Gerald Cohen

Gerald Cohen
G. A. Cohen
Full name G. A. Cohen
Born 14 April 1941(1941-04-14)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Died 5 August 2009(2009-08-05) (aged 68)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Marxism, Analytic Philosophy, Egalitarianism
Main interests Political philosophy, Ethics, Philosophy of history, Social theory
Notable ideas Strict Difference Principle, Egalitarian Ethos

Gerald Allan "Jerry" Cohen (14 April 1941 – 5 August 2009) was a Marxist political philosopher, formerly Visiting Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, University College, London and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, Oxford. Born into a communist Jewish family in Montreal, Cohen was educated at McGill University, Canada (BA, philosophy and political science) and the University of Oxford (BPhil, philosophy) where he studied under Isaiah Berlin and Gilbert Ryle.

Cohen was formerly assistant lecturer (1963–1964), lecturer (1964–1979) then reader (1979–1984) in the Department of Philosophy at University College, London, before being appointed to the Chichele chair at Oxford in 1985. It was at University College, London that Cohen became the founder of Analytical Marxism. Several of his former students, such as Alan Carter, Will Kymlicka, John McMurtry, David Leopold, Michael Otsuka, and Jonathan Wolff have gone on to be important political philosophers in their own right.

Known as a proponent of Analytical Marxism and a founding member of the September Group, Cohen's 1978 work Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence defends an old-fashioned interpretation of Marx's historical materialism often referred to as 'economic determinism' or 'technological determinism' by its critics. In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cohen offers an extensive moral argument in favour of socialism, contrasting his views with those of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, by articulating an extensive critique of the Lockean principle of self-ownership as well as the use of that principle to defend right –as well as left– libertarianism. In If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (which covers the topic of his Gifford Lectures) Cohen addresses the question of what egalitarian political principles imply for the personal behaviour of those who subscribe to them.


Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence

from Princeton University Press

Cohen's 1978 work is considered a groundbreaking reinterpretation of the Marxist doctrine of historical materialism.[1] It has introduced historical materialism as a reliable theory to English language social texts.[1] He uses the techniques of modern analytic philosophy to construct Marx’s theory of history in a language familiar to liberal and “bourgeois” social theory. The book is sometimes considered to be the first in a school of thought that explores and attempts to reconstruct Marxism using the tools of Anglo-American analytical philosophy and social science, which later came to be known as "Analytical Marxism".

Cohen’s theory was very orthodox in conclusions but its language, premises and method were not traditionally employed by Marxists. It was congenial to the rigorous tools used in 1970's social science, as well as the logical and linguistic analysis used in contemporary philosophy.

Analytical Marxism is sometimes called "Rational Choice Marxism", although not all of its proponents affirm, or need affirm, a form of rational choice. According to some, RCM means that all economical and political action and theories should be explained by the action of not just any individuals but by the actions of a certain individual capable of choice and rational agency. Although some believe it is impossible to reconstruct Marxism in this way, many Marxists today accept that Cohen's work presents a landmark in the (re)interpretation of Marx's philosophy.[2]

In reality, the approach used by the group of scholars who are known as Analytical Marxists draws only in part on neoclassical models. What truly distinguishes Analytical Marxism from many past 'Marxisms' is its rejection of the holistic methodology. That is, 'Analytical Marxists' do not believe that classes or any other entities should be seen as acting in a way that is not the result of the actions of the individuals that make up that entity. Analytical Marxists, generally speaking, do not agree with the rational man/homo economicus premise of neo-classical economics (although they sometimes use this premise as a tool, not a description of a reality) but do otherwise tend to agree with mainstream methodology.

AM and RCM challenge bourgeois theory on its own terms. Human rationality is potentially very good starting point for criticizing capitalism, but not the only one. Like many 'analytical Marxists', Cohen has turned his attention towards the concepts of justice, equality and exploitation in his more recent works.

If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?

Cohen asked, in his book of the same name, If you're an egalitarian how come you're so rich? The role of morality in traditional Marxism is debatable. However, using the tools of contemporary analysis above led Cohen (and other Analytical Marxists) towards liberal egalitarianism. In this book, Cohen argued that while liberal egalitarianism might express the correct principles of justice, it arbitrarily and inconsistently limits the scope of those principles. Not only do those principles apply to the rules that define the structure of society (i.e. laws), they also apply to personal behavior. Put differently, liberals such as Rawls have traditionally implicitly or explicitly accepted that inequality-generating incentives (i.e. those not required to compensate for extra burdens e.g. extra stress) are just if they are necessary to benefit those who are less fortunate. Cohen argues that these kinds of inequalities would not be necessary if people were truly committed to the principles of egalitarianism. The 'talented' should be willing to exercise their talents without extra and unequal rewards. People have to make moral choices in their daily lives. He gives an example of how, in the 1970s, in an interview with a very rich Labour Party member, the interviewer asked why he would not just give the Labour Party enough money to wipe out its debts? The question was not even taken seriously.

Cohen argued in other sections of this book that it is, and has been, unwise for Marxists to avoid normative political philosophy. Socialists are no longer justified in believing that socialism is inevitable, and should focus on trying to argue that it is desirable and/or required by justice.

In "History, Labour, and Freedom", Cohen studied the problem of freedom in a capitalist society. He came to the conclusion that although the proletarian is individually free to leave the working class, they are not so collectively. “I want to rise with my class, not above my class!”, is his slogan for the working class. In a different but related argument against the common equation of capitalism with unrestricted freedom, Cohen demonstrates that the 'free' market restrains the liberty of some in order to create liberties for others. The reason for this is that private ownership of a commodity presupposes non-ownership of that thing by everyone else. If I own something I am free to use that thing, while others are deprived of the freedom to use that thing. If 'my' yard was owned in common in some way (e.g. it was a park) then you could use it as a place to rest or gather. But as things stand right now if you tried to rest on my private property, you would be breaking the law, and I could call the police and have you removed. Cohen also asserts that, "Jesus would have been right to spurn" Rawls' difference principle.[3]

Rescuing Justice and Equality

In the book, 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 inevitability. 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.


  • Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978, 2000)
  • History, Labour, and Freedom (1988)
  • Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (1995)
  • If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (2000)
  • Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008)
  • Why Not Socialism? (2009) [Trad. esp.: ¿Por qué no el socialismo?, Buenos Aires/Madrid, Katz editores, 2011, ISBN 9788492946136]
  • On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy (2011)

See also


  1. ^ a b "Karl Marx – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy". . First published Tue Aug 26, 2003; substantive revision Mon Jun 14, 2010. Accessed March 4, 2011.
  2. ^ Like Norman Geras (see his Imprints interview)
  3. ^ P.6 If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?

Further reading

  • The Egalitarian Conscience: Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen (2006); edited by Christine Sypnowich

External links

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