G. A. Cohen

I was contacted by several people about the death of G. A. Cohen, to whose ideas I devoted a chapter of my book Realizing Freedom. (The chapter, originally published in Critical Review, is also available in a PDF form here.)

I’ll just make two points about Cohen here, as I believe it generally best (there are exceptions) not to speak ill of the dead. In a meeting in his office when he reviewed an early draft of the essay above, he admitted that I had found a serious flaw, but demanded to know (and demanded is the right word) what my point was: “Are you attacking the argument, or the conclusion?!” I said I did not understand the question. He answered, “Well, the conclusion does not follow from the argument, so which are you attacking?” I was rather flabbergasted, and replied that the conclusion of an argument is a part of the argument, not some separate thing. But that was not how he saw things, and it showed in his entire career. There are arguments, and there are conclusions. You attach yourself to a conclusion, and then you look for arguments that lead to it. That’s why he was an “analytical Marxist,” i.e., someone who agreed with what he took to be Marx’s conclusions, but who thought that the arguments by which Marx reached them were erroneous or fallacious, so his job was to come up with new arguments. If those didn’t work, you kept the conclusion and looked for other arguments. (In this case, however, despite acknowledging to me that his argument failed to reach the conclusion, he never acknowledged it publicly, but took some pains to lobby journals not to publish my critique, as was confided to me by editors of those journals.)

To get a sense of what kind of man he was, think a bit on this defense of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Union needed to be there as a defective model so that, with one eye on it, we could construct a better one. It created a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about socialism.*

Millions had to die so that Cohen and his rich friends could enjoy “a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about socialism.” Words almost fail me. But not entirely. He should have spent his life begging forgiveness from all of the people who suffered from his pro-Soviet (he spent a good bit of his youth as a Soviet propagandist, which was essentially a family enterprise) and pro-Communist activities. He was no different than any old National Socialist who might have regretted that National Socialism wasn’t nationally socialist enough, but who enjoyed the “mental space” it created to construct fantasies of an ideal life.

I will merely point out that his attacks on charity and assistance to others is consistent, not only with his political philosophy, but with his personality and life.

*From p. 250 of his 1995 book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), in which he strings together the “argument” that does not lead to the “conclusion” that property rights are unjustified.

Also posted at Cato@Liberty and the AtlasNetwork.

Tags: , ,

20 Responses to “G. A. Cohen”

  1. Tom G. Palmer

    It is another take, indeed. Cohen was a remarkably dishonorable person. It feels a bit uncomfortable saying that after he has died, but it was true before, and his death doesn’t change it. His lifelong defense of the USSR, an empire based on slave labor and terror, is unforgettable and inexcusable. It is worth reading Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History and then returning to Cohen’s really bizarre defense of the Soviet Union. Had he renounced his earlier active support for the Soviet Union and apologized, as many others did, I would have a different evaluation. He did neither, and he deserves to be remembered like any other comfortable advocate of mass murder. It’s also worth noting that, to enforce on humanity his odd intuitions (never offered as anything more than that) about justice, it would have required an even more brutal exercise of violence and coercion than was suffered under the USSR. That lack of consistent eradication of inequality is a foundation for his so-called critique of the Bolshevik state: it was not brutal enough and thus allowed some inequalities to persist. Of course, much of that inequality was the direct result of the imposition of socialism. Cohen’s approach to institutions was so intellectually primitive that he merely stipulated that socialism meant equality, so if a state did not produce equality, it was not socialist, with no attention at all to the institutions that would produce equality or inequality. The fact that he once read one book (actually, only one chapter of one book) that defended market exchanges, but remained utterly ignorant of all the rest, is little reason to applaud him. His knowledge of bargaining and game theory, which impressed some poorly read political theorists, was equally primitive.

    Finally, his understanding of intellectual history was worse than weak: it was virtually non-existent. I told him that a passage he wrote on Locke confused “negative community” and “positive community” of resources and that Pufendorf’s work clarified the distinction. He looked quite blank. I asked if he had read Pufendorf or other works from the period in which Locke wrote and he said “I’d heard of that, but didn’t think it worth reading.” So he persisted in a misinterpretation of Locke because he didn’t think it worth his time to read anything else. What a pathetic “scholar” he was.

