G.A. Cohen RIP

This post was written by Dan on August 6, 2009
Posted Under: Socialism

k9009

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.

j320Cohen’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.

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Reader Comments

I remember reading his work in my first year. His analysis of the materialist conception of history got me through some very tricky essay questions.

#1 
Written By Salman Shaheen on August 6th, 2009 @ 3:42 pm
#2 
Written By Luke on August 6th, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

“‘Two concepts of Liberty’,… this false dualism.”

I don’t think Berlin was proposing a dualism, i.e. “You can either pick one or the other but not both”. I think he was making a conceptual distinction, one which is useful when talking about freedom. You don’t have to agree with all of Berlin’s political beliefs to accept that the distinction is an important one.

I guess basically what I’m saying is – after reading Two Concepts of Liberty you will be better able to talk about freedom whatever you then choose to say about it. It expands your vocabulary.

#3 
Written By Neuroskeptic on August 6th, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

I’ll accept that dualism is an imprecise word here, but I actually disagree that the distinction is an important one. The distinction is far from clear, and heavily influenced by cold war ideology. In fact, I think Two Concepts of Liberty, as a canonical text, can often be a block on serious discussions of liberty, and reading it tells you far more about Berlin than it does about freedom.

#4 
Written By Dan on August 7th, 2009 @ 12:25 am
Daniel

Man, I just saw on Wikipedia that he might have passed. He just led a seminar at UCL two months ago as vital as ever! I feel incredibly lucky to have been taught by him. Funny and objective I would say. Read his ‘in defence of conservatism’(!) and ‘If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’.

#5 
Written By Daniel on August 7th, 2009 @ 2:09 am

TCOL can and has been used to derail serious discussions, sure, but I don’t think that’s TCOL’s “fault”.

After reading TCOL you will be aware of the fact that when people talk about “freedom” they could mean (at least) two different things.

So when a libertarian and a socialist (say) argue about freedom, you will notice that they are not so much disagreeing about freedom but actually talking about two entirely different concepts.

Once you see that you can start to move forward.

#6 
Written By Neuroskeptic on August 7th, 2009 @ 10:59 am
Peter

I found it interesting that upon meeting Cohen he found that Marx’s greatest downfall was not putting together, in a systematized way, his own brilliant insights. What Cohen’s project has always been is to make Marx’s ideas philosophically rigorous, and so allow them to be taken seriously by analytic philosophers, since, as Cohen saw it, Marx never produced anything that came close to a well defended program (he lamented the many mottoes populating the Manifesto and other works). This is all to say that by ‘analytic’, one just means getting rid of all of Marx’s rhetorical flourishes and undefended ideas. So, making Marx’s ideas ‘analytic’ wasn’t a matter of changing philosophical traditions, per se (that is, moving from ‘continental’ to ‘analytic’, whatever that might mean). His work is distinguished by its rigor, rather than its content (which is, in many respects, still quite Marxist, even though, in later years, Cohen was quite influenced by other thinkers).

#7 
Written By Peter on August 8th, 2009 @ 9:50 pm
Jacob

The problem is though, Peter, that making Marx “analytic” just isn’t that simple as “getting rid of flourishes and undefended ideas.” I’m thinking here particularly in terms of Marx as part of the Hegelian tradition and the attacks from Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies. In some ways Marx does step outside these traditions – the longer descriptive chapters in Das Kapital do absolutely everything to undermine Hegelian systemic thinking, but the fact is that what is being explored in Marx (particularly in Das Kapital) is not susceptible to the so-called rationality of bourgeois life and thought. As far as I am concerned once we start dispensing with dialectic, which is entirely the content that analysts have described as “flourishes and undefended ideas” we’re getting into the realms of not only not being Marxist but not being useful.

#8 
Written By Jacob on August 9th, 2009 @ 2:27 am
Luke

Jacob, whether dispensing with the dialectic is not ‘useful’ or ‘Marxist’ in some sense is irrelevant to whether the dialectic is defensible.
Are you implying that analytical rigour and precision are examples of the ‘rationality of bourgeois life and thought’ and then supposing that, since the dialectic is indispensable, we ought to reject analytical rigour and precision, at least as they bear on the understanding of Kapital? If that is the case then the dialectic must be justified and the justification would be through some valid argument which meets certain standards of analytical rigour and precision. If that were so then analytical rigour and precision, supposing they’re examples of the ‘rationality of bourgeois life and thought’, cannot be entirely abandoned by the dialectician, and most importantly, must support any (non-circular) justification of the dialectical method itself, unless the dialectical method is taken as sui generis.
If ‘what is being explored in Marx (particularly in Das Kapital) is not susceptible’ to valid argument then there is no reason to believe it true. To confuse precision and rigour in argument with the ‘rationality of bourgeois life and thought’ is anyway self-undermining.
So, if the dialectic can’t be given a valid justification we should dispense with it. Coincidentally, I should like to see a valid justification of the dialectic, let alone a perspicuous description of what it amounts to.

