Imprints interview with G.A. Cohen

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This interview originally appeared in Imprints: vol. 1 no.1 (June 1996). 

Self-Ownership, History and Socialism: An Interview with

G.A. Cohen


Your career to date seems to be divided by interests into clear phases: phase one in the theory of history and phase two in political philosophy. The first phase culminated in 1978 with the publication of Karl Marx’s Theory of History (1): the book which is usually held to inaugurate analytical Marxism, and created in any case something of a revolution in the study of Marx . But you have recently described the Damascene experience which had already occurred in 1972, when the first news to reach you of Nozick’s work roused you from your ‘dogmatic socialist slumber’ concerning values (2) . There began a phase of intense involvement with questions of political philosophy and, above all, an engagement with the work of Robert Nozick, culminating this year in the publication of Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality. We should like to begin by asking you why, as a socialist, you came to see Nozick’s work as so challenging?

I’ve tried to answer that question in the Introduction to the Self-Ownership book. The answer is that the libertarian edifice can be erected on the foundation of a standard socialist conception of exploitation, according to which a person counts as exploited just in case he or she produces things which others appropriate without his or her uncoerced agreement. Libertarians are right that such appropriation occurs in any kind of welfare state, because there’s a coerced extraction of product from producers by the state, part of which is then distributed to people who produce nothing. Libertarians thereby take what is in its origin a progressive notion of exploitation and put it to reactionary use.

In the struggle by serfs against feudal lords who extracted labour from them with no contract or agreement, the slogan ‘The fruits of a person’s labour belong to himself or herself’ was an historically progressive one. The difficulty is that Marxists and other socialists have maintained that slogan into an era when different battles are on the agenda. The fundamental egalitarian idea is that people should have comparable opportunities for fulfilment in life regardless of what they can produce or have produced. Socialists have not thought through the anti-egalitarian implications of the standard conception of the exploitation of the worker, which is a matter of his not getting the fruits of his labour. You can reach libertarian conclusions by drawing out some of those implications and turning them into a reactionary theory.

I thinks that’s why, at the deepest level, I was so arrested by what Nozick had to say. But I only came to realise that some years after I was arrested by Nozick. At the time, at the conscious level, the thing that I found disturbing was, quite simply, the challenging quality of Nozick’s arguments.

Nozick certainly will have the impact you describe if the Marxian argument relies on self-ownership, but surely one can find, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, for example, other views more congenial to an egalitarian socialist commitment.

Of course. But what we discover in Marx and in the wider socialist tradition are socialist values that are not properly distinguished from deeply bourgeois values about people’s ownership of themselves and their consequent right to the product of their own labour, which are thought to ride along with the socialist values in an unproblematic way. And they do ride together unproblematically, under certain historical conditions, because as long as the really miserable people in one way or another belong to the producing proletariat – whether as relatives of workers or as people who are only temporarily unemployed – then the distinction between the claim ‘I made it, I should therefore have it’ and the claim ‘I’m starving, I should therefore be given sustenance’ doesn’t have practical political significance. At the limit, if you could divide capitalist society neatly into the indigent producers and the capitalist parasites, then anybody who is going to be able to press a demand for sustenance on an egalitarian basis is also going to be a producer anyway, who can press her demands on the basis of the standard conception of exploitation.

So, while I agree with you that there were properly socialist values within Marxism as well as the bourgeois values that I have described, my point is that the bourgeois values were not identified as such. It wasn’t seen that they contradicted the egalitarian values and could only be held together with them because of a certain form of social structure which we no longer have.

But couldn’t one read Marx (and other socialists) as putting forward not the self-ownership principle but rather some weaker desert principle such that only those who contribute to production deserve to benefit from it? Perhaps this was coupled in an eclectic way with a needs-based principle. Such a desert principle would not give rise to a strong entitlement to the whole fruits of one’s labour in the way that the self-ownership principle does.

