Gerald Cohen

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Gerald Allan "Jerry" Cohen (April 14, 1941August 5, 2009) was a Canadian Marxist political philosopher.


  • I never believed, as many Marxists professed to do, that normative principles were irrelevant to the socialist movement, that, since the movement was of oppressed people fighting for their own liberation, there was no room or need for specifically moral inspiration in it. I thought no such thing partly for the plain reason that I observed enormous selfless dedication among the active communists who surrounded me in my childhood, and partly for the more sophisticated reason that the self-interest of any oppressed producer would tell him to stay at home, rather than to risk his neck in a revolution whose success or failure would be anyhow unaffected by his participation in it. Revolutionary workers and, a fortiori, bourgeois fellow-travellers without a particular material interest in socialism, must perforce be morally inspired.

Why Not Socialism? (2009)[edit]

  • The circumstances of the camping trip are multiply special: many features distinguish it from the circumstances of life in a modern society. One may therefore not infer, from the fact that camping trips of the sort that I have described are feasible and desirable, that society-wide socialism is equally feasible and equally desirable. There are too many major differences between the contexts for that inference to carry any conviction. What we urgently need to know is precisely what are the differences that matter, and how can socialists address them? Because of its contrasts with life in the large, the camping trip model serves well as a reference point for purported demonstrations that socialism across society is not feasible and/or desirable, since it seems eminently feasible and desirable on the trip.
    • I. The Camping Trip
  • I believe that certain inequalities that cannot be forbidden in the name of socialist equality of opportunity should nevertheless be forbidden, in the name of community. But is it an injustice to forbid the transactions that generate those inequalities? Do the relevant prohibitions merely define the terms within which justice will operate, or do they sometimes (justifiably?) contradict justice? I do not know the answer to that question.
    • II. The Trip's Principles
  • I continue to find appealing the sentiment of a left-wing song that I learned in my childhood, which begins as follows: "If we should consider each other, a neighbor, a friend, or a brother, it could be a wonderful, wonderful world, it could be a wonderful world."
    • III. Is the Ideal Desirable?
  • Whereas many socialists have recently put their faith in market socialism, nineteenth-century socialists were, by contrast, for the most part opposed to market organization of economic life. The mainstream socialist pioneers favored something that they thought would be far superior, to wit, comprehensive central planning, which, it was hoped, could realize the socialist ideal of a truly sharing society. And the pioneers' successors were encouraged by what they interpreted as victories of planning, such as the industrialization of the Soviet Union and the early institution of educational and medical provision in the People's Republic of China. But central planning, at least as practiced in the past, is, we now know, a poor recipe for economic success, at any rate once a society has provided itself with the essentials of a modern productive system.
    • IV. Is the Ideal Feasible?
  • Market socialism does not fully satisfy socialist standards of distributive justice, but it scores far better by those standards than market capitalism does, and is therefore an eminently worthwhile project, from a socialist point of view.
    • IV. Is the Ideal Feasible?
  • The technology for using base motives to productive economic effect is reasonably well understood. Indeed, the history of the twentieth century encourages the thought that the easiest way to generate productivity in a modern society is by nourishing the motives of which I spoke earlier, namely, those of greed and fear. But we should never forget that greed and fear are repugnant motives. Who would propose running a society on the basis of such motives, and thereby promoting the psychology to which they belong, if they were not known to be effective, if they did not have the instrumental value which is the only value that they have?
    • IV. Is the Ideal Feasible?
  • Certain contemporary overenthusiastic market socialists tend, contrariwise, to forget that the market is intrinsically repugnant, because they are blinded by their belated discovery of the market's instrumental value. It is the genius of the market that it (1) recruits low-grade motives to (2) desirable ends; but (3) it also produces undesirable effects, including significant unjust inequality. In a balanced view, all three sides of that proposition must be kept in focus, but many market socialists now self-deceptively overlook (1) and (3). Both (1) and (2) were kept in focus by the pioneering eighteenth-century writer Bernard Mandeville, whose market-praising Fable of the Bees was subtitled Private Vices, Public Benefits. Many contemporary celebrants of the market play down the truth in the first part of that subtitle.
    • IV. Is the Ideal Feasible?
  • The natural tendency of the market is to increase the scope of the social relations that it covers, because entrepreneurs see opportunities at the edge to turn what is not yet a commodity into one. Left to itself, the capitalist dynamic is self-sustaining, and socialists therefore need the power of organized politics to oppose it: their capitalist opponents, who go with the grain of the system, need that power less (which is not to say that they lack it!).
    • V. Coda
  • Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation. Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.
    • V. Coda

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