File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 388

Date: Sat, 18 Oct 1997 17:21:27 -0400
Subject: M-I: Philosophers' Web Magazine Interview with G.A. Cohen (part 3)

                 G. A. Cohen Interviewed - Part III

   Scannella: Going back to your conception of socialism, one of the
   reasons why you favour it so much is because you feel that it ensures
   a much more fundamental sense of equality. Why, as a philosopher, do
   you feel that equality matters so much?
   Cohen: Well, there are two absolutely different reasons why it
   matters. It matters because it makes the worse off people in society
   better off that they would otherwise be, and it is a very compelling
   moral idea that when we organise society, the worst off in the society
   should not be worse off than anyone in a society needs to be. By and
   large, if you equalise things, you bring up those at the bottom,
   whatever happens to anyone else.
   One of the most common Tory arguments for inequality is that it makes
   those at the bottom better off, and if that factual claim about
   inequality were correct Ė if the trickledown theory, according to
   which as the rich get richer all boats rise and the poor get richer
   too than they otherwise would be Ė if it were true then the case for
   socialism on the grounds of justice would be severely prejudiced. But
   it isnít correct and the statistics show that the material welfare of
   the worst off in this society was savaged by the government that
   propagated that ideology. So one reason to be in favour of equality is
   that it makes the worst off better off. But that is not the whole of
   The harder point to defend is that equality is good in itself. Here I
   would borrow some ideas of Ronald Dworkin, although I do not know how
   much I have added to them. His response to the argument that equality
   only matters as a means to make the worst off better and has no other
   value is this: Imagine that you are a parent of, say, four children,
   and you have resources to distribute among them: it is simply wrong to
   distribute them unequally. You are not going to distribute what you
   have to distribute to them unequally, even if, were they unequally
   treated, the one at the bottom would be better off than he would be if
   they were all equally treated. You are going to treat them equally
   because you believe it is appropriate: it is the right relationship
   between you and them that they be treated equally.
   Now, the complex question is, can we understand the society to which
   we belong as a collective agent which we together comprise, one that
   properly relates to each of us in a similar fashion, so that it is
   inappropriate or unjust if our society treats us unequally, quite
   apart from how badly off or well off any one of us in particular is?
   Suppose that the society we live in is invested with gigantic
   resources, which would enable everyone to be a millionaire, but
   instead it is so distributed so that some people are half-millionaires
   and some people are super-millionaires. Now nobody could make a song
   and dance about how badly off the people at the bottom are, that could
   hardy be regarded as an urgent matter, but the society would
   nevertheless be unjust, because it is not treating all those very
   fortunate people equally. So that is the way to go if you want to
   vindicate equality as an end in itself.
   Scannella: As a philosopher, one value you must endorse is
   intellectual integrity. Do you think that there may be a tension
   between articulating a coherent philosophical defence of socialism and
   producing a revolutionary and political doctrine which stimulates
   people to action? Could not one argue that this tension is epitomised
   in your criticism of the labour theory of value and historical
   materialism? Alternatively, where is the politics in analytic Marxism?
   Cohen: I think there is a serious issue here. You cannot guarantee
   that the truth will always be good from a revolutionary point of view.
   How could that conceivably be guaranteed? Now if I did not believe
   that there was a broad coincidence between whatís true and what could
   and should motivate people, then my intellectual enterprise would be
   incoherent. I am a socialist intellectual because I believe in
   socialism and if, in general, discovering things about socialism is
   not going to advance the cause of socialism but to retard it then I
   have to choose between being an intellectual and being a socialist. I
   do not think that a broad contradiction exists, but I do concede that
   there may be individual contradictions, whether or not the ones you
   have mentioned are among them. You certainly do discover things which
   it might be better to hush up because they tarnish the ideal in
   various ways.
   I think that every person has a right to be honest. I think that
   individuals have rights against collective demands, even against the
   collective demand to produce a better society, and I think I have the
   right not to tell lies even when those lies would be beneficial for
   the socialist movement. This does not mean you have to be a political
   idiot and never take account of what the effect is going to be of what
   you say in a given context, but there is a difference between that
   kind of public tact and outright deception. One has a right not to
   engage in deception.
   So I would acknowledge that the two desiderata of promoting socialism
   and being honest can conflict, but I deny that they can conflict on a
   wide scale. If I thought they conflicted very broadly, then I would
   find it difficult to be a socialist. Where individual conflicts exist,
   a degree of diplomacy is clearly in order. But if no reasonable degree
   of diplomacy can conceal the damaging truth, then you cannot expect
   the intellectual to not come out with the damaging truth, because the
   intellectual does have a right to be honest.
   Scannella: So is this where you see the value of philosophy, in that
   it sharpens our analytic skills and thus enable us to be more honest
   as human beings?
   Cohen: Well, I do not think it has only one value, but that is perhaps
   one of its values.
   From a socialist political point of view, philosophy is invaluable
   because it assists in two essential tasks. The first is that it
   exposes the lies, the hypocrisy and the sophisms of those who defend
   inequality and injustice and capitalism. These deceptions are
   enormously powerful: look at the impact the arguments in favour of the
