Reports are emerging that the philosopher G.A. Cohen died in the early hours of this morning aged 68. Cohen was most famous as arguably the most significant of the ‘Analytical Marxists’, who attempted to systematise Marx’s ideas into the schemas of analytic philosophy. Implicit, and often explicit, in this task was the purging of the Hegelian core of Marxism. I believe this to be both a doomed and rather pointless project, and there is no doubt that the trajectory of these thinkers was away from radical politics, to greater or lesser degrees. However, the whole point of Post-Marxists is that they are (or were) some kind of Marxists, and we shouldn’t allow the liberal philosophical establishment to claim Cohen as one of their own too quickly.
Cohen’s 1978 work ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense’ is exactly that: a rigorous defense of Historical Materialism. At times it is in breathtaking detail, and the considerations about exactly what constitute modes, means and relations of production, for example, are of importance to any Marxist today (incidentally it is far from clear what makes this peculiarly ‘analytic’ that allows it to be distinguished from earlier Marxist thought). It is a sincere attempt by someone committed to socialism to defend the ideas of its most significant advocate. Cohen’s great failing, however, was to emphasise too heavily the primacy of the forces of production as a driver of history, ignoring the subjective element of human action. Without understanding the crucial role that Marx affords human beings in making history (but not in circumstances of their own choosing), Marx remains a caricature, and hard to defend.
Cohen was a student of Isaiah Berlin, the Cold War philosopher who’s article ‘Two concepts of Liberty’, shaped the terrain of subsequent debates about freedom. Whilst Cohen was not the only one, he was a prominent and powerful critics of this false dualism. In a typical passage he writes:
My principal contention, one that contradicts very influential things that Isaiah wrote, is that lack of money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom. I regard that as an overwhelmingly obvious truth, one that is worth defending only because it has been so influentially denied.
Whilst to many readers of this blog this also seems an overwhelmingly obvious truth, it is difficult to exaggerate how controversial a claim it was, and still is, in the context of late 20th Century liberal philosophy. For this alone he should be applauded.
No doubt Cohen’s life will be celebrated by many people who’s ideas he would have loathed. The analytical marxists became Post-Marxists, and even Cohen, as the best of them, grew pessimistic. This of course, is music to the ears of anti-marxists. But Cohen should be celebrated, and claimed in the Marxist tradition. An odd branch, sure, but a venerable one.