G. A. Cohen, 1941-2009

Early in the morning on August 5th, one of the most notable left-wing political philosophers of the English-speaking world, Gerald Allan Cohen, (G. A. Cohen) or as he liked to be called by his friends, Jerry Cohen, died after suffering a massive stroke at the age of 68.  Jerry Cohen was probably best known for his 1978 book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford University Press), where he attempted to apply the techniques of analytical philosophy (including both logical analysis and linguistic analysis) to the elucidation and defense of Karl Marx’s materialist conception of history.  In doing so, he helped give birth to a new school Marxist thought, Analytical Marxism.  This school sought to clarify Marxism, using not only the tools of analytical philosophy, along with tools of modern social science such as rational choice theory (i.e. game theory and even neoclassical economic analysis), to the clarification and defense of the theories of  Karl Marx and his successors.  Besides Jerry, other leading Analytical Marxists included the economist John Roemer, the political theorist Jon Elster, the economist and economic historian Robert Brenner, and the sociologist Erik Olin Wright.

In this respect, Jerry Cohen offered a reading of Marx that rejected both traditional dialectical materialism, as well as the Hegelian readings associated with Western Marxist schools like the Frankfurt School as well as the structuralism of Louis Althusser.  In this and other respects, this book was the product of Jerry’s unique background.  He was born the son of working class Jewish parents in Montreal.  Both his parents were active in leftist politics, with his father active in trade unionism while his mother was a member of the Communist Party of Canada.  As a young boy, Jerry Cohen for a time attended a left-wing Jewish day school that had the distinction of being raided by Quebec’s red squad.  That raid eventually led to the school’s closure.  During his teens, Jerry was active in the National Federation of Labour Youth, which was the youth arm of the Canadian Communists.  He experienced the turmoil which tore the Party apart following Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech before the Twentieth Congress in 1956 and which led to the disintegration of the National Federation of Labour Youth in Quebec.  Out of this milieu, Jerry went on to attend McGill University where he studied philosophy and was active in the university’s Socialist Society, of which he became president.

After graduating from McGill, Jerry Cohen then went to Oxford University to pursue graduate study in philosophy, earning a B.Phil degree and becoming fully trained as an analytical philosopher.  At Oxford he studied under Gilbert Ryle who was one of the leading analytical philosophers of the twentieth century (among other notable students of Gilbert Ryle include A. J. Ayer and Daniel Dennett).   He also studied under the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was one of the leading lights of liberal political philosophy.  While Jerry remained very much a socialist and he was quite critical of Berlin’s analysis of negative liberty versus positive liberty, the two men became close personal friends.  After completing his studies at Oxford, Jerry Cohen stayed in the UK and took a teaching position at University College London as an assistant lecturer, lecturer, and reader in the philosophy department of that institution.  It was during those years, in the 1960s and 1970s, that he began the work, which led to the writing of his famous book.  He would remain at University College London until his 1985 appointment as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford.  He would then remain at Oxford until 2008 when he took emeritus status there and accepted a new position as the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London.

A full evaluation of Jerry Cohen’s thought and work would be beyond the scope of this article.  However, it should be noted that his thought (and the thought of his fellow Analytical Marxists) followed a distinct trajectory.  They started with a focus on historical materialism, but, over time, they became more and more focused on the ethical justification of socialism.  Indeed, that was the focus of his later books including Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and If you’re an egalitarian how come you’re so rich? (Harvard University Press, 2000).  He became intrigued with the arguments of libertarian political philosophers, especially those of Robert Nozick, as expressed in the latter’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974).  Jerry was intrigued by the libertarians, both because he thought that they had provided some of the strongest arguments available in defense of capitalism and because they appealed to premises which he himself embraced.  Therefore, Jerry devoted much time and energy to rebutting the arguments of Nozick and other libertarians.  He also became increasingly engaged with analyzing and critiquing liberal political philosophy, especially as represented in the work of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.  Here, Jerry attempted to build their work to show how liberal political philosophy could be used to provide a basis for the defense of egalitarianism, and hence, socialism.  Over the years, this concern led Jerry to embracing a rather traditional style of moral philosophy at the expense of his earlier concern with materialist and Marxist analysis.  From a Marxist standpoint, one might say that Jerry’s thought displayed retrogression from the scientific socialism presented by Marx, to a form of ethical socialism, not unlike the kinds of socialism that Marx had criticized.  Nevertheless, none of this should be taken as negating the importance of Jerry’s contributions to Marxism.  For more than thirty years now, his Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense has been (and will likely continue to be) the springboard for most sophisticated discussions of historical materialism.  His quest for what he called a “no-bullshit Marxism” will continue to inspire people who are seeking an intellectually sophisticated approach to Marxist analysis but who are put off by the mystifications of traditional dialectical materialism or the obscurities of Hegelian Marxists like Theodor Adorno or Max Horkheimer.

James Farmelant (B.S., Physics, University of Massachusetts) is a software engineer by profession.   His main interests are natural and social sciences, technology, philosophy, and political science.