced a revolutionary
reinterpretation of Marxist theory
Jane O'Grady

Professor GA ("Jerry") Cohen, who has died of a stroke
aged 68, was arguably the leading political philosopher
of the left. He was the most important interpreter of
Marx in the analytic tradition and, in 1978, his Karl
Marx's Theory of History: A Defence engendered a new
school of Marxist thought -- Analytic Marxism, or, as
Cohen called it, Non-Bullshit Marxism. Claiming to be
propounding "an old-fashioned historical materialism",
he in fact produced a revolutionary reinterpretation of
Marxist theory. By submitting it to the logical and
linguistic techniques of analytic philosophy, many felt
he had dragged it into mainstream bourgeois social
science. This, his first book, caused tremendous
excitement on the left, and won the Isaac Deutscher
memorial prize. In subsequent writings, he applied the
same stringent lucidity to attacking the two major
political philosopers of the time, the rightwing
libertarian Robert Nozick and the liberal John Rawls.

In 1985 Jerry Cohen was appointed Chichele professor of
social and political theory at All Souls College,
Oxford. He was continually amused and amazed at the
contrast between the luxurious establishment milieu he
had reached and his working-class, communist childhood
in Montreal, Canada, where he was born to Jewish
parents, both factory workers in the rag trade. From
the ages of four to 11, he went to the Morris
Winchevsky Yiddish school, which was run by a communist
Jewish organisation, and later, while attending state
school, became leader of the teenage section of the
National Federation of Labour Youth.

In 1961, he got a BA from McGill University, Canada,
and did a BPhil in Philosophy at Oxford, where, "under
the benign guidance of Gilbert Ryle", he acquired the
technique of analytical philosophy, and was also taught
by Isaiah Berlin. Cohen did brilliant, affectionate
impersonations of Berlin, who became a personal friend.
He lectured at University College London (UCL) for 22
years before becoming Chichele professor, was made a
fellow of the British Academy in 1985 and, on becoming
emeritus in 2008, was appointed Quain professor of
jurisprudence at UCL.

Continually modifying his theories in the light of
history and his own experience, he was an early critic
of abuses in the Soviet Union, and ultimately described
himself as an ex-Marxist. But he tried to salvage from
Marxism what was most productive and important -- the
idea of egalitarianism -- and always remained a fervent
socialist. His constant aim was to elucidate, for
himself and his readers and students, social justice.

Always open-minded, Cohen found himself "shaken from
his dogmatic socialist slumber" by reading Nozick's
argument for the incompatibility of liberty and
equality. But, whereas egalitarians tend to attack
Nozick's premises and claim that equality is more
important than liberty, Cohen, in Self-Ownership,
Freedom and Equality (1995), brilliantly turned the
argument on its head. To the libertarian insistence
that John Locke's laudable principle of self-ownership
rules out redistributive taxation and thus the welfare
state, Cohen responded that it is precisely devotion to
self-ownership principles that underlies the key
Marxist theory of alienation, as well as the left's
historical opposition to slavery and oppression. The
right, however, are guilty of conceptual confusion.
What they presuppose is that the existing distribution
of property is somehow part of the natural order of
things, like weather or death, and that freedom is
distributed on top of that.

But surely, urged Cohen, private property is itself
already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily
restricts. The owner of something is free to use it --
others are not. The left had allowed themselves to be
wrong-footed in conceding that only under a socialist
system would liberty have to be sacrificed, when in
fact any distribution of property, being simultaneously
a distribution of liberty, requires a trade-off between
these different types of "access to advantage". What
still needs to be decided, though, is which the best
distribution is --socialist, capitalist, whatever. And
a good case can be made for saying that unequal
distribution destroys, rather than enhances, freedom,
and that liberty actually requires equality, and
therefore redistribution. Nozick never replied to
critics, but Nozickians hastened to claim that Cohen
was inadvertently on their side.