  2. […] Unlike some of his libertarian colleagues, Tom Palmer does not have a favorable impression of Cohen’s objectives or his personal ethics.  Analytical marxists like Cohen have contributed a lot to demolish orthodox Marxism but they have never stopped looking for new arguments to support most of the same old conclusions, a practice that seems to be at odds with the idea we have of a serious scholar. More regrettably, perhaps, is that Cohen never felt the need to apologize for his support of the Soviet Union. As Palmer writes: […]

  3. I understand that we all hope to benefit one day from the “never speak ill of the dead” rule, but I don’t think it stands up to a cost-benefit analysis.

    When somebody dies, much is written of his life and work, and many people will get their strongest impressions and lessons from this information. If the information is inaccurate, it will cause harm to knowledge, and to our ability to correct mistakes.

    I don’t mind that Cohen was mistaken. But, like Tom, I can’t forgive his defense of Soviet atricities, and his intellectual dishonesty.

    It’s nice that he was funny, and that many people liked and respected him, but these are not the most important aspects of his life and legacy.

  4. Alan Gura

    How is it a “personal smear” to recount the cold hard facts of what he said and wrote? Tom wasn’t engaged in name-calling, he was reciting specific facts that do not appear to be disputed by anyone.

  5. Alan,

    Certain of the “facts” cannot be disputed by anyone. They are purported details of conversations between the person claiming them as facts and a man who has recently died.

    Other “facts,” such as the dead man’s “lifelong defense of the USSR,” can be disputed by anyone who has actually read Cohen’s works. You need only read the passage from which the damning quote (“It created a non-capitalist mental space…”) is taken to see that Cohen was saying something a little more complex than Palmer would like you to know. The selected quotation was preceeded by this sentence: “Those of us on the left who were stern critics of the Soviet Union long before it collapsed needed it to be there to receive our blows.” And the entire passage is actually a footnote to this sentence: “It is true that I was heavily critical of the Soviet Union, but the angry little boy who pummels his father’s chest will not be glad if the old man collapses.” In the same paragraph he acknowledges that such feelings are avowedly irrational. The context of the passage — which of course Palmer omits — is an autobiographical account of his intellectual journey from a childhood in which he was indoctrinated into Soviet-style Marxism by loving parents, through an adulthood in which he progressively abandoned that faulty ideology while retaining what he continued to regard as a valid ideal: egalitarianism.

    Let me ask you a pair of questions, and then I will be silent: Do the particular crimes of the Soviet regime categorically invalidate the principle of egalitarianism? If the answer is yes, would that mean that the particular crimes of ultra-nationalist groups invalidate the principle of patriotism?

  6. Well, yes, Mike…it IS true that, as Nozick showed decades ago, and Cohen never refuted, legally enforced egalitarianism requires totalitarianism to be maintained. That “categorically invalidates” it for me. Nozick, Palmer, and every other libertarian is happy to have you and anyone wishing to join you set up a community that practices whatever version of egalitarianism you wish, as long as free exit is available. But that was never Cohen’s vision.

  7. Tom G. Palmer

    The fact that Cohen suggested, rather coyly, that such commitments were irrational tells us a lot about him. He had an attachment to the totalitarian state to which he was introduced by his loving parents. That should somehow convince me that his moral stances were ok? How would it have sounded had it been loving parents who indoctrinated him into National Socialism? The core principles of the Soviet Union and the core principles of the Third Reich were both rotten and required oppression on scales that had hitherto been unimaginable. I have met victims of both horrific regimes, some of whom were oppressed, tortured, and crippled by one, and then by the other. I doubt that they would be very sympathetic to the excuses offered by Cohen’s defenders.

    It is noteworthy that his defenders must abandon logic to jump to his defense: http://blog.mises.org/archives/010425.asp . Matthew Kramer insists, in response to a student’s criticism, that he would not bother to read or consider an argument because he doesn’t “take seriously” the person who wrote it; somehow, the logic is tainted by the person who utters it. (Kramer’s note represents the invocation of a logical fallacy, by the way.) That attitude is just the attitude of G. A. Cohen, as evinced in our conversation about whether I was criticizing his “argument,” or his “conclusion,” and it is impossible to reconcile with the definition of a “philosopher,” whether Marxist or not. (Actually, that attitude is consistent with Marxist philosophy, given its polylogism, but as Karl Popper and others pointed out, that’s a major reason why Marxism is a form of intellectual self-destruction.)

