G. A. Cohen

I was contacted by several people about the death of G. A. Cohen, to whose ideas I devoted a chapter of my book Realizing Freedom. (The chapter, originally published in Critical Review, is also available in a PDF form here.)

I’ll just make two points about Cohen here, as I believe it generally best (there are exceptions) not to speak ill of the dead. In a meeting in his office when he reviewed an early draft of the essay above, he admitted that I had found a serious flaw, but demanded to know (and “demanded” is the right word) what my point was: “Are you attacking the argument, or the conclusion?!” I said I did not understand the question. He answered, “Well, the conclusion does not follow from the argument, so which are you attacking?” I was rather flabbergasted, and replied that the conclusion of an argument is a part of the argument, not some separate thing. But that was not how he saw things, and it showed in his entire career.

There are arguments, and there are conclusions. You attach yourself to a conclusion, and then you look for arguments that lead to it. That’s why he was an “analytical Marxist,” i.e., someone who agreed with what he took to be Marx’s conclusions, but who thought that the arguments by which Marx reached them were erroneous or fallacious, so his job was to come up with new arguments. If those didn’t work, you kept the conclusion and looked for other arguments. (In this case, however, despite acknowledging to me that his argument failed to reach the conclusion, he never acknowledged it publicly, but took some pains to lobby journals not to publish my critique, as was confided to me by editors of those journals.)

To get a sense of what kind of man he was, think a bit on this defense of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Union needed to be there as a defective model so that, with one eye on it, we could construct a better one. It created a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about socialism.*

Millions had to die so that Cohen and his rich friends could enjoy “a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about socialism.” Words almost fail me. But not entirely. He should have spent his life begging forgiveness from all of the people who suffered from his pro-Soviet (he spent a good bit of his youth as a Soviet propagandist, which was essentially a family enterprise) and pro-Communist activities. He was no different than any old National Socialist who might have regretted that National Socialism wasn’t nationally socialist enough, but who enjoyed the “mental space” it created to construct fantasies of an ideal life.

I will merely point out that his attacks on charity and assistance to others is consistent, not only with his political philosophy, but with his personality and life.

*From p. 250 of his 1995 book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), in which he strings together the “argument” that does not lead to the “conclusion” that property rights are unjustified.