   capitalist system have had. Thatís one of the reasons why so many
   people believe in it, because in a certain sense it is well argued
   for. In order to address those powerful arguments you have to be
   highly skilled and thatís one of the reasons why philosophy is
   important from a socialist point of view. It is important to combat
   the enemiesí lies because they are not such straightforward lies.
   Equally, in the more positive task of socialist construction, it is
   very important for philosophers to participate with economists,
   sociologists and others in addressing the problems of the design and
   functioning of a socialist society. Marx used to say when he was asked
   what socialism would be like, "I do not want to write recipes for
   future kitchens." He thought the issues of socialist construction
   would come up in the future and that they could only be addressed in
   the future. That was one of his biggest mistakes because unless
   socialists have a tolerably definite conception of the socialist
   society which they favour, they will not attract anyone else to their
   vision. You cannot get people to abandon capitalism in favour of
   socialism just because socialism sounds good. You need a tolerably
   detailed prospectus. If I say I am going to build you a wonderful
   house and that it is going to meet all your dreams and you will love
   it, and you then ask how many rooms it will have, how will it be
   heated, and so forth, and I say "I cannot answer any of these
   questions, but, believe me, it will all work itself out," you will
   rightly be sceptical. So socialists need to provide maps and
   blueprints and discussions about practical issues about how socialism
   would function for the political purpose of winning people to the
   cause. They also need to do that for the more evident direct reason
   that if and to the extent that socialists gain some power, they have
   to be intelligent about what they are going to do with it, and if they
   do not do a lot of prethinking they are going to get into a mess; and
   thatís been the record of history.
   Scannella: Beyond combating capitalist ideology, what other advice
   would you give academic socialists as to carrying out practical
   political action?
   Cohen: Well, partly it depends on how old they are and how much
   experience they already have. If you are a young person and profess to
   be a socialist, you should get into some real experience of real
   struggle with people on the ground, as many young people do. I am not
   going to say you should belong to the Socialist Workersí party rather
   than the Young Socialists or The Socialist party, but it is very
   important to engage in some action, to know what political activity is
   and also to be with people who are not just intellectuals and see how
   they experience things. It is not because your body is needed. You as
   an intellectual will probably ultimately make a greater contribution
   by sitting at your desk and working on these difficult problems. There
   is a division of labour. But you will not know what it is to be a
   socialist or what socialism is, unless you mingle with
   non-intellectual people for whom socialism is designed, and not just
   relatively privileged people like yourself.
   The political activity that an intellectual specifically engages in is
   the activity of trying to get questions about socialism clear and that
   is important for the reasons I gave in my previous answer to your
   Scannella: Do you feel that, at least to some extent, intellectual
   socialists merely interpret the world rather than change it?
   Cohen: Intellectual socialists have for a hundred years contributed to
   important changes in the world by virtue of their interpretations of
   the world that they have offered. If there had never been intellectual
   socialists criticising capitalism, talking about ways of diminishing
   its impact on exposed and weak people, talking about different ways of
   organising society, there would never have been the massive changes
   that there have been over the last hundred years, even though those
   changes also cost blood. They did cost blood and of course they were
   not the immediate result of a good idea in an armchair or at a desk.
   Not if there had not been a lot of pain and struggle at that armchair
   and at that desk there would have been less clarity about what people
   were fighting for and there would have been less good changes. So to
   say that you are interpreting the world, not changing it, is an
   utterly false dichotomy. A major way of contributing to social change
   is by correct, incisive and innovative interpretation of the world
   that we live in.
   Scannella: Surely, most of the people you wish to commit to action are
   not intellectuals and will not be able to understand or wish to read
   our ideas.
   Cohen: Well, there are different intellectual levels at which the
   ideas can be articulated and some of my ideas are expressed in a way
   that makes them pretty widely accessible and others are much too
   refined and arcane to be widely accessible. I teach people who are
   influenced by my ideas and these people in turn go into professions
   and activities where they express those ideas in fashions which are
   much more accessible than the one in which they heard it from me.
   Therefore it is false that in order for my ideas to reach ordinary
   people I have to express them in a fashion that makes them accessible.
   The process of ideological change in a society is much more complex
   than that; itís millions of different people talking to one another at
   all kinds of levels, sometimes symmetrically and sometimes
   asymmetrically. You are part of a very large process.
   Scannella: You argue in general that Marxism should be completely and
   utterly philosophically justified, or as you put it, "free of
   bullshit." How guilty do you think some of your philosophical
   predecessors, particularly Marx, are guilty of bullshitting?
   Cohen: I think that a bullshitter is someone who does not care about
   the truth but simply wants to appear to be right whatever the truth
   may or may not be, and when you criticise a bullshitter they will
   dishonestly shift ground, and not change their position. They prefer
   wilful obscurity to clarity because clarity can undermine your own
   Although he was at times obscure, because of the influence of Hegel on
   him, Marx was not a bullshitter. He was not disposed to defend his
   theories in an intellectually disreputable way.
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