I see three questions here. First, could the practical and political opposition to capitalism and the associated revolutionary project have been based on such a principle? Second, was it, as far as Marxism is concerned? Third, is there anything to object to in such a principle? My answers to those three questions are as follows. First, it might, perhaps, have been possible to base opposition to capitalism on such a desert principle (with an addendum about the needy). But, and this answers the second question, the rhetoric of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto certainly does not imply any such complex principle, and the idea of producer entitlement as such is powerful within the classical documents. Of course, Marxists and revolutionaries didn’t think that people who didn’t produce should starve; but that was because they didn’t think through the implications of their commitments. Finally, would such a desert-based principle be satisfactory? In my opinion, no. I’m a sceptic about claims of desert.

The mistake of the Marxists – and it may well not have been a political mistake – was to treat exploitation as normatively fundamental. Exploitation counts as exploitation, namely as an unjust extraction, only to the extent that norms of equality and reciprocity are violated in the capital–labour relationship.

In which case, is there any fundamental distinction to be made between socialism and egalitarian liberalism? Are there any distinctively Marxist values?

In its usual articulations, egalitarian liberalism lacks the value of community. So if you believe, as I do, that community is within the Marxian tradition, then there’s that difference. But with respect to justice, which is a value independent of community, I don’t think there is anything worth preserving in the socialist tradition which won’t be found in the writings of Rawls and Dworkin. But I also believe that neither Rawls nor Dworkin is faithful to the radical egalitarianism of their fundamental principles. As J. L. Austin said, ‘There’s the bit where you say it and there’s the bit where you take it back’. Both Rawls and Dworkin find ways of diluting the radical egalitarianism with which they begin. Much of my recent work has been an attempt to pin the implications of their own radical egalitarian principles on thinkers who, because their social emplacement and outlook is liberal, contrive not to acknowledge them.

In your recent work on political philosophy, the historically significant question of alienation and the labour process seems to be downplayed. It might be thought that the emphasis on alienation and the labour process has been one of the ways in which the socialist critique of capitalism differs from egalitarian liberalism.

Libertarians, liberals, and also John Roemer, emphasise that what goes on in the labour process depends on the prior contract between the worker and the boss, and they infer that you can protest against what befalls the worker in the labour process only if the conditions under which that contract was signed are unfair. For the libertarian they virtually never are, for the liberal they sometimes are, and for Roemer they always are, in a typical capitalist society. Roemer need not deny that important evils befall the worker in the labour process: he just denies that that is the appropriate normative focus of criticism.

I’ve come to think that such a view is mistaken. In chapter 8 of Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, I argue, against Roemer, that however much the pre-production distribution may be unjust and may the cause of what befalls the worker in the production process, it is because of the bad things that befall him that inequality in the pre-production distribution matters. The position I now defend is that, while the causally fundamental factor in exploitation is the maldistribution of productive resources, the normatively fundamental injustice is the inequality consequent on the extraction of the surplus product which that maldistribution enables. Further negative features of the productive process, such as alienation, would now have more primacy, in my present view.

Earlier you suggested a congruence between the socialist view of justice and the liberal one. But your last response suggests that you believe socialists do have some perfectionist commitments.

Although socialists have focused on alienation in the labour process, and liberals have not, the values which socialists have used to condemn alienation can be found in Friedrich Schiller, John Stuart Mill and others. It is one thing to say that there is a critique of capitalist society made by socialists that liberals don’t make – because they don’t look at alienation – and quite another thing to say that the Marxian critique cannot be made on the basis of liberal values. I’m sure that’s false: and it’s even false that liberals didn’t look at alienation itself, at the cramping effect of the labour process on the worker. Of course there are different emphases in the socialist tradition, but community, rather than disalienation, is the only value which really distinguishes our tradition.

History and Social Theory

Karl Marx’s Theory of History both expounded and defended a version of Marx’s theory of history. Since then, you have emphasised a restriction in its explanatory range, entered doubts about the comprehensiveness of its view of human nature, and in the past few years written very little about it. Does this waning engagement reflect basic doubts about the theory? Do you any longer think it is defensible?

