Saturday, 8 August 2009

Jerry Cohen

G.A. ('Jerry') Cohen died last week from a sudden stroke. Jerry retired only last year from his Professorship in social and political theory at Oxford University. His death is an enormous loss to the field of political philosophy and to the left. His was a unique talent, and a unique voice. He is, and will be, very deeply missed.

What follows is not so much a conventional obituary as an attempt to explain what Jerry's work was about and why it matters. But if I can also convey a sense of why he was not only admired and respected by so many people, but also cherished, then all the better.

A Marxist inheritance

Jerry was born in 1941. He describes his childhood as follows: 'My parents were Jewish factory workers in Montreal who met in the course of struggles to build unionism in the garment trade, in the face of (literally) brutal boss and police repression. When I was four years old, they enrolled me in the Morris Winchewsky Yiddish School, which was run by a communist Jewish organization. It was the only school I attended until I was eleven, when raids by the 'Red Squad' of the Province of Quebec police on the premises of the organization and on the school itself made it impossible for the school to continue.'

Jerry's intellectual career was centrally a matter of critically assessing the rich inheritance of this political childhood. What is valid and important in Marxism?

Jerry's move to Oxford in 1961, as a graduate student in Philosophy, was crucial in giving him the intellectual tools to carry out this assessment. As Jerry wrote, 'under the benign guidance of Gilbert Ryle, I acquired the technique of analytical philosophy'. The technique is centrally a matter of clarity and precision in the use of concepts and the construction of arguments.

Put that way it sounds bland. But I can recall the enormous excitement I felt when, as an undergraduate, I came across Jerry's first book, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (published in 1978). The book attempts to identify just what Marx's theory of history is, and to present a defence of the theory so identified. I had read a lot of Marx before I came to this book, and a lot of interpretive works on Marx. This was something different. The clarity of the reconstruction that Jerry presented was downright exciting. I felt as if I was no longer hovering around in some obscure orbit around ideas, but being shown how to actually reach out and take hold of them.

KMTH probably succeeds better as a clarification of Marx's theory of history than as a defence. The theory being defended is that of historical materialism: there is an independent tendency in human history for productive forces to develop through technological change; this tendency requires and explains changes in social and political relations; these relations move through various forms of class-divided society, including capitalism, until the level of productive development makes it possible to resolve class division through communism.

Merely by clarifying it so well, Jerry was able to defuse some of the familiar criticisms of historical materialism. But the clarification also allowed other criticisms to be stated even more precisely and effectively. Increasingly, Jerry came to the view that the ideal of socialism/communism could and should be defended on ethical grounds, as a demand of justice, independently of any theory of historical development.

Ethical socialism

Jerry's own version of ethical socialism emerged over the following decades by way of a sustained critical engagement with the work of three contemporary liberal thinkers: the right-libertarian, Robert Nozick, and the left-liberals, Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls.

While some left thinkers were content with superficial dismissals of Nozick's libertarianism, Jerry used the same techniques he had applied to Marx's work to dig down into the logical core of Nozick's theory. This enabled him to identify the key conceptual moves in the theory - and the flaws they contain. One particularly important result of Jerry's work was his demolition - and that is the appropriate word - of standard right-wing arguments linking 'freedom' with respect for the existing distribution of private property.

It was in this context that Jerry made the case for analytical philosophy as an aid to social critique, rather than the conservative force that some imagine:

'...since philosophy of the analytical kind is particularly good at correcting misconstrual, at clarifying the structure of concepts we know how to handle but are disposed to misdescribe, it follows that it can be a potent solvent of at least some ideological illusions. It can be used to expose conceptual misapprehensions which strengthen the status quo, since one thing which helps to consolidate the ruling order is confused belief about its nature and value, in the minds of members of all social classes, and also in the minds of those who have dedicated themselves against the ruling order.'

