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The Personal, the Political, and the Intellectual

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The Personal, the Political, and the Intellectual

By William Eaton

Review of Finding Oneself in the Other by G.A. Cohen (Princeton University Press, 2013)

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Finding Oneself is an engaging and demoralizing collection of occasional pieces by the late G.A. (Jerry) Cohen, who was a leading Oxford University political philosopher and the author of several more ambitious works, including Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence; Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (a moral argument for socialism). In spite or because of his combativeness, Cohen seems also to have had a rare talent for developing allies. “Facts and Principles,” an article attacking John Rawls’s approach to ethics, includes thanks to a phalanx of some 70 prepublication commentators. I have also been told that even in the wake of Cohen’s death (in 2009) political philosophy at Oxford remained tightly controlled by Cohen disciples.

Presumably Finding Oneself was published in Cohen’s honor and for his league. May it not seem only reckless of me, an outsider (“the Other”), to offer some Oxford-philosophy-independent views of the moments in this book that piqued my interest. And I must warn that this review of a deceptively complex collection will itself have its own twists  and turns.


The Biographical

As a Jewish young man come from Montreal to Oxford in 1961, Cohen was quickly sent to see Isaiah Berlin, the reigning Jewish thinker. This was the great chance of his life because Berlin took him on and, inter alia, got him his first job (as a professor at the University College London at age 23). Cohen’s account indicates that Berlin did this first and foremost because Cohen was a fellow Jew, and notwithstanding that their approaches to Marx and Marxism were, superficially at least, radically opposed. Cohen was a red diaper baby (he grew up in a working-class communist, pro-Soviet family), and he became, in the United Kingdom, a leading academic proponent of progressive, socialist policies. Berlin was the son of a Russian timber magnate. His father moved the family to England to escape the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism. Isaiah then made his reputation as one of the sharpest spear carriers in the very well-financed Cold War battle to discredit Marxist thinking and socialist ideals more generally.

The first essay in the volume, “Isaiah’s Marx, and Mine,” offers a spirited, indeed inspiring defense of Marx’s work, or of Cohen’s reading of Marx’s work. For example:

To be sure, Marx did not think, and he was right not to, that simply denouncing the system for its manifest injustice would suffice to spirit it away. And it is also true that, for Marx, there is a task which capitalism must perform before it will be either possible or desirable to overturn it. For capitalism serves to develop “the productive forces of social labor”: that is its “historic mission and justification.” Only when that development has been accomplished is its “historical destiny . . . fulfilled,” and then it is time for it to go. Capitalism is tolerable while it is carrying out its progressive task, but humane ideals declare that there is not a shred of justification for it once it has done so.[*]

Those interested in the arts and crafts of debate in the comfortable club of tenured philosophers may also appreciate (as I did) observing how Cohen moves from acknowledging his debt to Berlin to politely savaging one of Berlin’s principal works. In doing this Cohen uses a rhetorical tactic which may be found again in other pieces (e.g., when he attacks late twentieth-century French philosophy as “bullshit,” or in the last piece about how, even though he is an atheist, he can feel “blessed” for having long enjoyed a suite of rooms at Oxford). The tactic involves beginning with a self-abasing remark—“To respond fully to Isaiah’s vision of Marx I would have to measure it against my own, but I have never formed a clear image of Marx’s character. I lack what Isaiah has: a feeling for the nature of the man, a strong sense of what he was like, of a sort that I can have of people only if I have actually met them, or if they have revealed themselves in diaries or in letters.”

Which is a gentlemanly way of saying that his reading of Marxist theory on a feeling for Marx’s psychology that is, in fact, fanciful, because in Marx’s case we lack the means—the diaries and letters—for making such judgments. And, Cohen goes on, “I do of course, have some idea of Marx’s character, and it does overlap with Isaiah’s”. Here he is doing two things: (a) getting closer to his adversary so that he may more surely and surreptitiously plunge the rapier in, and (b) doubling back on his previous assertion. As Cohen soon reveals, even without help from diaries and letters, and even though he himself is interested in theory and social justice rather than in psychobiography, he believes that Marx’s writing makes clear the strength of Marx’s compassion for the working class and his (however disguised) idealistic commitment to social justice.[†] Never mind not having a strong sense of the man, Cohen simply knows that Marx’s theories were not as Berlin had claimed: warped by “his own indignant self” or by Marx’s being a precariously marginal Jew.[‡]