Part of the reason for the waning engagement has been the displacement of my interest in historical materialism by the normative questions which we’ve discussed: at any given time my focus is narrow and my range is very small. Another reason, which doesn’t require that there is something wrong with historical materialism, is that I just don’t think that it is terribly important, whereas I think that the normative questions are desperately important. The struggle at the intellectual level between capitalism and socialism as realisations of different normative orientations is immensely important for the future of socialist politics.

As to the defensibility of historical materialism, I think that Marx’s formulations are probably the most illuminating ever to have been produced about society in so short a compass as they occupy (that is, the 1859 Preface and a few associated statements), and they’ve transformed social science and historical study. I guess that most of the truth that they contain is now taken for granted by most mainstream workers in history and social science. Only moronic social scientists would deny, for example, that class structure is profoundly fateful for political engagement and identification. And only moronically sclerotic paeleoMarxists would deny that in many parts of the world religion is fundamental to political engagement. Marxists who think that they can reduce religious identification to something to do with class are either stupid or kidding themselves. So here we have something which people didn’t really appreciate before Marx – namely the importance of class – which anybody sensible now recognises to be highly significant, but she must also recognise that there are other comparably significant things.

In a paper published in 1981, entitled ‘Reconsidering Historical Materialism’, (3) I claimed that Marxism was insufficiently alive to the importance for human beings of the question ‘Who am I?’ Human beings have tended to answer that question, over long swathes of history, in terms of religion and nationality. I also said that I wasn’t sure exactly what the impact of this is on the major theses of historical materialism – but I’m sure that it has some impact. This whole side of human nature and human concern, which is profoundly non-material, suggests that historical materialism is not the full story of how society and history work.

So just as Marxism’s normative commitments are carried by liberal egalitarianism, now you are saying that there isn’t really anything distinctively valuable about Marx’s social theory that is not already part of the common sense of mainstream social theory?

I did not say that liberal egalitarianism carries Marxism’s normative commitments. Liberals do not believe that capitalism is a system of exploitation which should be overthrown in favour of a socialist society which is both possible and desirable. I believe all that, which certainly distinguishes my normative commitment from liberals’, but I don’t think that, in order to believe that, I have to believe any norms that liberals disbelieve. You have to distinguish between lack of distinctiveness at the level of fundamental norms and lack of distinctiveness at the level of embraced normative commitments.

Regarding Marxist social theory, I think the claim that the level of development of the productive forces shapes the character of the economic structure is much more robust than the claim that the class structure inscribed in the economic structure determines the wider social and political character of society. The thesis of the tendency of the productive forces to develop is, modulo one massive qualification, true, and so is the thesis that the economic structure reflects the character of the productive forces. I think that would be widely accepted. The problem is with the shaping of ‘superstructural institutions’ – ideology, political allegiances etc. – by the economic structure.

The ‘modulo’ remark above is entered for ecological reasons, because, if you mean by ‘the development of the productive forces’ not the development of technology (‘know-how’) as such, but, as I think you should, the development of the power to transform nature into use-value, then, of course, there is regression in the development of the productive forces to the extent that the world becomes degraded as wherewithal to produce benefits for human beings.

One candidate as an alternative social theory to historical materialism is rational-choice theory. Within analytical Marxism there is Elster who has been programatically in favour of rational-choice theory, Przeworski and Roemer, who have done little else, and then yourself and Erik Wright who have tended to be more sceptical about its claims. How do you now see the relationship between the two theories?

I don’t think that rational-choice theory is an alternative to historical materialism. No social theory can deny that agents face decision problems and solve them, nor can it deny that how agents handle those problems is fateful for the way history goes. So I am inclined to say that the question is not whether rational-choice theory is valid but rather whether in a given domain we know enough about what goes on at the individual level to apply it.