Jerry's engagement with Ronald Dworkin's work crystallised an important conception of equality which has come to be known as 'luck egalitarianism': an inequality is unjust, and so there is reason to correct or prevent it, if it is due to differences in 'brute luck' over which the individuals concerned have no control; an inequality is just, and so there is reason to tolerate it, if it results from different choices people make. If I earn less than you because I choose more hours of leisure, that's one thing; if I earn less because nature has gifted me with fewer marketable talents, then this is quite another. The ideal of 'meritocracy', which many on the 'centre-left' regard as an egalitarian ideal, is, in fact, inegalitarian precisely because it allows individuals' life-prospects to be so affected by differences in brute luck (specifically, in the talents they are born with).

However, the major focus of Jerry's work in recent years was his critique of John Rawls's theory of justice. Rawls argues that while inequality of reward between talented and less talented workers is undeserved, it can be justified on incentives grounds: if permitting an inequality of reward improves the incentives of better paid, talented workers so that they produce more, and this improves the position of the worst-off, then the inequality is just. (The just level of inequality is that which works to maximise the prospects of the group that is worst-off under inequality.)

Jerry's critique, recently worked up into a superb book as Rescuing Justice and Equality, starts from a simple, subversive thought: Do the talented act justly when they demand incentive payments as the price of exerting their talents fully? After all, typically they could choose to work as hard without the incentive payments, and then everyone could share equally in the higher output. As a matter of justice, shouldn't they be making this alternative choice? Although Jerry argues that individuals are not in fact obliged to work to the best of their talents for an average social wage, his interrogation of Rawlsian theory raises some important and neglected questions about the extent to which justice depends not only on formal social rules and laws but on the culture or ethos which informs social life, including our economic decision-making.

As Jerry pointed out, his critique of Rawls reconnects with the Marxist tradition. Marx argued that bourgeois society is characterised by a divorce between a public sphere in which 'liberty' and 'equality' are notionally supreme, and a private sphere in which people act self-interestedly without regard to these norms. Communism, for Marx, involved an integration of the public norms into everyday life, so making their realization more genuine and complete. In calling for a theory of justice that focuses on ethos, as well as formal rules and laws, Jerry is making a similar point.

Ultimate values

Of course, some will want to say that Jerry's emerging conception of ethical socialism is 'unrealistic'.

But this misses Jerry's point. His focus was emphatically not on the question 'What should a centre-left government put in its next manifesto?', but on the question: 'What does justice fundamentally require?' All too often, would-be political theorists of the left conflate or confuse the two questions, shaping their view of justice to fit the demands of a short-to-medium term political agenda. The great virtue of Jerry's work over the past few decades has been his insistence on separating these questions, and on the need to explore the latter question on its own terms.

This is a lesson the left needs to recall. If we do not separate the two questions, then we will lose any sense of what our ultimate values and purposes are. Realism and pragmatism are appropriate in the service of ultimate values. But unless they are informed by a clear sense of what these values are, which demands the kind of 'unrealistic' intellectual enquiry which Jerry engaged in, then realism and pragmatism become directionless.

The teacher and the performer

I have focused on Jerry's research. He was also a great teacher, committed, supportive, the sort who makes you want to attain the teacher's own high standards. Contemporary political philosophy is replete with those who were taught and/or inspired by him. They include: Christopher Bertram (Bristol); Simon Caney (Oxford); Paula Casal (Barcelona); Matthew Clayton (Warwick); Cecile Fabre (Edinburgh); Will Kymlicka (Queen's, Ontario); David Leopold (Oxford); Michael Otsuka (UCL); Seana Shiffrin (UCLA); Martin Wilkinson (Auckland); Andrew Williams (Warwick); and Jonathan Wolff (UCL).

Not least, Jerry was a gifted comedy performer. Notorious for his impressions and one-man sketches, he entertained a packed auditorium at Oxford for two hours last year as he gave his Valedictory Lecture on the topic of 'My Philosophical Influences... and Some Philosophers I have Known.' It was a pity that, two hours in, we had only got as far as 1965....

It was during this lecture that Jerry cracked a joke which I am sure will remain with me because it makes a serious point about his intellectual (which, as we have seen, was also a political) approach:

JERRY: 'So, when I came to Oxford in the early 1960s there was a lot of pedantry around....Or, rather, I should say there was a lot of pedanticness.'