    Do the crimes of communists invalidate communism? They don’t provide a logical refutation, but they do tell us what communism entails. And the same goes for nationalism, a concept toward which I am distinctly hostile, and which has led to horrendous suffering. (The idea that the “valid ideal” of ultra-nationalism is patriotism, understood perhaps in some fuzzy and warm sense of feeling at home someplace, is absurd and shows no understanding of the historical development of nationalist thought.) But that’s not the point, is it? I pointed out that G. A. Cohen was saddened by the demise of the Soviet Union. The response was to say that Cohen’s expression of sadness was about “Cohen’s own outlook rather than about the objective moral status of the Soviet Union.” That is pure sophistry. It was precisely his own sadness at the demise of a totalitarian, brutal, murderous regime that left such a bad odor. But regardless, he has left a set of arguments which, he admitted to me, do not lead to his conclusions. What a legacy. Let’s let both rest in peace now, and hope that logic, rather than irrational commitments, will sort out the good arguments (which include both premises and conclusions) from the bad. So let’s make this the last word. People can judge Cohen and his legacy on their own.

  8. Andrew Zimbriano

    Dr. Palmer,

    I have approached this issue with an open mind and I have concluded that you are right to be critical of Professor Cohen. I have expressed my views on the Mises blog, where he has his staunch defenders. It has opened my eyes a little more to see that people such as Kinsella defend Cohen just because you criticize him. Now I understand better what makes him tick. Someday I will ask you for the roots of why they feel that way toward you, although your columns in the Fever Swamp surely played a role, by exposing some of the less presentable parts of what some of them offer. I did learn some things there, but I wish that the good things they have to offer did not come with such unlibertarian and unattractive attachments.

  9. Tom G. Palmer

    I got a note about a heated rebuttal from Professor Matthew Kramer at http://blog.mises.org/archives/010425.asp I have been in meetings all day (and have another tonight) and will try to respond later. His defense of his old friend and mentor’s attitudes and behavior is sophistical and should not take too long to rebut, but I may not have the opportunity until Sunday. (In the meantime, I have been in touch today with some of my old friends — who were imprisoned and tortured by some of Cohen’s old friends — about celebrating the Fall of the Berlin Wall November 9. Watch this space.)

  10. Tom G. Palmer

    My response, before rushing off to a meeting:

    How to understand Matthew Kramer’s remarkably tortured and sophistical defense of his friend? Cohen, in making his public remarks about the USSR, was not comenting on the “moral status of the USSR,” but only “about Cohen and his erstwhile psychological or intellectual needs (and limitations).” That seems what I was getting at when I quoted him on how “the Soviet Union needed to be there”: “To get a sense of what kind of man he was.” How else to read my remarks? I was commenting on his moral character.

    Imagine someone who had been “indoctrinated into German-style Fascism by loving parents” and who would state that,

    “The Third Reich needed to be there as a defective model so that, with one eye on it, we could construct a better one. It created a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about national socialism.”

    He needed the Third Reich to exist (to quote, with appropriate substitutions, Matthew Kramer’s words) “for his own intellectual development as an anti-capitalist thinker. If the Third Reich had not existed, he could not have formed his radical ideas and pursued his radical theorizing as he did.” (The Soviets had more time than the National Socialists, and during that longer duration they also killed more people than the National Socialists, and far, far more than the anti-capitalist Fascists of Italy. When you add Soviet support for the spread of communism in Asia, the numbers climb very dramatically.*)

    Matthew Kramer’s contortions to defend the memory of his friend remind me of his lack of concern for consequences in his own tortured theories of jurisprudence. Just consider this argument in defense of incompossible rights:

    “Unlike a duty to do X and a liberty to abstain from doing X, a duty to do X and a duty to abstain from doing X are not starkly contradictory. They are in conflict rather than in contradiction. Though the fulfillment of either one must rule out the fulfillment of the other, the existence of either one does not in any way preclude the existence of the other.” (I substituted the letter “X” for the letter “phi,” which does not reproduce in this format.)**

    In other words, the actual consequences of one’s kooky theories (like people fighting because their rights claims are incompatible, being arrested for doing X, the non-performance of which would also get you arrested, civil wars, etc.) are just not Professor Kramer’s concern, just as the actual suffering of people under the system he yearned for was not Cohen’s concern. I am reminded of the t-shirt showing Karl Marx on a pile of skulls and saying, “Hey! It was just a theory!” But in Marx’s case, he did not have the evidence before his eyes of what his theory would lead to. Cohen did.