Personal, Political, Intellectual

Meanwhile, it is odd to imagine a leading a Marxist philosopher being disinterested in the biography of a thinker. From a Marxist point of view our ideologies—Isaiah Berlin’s, Jerry Cohen’s, and William Eaton’s included—are outgrowths of our economic and social roles, and thus what is the point of pretending to study these ideas in the abstract as if they were not products of these roles and as if our own reactions were not products of our own roles?[§] I have been yet less a student of Marx’s personality or biography than Cohen, but, based on my study of other philosophers (to say nothing of self-observations), I am sure that social and psychological forces had a tremendous effect on Marx’s work, and that in his pages about alienation and wage slavery and about needs human and economic, Marx was speaking from the heart, and indeed had found the best way he knew how to unburden himself of quite personal feelings. (“Poverty is the passive bond which leads man to experience a need for the greatest wealth, the other person.”[**]) I would go further and propose that without this connection between the personal, the political, and the intellectual, Marx’s work would not have had the passion that it does and would not reach our own hearts.

Personally, and as the Executive Editor of Zeteo, I am interested in thinkers exploring the connections between their theories and their psychology, biography (social class included), and circumstances (economic and political included). Such works might have more “truth” in them than works that would divorce ideas from anything but their intellectual context, as if theories (including e=mc2) lived or died in some context-independent empyrean. This is a large claim, and it would take at least another essay to recall others’, Marx-inspired explorations in the sociology of knowledge and explore what I mean by “truth.” For the moment I will simply add that if a writer should somehow “succeed” in writing of ideas that do not respond to or take off from his personal struggles, fears, and dreams, the resulting work will be of academic interest at best.

Cohen’s essay on “Rescuing Conservatism” offers an interesting example of this point; indeed, this article is what led me to write the lines above. “Rescuing Conservatism” begins with such life and passion as Cohen writes about his attachment to Oxford’s All Soul’s College. But then the piece loses its way as Cohen evaluates his argument as a proposition within a set of academic ethical categories (e.g., “value-maximizing consequentialism”). At the outset and toward the end the essay engages us and seems quite plausible because it is based in Cohen’s sentimentality and his desire to preserve the particular world in which he has taken root and flourished. In the middle, when we are given a virtuoso display of the techniques and terminology of Oxford philosophy, the argument seems too emotionally disconnected to be plausible.

I have not been a rigorous student of Cohen’s “fact-independent principles” argument, and I do not believe I have dog or shark  in the Cohenite-Rawlsian trans-Atlantic fight. My sense is, however, that the argument I am making could be translated into Cohen’s terminology and made to appear a Cohenite argument. For example, his “fact-independent principles” and “fact-insensitive fundamental level”—what we believe before we start arguing, let’s call all this—this does not seem far from my privileging of emotions and heart. (And then, further, we would want to factor in what Hume, Marx, Bourdieu and others have tried to teach: that fact-independent principles and emotions are themselves products of our economic and social circumstances, our particular culture and its customs included.[††])

I would stress the paradox here. We would have our thinkers be “objective.” Nietzsche may be right that this is a false hope (there are no facts, only interpretations), but I would call attention to the extent to which it is doubly false because, were the ideal achieved, the resulting work would be stillborn. In not connecting to the writer’s self, the work would not be able to connect to our selves. It is part of Marx’s genius—and of Wittgenstein’s, for example—that even while not speaking personally, they let us feel their passion, and to feel that it is personal or has a personal side, a personal depth. Notwithstanding that Marx may have been, as Cohen proposes, “precipitately aggressive,” “ungenerously impatient with what he thought were mediocre minds,” and “bitter,” Marx also sublimated such humors in caring about how all of us have become enslaved to a system that we ourselves, with more enthusiasm than wisdom, created. The capitalist

shares with the miser the passion for wealth as wealth. But that which in the miser is mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, . . . [‡‡]


The Good

Before returning to “Rescuing Conservatism,” I would pause to note one other moment in Cohen’s discussion of Isaiah Berlin. Cohen is writing about one of the most famous (and anti-Marx) passages of Berlin’s most influential work, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals—justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another.