JERRY (in mock surprise): 'What? You don't know the difference?'

Postscript: for a personal appreciation of Jerry, see Chris Bertram's post at Crooked Timber.

Further postscript: readers might be interested in the podcasts from the conference in January of this year at Oxford to celebrate Jerry Cohen's career. Jerry's closing comments are particularly worth listening to. (Hat tip to Adam Swift for the link.)


Forlornehope said...

Yet another soviet apologist who is the moral equivalent of Nazi sympathisers and holocaust deniers. Hang your heads in shame!

Stuart White said...

Forlonehope: one of the things that Jerry taught was the art of making pertinent distinctions. So far as your comment is concerned, the distinction is a pretty easy one to make: seeking critically for what (if anything) is valid and worth retaining from Marxism is not the same as being a 'Soviet apologist'. I leave it to you to work out whether decency requires that you withdraw your remark.

Jonathan Rutherford said...

If anyone's interested in Jerry Cohen's ideas, particularly how he saw the relationship between ultimate values and short term politics that Stuart discusses, his 1994 New Left Review article Back to Socialist Basics is available on Eric Olin Wrights website at

Sunder Katwala said...


Thank you for this informative appreciation. The personal qualities of Jerry Cohen have shone through many of the tributes to him which I have seen, and it is good to have an account of what you think endures and matters in his work.

I saw him speak several times when, as an undergraduate at Oxford sometime in the second or third year, myself and my two other slightly overkeen PPE flatmates would sneak in at the back of a postgrad seminar he was doing with Ronald Dworkin. I don't know how much of this that I followed when it came to the applied pedanticness, but it was, that term, right up there with Match of the Day, as intellectual jousting of the highest order. Cohen's sense of humour was certainly part of that.

Perhaps because I was at university between 92-95, Marxism did not loom particularly large for me (though as that is also the historic norm for much of the British left, perhaps it is not so unusual) so I can't pretend to any expertise on that front. But, from an outside social democratic/Fabian perspective, it is surely a good thing that Cohen's "defence" ultimately seems to have led him (as I undestand it, and your account suggests) to detach his socialist ethic from Marx's theory of historic materialism, certainly as a prediction or theory of inevitable developments.

Indeed, without that move (and I appreciate that this may be a naive reading), one struggles to see what the role or point of political activity and advocacy is. Once this move is made, politics matters.

While I agree with your overall point that there is a value of differentiating arguments of principle and ultimate values from political strategy and tactics about how to make change happen, I am somewhat sceptical of the implication that a significant problem has been that modern political philosophy has been too pragmatic or applied. To some extent, I think the opposite might be more plausibly asserted (though I think we agree that there is value in both these separate types of argument and advocacy).

One can certainly make the charge that politics itself has become too pragmatic/realist and that this risks being directionless. Most people think that. I am not challenging that part of the argument. But I wonder if the issue may also be that political philosophy has perhaps too often (and with significant exceptions, certainly) been somewhat too detached to make much difference in challenging this, and reasserting a role for political ideas. This may be asking rather too much, but it may be worth asking ...

Stuart White said...

Sunder: my view is that there is a need both for political philosophy/theory that engages with contemporary issues and problems, and with an eye to feasibility constraints, and a role for political philosophy that focuses on the articulation of ultimate values. The former needs the latter if it is to remain conscious of when and how it is advocating compromises of various kinds. The risk otherwise is that the 'engaged' political theorist becomes too much the hostage of a conventional wisdom that reflects the power of a dominant (anti-egalitarian) ideology.

I think something like this was also Jerry's view. He saw his best contribution as lying on the side of clarifying ultimate values, leaving the more engaged work to others. But he didn't disparage that work, or deny its importance. It just wasn't what he, personally, found preoccupying.