    Cohen did not, in my earshot, at least, ever stand up and give a moral case for the USSR. He merely wanted it to be there and was not merely deprived of some sort of needed intellectual crutch when it collapsed, but was “saddened.” He wanted it to persist, fully aware of what it entailed. That tells us a great deal about “what kind of man he was.” I think that people should know that and remember it.

    As to being a “comfortable advocate of mass murder,” let’s think about moral responsibility. If you want X to exist and you know that X necessarily entails Y, then you are making a statement that you want Y, that even if Y by itself were undesirable, if it is necessary to have Y in order to get X, you prefer a world with X and Y, over a world without X and Y. Cohen knew — he knew very well — just what he and his family had promoted for decades, as active supporters of a murder regime. And he showed no remorse, offered no heartfelt apologies to the victims of his actions, and — at the end — expressed his sadness that the whole thing was over. He was a “comfortable advocate of mass murder” and a man with virtually no conscience. He was witty, clever, and funny, the center of attention, and a colossal egotist. He mattered, and the little people who suffered from his actions did not. That is a truly remarkable form of egotism.

    Finally, I cannot verify the discussions that Matthew Kramer says he had with Cohen, as he cannot verify those I had with him. But I think you will not find any of the discussions that should have been present had he, in fact, been acquainted with Pufendorf and other writers on property, perfect and imperfect rights, negative and positive community, etc. He persisted in misreading texts (notably Nozick) despite being corrected by a number of people. As Jan Narveson and others have noted, he was committed to his commitments, and nothing would ever change that. Why should willful scholarly ignorance surprise us?

    *I know it’s not interesting to some analytical philosophers, but history matters: Sheri Berman’s excellent book The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2006) notes the common roots of Bolshevism, Social Democracy, Fascism, and National Socialism. It’s worth a read.
    **Matthew H. Kramer, ‘‘Rights Without Trimmings,’’ in A Debate over Rights: Philosophical Enquiries, ed. Matthew H. Kramer, Nigel Simmonds, and Hillel Steiner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 19.

  11. Francesco Maiolo

    Palmer quoted Cohen on Soviet Union:

    “The Soviet Union needed to be there as a defective model so that, with one eye on it, we could construct a better one. It created a non-capitalist mental space in which to think about socialism”.

    Palmer provides the following interetation of Cohen’s fragment:

    “He should have spent his life begging forgiveness from all of the people who suffered from his pro-Soviet (he spent a good bit of his youth as a Soviet propagandist, which was essentially a family enterprise) and pro-Communist activities”.

    Now a few questions for Palmer:

    1) What is the ‘crime’ that Cohen should have spent his life apologizing for? 2) How is this ‘crime’ determined, namely according to which criteria, and by whom? 3) Let us imagine that an early Christian writer – somebody like Augustine of Hippo, for example – says that the persecutions against the Christians where providential in the sense that they ‘helped’ other Christians realizing that the eartly lust for power is perdition – is the writer supposed to spend his life apologizing for his position on the matter?

  12. Tom G. Palmer

    I have not accused Cohen of any crime, but of apologizing for and promoting the crimes of the USSR, which is simply undeniable. He was a Communist Party activist who later left active party participation and became a “fellow traveler.” He should apologize for what he did to promote the enslavement of millions of people. Many people who were swept up in such fanatical movements (the Communist Party, the KKK, the Fascist Party, and other criminal enterprises) and who later left did apologize or express heartfelt remorse. People who actively supported the oppression of racial minorities (or majorities), or religious oppression, or class oppression (elimination of “class enemies,” which is what all Communists knew was underway), should apologize for their horrific behavior. Regarding Francesco Maiolo’s second question, the crimes of Communist Parties and Communist regimes are very well documented. In what cave have you lived your life? Regarding the third question, I was not referring only to two sentences in one of Cohen’s books, but to a life that was spent either actively trying to defend and extend communist oppression or coming up with yet more convoluted defenses of the elimination of justice it represented. For his earlier active support of the USSR, as well as for his later expressions of regret at its passing, he should have held his head in shame before all of the victims of the USSR and other fanatical socialist regimes. The comparison with Augustine of Hippo is absurd; Cohen was not supporting suppression of people with communist views (and nor would I), but the oppression of everyone else. Your analogy doesn’t hold and, in any case, I don’t recall Augustine or others being saddened when the oppression of Christians ceased, so it fails on other grounds, as well.