Cohen writes:

Although I agree with Isaiah that significant values are seriously incompatible, I think that the particular disvalues which Marx hated most, to wit, social injustice and socially generated restriction on the development of the faculties of the individual, can both be defeated, and, moreover, that each is likely to be defeated only and when and because the other has been.[§§]

I am particularly interested in this invocation of “the development of the faculties of the individual” as an unquestionable good. It certainly sounds good, and particularly to people such as me who were raised, though not in red diapers, with this democratic value. My sense is, though, that it is past time to unpack phrases such as this. The good that Cohen invokes is only a good if human beings are themselves good or if, in a Nietzschean sense, the development and exercise of our faculties—the full exercise of our powers—can be considered a good in and of itself. Insofar as from, say, a Christian, Freudian or environmentalist perspective, we imagine that the matter is not so simple, and that our destructive capacities compete with our capacity for love, or if, with greater wisdom, we admit that we simply do not and cannot know where and who we are, and whither we are tending, the development of our faculties may seem of questionable merit.

In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the midst of the nuclear arms race, Reinhold Niebuhr, a believer in original sin, wrote: “Since the sin of man lies in the corruption of his will and not in his weakness, the possibilities of evil grow with the development of the very freedom and power which were supposed to emancipate man.” More recently I read an observation of the playwright Wallace Shawn’s:

The nineteenth century was perhaps the period when humans in the Western world were most exultant about the wonderfulness of those special abilities and the greatness of our species. . . . Now, in the twenty-first century, we see that our special abilities enable us to extinguish all living things and life itself. So the period of crowing about the marvelousness of our species has sort of come to an end. [***]

From this perspective, it is not that we should revisit this idea of fully developing our capacities, it is rather that we are revisiting this idea.


Rescuing Conservatism

all souls oxfordFor both its strengths and weaknesses, “Rescuing Conservatism” (Chapter Eight of Finding Oneself) deserves a review all to itself. I am at some pains to keep my comments reasonably brief. Cohen’s goal is to argue, and notwithstanding his commitment to reducing social injustice, for “retaining what is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of [seemingly] greater value.”[†††] Among the problems with the essay are: (a) it does not recognize how integral social injustice is to “what is”; and (b) the essay does not recognize at what level in its argument the idea of value is found. I nonetheless take Cohen to be both proposing and recognizing that the “is” and the “has long been” have long been extremely highly valued (and not least in the United Kingdom and at All Souls College, pictured at right). We, or some of us, would like some or many things to stay the same because they are familiar to us, we feel comfortable with them; they are, as it were, the soil and landscape within which we have taken root and grown to who we are. And, I will add, others might say, legitimately, that we are change adverse, and not least because we feel ourselves caught up in or on the verge of being caught up in the “creative destruction” of capitalism. (And it may be noted that, if you have ascended to a tenured professorship at Oxford, which includes ample rooms with early seventeenth-century paneling and a light teaching load, you might well be opposed to further change, and you might also like to talk about and write in opposition to social injustice,and this in part because such advocacy makes you feel yet more comfortable and may help in some small way to retard the action of the capitalist machine which will eventually do away with the Medieval tenure system and tutorials in favor of more exploitable adjunct teachers and more “cost-effective” MOOCs—massive open online courses.)

Cohen offers several illustrations of what he has in mind. The purest example is his eraser.

I have a pencil eraser (or, in British English, a “rubber”) that I have used ever since I became a lecturer forty-six years ago. When I got it, it was a cube, but now it is a sort of sphere, and although it is small, most of it is still there. It is not because I make very few mistakes that most of my eraser is still there, but because (a) I do not use pencils very much; (b) it takes only a little bit of rubbing to eliminate a mistake; and (c) I do not notice all my mistakes. I would hate to lose this eraser. I would hate that even if I knew it could be readily replaced, not only, if I so wished, by a pristine cubical one, but even by one of precisely the same off-round shape and the same dingy color that my eraser has now acquired. There is no feature that stands apart from its history that makes me want to keep this eraser. I want my eraser, with its history. What could be more human than that?

