Magazine article Dissent

If You're So Egalitarian, How Come You're a Philosopher?

Magazine article Dissent

If You're So Egalitarian, How Come You're a Philosopher?

Article excerpt

IF YOU'RE AN EGALITARIAN, How COME YOU'RE So RICH? by G. A. Cohen

Harvard University Press, 2000 233 pp $35 PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL HOPE by Richard Rorty

Penguin Books, 2000 288 pp $13.95

W.H. AUDEN said that "poetry makes nothing happen," and Karl Marx said the same thing (though not in so many words) about philosophy. The latter opinion would seem to place a Marxist philosopher in a curious position, especially one who is a leading exponent of historical materialism, which aims, with unrivaled ambitiousness and decisiveness, to explain what, if not philosophy, does make things happen. According to historical materialism, what makes things happen is the development of the productive forces. Hence, wrote the brash young Marx of The German Ideology, "the study of the real world is to the study of philosophy as romantic love is to self-abuse."

Whether or not "Marxist philosopher" turns out, on investigation, to be an oxymoron, G. A. Cohen, successor to Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, is undoubtedly the most illustrious member of that species at present. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense (1978) applied the methods of analytic and "ordinary language" philosophy to the interpretation of historical materialism. It has been widely praised and widely debated. History, Labour, and Freedom (1988) collects Cohen's further reflections and responses to criticism. In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (1995), Cohen engages with the leading liberal and libertarian political philosophers in the English-speaking world: Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, and John Rawls. (His demolition of Nozick will be highly gratifying to anyone who, like this reviewer, has long found the prestige of Nozick's arguments both inexplicable and exasperating.)

If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? is neither a treatise nor a collection of articles; it is the 1996 Gifford Lectures-- the granddaddy of distinguished lecture series. Cohen ranges very widely. One lecture compares religious and political conviction. Another charmingly recounts his "Montreal Communist Jewish childhood." Another contrasts "utopian" and "scientific" socialism, correcting the vulgar disparagement of the former and showing how the latter is compromised by the "obstetrical" motif of classical Marxism. (For example, "New higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.") Still another lecture, "A Lighter Look at the Problem of Evil," was a songfest. "The audience accepted my invitation to sing with me, to the accompaniment of tapes, a set of American popular songs that illustrate how bad things can be good." Alas, this lecture is not reproduced. (I don't see why Harvard University Press couldn't-especially considering the book's price-have included a CD of this lecture, as it did of Helen Vendler reciting Shakespeare's sonnets to accompany her book on that subject.) These introductory or digressive chapters are witty, vivid, and-particularly Cohen's discussion of Hegel, who actually begins to make sense under the ministrations of analytic philosophy-illuminating.

The theme of If You're an Egalitarian ... is the failure of historical materialism and the resulting "turn to normative political philosophy" by Cohen and other Marxists. With admirable lucidity and lack of fuss, Cohen acknowledges that "inevitabilitarian" Marxism-- on which he had built his reputation and founded his hopes-was mistaken. That doctrine was based on two predictions: the growth in size, organization, and insecurity of the working class and the prospect of a limitlessly increasing material abundance. Both these predictions have been falsified. The working class is too diverse, geographically and occupationally, to be anywhere near as well organized as international capital for the foreseeable future. …

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