  13. Tom G. Palmer,

    You have more than once mocked my description of Cohen’s having been indoctrinated into Marxism “by loving parents.” I phrased it that way to give your readers a more accurate sense of the autobiographical context of your deceptively selective quotation, and in particular to try to shed some light on his metaphor of the “angry little boy who pummels his father’s chest.” But that’s nuance, isn’t it? And your business here has not been nuance but caricature. Where a philosopher would draw distinctions, a demagogue conflates, and so you conflate the egalitarian principle with the crimes of the Soviet dictatorship. Cohen never abandoned egalitarianism, so by your logic he is personally culpable for the mass graves and the gulags.

    I have some experience of my own in being indoctrinated into a mass illusion. My parents raised me as a Christian. Although I was struck early on by the multitude of implausibilities, I sensed always that my parents were subjecting me to religion because they cared for me and wanted to instill good values. So it pained me to gradually become aware that the ideology was not only flawed, but intrinsically immoral. This seemed odd because much of the doctrine was precisely concerned with morals. The process of separating the wheat from the chaff — of disentangling the benefits and good intentions from the injurious effects and some indeed rather dark intentions — has taken decades of my life, and is not finished. Although I’m an atheist now, I still try to hold on to what I take to be my ex-religion’s basal moral principle: the commandment of love. Does my slowness in abandoning my religion, and my refusal even now to jettison its central principle, make me personally culpable for the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and all the other despotic faith-based initiatives that “Christians” and other monotheists have inflicted on humanity?

    G.A. Cohen was a conscientious philosopher. The nature — and timing — of your attack tells us more about your moral character than about his.

    Amelie Rorty has posted a brief remembrance of Cohen on the Leiter Reports. I hope she wouldn’t mind if I relay it to the readers here:

    “Jerry was/is the most alive — the most immediately present and responsive person — I have known. His immediate outrage at injustice, his immediate sympathy — sometimes to the point of tears — for suffering was, I believe, the source of his (early, middle, late) political theory. He was persistent in his search for clarity, in working in and through Marxism, in his coming to think that an egalitarian ethos is as essential to justice as fair economic distribution. He was the funniest, most outspoken, most uninhibited, the most loveable Yiddish mensch imaginable. Like many others, I feel more vulnerable in the world without Jerry’s intellectual passion and energy, his immediate humane presence.”

  14. Tom G. Palmer


    I did not mock you, Mike, I quoted and referred to your invocation of his upbringing by fanatical cult members. The neo-Nazi David Irving raised his children to sing Nazi marching songs, just as Cohen’s parents raised him to sing songs about Lenin and class conflict. He did not have the courage to overcome that sick upbringing and come face to face with the evil into which he was indoctrinated by his family. That, sir, is not a serious person. He was smart, clever, and witty and many people found that very attractive. My experiences with him, and his ugly behavior when he admitted to me that his arguments failed, despite his having spent years on them, were very different. Does that surprise you? He paced back and forth and back and forth and stated that his arguments had been read by many people and no one had seen the confusion (between scenarios IV and V) and then he demanded repeatedly to know whether I was attacking his “arguments” or his “conclusion” (the conclusion being that communism is morally justified) . After that, he intervened to ensure that two journals did not publish the critique; the referees were “split” with (in both cases) one in favor and one against and — quelle surprise! — I later found out from one of the editors that the referee against was no other than G. A. Cohen. I did not find him to be open-minded, philosophical, or concerned about truth. He was fanatically committed to his conclusions, as many have noted (including his best friends and admirers). Maybe his parents are to blame for that, but after he grew up, their responsibility for indoctrinating him in communist youth camps (where he was so proud that he got his A in “Class Conflict”) was eclipsed by his own. But that’s enough for now. I don’t think we are adding much more to the understanding of his life or his legacy. If anyone else wants to add their two cents, email me and I’ll consider it. Otherwise, this distasteful exercise of reminding people of a recently deceased person’s legacy is closed.