Consider pre-physical chemistry. Chemistry existed before Lavoisier discovered oxygen and set it on the trail to physical chemistry – by which I mean a chemistry rooted in the structure of the atom. Before chemistry became physical everybody knew that sodium and chlorine made salt, but nobody knew anything about the underlying structure in virtue of which that was true. They didn’t have a microstructural account. Rational- choice theorists offer analogously microstructural accounts. Sometimes they are truly illuminating, because the things they stuff into the heads of agents can be independently verified and what comes out is somewhat surprising relative to what goes in (because of the effects of scale, of interpersonal interactions, strategic problems, game-theoretical dilemmas, and so forth). At other times it is not explanatory because the theorists just stuff, post hoc, into the heads of agents what would have had to be there for them to have made the choices they did. So sometimes rational- choice theorists are illuminating, but sometimes they force microstructure which isn’t illuminating into the picture. But that it’s always desirable, where it is possible, to get an explanatory individual-decision microstructure, I have no doubt. All I defended against Elster in the debate about functional explanation was a claim analogous to the claim that we can know that sodium and chlorine compose salt even when we can’t say how they do. I maintained that you could have patterns in history which make it plausible to say that the economic structure was the way it was because it would advance the productive forces, without being able to tell a microstory in virtue of which that was true.

In Karl Marx’s Theory of History and subsequent writings you suggested that macroscopic explanations of a functional kind were subject to various possible elaborations at the micro level. Which types of elaboration do you now favour, and what role, if any, does rational choice play in them?

Well, suppose you have an elaboration of the chance-variation-social-selection type. For example, people for various reasons (which could include all sorts of crazy irrationalities and so forth) devise various sorts of producing unit, and some of them survive and some of them don’t. And the units survive or go under because of prevailing structural constraints. An elementary instance of that is Milton Friedman’s theory of why firms are profit-seeking (which is simply that ones that aren’t go down). If you tell me whether or not that’s an application of rational-choice theory, or consonant with it, or contradicts it, then I can attempt an answer to your question on the relationship between favoured elaborations and rational-choice theory.

I’m very interested by the example, because I think that the only elaboration which really works is the social-selectionist one. But I had understood that was not your favoured elaboration. I had thought (on the basis mainly of your 1988 article with Will Kymlicka (4)) that you favoured ‘intentional primacy’ -the idea that people change relations of production in order that they will have the effect of enhancing forces of production. In which case, it had seemed to me that you had reverted to a form of intentional explanation for the main thrust of the historical process.

I’m sure you mischaracterise my position. I don’t think I said anything in those debates which would contradict the claim that the most promising form of elaboration would be some sort of chance variation and social selection. The rationality of human beings would come in not at the level of the variation, but at the level of the selection.

Take a very simple example: suppose you find that the pattern of mathematical research in the United States of America is heavily biased towards work that has a military bearing. You might assume that most mathematicians pursue the form of mathematical research that they find intellectually interesting, but that the ones that get the funding are the ones whose work has military relevance. If you sought to represent that as some sort of social selection process, you wouldn’t be deterred from so representing it, if, say 30 per cent of the mathematicians actually themselves chose that area to work in because they knew they’d get funding. So it isn’t quite true that you degrade a functional explanation to an intentional explanation by including in the variation part of the mechanism an element of conscious adjustment to a structural constraint. Even if the conscious adjustment accounted for 80 per cent, that would make no difference. It’s because of the character of their work and not their intentions in pursuing it that the well-rewarded mathematicians come to be rewarded.

Socialism, the Market and the Limitations of Rawls

Analytical Marxism has recently produced at least two impressive proposals for thoroughgoing institutional reform: Roemer’s A Future for Socialism  and Van Parijs’s Real Freedom for All (5) . A feature they share is their adoption of the market as an instrument of egalitarian social engineering. Do you think that the market can deliver socialism?

