G.A. Cohen

G.A. Cohen's Marxism is a curious business. He tries to restore Marxism to its "orthodox" roots but his project ends up as a defense of a "stagist" conception rather than of anything Marx had in mind. Once he establishes this rather bogus "orthodoxy", he speculates on the political consequences. His speculations have very little to do with the actual history and dynamic of the revolutionary movement.

In "Karl Marx's Theory of History", Cohen singles out a paragraph from Marx's Critique of Political Economy that serves a guide to the sort of Marxism that Cohen endorses:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of their development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of their material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or -- what is but a legal expression for the same thing -- with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed."

If one attempts to build a Marxism around this rather abstract set of ideas, it is entirely possible to go off in the wrong direction, especially on the question of how one stage of development supersedes another. Is it the case that one stage replaces another when the previous one is a "fetter" on the means of production?

If Marxists posit a capitalist class that becomes "decadent" in the way that that the feudal aristocracy had became decadent and an impediment to further productive growth, then one runs into a big problem when confronted with the real capitalist world.

For instance, Lenin's "Imperialism--the Latest Stage of Capitalism" which reflects this "fettering" notion is a poor guide to understanding the explosive and *dynamic* growth of capitalism over the last 50 years or so. China's embrace of capitalist property relations and its phenomenal growth-rate over the last 10 years or so should tell you that the "fettering" concept does not exactly describe the current stage of capitalism. What is more is that the whole notion of stages -- feudalism, capitalism and socialism -- might have to be seen in a more subtle manner. The 3 stages might not only coexist in the same society, but there is no ruling out the possibility of going backwards from socialism to capitalism, or from capitalism to feudalism.

Cohen lacks this type of dialectical insight and goes whole hog into the embrace of the crudest sort of stagism. This falls within the general rubric of what he calls the "Development Thesis", namely that productive or technological forces develop in history and revolutions occur when one mode of production can not sustain the further growth of productive or technological forces.

This amounts to a form of teleological progress that is a caricature of what Marx had in mind. In "History, Labor and Freedom", Cohen defends this thesis in the following manner:

"In the global presentation of the Development Thesis, there need be no society which develops the forces from their initial rudiments to the consummation of abundance. There may, instead, be what Ernest Gellner has called a 'torch-relay' pattern of development: having brought the forces up to a certain level, an erstwhile pioneering society retires in favour of another one, which it has influenced..."

History is not a relay-race. In a relay-race there is a goal: to get to the finish-line. One is always moving forward. In real history, capitalism can not be analogized to a relay-race since this assumes that one can detect the finish-line after a certain number of laps. Looking back in history, you would be tempted to assign the mid-1700s as the last lap for feudalism, even if this is arguable. Can one find such a last lap for capitalism?

By Cohen's own criteria, this would be very difficult indeed. Capitalism was a very dynamic system in Marx's era and remains so. The problem with capitalism has never been that it will run out of steam, but rather that it will destroy the underlying productive forces including labor and nature before it runs out of steam. Capitalism is not a "fetter" on the means of production in China today. It is freeing up labor and land and natural resources in a way that the socialist means of production never could have. In the process China is turning into a formidable industrial power while destroying rivers and forests and throwing the countryside population into chaos and desperation while making some winners. In other words it is functioning exactly the way it did in the 1800s in Manchester.

Once again when we turn to Marx's writings on the actual class struggle as opposed to abstract constructions such as the kind that G.A. Cohen attaches himself to there is little evidence of such crude "stagism". For example, in the "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League", Marx and Engels point to the very likely event that feudalism will be replaced by socialism in Germany, and not by the logical next stage of capitalism. They have no interest in seeing Germany go through a prolonged stage of bourgeois-democracy.

"[The workers] must drive the proposals of the democrats, who in any case will not act in a revolutionary manner but in a merely reformist manner, to the extreme and transform them into direct attacks upon private property; thus, for example, if the petty bourgeois propose purchase of the railways and factories, the workers must demand that these railways and factories be simply confiscated by the state without compensation as being the property of reactionaries...

If the German workers are not able to attain power and achieve their own class interests without going through a lengthy revolutionary development, they at least know for a certainty this time that the first act of this approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will be very much accelerated by it.

But they themselves must do the utmost for their final victory by clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be seduced by a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organization of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence."

There is little evidence of a "relay race" conception here. Marx and Engels did not urge the workers to turn the baton over to the capitalist class since it was their job to carry it for the next 500 yards or so. They instead urged the workers to carry the baton themselves and overturn *both* feudal and capitalist property relations at the same time.