From there he moves to urban renewal and urban and state planning, making arguments that will be familiar to fans of the old-neighborhood preserver Jane Jacobs. The old and particular is destroyed in favor of the new and purportedly better, but the betterness of anything new is reduced in many cases by its very newness and by the destruction involved in making room for it.[‡‡‡]

Cohen is anything but absolutist. For example, he leaves room for people whose neighborhoods are “really lousy” to welcome the new. This opens a whole ’nother can of worms. Who makes this judgment of “really lousy-ness”? In New York and in London it has often been made by planners and their builder allies and has resulted in the destruction of the neighborhoods of other, poorer people (either for “their” benefit or to make more room for wealthier people, or in the name of “urban renewal” and “job creation”). Were I to say, for example, that it was really lousy all the McMansions that have been built in formerly lower-key and more egalitarian resort communities, or really lousy that public universities have had to keep raising tuitions while elite universities enjoy the luxuries and independence of large endowments, which have been accumulated as a result of favorable tax policies and lax treatment of the thievery of members of the most avaricious classes, . . . Well, one man’s really lousy is another man’s worth preserving in the name of this or that principle or value.

This brings us back to social justice, to attitudes toward change, and to the interrelation of the political, personal, and intellectual. Cohen himself did not value his old, working-class Montreal neighborhood so much that he was not willing to leave it behind to come to Oxford. And were, say, the many homeless of “my” New York City to be provided with homes in the name of social justice, these homes would need to be paid for—e.g., by aligning the minimum wage with the cost of housing in New York—and this would impinge on the old and particular of the status quo. It might impinge, for example, on the cost of the French toast and bottomless cup of coffee I enjoy in the neighborhood restaurant where I am doing this gentlemanly critiquing of Cohen’s essays.


Talk about Talk

What unsettled me most about Cohen’s essay and this collection of his work was the spectre that the resolution of such debates did not really matter, and that what mattered for Cohen and his colleagues was to engage in these debates and in ways that secured them good livings. In more than one place in the volume, to include in Cohen’s “Valedictory Lecture” on his philosophical development, Cohen quotes one of his college professors warning him, before he left McGill for Oxford, that at Oxford he would be introduced to a new form of philosophy: “talk about talk.” The word “pedantry” also appears in the valedictory lecture, and it was hard for me, and in light of Cohen’s dismissal of 50 years of French philosophy without, as he admits, his having read much of it . . .

An analogy came to my mind: of actors in swashbuckling films engaging in sword fights. There is an illusion of great import—of the possibility, the inevitability of death—but in fact the actors are paid to create this illusion for spectators who are interested in escape and catharsis. Cohen vs. Rawls, Cohen vs. Berlin, Cohen vs. French philosophy—perhaps professional wrestling would provide a yet better analogy.

In these battles, in these essays, Cohen exhibits impressive intelligence and dexterity, a rare mixture of aggressiveness and fellow feeling, and at times I was able to simply enjoy reading, watching him make use of his skills. At other times I felt duped. Supposing, for example, that capitalism is a sort of Frankenstein, or a train racing ever faster on rails of its own creation and carrying us to our, however creative, destruction. Could there possibly be an appropriate response to this historical moment? My gut instinct is no, no appropriate response possible; best options may include finding a warm fellow passenger with whom one might cuddle or a comedian with a large supply of jokes. But in this regard Cohen, I couldn’t help feeling, was, and in an unfortunately limited sense, smarter and clear-seeing than me. He had glimpsed that—past the cuddlers and card players, the ticket collectors, sleepers and engine stokers—there was a debating car. A car with padded leather seats which might be had by people willing and able to talk, and talk well, and to prepare a next generation of philosophers, lawyers, political leaders, etc., to do yet more well-talking about the passing scenery and what we might do were there indeed some other, more appropriate response. And all this while ignoring that there is not. Destruction is inevitable, more cuddling and jokes sorely needed!

In a previous Zeteo review essay, Adorno Was Right?, I touched on the idea of conservative Marxism, which now seems a way of describing not only Adorno’s position, or my own, but also G.A. Cohen’s. Allow me to reprise a footnote from this earlier review:

[Some] of us could have conservative habits precisely because we recognize that in a capitalist system “alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft” (all that is solid melts into air) and human needs are scorned amid the compulsion to increase productivity and return on capital. Precisely because we can see what Marx was calling attention to, we cling to bits of the past, to past ways that do not seem to have quite melted yet, that continue to speak to “human” needs. (That is, to non-economic needs: psychological, spiritual needs and physical needs.) I take Adorno to be an example of the breed.