In Incentives, Inequality and Community - originally
presented in his Tanner lectures, given at Stanford
University in California in 1991, and later the first
chapter of Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008) - Cohen
attacked Rawls's "difference principle". Agreeing with
Rawls that it would be absurd to insist on equality per
se if unequal distribution could actually improve the
lot of the worse-off, he criticised the unprincipled
way in which this principle was actually applied. The
justification of Nigel Lawson's swingeing tax cuts of
1988, for instance (by Rawlsian liberals as well as by
the right) was that, as well as benefiting the already
wealthy, they ultimately benefited society as a whole.
For (went the claim) they offered the sort of economic
incentives that are unavoidably required if talented,
productive people are to produce more -- more, that is,
than they would without these incentives.

But such claims, said Cohen, seem inconsistent with
both liberal and libertarian beliefs in personal moral
choice, ludicrously echoing Marxist notions of
historical forces and naturalistic inevitablity. They
confuse the relationship between facts and moral
principles, especially if used by the talented people,
who are surely not entitled to adopt this "third
person", almost biological, view of themselves.
Consider, said Cohen, the argument that parents ought
to pay a kidnapper's ransom, because otherwise the
kidnapper would not return their child: this argument
can be innocently put forward by anyone -- except the
kidnapper, who (though unlikely to be bothered by that)
is on a different footing to anyone else since he is
talking about himself and what he will do, rather than
predicting someone else's action.

The incentives argument has in common with the
kidnapper argument that it cannot without oddity be
used in the first-person case. It fails "the
interpersonal test", which requires of a moral
justification that the identity of anyone proposing it
be irrelevant. As a policy, economic incentivising is a
pragmatic compromise, not a principle of justice, and
talented people who hold out for greater rewards
instead of lending their talents to a higher equal
distribution, are in fact acting against justice. "The
flesh may be weak, but one should not make a principle
out of that," said Cohen, an argument that seems all
the more telling in the light of recent events.

By 2000, when he wrote If You're an Egalitarian, How
Come You're So Rich? (based on the Gifford lectures he
gave at Edinburgh University in 1996), Cohen no longer
believed socialism to be inevitable and considered
politics a matter of personal moral engagement. He
described himself as having moved from historical
materialism to a belief that what is needed to bring
about equality are changes in individual attitudes and
choices --a position, he said, so near to Christianity
that it would have shocked his younger self.

Cohen thought that there were important reasons, other
than justice, for upholding socialism. In Why Not
Socialism? (his last book, to be published next month),
he argues that, on a camping trip, even anti-
egalitarians would abominate a market forces ethos and
automatically adopt socialist practice, in which the
strengths of each are enjoyably used for all, simply
because it was more fun. Surely everyone will at least
admit that socialism is desirable, urged Cohen, even if
they doubt it to be feasible outside the camping trip.
Why, he unrhetorically asked, couldn't the whole
structure of society be organised along the lines of
this arduous but exhilarating camaraderie (though he
admitted that he would prefer the luxury of All Souls)?

Cohen combined passionate commitment with intellectual
rigour, and both with an entrancing hilarity and
irreverence for everything, including himself. He
celebrated other important values as well as justice --
literally celebrated: he was wonderfully life-
enhancing, and just to eat at a curry house with him
was to see him produce a sort of solidarity of hilarity
among all the waiters, and most of the diners. A
consummate showman, often doing stand-up performances
at conferences, he did only occasional television work
(in the series No Habitat for a Schmoo in 1986), which
was a great pity, as he would have been the best sort
of philosophical populariser.

He was a wonderful, witty, generous teacher, much loved
by his students, several of whom, including Jonathan
Wolff, Will Kymlicka and Michael Otsuka, have become
notable political philosophers. He loved art, and
became fascinated by religion, especially Christianity.
He felt intensely, loyally Jewish, though typically he
would dispute what exactly that involved. Disconcerting
and liberating in his forthrightness, he lived his
theories with great integrity and was a brilliant
thinker for whom the personal and the political really
were entwined.

He is survived by his second wife, Michèle, his
children Miriam, Gideon and Sarah by his first
marriage, to Margaret, and seven grandchildren.

• Gerald Allan Cohen, philosopher, born 14 April 1941;
died 5 August 2009

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