#9 
Written By Luke on August 9th, 2009 @ 3:50 am
Luke

Another quick point. Big, big, big mistake to suppose that Analytic philosophy employs a method (I doubt it can be said to do so) that is an example of the ‘rationality of bourgeois life and thought’. That would need a very convincing argument, and is irrelevant to whether the methods (or the hypothetical method of analytical philosophers) of analytic philosophers ensure the truth of their philosophy.

#10 
Written By Luke on August 9th, 2009 @ 3:57 am
Jacob

“If that is the case then the dialectic must be justified and the justification would be through some valid argument which meets certain standards of analytical rigour and precision”

I think this is a leap too far. In that actually no, dialectic doesn’t need to be justified in the same way as an analytic argument does. Yes, it requires justification in some form, but what you are missing is that dialectic is the mode of thought of a /critical/ philosophy. Probably the best I can do to pin down this thorny theoretical issue is to point you to what is one of the main disagreements here – that is the critical philosopher’s argument that ontology and ethics/pragmatics are one and the same, or at least inseparable. This leaves a big problem for analytic philosophers – I have to admit I don’t entirely know what they’ve done to explain it, and some seem rather content with just throwing it out. Unfortunately analytic philosophy also presupposes a number of things that dialecticians take issue with: 1) Truth can be expressed straightforwardly in language; 2) The truth of the world is presented to us in a positive fashion; 3) arguments are right or wrong, good or bad, outside of the context of history; etc. If we thought we could explain the world adequately with analytic thinking then we could throw away dialectical thought. I quite like how Adorno puts it, “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.”

“Another quick point. Big, big, big mistake to suppose that Analytic philosophy employs a method (I doubt it can be said to do so) that is an example of the ‘rationality of bourgeois life and thought’. That would need a very convincing argument, and is irrelevant to whether the methods (or the hypothetical method of analytical philosophers) of analytic philosophers ensure the truth of their philosophy”

I’m not sure if I’ve answered this already, needless to say, rationality isn’t some transhistorical/transcendent test that churns out right or wrong answers. Rather it /is/ a function of bourgeois thought, and more precisely of bourgeois science (in the old meaning of the word.) And it is entirely relevant to whether analytic philosophers ensure the ‘truth’ of their philosophy.

#11 
Written By Jacob on August 9th, 2009 @ 10:36 am

Actually, let’s leave aside the word dialectic, because for some people it seems to get them very worked up. The point, I think, is that you cannot understand Marx without understanding Hegel. You cannot understand the structure of some of his arguments, and the depth of his claims without understanding the origins of his thought. To take the example I use in the piece, the relationship between the ‘forces of production’ and ‘class struggle’ in Historical Materialism is structurally similar (and arguably derived from) the relationship between the Spirit and human passions in Hegel’s philosophy of history. Of course, Luke is quite right, this doesn’t tell you if Marx is correct. But any attempt to ‘systematize’ Marx which involves ignoring or excising this is not merely ‘tidying up’ Marx, it is re-interpreting him. Furthermore, I think this makes Marx’s theory far weaker. So in that sense I don’t think Cohen’s work is distinguished merely by its rigour, I think he’s actually involved in a re-interpretation.

Peter’s point about Cohen’s attitude to Marx’s mottoes and aphorisms is interesting. I actually tend towards the other direction, that these famous lines are the skeleton around which we have to construct any interpretation of Marx, and as such are vital. For example, the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach is a profound philosophical statement, not a catty dig.

#12 
Written By Dan on August 9th, 2009 @ 10:40 am

Ah, clearly Jacob and I wrote our posts at the same time. Don’t construe my comment as ‘shut up about the dialectic’, cos the conversation just got interesting!

#13 
Written By Dan on August 9th, 2009 @ 10:46 am
Luke

“The point, I think, is that you cannot understand Marx without understanding Hegel. You cannot understand the structure of some of his arguments, and the depth of his claims without understanding the origins of his thought”
Cohen did understand and respect Hegel.

“the relationship between the ‘forces of production’ and ‘class struggle’ in Historical Materialism is structurally similar (and arguably derived from) the relationship between the Spirit and human passions in Hegel’s philosophy of history…But any attempt to ’systematize’ Marx which involves ignoring or excising this is not merely ‘tidying up’ Marx, it is re-interpreting him”
But I doubt Cohen would deny what is at best an analogy you pointed to, and Cohen certainly draws many analogies between Hegel’s ideas in the Phenomenology and Marx’s ideas. Ignoring or excising an analogy is hardly distorting a thought or misrepresenting it/ What is important is the content of the thought, not whether it bears some sort of analogy to some other thought.

