Category Archives: G. A. Cohen

G. A. Cohen

I said that believing that no inequality could truly reflect real freedom of choice would contradict your reactions to people in day-to-day life, and that I lack that belief. I lack that belief because I am not convinced that it is true both that all choices are causally determined and that causal determination obliterates responsibility. If you are indeed so convinced, then do not blame me for thinking otherwise, do not blame right-wing politicians for reducing welfare support (since, in your view, they can’t help doing so), do not, indeed, blame, or praise, anyone for choosing to do anything, and therefore live your life, henceforth, differently from the way that we both know that you have lived it up to now.

G. A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?, Princeton, 2009, pp. 29-30

G. A. Cohen

[A]nalytical Marxists do no think that Marxism possesses a distinctive and valuable method. Others believe that is has such a method, which they call ‘dialectical’. But we believe that, although the word ‘dialectical’ has not always been used without clear meaning, it has never been used with clear meaning to denote a method rival to the analytical one[.] […] I do not think that the following, to take a recent example, describes such a method: “This is precisely the first meaning we can give to the idea of dialectic: a logic or form of explanation specifically adapted to the determinant intervention of class struggle in the very fabric of history.” (Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, p. 97.) If you read a sentence like that quickly, it can sound pretty good. The remedy is to read it more slowly.

G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, exp. ed., Oxford, 2000, p. xxiii

G. A. Cohen

When aggregate wealth is increasing, the condition of those at the bottom of society, and in the world, can improve, even while the distance between them and the better off does not diminish, or even grows. Where such improvement occurs (and it has occurred, on a substantial scale, for many disadvantaged groups), egalitarian justice does not cease to demand equality, but that demand can seem shrill, and even dangerous, if the worse off are steadily growing better off, even though they are not catching up with those above them. When, however, progress must give way to regress, when average material living standards must fall, then poor people and poor nations can no longer hope to approach the levels of amenity which are now enjoyed by the world’s well off. Sharply falling average standards mean that settling for limitless improvement, instead of equality, ceases to be an option, and huge disparities of wealth become correspondingly more intolerable, from a moral point of view.

G. A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, pp. 113-114

G. A. Cohen

Before I first went to university I had a belief, which I still have, and which is probably shared by the great majority of you. I mean the belief that the way to decide whether a given economic period is good or bad economically is by considering the welfare of people in general at the relevant time. If people are on the whole well off, then on the whole the times are good, and if they are not, then the times are bad. Because I had this belief before I got to university, I was surprised by something I heard in one of the first lectures I attended, which was given by the late Frank Cyril James, who, as it happens, obtained his Bachelor of Commerce degree here at the London School of Economics in 1923. When I heard him he was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, where, in addition to occupying the Principalship, he gave lectures every year on the economic history of the world, from its semiscrutable beginnings up to whatever year he was lecturing in. In my case the year was 1958, and in the lecture I want to tell you about James was describing a segment of modern history, some particular quarter-century or so: I am sorry to say I cannot remember which one. But I do remember something of what he said about it. ‘These’, he said, referring to the years in question, ‘were excellent times economically. Prices were high, wages were low . . .’ And he went on, but I did not hear the rest of his sentence.

I did not hear it because I was busy wondering whether he had meant what he said, or, perhaps, had put the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the wrong places. For though I had not studied economics, I was convinced that high prices and low wages made for hard times, not good ones. In due course I came to the conclusion that James was too careful to have transposed the two words. It followed that he meant what he said. And it also followed that what he meant when he said that times were good was that they were good for the employing classes, for the folk he was revealing himself to be a spokesman of, since when wages are low and prices are high you can make a lot of money out of wage workers. Such candour about the properly purely instrumental position of the mass of humankind was common in nineteenth century economic writing, and James was a throwback to, or a holdover from, that age. For reasons to be stated in a moment, frank discourse of the Cyril James sort is now pretty rare, at any rate in public. It is discourse which, rather shockingly, treats human labour the way the capitalist system treats it in reality: as a resource for the enhancement of the wealth and power of those who do not have to labour, because they have so much wealth and power.

G. A. Cohen, ‘Freedom, Justice and Capitalism’, New Left Review, no. 126 (March/April, 1981), pp. 3-4