Let me focus on the word ‘deliver’ for a moment. For Van Parijs the market does ‘deliver’ socialism, that is, it brings it into being. But for Roemer the market doesn’t ‘deliver’ socialism in that sense: it is, rather, a feature of a realised socialist society. Van Parijs thinks that productivity under a capitalist market dispensation can lead to paid work being a vanishing proportion of people’s activity, and he thereby approaches communism through capitalism. But I haven’t studied the Van Parijs project closely enough to have a really determinate opinion about it.

A word about Roemer. I think that every market form – save the very utopian form described by Joseph Carens in his book Equality, Moral Incentives and The Market (6) – produces inequality. This is because market interaction involves competition, and that means winners and losers. Now losing doesn’t have to be disastrous, because you can have a measure of subsidisation; and winning doesn’t have to be colossal because you can have a measure of taxation, but this process has its limits. Without some degree of inequality, there ain’t no market.

Roemer’s market socialism ingeniously and radically reduces market inequality, because he proposes two different currencies, one for buying enterprises and one for buying consumer goods, and their mutual inconvertibility has very dampening effects on the degree of inequality that his markets produce. We don’t know how to proceed without markets, so we don’t know how to proceed without forms which produce some inequality. So we don’t know how to bring about equality. The best we now know how to do is the kind of thing that Roemer designs.

Since Roemer’s design is vastly superior to any form of capitalism, it would show a lack of perspective to complain about the residual inequality that’s involved. The qualification which I put on the claim that markets always produce inequality is that Joseph Carens’s book, whose subtitle is ‘an essay in utopian politico-economic theory’, presents a system which is completely capitalist but where a taxation scheme redistributes income to complete equality. It doesn’t contain special socialist institutions – there are capitalists, there are workers – but nobody does what they do in order to make money. Everybody does what they do in order to make their social contribution. The measure of the social contribution is the amount of money that you make, and the measure of your personal virtue is the ratio of the money you actually make (but do not keep) to the money you could make if you maximised on the market.

I also think that Roemerian designs and all forms of market socialism where the tendency to market inequality is dampened require a certain ethos. Otherwise the dynamism of the market itself will be dampened, together with the dampening of the inequality that it produces. This means that in a market constrained by legislated norms of equality, you can get the same dynamism only if there is a degree of social commitment. Ex hypothesi if ‘they’re only doing it for the money’, they do it with less vigour for three times the average income than they would for fifty times the average.

This point about the need for an egalitarian ethos also lies at the heart of my critique of John Rawls’s theory of justice. That critique targets his indulgent attitude towards incentives for the able and the well-off. I say that material incentives are required only to the extent that the high fliers aren’t themselves committed to equality: if they were they would not demand the incentives. And whether or not they require incentives depends on the ethos that governs the society. Part of what I want to do in the future is to explore this question of ethos: because we always thought that structure was what really mattered, we neglected aspects of the moral atmosphere of society that are important both from the point of view of justice and for the overall character of social life.

This concern that equality might dampen the dynamism of the market might not worry someone who is sceptical about the desirability of further economic growth.. The dynamism of the market might need to be tempered.

No, I don’t think that line of thought is well-conceived. If by economic growth, you mean an increase in the resource inputs which get transformed, then obviously we have to be against limitless economic growth. But if you measure growth as increase in production of use-value per unit of resource input, then everybody should be in favour of economic growth.

There has to be an ecological constraint within which any economy, and therefore also a market economy, operates. The ecological constraint determines what can be produced and how it can be produced., It doesn’t settle how cleverly, how efficiently, what gets produced is produced within those constraints. The technological growth point in today’s world is the computer revolution. Much of this is ecologically friendly in its very nature because many of its activities consume little energy, but it is also potentially useful for overcoming the ecological problems which we face. To the extent that we care – as we must – about efficiency in production, then, even if we believe that we must no longer grow in the traditional way, we must care about incentives to efficient production. Do we want to work inefficiently for eight hours a day simply because we don’t want to produce so much?. Surely it’s better to work more efficiently for only four hours a day, and enjoy more leisure. The problem is that if the four-hour society is to come about in an egalitarian form, then there must be new kinds of incentive to replace the monetary ones that an egalitarian society rejects.