The British historian E.P. Thompson dismissed “new Left” culture critics as “the last intellectual waifs and strays in the long romantic grouse against industrialism”.

In “Rescuing Conservatism,” Cohen writes: “One thing Karl Marx said about the socialist revolution was that revolution was necessary to preserve the fruits of civilization against the ravages of capitalism.” Cohen does not cite the text in which Marx made this observation. He does note, however, that he may have misappropriated Marx’s remark, insofar as Marx was focused not, say, on preserving great works of art or venerable educational institutions, but on preserving the level of development of productive forces. I.e., Marx believed that capitalism needed to be preserved from destroying what was good about capitalism: its ability to liberate people from having to work long hours to produce the necessities of life. This danger can be seen quite clearly in the United States. As Thoreau argues in Walden, the money necessary for decent shelter, good food, and warm clothing might be earned in a few hours of work per day, and yet most Americans spend many, many more hours laboring, caught up in the machinery of the economic system and the values it inculcates.

My ideal conservative Marxist would not only explain this sad fact, but be ready and willing to speak of the sadness. He or she would not ignore how personal, political, and intellectual perspectives should be allowed to unabashedly play their roles in our attempts to understand our predicament and to converse with others about it.



Photograph of G.A. Cohen was taken by Humaira Ahmed.

[*] Cohen quotes in this paragraph first from Capital, volume 3, and then from The Grundrisse. A gloss of “the productive forces of social labor” could be labor-saving devices. The idea is that capitalism can develop the means to allow us to produce in a minimal amount of time what we need to live, thus leaving us relatively free for higher pursuits, be these artistic, spiritual, communal, or political.

[†] A nice parenthetical remark of Cohen’s: “In saying that Marx hated injustice, I am mindful of the fact that he sometimes disparaged justice as a value. But that is because he was confused about justice, and he mistakenly thought that he did not believe that capitalism was unjust.” Cohen here cites his review of Karl Marx by Allen Wood, which review was published in Mind 92 (1983).

[‡] See Isaiah Berlin, “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity,” in Berlin, Against the Current (London: Hogarth Press, 1979).

[§] Given Cohen’s aggressive dismissal of post-war French thinkers, I cannot help noting that one of them, Pierre Bourdieu, did extensive and excellent work outlining how our social circumstances channel our thinking.

[**] From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. See also Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, chapter 4, part 2. (Marx’s Concept of Man; with a Translation from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, by T. B. Bottomore)

[††] Cohen’s “Facts and Principles” appeared in Philosophy and Public Affairs 31:3 (Summer 2003), 211-45.

[‡‡] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, as quoted in David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (London: Routledge, 2001), 238.

[§§] Cohen has already well summarized Berlin’s excellent point here. The summary:

A number of Enlightenment thinkers claimed that all human values would be realized, once reason was at the helm of society. Isaiah regarded that as a dangerous delusion, and he has indefatigably insisted that the values which have in fact and with good reason attracted human beings are incapable of full joint realization, in some cases for reasons of logic, and in others because of general truths about human nature and social organization. There are different things to admire in different forms of society, and not all the admirable things can be had together.

See Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 167.

[***] Niebuhr, “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, edited by Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 94. Shawn, interviewed by Hilton Als, Wallace Shawn, The Art of Theater No. 17, Paris Review 201 (Summer 2012).

[†††] A tangential observation of Cohen’s which I would not ignore:

The combination of conservatism with wealth and inequality was relatively easy to sustain in a precapitalist society, but, when inequality became capitalist inequality, the combination of conservatism with wealth and inequality became untenable, among other reasons because capitalism so comprehensively transforms everything, including itself. . . . When the rich morphed, fully, into capitalists, the British Conservative Party because the anticonservative market party. . . . With fierce international competition , conserving old ways is too costly to the maintenance of wealth. And with historical working-class gains in place [e.g., the weekend!], small-c conservatism becomes a buffer against inequality. For the sake of protecting and extending the powers of wealth, big-C Conservatives regularly sacrifice the small c-conservatism that many of them genuinely cherish. [Italics in original.]

[‡‡‡]  Cohen soon takes this to a next level of abstraction and writes that he is against “making errors that are in time self-legitimating and that thereby destroy old meanings.” This might be characterized as an opposition to human history, which often seems to proceed along precisely these lines.

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