Another example should drive the point home. In the article "On Social Relations in Russia", Engels the "stagist" who everybody loves to hate nowadays polemicizes against Pyotr Tkachov who thought that socialism was precluded in Russia since "we have no urban proletariat" and "we also have no bourgeoisie". Engels reply is to simply state that socialism might arise out of *pre-capitalist* formations, the rural communal ownership of land. He says, "It is clear that communal ownership in Russia is long past its period of florescence and to all appearances is moving toward its disintegration. Nevertheless, the possibility undeniably exists of raising this form of society to a higher one, if it should last until circumstances are ripe for that, and it if shows itself capable of development in such manner that the peasants no longer cultivate the land separately, but collectively; of raising it to this higher form without it being necessary for the Russian peasants to go through the intermediate stage of bourgeois small holdings."

The Russian peasants do not have to go through the intermediate stage just as the German workers did not. There is little engagement in Cohen's writings with actual history since he is preoccupied with a theory of history rather than real societies placed in time. This accounts for his inability to see the contradictory aspects not only of 19th century Germany and Russia, but contemporary society as well. His work, like Elster's, is preoccupied with theory rather than the messy details of real life.

In the twentieth century a "stagist" conception of Marxism drawn from the same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the 2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky's conception of Permanent Revolution was a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas but even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen's desire to return Marxism to some sort of "orthodoxy" is a misbegotten project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx's ideas on history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.

The question of *why* one should be a socialist revolutionary is in Cohen's eyes a major problem since Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto that the "fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are inevitable." Cohen is thrown into a profound political and spiritual crisis by this conundrum. He raises his eyes to the heavens and cries out, "But, if the advent of socialism is inevitable, then why should Marx and Engels, and those who they hoped to activate, strive to achieve socialism?"

Is this not the silliest question you have ever heard in your life? How in the world did Cohen get such a first-class reputation among socialists? I can understand how he might impress a don or two at Oxford but this is just very dumb. There was nothing "inevitable" about socialism in the eyes of Marx and Engels.

The direct testimony of Marx and Engels' lives should tell you how little they believed in "inevitability." Nearly every moment was consumed with building socialist parties and the First International. In their polemics with anarchists and utopian socialists, they made it very clear that politics and correct strategy would ensure success and nothing else. If a revolutionary socialist party was not at the head of the worker's movement, then defeat was inevitable.

Cohen is not that interested in politics. The question of revolutionary politics becomes one of trying to decide what to do with one's life in the face of the "inevitability" of socialism. Why go out and pass out leaflets if the revolution is inevitable? You might as well stay at home and wait for the inevitable. As incredible as it may seem, Cohen is preoccupied with how to answer this concern. He argues that one has an *obligation* to be a revolutionary since more revolutionaries than fewer will hasten the "inevitable".

He comes up with the bright idea that "although it is inevitable that a socialist revolution will come, it is not inevitable how long it will take for it to come. It is therefore rational for us to dedicate ourselves to the revolutionary movement, in order to make socialism come sooner rather than later. The sooner socialism comes, the smaller will be the amount of suffering imposed on people by continuing capitalist oppression."

Anybody accustomed to the hard work of building revolutionary parties will read stuff like this and rub their eyes in disbelief. What in the world is Cohen talking about? People join revolutionary parties not because these are *rational choices* but because they are moved by a hatred for capitalism. Furthermore, we understand that there is nothing "inevitable" about socialism. If anything the entire evidence of twentieth century history shows that capitalism has much more inevitability attached to it than socialism.

The reason that Cohen is speculating on such manners is that he feels the need to defend the socialist project from the challenge presented by bourgeois political and ethical philosophy. Liberals like John Rawls and conservatives like Robert Nozick have written a number of books that attempt to defend just societies and the forms of political action necessary to achieve them. They also have a great deal of credence in the academic circles Cohen travels in.

Cohen wants to make socialism appear as a rational choice in the face of their challenges but he ends up conceding much too much to them. The worst concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of the individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster's outright hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen's work is to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the guise of moral dilemmas to individuals.

For example, in chapter 12 of "History, Labor and Freedom" he takes up the question, "Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs." What a peculiar subject for an "orthodox" Marxist to be tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more interest in class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues such as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his interest.

Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices before an "imaginary worker in an imaginary situation." He is one of the 7,000 unemployed people in the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population 33,000), to which the Beryllium Corporation came in 1956, offering hazardous jobs." "Our worker, whom I shall call John, took one. He was confronted with a choice between employment and health, and he chose the former. Was he forced to take the health-endangering job? did he, in taking it, contract freely?"

Of course the question of the "contractual" basis of justice lies at the heart of John Rawls' liberalism and one could write at length about how preposterous this notion is and how pointless it is to engage Rawls' thinking on his own terms.

I will rather conclude with several obvious conclusions. To begin with, the study of individuals and their moral problems is not the subject-matter of Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist's time would be to study *actual* rather than *imaginary* workers in identical situations. It would be useful to explore how capitalism tends to threaten the job safety of the working-class even in the expansionary period of 1956 or 1997 for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties share in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept going. It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such oppressive conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen's work.

Next week I will wind up with an examination of Jon Roemer's work. I am particularly interested to see how his concept of market socialism flows from his Analytical Marxist preconceptions.

Louis Proyect