We want people to invent cheaper and better ways of satisfying human needs, because there are so many people in the world who live substandard lives in a material sense. We want education to be cheaper, to provide for the billions of people who don’t get it. These advances require invention and there’s no doubt that one of the things that stimulates people to invent is the prospect of making lots of money. If you reduce the amount of money people can make from inventing and thereby reduce that stimulus, there will be less inventing and it will therefore take longer to get the devices that can relieve humanity of so much of its misery and backwardness.

What you have just said sounds like a classic Rawlsian argument. Yet earlier you seemed critical of Rawls ....

I am critical of Rawls for regarding a situation as just no matter how much inequality there is within it and no matter how self-seeking the well-off people are. His view implies that a society can be just even if large and strategic parts of its population are self-seekingly motivated in such a way as to make the condition of the worst off worse than it could otherwise be. I’m not critical of the Rawlsian principle that inequalities are justified if they’re necessary to make the worst-off people better off. The issue between us concerns the application of that principle. If well-off people make inequalities necessary because they’re not willing to put their shoulder to the wheel as hard as they would with those inequalities removed, then, so I argue, their behaviour can be criticised at the bar of the difference principle itself. I question Rawls’ failure to see that.

The same point can be approached from a slightly different angle. I am suggesting that the difference principle must apply not just to the basic structure of society (if by ‘basic structure’ Rawls means, as he sometimes does, its coercive laws) but also the ethos of society. You could have two societies, with identical basic structures, one of which is much more equal than the other because the ethos in that society is much more egalitarian. As a result people don’t have to have such big carrots in order to do the kind of specialised work that (for whatever reason) only some people can do. For Rawls those two societies are equally just because justice is only a property of the basic structure, but for me that’s not true: one society shows greater justice and it shows greater justice because of a stronger commitment to egalitarian justice on the part of its citizens.

Rawls also sometimes characterises the basic structure as the arrangements that are most fateful for people’s lives, but it just isn’t true that the basic coercive lines of a society are identical with what is most fateful for people’s lives. Here, a feminist critique of Rawls is absolutely in point. Family structures are not coercively legislated by and large (or need not be), and yet they are enormously fateful for people’s lives. They can create enormous injustice, inequality and human degradation. But these injustices are untouched by Rawls’ reading of his own principle, since his reading does not go beyond coercive structure. Ethos is, once again, absolutely central: what counts is people’s values and attitudes.

But to be fair to Rawls there are many sections of A Theory of Justice and his other writings where he assumes that the citizens of a well-ordered society will be motivated to act on the principles of justice.

Yes, that’s right and I use that in my critique of Rawls because I thinks it’s an inconsistency. Although he says that they are motivated to act on the principles, he is quite content for the principles to be legislated as constraints on their behaviour which are exogenous, where the behaviour itself is determined by pure self-seeking.

To go back to what you said earlier about community, is this egalitarian ethos central to community?

Under modern conditions, yes, but not by ink community in its most general form requires equality, but it does in contemporary circumstances. We can no longer believe in legitimate hierarchical relations.

So is your idea of socialism an amalgam of this idea of community with liberal egalitarianism?

I think so. Consider a ‘simple commodity production’ society, in which (1) people are roughly equal in talent, (2) they have similar amounts of land, (3) their utility functions are sufficiently similar that no-one comes to work for anyone else and (4) the spread of wealth among these independent producer-traders doesn’t get too large. Now that is a reasonably equal society, but in no way a socialist society, because it’s a market principle that governs social interactions. As long as nobody does anything for anybody else save because of what they’re going to get from the other person, it’s not a socialist society.

Surely that marks a big difference between you and Roemer, for whom the market is a fairly neutral mechanism which can be harnessed via property relations to achieve almost any objective?

