Why not socialism?

Front cover of Why Not Socialism?, by G.A. CohenA friend accused me recently of having a “French” mindset. He was right in at least one respect: like the stereotypical French philosophe, my approach to things does tend to be: “That’s all very well in practice, but does it work in theory?”

So, let’s turn away from the practical politics of recent posts to something more theoretical: G.A. Cohen’s short (and posthumously-published) book Why Not Socialism?.

Cohen’s book – really no more than an essay – is very much a work of philosophy rather than practical politics. He begins by observing that there are times when people do behave like socialists: for example, a camping trip among friends, in which equality and community are the basis of their activities rather than a market-based approach (“I’ll let you use my can-opener if you pay me”).

Cohen’s point is not that society can be run like a camping trip, but to use this as a basis for asking how society differs from a camping trip, so that he can then go on to consider two questions:

  • Is socialism desirable?
  • Is socialism feasible?

Above all, though, what clearly animates Cohen is not so much the detailed analysis as his ethical conviction that socialism is to be preferred, as least as an ideal, to the “injustice of market results and the moral shabbiness of market motivation” – of which more, I hope, in a later post.

Note also that Cohen is at pains to point out that the question in his title is not rhetorical: he acknowledges that it is by no means certain that the objections to socialism can be overcome. In the same way, my blogging about the book should not be taken as a sign that I agree with everything Cohen says.

The first question the title of his book raises, however, is what Cohen means by “socialism”. I’ll look at this in my next post.

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6 thoughts on “Why not socialism?”

  1. Ah, but a camping trip featuring the practice of socialism is a refreshing departure from the realities of a market-based society (which I think was probably Cohen’s point). This is a very interesting comparison to me because we’ve done a lot of camping in our family lives. Yes, camping works best if done communally, but if extended beyond a vacation, communal camping would most likely move toward a market system, at least in my imagination. And the longer you camped, the more you’d naturally find areas of specialization. I suppose as long as each person worked equally, the communal living would last, but given our flawed human nature I would expect that to happen. For example, we’ve gone camping with other families (when my kids were younger, of course!). It was always interesting how some families did well camping and others did not. Camping is hard work and if one person is sitting around relaxing while the rest toil, the group does NOT function well and resentment grows. I also found it fascinating how some people take fastidious care of their tent, utensils and other equipment (my husband, to an extreme sometimes) and others don’t. A tent has to be cared for or it shreds. If you rent a tent, you may not care about it very much. The comparisons are endless. Good choice!

  2. John,

    I look forward to your thoughts on this, particularly since the supposed moral superiority of socialism is anything but clear to me; neither the injustice of market results nor the moral shabbiness of market motivation really stands up to close scrutiny.

    Let’s see if you and Cohen can persuade me.

  3. Well, I speak as a sort of “French” anarchist. My ideal is a world without the use of force. Since the world is fallen, I will approve of retaliatory force, but not force to achieve social ends.

    I have no problem with voluntary socialism.

    I do have a problem with making people part of a socialist system involuntarily. To my mind, it is pointing a gun at someone and saying, “Enough of your shabby motivations!” To try to improve the morality of a system by using force as your means strikes me as odd.

  4. Chris: I’m not really aiming to persuade anyone here. I’m not 100% persuaded by Cohen myself! But I found his book very stimulating, which is why I’m blogging it.

    Rick: I have no problem with voluntary capitalism, either. Perhaps someone should try it some time.

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