Why Not Socialism?, by G.A. Cohen


Political philosopher G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, though published in book form, is an essay that wouldn’t even make all that long a magazine or journal article. I read it in its entirety in about a half hour.

Cohen begins by asking us to consider a group of friends on a camping trip. By far the most likely, and sensible, arrangement is that people will chip in roughly equally as far as bringing the necessary supplies and taking care of the necessary chores, with certain adjustments for ability and preference. So someone who likes the physical labor of gathering firewood might do a disproportionate amount of that chore, and do less of other things he or she doesn’t like.

It would certainly be frowned upon, if not lead to open conflict, if someone started instead behaving selfishly on such a trip. For instance, if while hiking a certain person spotted an apple tree first and insisted that only she was entitled to the apples on it, unless the others agreed to pay her for them, people would think there was something wrong with her. Or if some of the campers went fishing together, and one happened to catch significantly more fish than the others, it would be out of line for him to think that entitles him to have more fish for dinner tonight, or to be paid by the people who failed to catch fish but still want to eat.

In other words, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Everyone chips in what they can, and everyone is provided for in such a way as to make the camping trip a successful and enjoyable one for all.

OK, so what? Well, the example is just to show that something like a socialist ideal has at least some prima facie appeal. Cohen then moves on to the questions of whether scaling this up to a whole large society would be desirable, and whether it would be feasible.

His answers to these questions are basically yes and maybe.

As to the desirability, he contends that the greed and fear that underlie capitalism are clearly bad things compared to such values as cooperation, friendship, unselfishness, and community that underlie the camping trip dynamic. When people insist otherwise—that capitalist values are positive things—they probably are confused and are moving onto the feasibility question. That is, they believe these evils to be necessary evils, and that leads them to misleadingly describe them as if they were not evil at all.

Though that’s not to say that there aren’t values capitalism claims that really are good things. Maybe the most prominent one is freedom. Whatever the evils of capitalism, at least people have considerable freedom to live their lives as they choose, and to make a living and support themselves as they choose, whereas we’ve seen real life alternatives to capitalism limit such freedom, sometimes severely.

Cohen notes, though, and I agree, that to some extent it’s just that the unfreedom of capitalism is more subtle, more hidden, more indirect than having some dictator or king or commissar or whoever stipulate that these people can do this and these other people can’t do that:

Within market society, too, the choices of others massively confine each individual’s pursuit of her own choices, but that fact is masked in market society, because, unlike what’s true on the camping trip, in market society the unavoidable mutual dependence of human beings is not brought into common consciousness, as a datum for formal and informal planning. A particular person in a market society may face a choice of being a building laborer or starving, his set of choices being a consequence of everybody else’s choices. But nobody designed things that way, and his restricted options consequently misappear as mere facts of life.

But then the major question remains of whether structuring society along more socialist lines—with the “socialist ideal” being defined by Cohen as being “to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life”—is possible, given the human nature we have to work with, and worse yet human nature as it has been molded by many generations of internalizing the “greed and fear” values of capitalism.

I don’t think Cohen ever gives a particularly affirmative answer to this. Instead, he references various books and introduces various concepts in an effort to show that there are at least plausible pathways to socialism, and that the goal is not so clearly unreachable that we shouldn’t even try.

I tend to agree, though I would emphasize that the means we use are morally crucial. “The end justifies the means” is dubious enough to begin with, but what the history of the Soviet Union and the various oppressive allegedly communist states shows is that odious means are even less justified when they are far from certain to bring about the desirable end. What’s the point of all the bloodshed if you end up—like in Animal Farm—with something as bad or worse than the nightmare you started with?

If increasing numbers of people chose to guide their lives by more of a Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence and love, and to therefore modify or withdraw their participation in certain facets of a capitalist system, and as a result we gradually moved toward a society closer to a socialist ideal, I’d be all for it. But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.


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