I don’t think that’s a fair description of Roemer, because he acknowledges in A Future for Socialism that lack of community is a consequence of competition. He endorses my remark that the market motivates contribution not on the basis of commitment to one’s fellow human beings, but on the basis of impersonal cash reward. And in the light of that, and similar criticism of his proposal from the left, he represents the following as the salient issue: ‘Does there exist a next step from capitalism approaching the long-term socialist goal that is better than some variety of market socialism?’(8)

I think he’s right to say ‘no’, that there exists no such next step, and I think then that the contrast you tried to draw between him and me confused different intellectual enterprises. As a philosopher, I am interested in fundamental characterisations of forms of society without regard to where we are now; whereas Roemer the economist is interested in what’s desirable and feasible for a conceivable, graspable future.

But that is to represent your project as being completely divorced from everyday politics....

I don’t think that’s true. I’m articulating and defending an ideal which moves people to action to the extent that they believe in it, an ideal which needs to be defended against capitalist ideology and capitalist ideas. And the relevance of what I’m doing to action is revealed in the sentence that I quoted from Roemer a moment ago. Because he referred not just to the best thing we can next get, but to the next step from capitalism in a process that approaches the long-term socialist goal. The long-term socialist goal is important, not because we can set about achieving it now, but because fewer people will set about achieving short-term goals of the sort Roemer describes if we have no conception of the name of the long-term game.

But is the emphasis on community only relevant in that longer-term sense? Is it, as it were, your candidate for the concept of communism in Marx’s thought?

No, scarcely. I think that one of the great achievements of Thatcherism, to the detriment of the quality of life in our society, has been to degrade the sense of community in Britain, but Britain was a capitalist society before Thatcher came to power. It was a capitalist country that once had a much greater sense of community, for example under the Attlee government. People worked hard, put their shoulders to the wheel, in high positions – even those who weren’t socialist and even though they weren’t paid astronomical salaries – because they believed they were serving a certain social function. They believed they were helping the country to recover from war. And those who were socialist did it because they believed they were building a new form of society. That community value benefited people tremendously even within the framework of a capitalist society.

Politics and the Role of the Left Intellectual

The previous conversation has touched on an issue we wanted to raise with you in any case: the role of the left intellectual. At some point in the recent past it was a lot clearer what the connection was between being an academic socialist – thinking about questions of justice and exploitation – and political practice. There were reasonably obvious ways in which the two things connected. But now that connection is much less clear: it is not obvious what those engaged by such questions should do in the realm of political practice. How does your kind of reflection connect with the political practice of the Labour Party, or the Green Party or any other political formation?

I certainly agree with the premise of the question. Corresponding to something I talked about earlier, namely the past coincidence and present disjunction between who’s doing the producing and who is in need, there is a long term shift from a position where electoral and social might could readily coincide with what’s right to a situation where that is no longer so.

Putting the matter very crudely, if you have a society where 80 per cent are poor and 20 per cent are rich, you can imagine recruiting a majority to a revolution which produces equality. But where you have a society where 80 per cent are rich and 20 per cent are poor, then that’s much less easy to imagine. When you move from a position where (potential) might and right can be conceived as coinciding to what we’ve got now, then if you’re the Labour Party you have a choice. You can either preach what’s right to sections of the population who no longer have the material interest in what’s right that they once did – which requires a certain kind of charisma and inspirational standing – or you can do what Blair is doing, which is the complete opposite of that. That is, you deform the message of the party in order to recruit as large a majority as you’d hoped for in the past but without threatening the comparatively privileged position of many of the people that you’re now addressing.

So, part of what the Labour Party has to do from a socialist point of view, and what socialists in it have to do, is to engage more in principled advocacy. When people have nothing to lose but their chains, you don’t have to tell them that it’s wrong that they have nothing , but when people who have a lot to lose are in a society where other people have nothing, then you have to emphasise the wrongness of that position to get them to act.

If you were leading the Labour Party – I guess from the pulpit, according to what you have just said – how would you handle the trade-off between the need to avoid another five years of Thatcherism and the moral imperatives of socialism?

