Very smart review of G A Cohen’s last book, Why Not Socialism?, in London Review of Books by Ellen Meiksins Wood. In it, she raises to issues that gave me pause for thought.
First, she revisits Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History.
This is probably the single book that most influenced my interpretation
of Marx, with its elegant and (as they say) ‘no-bullshit’ version of
Marx’s theory of history. It is austere Marxism in its most sternly
technological, offering a view of history as developing systemically and
inevitably through technological development; each form of technology
(the forces of production) eventually outgrows the form of society put
in place to support it (the relations of production), hence the
succession of slave societies, feudalism, capitalism and then, no doubt,
communism. In this version, characteristic of the late Marx, morality,
politics, culture and so on are mere epiphenomena, produced by the
happenstance of historical development but with no more power to affect
the course of history than flotsam and jetsam have to command the waves
to rise and fall.
What Wood smartly observes is that
Cohen’s argument - and possibly Marx’s too - has a residual ahistoricism
in its belief in technological development. It had struck me that this
amount to a theory of human nature: we are creative people who keep
finding better ways of doing things. What Wood points out is that this
determination to develop technologically is characteristic of capitalism
but of other forms of society... not so much. It may be that Cohen/Marx
is illegitimately extending the conditions of capitalism to a theory of
history altogether. Now, this is not to tear up the whole Marxian
project, but rather to ask a revision of the historical scheme to take
this observation into account - and perhaps also to allow that some
ahistorical forces may exist within a Marxist analysis. For me, with my
Kantian leanings, I am persuaded that there is an intrinsic rational
mechanism that produces ethical judgment and even if that always has to
play out in particular historical situations and therefore can be wildly
variable this is not something produced, at bottom, by historical
Marx seems to have also believed that at
certain points. His early writing is full of moral condemnation. The
later Marx liked to say that moral condemnation of capitalism was idle
though it’s hard to believe, even there, that he really believed. To
think it is neutral to describe capital as ‘dead labour, that,
vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more,
the more labour it sucks’ (Capital, I.10.1) suggests Marx had unusual views of vampires.
Where Wood’s piece gets its fire is
trying to arbitrate between the earlier and later Cohen. The later Cohen
abandoned the strict Marxism - indeed abandoned Marxism as such - in
favour of a more general socialism that talked much more freely about
justice and equality. In this new book, Cohen notes that capitalism
employs base motives (greed, selfishness, will to power, etc.) for
socially good ends: general prosperity, diversity of products, etc. Of
course, the problem is that it also has a series of dreadful social
outcomes some of which I outlined in my book Theatre & Globalization
(pp. 30-39), but Wood takes him to task in a different way. Is it right
to say that it is driven by base motives? Or are base motives the product of the system?
This is an important issue of course.
The New Right in the eighties tried to claim that capitalism was natural
because we are naturally competitive, greedy creatures. But if greed
were produced in us by a system, because otherwise we couldn’t survive,
that would suggest that if the mode of production changed, so would our
apparent nature. This is pertinent for Cohen because, in his abandonment
of thoroughgoing Marxism, he has also abandoned this vision and so
imagines a ‘market socialism’ in which base motives still drive the
system but they are contained by new features of the system. Wood asks
whether any substantial change to the system might lead to a change in
our experience of ourselves.
What do I think? I suppose, with the Kantian side of me to the fore, I think that we are in battle with somewhat atavistic parts of ourselves and we struggle to master that. So we have tendencies towards selfishness but equally we have tendencies towards altruism and, with the Marxist side to the fore, in certain historical circumstances it is easier or more difficult to master these base motives. In that sense, it does seem to me that a change in society will change the nature of our fundamental behaviour and attitudes. And so, as Wood remarks towards the end, we must not purely personalise our critique of the system - in talk of greedy bankers and so on - but always observe what there is in the system that has generated and permitted such behaviours.