9 November, 2009Issue 10.3PhilosophyPolitics & Society

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On a Socialist Camping Trip

Alexander Barker

CohenG. A. Cohen
Why Not Socialism?
Princeton, 2009
92 Pages
ISBN 978-0691143613

As a teenager, Jerry Cohen was a counsellor in the Montreal Jewish socialist summer camp Kinderland, where, in the words of one of his young charges, “the sons and daughters of 1950s leftists spent July and August waging class struggle against mosquitoes and boredom”. These summer expeditions left a lasting impression: decades later, Cohen fondly recalled campfire songs from Kinderland at his inauguration as Chichele Professor in All Souls college chapel; and a camping trip serves as the prime illustration of the virtues of socialism in his latest and last work, a lively discussion of political morality.

While Jerry Cohen made a career out of intellectualising his personal journey from pro-Soviet schoolboy to doyen of Oxford political theory, it is in Why Not Socialism?—more than any other text—that we see as a whole his considered stance on justice. For this life-long socialist, socialism’s infeasibility does not entail its irrelevance, for its most basic merit lies in its encapsulation of an ethic of care for other human life. In a period when we are re-evaluating our economic priorities, this is a timely call for personal integrity—and a reminder that in necessarily compromising with self-interest, we must not lose sight of our ideals.

At the start of this thin book, Cohen outlines a camping trip run along socialist lines, where “people cooperate within a common concern that, so far as is possible, everybody has a roughly similar opportunity to flourish”. Cooking and washing up are distributed to each according to his abilities, and applesauce, apple pie, and apple strudel are distributed to each according to his needs. Cohen contrasts this trip to one run along market capitalist lines; in the capitalist alternative, meal preparation involves renting a potato peeler from a fellow camper and buying potatoes from another before selling the peeled potatoes to a third.

“[I]sn’t this, the socialist way, with collective property and planned mutual giving, rather obviously the best way to run a camping trip, whether or not you actually like camping?” The difference between these two camping trips is that the first, unlike the second, embodies what for Cohen are the two core principles of socialism: radical equality of opportunity and community.

In masterful synthesis of the debates he dominated during the 80s and 90s, Cohen pushes the principle of equal opportunity to its logical conclusion. This principle, which underpins liberal efforts to counteract the effects of bigotry and socioeconomic deprivation, also justifies his claim that even our inborn talent should fall under the compass of redistribution. Cohen’s socialism applies with irresistible consistency the liberal notion that we should be held responsible for our choices, and nothing but our choices; our standard of living should not be affected by unchosen disadvantages, be they other people’s prejudices, deprived social circumstances, or —the socialist adds—a paucity of inborn talent. “When socialist equality of opportunity prevails, differences of outcome reflect nothing but difference of taste and choice, not differences in natural and social capacities and powers”.

Sizeable differences of outcome might still result from choices, however, and this creates the need for community. Cohen argues that one cannot truly associate with someone whose life challenges are very different to one’s own, where those differences result from resource disparities one has not attempted to remedy. Feeling entitlement to one’s easier life and feeling a bond with that person are then mutually incompatible. As early 20th-century socialist Eugene Debs famously asserted, “I do not want to rise above the working class, I want to rise with them”. For Cohen, this sentiment is an essential component of the socialist project.

The self-evident appeal of the small-scale socialist camping trip illustrates that socialist ideals are not inherently unattractive. It remains to be explained, then, why they are currently undesirable on a societal level. Here, Cohen revives a long tradition of Marxist thought: socialism is not ultimately unsuitable for society; society is not yet ready for socialism. Elaborating on this claim (and echoing his early defence of Karl Marx’s theory of history), Cohen suggests that we might think of social organisation—that is, the process of converting individual motives into social outcomes—as a form of technology.

Capitalism, a social technology which harnesses selfish desires to public benefits, is at present unrivalled as the organising spirit of our society. Socialism in Cohen’s sense, where citizens’ interactions are guided by their preference for community over inequality, remains technologically infeasible, for we do not understand how to orchestrate mass interaction and mutual dependence through the more elegant engine of altruism. Socialism might be compared to one of Da Vinci’s inventions: a vision for a splendid contraption which cannot be constructed for lack of tools.

Yet in yielding this, Cohen has already prised from the reader a greater concession: agreement that socialism is morally superior to the current capitalist ethos. When the necessary tools are developed, the vision becomes a blueprint, and the contraption ought to be assembled. Cohen’s strict distinction between desirability and feasibility moves the question from “why not?” to “when?” and “how?”

Readers expecting an answer to these more difficult challenges will be disappointed, however, for the principal limitation of this book is that it remains too faithful to its original question. After a survey of the current state of socialist economics—a discussion the complexity of which confirms the depth and breadth of Cohen’s interests but jars with his otherwise conversational tone—we are offered no assurances: “I do not think that we now know that we will never know how to do these things: I am agnostic on that score”.

Here, Cohen’s willingness to jettison belief in the immediate feasibility of socialism illuminates the core of his concern, expressed elsewhere in his insistence that justice is an ethos. What Cohen has retained of his socialist heritage is his strong commitment to equality, not as an ideal to be achieved in the abstract but rather as a practical principle to preside over everyday actions as a matter of conscience. Cohen’s vision is of justice as a mode of interaction between citizens rather than a state-fashioned framework against which we can act as we please—socialism cannot be delegated to the state, in the way that liberal democracy involves delegating politics to politicians. Even with the appropriate social technology, Cohen’s socialism can exist only if enough of us believe in it, and act on this belief.

In If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, Cohen interrogated himself on the implications of believing in socialism’s desirability while doubting its feasibility. In Why Not Socialism?, it is we his readers who are challenged, and ultimately persuaded that our objections to socialism are practical rather than moral. We in turn must confront the question of how to lead our lives according to these ideals in our less-than-ideal world.

Though certainty of state socialism’s advent has all but melted into air, capitalist society still presents myriad opportunities for incremental progress. Cohen’s achievement is to convince us that we should not take the impracticality of state-wide socialism as an excuse for a sense of entitlement to our talent. Instead, integrity invites us to turn to the socialist value of serving the needs of others, not through expectation of reward, but out of care.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.