If I were leader of the Labour Party – which is a different question from what it’s right for people like me to do given what the current non-socialist leadership of the Labour Party is doing – I would have to have in mind both defeating the Tories and keeping the socialist idea alive. The way I would balance those two considerations in my public discourse would necessarily be different from the way I balance them now, as a socialist who is not the leader of the Labour Party.

If a Labour Government is elected, then it won’t be long before it produces massive disillusion. The objective situation that it faces will, together with its sworn anti-redistributive commitments, make it impossible for it to fulfil people’s hopes. If a critique from the left is sustained in advance of the election, then left critique will have more authority when the disillusionment sets in.

Do you think that one of the functions of left intellectuals is to keep socialist values alive, if necessary out of contact with political movements?

Yes, but not if one thought that socialism was never feasible. It isn’t that you don’t care whether or not it is possible. You have to believe that it is a possible form of human association. Otherwise, your praise of it is in a certain way dishonest. Anybody can agree, however right-wing they are, that it would be a nice idea if everyone lived together in equality and community. To be anti-socialist, you only have to believe that that’s impossible, even if it’s desirable.

But if, as you say, one of the things that makes a socialist society possible is a commitment to egalitarian justice, then that becomes part of the objective situation. You could represent the realism as the keeping alive of the idea in a form such that if it did spread through the population then it would become realisable.

So you could vindicate the worldliness of keeping the idea alive insofar as what’s needed for the idea to prevail is for people to believe in it.

Does that characterise your own position?

Very much so. A couple of years ago I had a realisation about political activity which stunned me. I had always thought that intellectual activity – which isn’t political activity but has some complicated relationship to it – consists in writing books, appearing on television and so on, whereas political activity is going down to the picket line and talking to people. Then I realised how insanely idiotic and ridiculous that contrast is. I once gave a twenty-minute talk on television called ‘Against Capitalism’, which about 200,000 people watched. That was presumably ‘intellectual activity’, but if you go down and talk to six people on a picket line, that counts as ‘political activity’. I used to feel apologetic about being an intellectual who wasn’t out there on the streets, but the trouble about the streets – from the point of view of the message – is that there aren’t actually many people there! I think that from a socialist point of view the best use of my time is to develop my ideas and to try to express them in a compelling form, both academically and not so academically.

The Road Ahead

In the light of our discussion, could you say finally where you see you work going now? What lies ahead in the next phase of your career?

There’s a lot of normative work that I’ve done which isn’t in the most recent book, work which relates to Rawls rather than to Nozick. This will be elaborated further in Gifford lectures in Edinburgh in April and May 1996, and will then be published as a book. I think the theme of structure and ethos that I’ve talked about here will be important in my future work.

I’m a little anxious about it, because I remember that one of the things for which I had contempt as a young Marxist was the view that socialism requires a transformation of the human heart. I now think that there is much truth in the Christian objection to Marxism that it does not address the problem of people’s attitudes to one another at a deep enough level. There’s only so far that you can go by having the optimal coercive structure for society. The problem of incentives, which is central to modern economic thinking about how to organise societies, proves that. The existence of that problem vindicates what I used to think was the namby-pamby claim that people’s attitudes must change if we are to bring about a truly egalitarian society. The social designer with nothing but coercive mechanisms at his or her disposal cannot achieve equality.

Notes

1.(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

2. Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p 4.

3. Reprinted as chapter 8 of History, Labour and Freedom: Themes from Marx (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp.132–54. Originally published in Marxism: Nomos XXVI, eds. J.R. Pennock and J.W. Chapman (New York: New York University Press, 1983), pp. 227–52.

4. ‘Human Nature and Social Change in the Marxist Conception of History’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 85, no. 4, pp.171–91; reprinted as chapter 5 of History, Labour and Freedom.

5. (London: Verso, 1994) and (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). respectively.

6. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

7. New Left Review 207 (1994), pp. 3–16.

8. John Roemer, A Future for Socialism, p. 118.
 
 

IMPRINTS Interview conducted at

All Souls College, Oxford, 31 October, 1995.



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