#14 
Written By Luke on August 9th, 2009 @ 2:39 pm
Luke

“I think this is a leap too far. In that actually no, dialectic doesn’t need to be justified in the same way as an analytic argument does.”
What do you mean by an analytic argument? All I mean is that dialectic needs to be justified. There are standards of justification governed by logic and by the reasoning we employ to assess arguments. And any attempt to show that dialectic admits of some special justification apart from these standards you give me will also be subject to those standards!
“Probably the best I can do to pin down this thorny theoretical issue is to point you to what is one of the main disagreements here – that is the critical philosopher’s argument that ontology and ethics/pragmatics are one and the same, or at least inseparable.”
What does it mean to say that ontology and ethics/pragmatics are one and the same? Ontology is the study of what exists, and what entities are; how they are made up, persist and relate to one another. Do you mean Ontology in a Heideggerean sense, as the study of ‘being’, whatever that means?
Ethics is the study of what humans ought to do, and the study of the nature of values and their relation to the former. Take the first kind of Ontology above. How can the study of what exists, of the ‘is’ (to put a Humean gloss on it), be ‘one and the same’ as the study of the ‘ought’ (what humans ought to do)? To know what ought to be done one must know what is, or something about what is. That’s the only connection I see.

“This leaves a big problem for analytic philosophers – I have to admit I don’t entirely know what they’ve done to explain it, and some seem rather content with just throwing it out. Unfortunately analytic philosophy also presupposes a number of things that dialecticians take issue with: 1) Truth can be expressed straightforwardly in language; 2) The truth of the world is presented to us in a positive fashion; 3) arguments are right or wrong, good or bad, outside of the context of history; etc.”

Don’t lump all ‘analytic’ philosophers together. I doubt you can say that analytic philosophy presupposes anything. Quite the contrary. Most Analytic philosophers try to question everything and the things they don’t will be taken as minor presuppositions. Certainly, not all analytic philosophers think truth could be expressed straightforwardly in language (Wittgenstein, for example). But to assume it can’t would be to posit a truth itself that can be expressed straightforwardly in language, which therefore underlies the assumption that truth can’t be expressed straightforwardly in language, unless that statement itself is the only truth that can be expressed straightforwardly in language! I don’t know what you mean by saying analytic philosophers assume “The truth of the world is presented to us in a positive fashion”. If you mean that the said philosophers believe that the truth lies on the surface somehow, that is ludicrous, for clearly the truth has to be found, and the search is often difficult. As for the ‘arguments are right or wrong, good or bad, outside of the context of history, etc’. Another self-refuting claim. The negation of that belief itself is taken to be true outside the context of history, etc, and if not, then we have no reason to believe it, as opposed to its converse.

The rationality point can’t really be settled absent some definition of rationality. I use rational to refer to the cognitive features that distinguish humans from animals. These are transhistorical in extent. One could use ‘rational’ to mean the standards of justification appropriate to support a thesis or undermine it. To believe these standards are historically relative, again, would be self-reuting.

#15 
Written By Luke on August 9th, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

Luke, I wasn’t trying to pretend that Cohen didn’t get Hegel. But I don’t think what I’m pointing to is just an analogy, rather it is to show that Marx was a Hegelian, and used a similar philosophical method.
I think offering an exegesis of Marx that avoids or disavows the value of the fact that Marx used this philosophical method is a re-interpretation of Marx. It’s not heresy, and as I think the piece made clear, I have some respect for it, but I do think it involves more than just making him more rigourous.

#16 
Written By Dan on August 9th, 2009 @ 4:16 pm
Luke

But is it a significant re-interpretation? It seems to me that the dialectic is a dispensable component of Marx’s thought, partly because it doesn’t seem clear what the dialectic is. In any case, reinterpretation is necessary if the dialectic is flawed. So, I can hold, absent some justification of the dialectic, that Cohen merely trims the flawed parts of the theoretical beard of Marx, so to speak! Shaping up what someone thought and making it more rigorous might involve going beyond what they said, but it might be necessary.

#17 
Written By Luke on August 9th, 2009 @ 6:42 pm
Pabs

This is interesting. I come to know a revered Marxist philosopher only when he’s dead. Why not before in the last 20 years when Marxism was in retreat? In my view the worst thing that could happen to society is if the social discoveries of Marx are allowed to die withe the Soviet Union experiment. Let’s face it. They blew it. But the crucial element here is that we would not have seen the changes in the XX Century had it not been for the costant nagging of Marx and Engels. If we allow this then the future will be chiseled not in the profile of Marx but of Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan, Paulson, Bernanke and others. That solution ended up with the war in Iraq and the credit crunch.

#18 
Written By Pabs on August 15th, 2009 @ 1:42 am

If anyone is looking for a recent defence of the dialectic check out Frederic Jameson’s ‘Valences of the Dialectic’. Its a door-stop of a book but you might want to look at the long opening chapter, which is an extended examination and evaluation of what ‘dialectic’/'dialectical’ might mean to us today.

#19 
Written By Chris Horner on April 30th, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

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