This pithy little book was Marxist philosopher G A Cohen’s last book before his recent death. It is an essentially optimistic work, which applies analytical logic to consider and respond to the familiar objections to the feasibility of socialism. Anyone who has been an activist for any length of time will recognise these points – essentially that socialist cooperation is utopian or inefficient or undesirable, or a combination of the above.
Cohen begins his response with the analogy of a group camping trip. He considers the cooperation necessary for such a venture, and the ways in which the introduction of market relations would sour the experience. This is an effective jumping-off point for considering the principles underlying egalitarianism and overcoming the barriers to implementing them on a societal level.
One such principle is that of communal reciprocity. This is a non-market expectation of give and take, not on the basis of greed or fulfilling a narrow desire, but as a commitment to fairness. If this sounds idealistic, Cohen correctly points to a range of instances where this principle operates on a familial, group or neighbourhood level. He might also have pointed to the historical precedents of pre-class societies.
Of course, extending these personal links to large and complex societies is not easy. Cohen considers whether a form of market socialism might be preferable to the centralised planning (I would say “direction”) of Stalinist societies.
The idea explored is that the informational function of markets (who needs what, and how much) could be separated from the motivational function (people competing for monetary reward). He analyses two versions of this model, by Joseph Carens and John Roemer. He is right, I believe, to conclude that the blueprints offered by these authors would be insufficiently radical. A precis of Marx’s theory of alienation would probably have illuminated this point more.
This isn’t to say that some form of informational market is inimical to a socialist society, as Alex Callinicos describes it in An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, but it would need to be a tool of a radically different kind of society, rather than a mechanism for creating one.
This is not a definitive book on the questions facing socialists – in my view it would need to be longer and more engaged with historical materialism to fulfil that rather testing criteria. But it is a stimulating and thoughtfully argued advocacy of the better world that we need to fight for.
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