In defence of his own preoccupation, he would often refer to J.S. Mill's On Liberty. This book, Jerry argued, was completely 'unrealistic' by the standards of its day. No political party was going to act on its proposals. But by clarifying something of fundamental importance it has had a long-run, slow-burning and considerable impact on the political culture. When the decriminalization of homosexual sex acts came onto the agenda in the 1960s, it was Mill's arguments that were used to make the case (by Herbert Hart in his debate with Patrick Devlin over the role of the law in enforcing morality).

As regards contemporary political philosophy being too remote from contemporary politics, I think there is something to this complaint. There is a need for work that applies the ultimate values to contemporary debates, and with an eye on feasibility constraints, as well as the clarification of ultimate values.

That said, I think there has been a definite shift since the early 1990s towards work of this engaged kind. Its reflected, for example, in Philippe Van Parijs's work on basic income; Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott's work on universal capital grants; and Erik Olin Wright 'Real Utopias' project which I blogged about recently. And some of this work has influenced policy. Ackerman and Alstott's work on basic capital, for example, was one of the intellectual influences behind the Child Trust Fund. Archon Fung and Erik Wright's work on 'empowered participatory governance', which has featured as a part of the Real Utopias project, has also stimulated interest amongst policy-makers.

So I think the gap between theory and practice is being bridged, though doubtless there is a lot more work of this kind that needs to be done. I guess what I want to claim, however, is that this kind of 'real utopian' work depends to some extent on some other work of a purely utopian nature, work that clarifies ultimate values. This is what gives it is direction and, so to speak, its clout.

Mike said...

Stuart, would you say democratic republicanism and libertarian socialism have a lot in common and similar goals of abolishing political, economic, and social hierarchies?

Stuart White said...

Mike: thanks for the question.
I think democratic republicanism does have a lot in common with libertarian socialism - both want to end the tyranny of capital, so to speak, without creating a new tyranny of the supposedly benign socialist state.

Mike said...

Peter Hain see's libertarian socialism as a form of heavily decentralized democratic socialism. Many other libertarian socialists advocate heavily devolved democratic structures in the government (and often the economy also) with the central state acting merely as a republic enforcing legal rights, elections and funding devolved administrations.

Surprisingly, many Americans (including republicans like Ron Paul) support single payer healthcare as long as it is run at a state level and not a federal level. Perhaps libertarian socialist thinking or democratic republican thinking exists in America, but is often misunderstood as right wing free market capitalist, right libertarian, individualist thinking.

Mike said...

I can see similarities between Friedrich Engles's scientific socialism and libertarian socialism and democratic republicanism. They all agree that the best way to create individual autonomy will be mainly through multi-layer democratic structures and that inequalities of capital create inequalities of individual freedom.

The advocacy of multi-layer democratic structures in the state and the economy actually inspired the idea of worker's councils and soviets in the early stages of the soviet union.

I think multi-layer democracy is one of the defining features of the entire left, new and old (apart from the old Stalinist camp).

Dan said...

One particularly important result of Jerry's work was his demolition - and that is the appropriate word - of standard right-wing arguments linking 'freedom' with respect for the existing distribution of private property.

I think very highly of Cohen's work generally, but I have to say that this argument did not do much for me. Leif Wenar's response( captures a lot of what made it unconvincing, IMO.

Paul said...

"As regards contemporary political philosophy being too remote from contemporary politics, I think there is something to this complaint."

I too think there is something in this complaint, but I also remember Adam Swift saying "OK, but what about Sen?"

I think Adam was referring specifically to Sen's "capabilities approach" in the equality debate, but I've subsequently thought that it can be taken much further. For Sen is a nobel prize-winning economist as well as a moral philosopher. He arguably shapes, informs and moves debates to a greater extent than any of his colleagues within the academy.

Indeed, as we've recently seen, even people like James Purnell have started pilfering Sen for ideas.

I also suspect that - as you say, Stuart, in your comments about On Liberty - that the effects of some texts simply take longer to be felt. Sen (for example) may have made his mark on the "real world" very quickly, but this doesn't mean that over time Rawls, Dworkin and Cohen won't turn out to have seismic, Millian-esque impacts.

I guess only time will tell. Though I'd like it to be Cohen who comes through, if any of them do.