Rembering Jerry Cohen

Cohen coverReviewing my lecture on Marxism for Modern Political Ideologies I looked over Andrew Heywood’s valuable Political Ideologies. To Heywood any future for Marxism rests on ‘post-Marxism’ in the Laclau-Mouffe sense. There was a time when an alternative road was proposed: that of analytical Marxism. Jerry Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History was one of its founding texts published four years after Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Cohen’s defence of a traditional historical materialism inspired much work such as David Lockwood’s very insightful The Destruction of the Soviet Union. Cohen’s recent death attracted no notice in Australia. Noteworthy is his 1991 paper ‘The Future of a Disillusion’ in which suggested that socialists had fallen prey to one of two errors in response to the apparent collapse of socialist hopes: either the ‘Vanity of Vanities’ approach in which they concluded that as genuine socialism was impossible and withdrew from politics altogether concluding that ‘what is really good is not to be had, and there is nothing good enough for me to devote myself to’, or alternatively ‘adaptive preference formation’ which ‘treats the best it can find as the best that could be conceived’, like the legendary fox of Aesop who unable to jump to a tempting bunch of grapes concluded that they were probably sour anyway. To Cohen market socialism was an example of the later. Subsequent intellectual trends on the left would see the demise of socialism altogether. But Cohen could have reflected that Communism was the great example of adaptive preference formation, its proponents convinced themselves that they were under the best of all possible worlds, yet here ‘third way’ pragmatists or new revisionists and Communists shared much in common, both came to defend the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. I note this in my analysis of Indian Communism who combine Stalinist nostalgia with political pragmatism:

In the developed world a central component of the new revisionism has been the adoption by social democratic parties of a pragmatic political professionalism that has rivalled that of their conservative rivals. The real is equated with the rational; political pragmatism is equated with principle. Tony Blair insisted that the ‘third way’ was not simply an updated version of the old pragmatic electorally-focused Labor right but a radical new synthesis that transcended all of the previous political dilemmas of the left (Blair 1998). Marxists went down this road long ago. Theodore Dan, Otto Bauer and, most famously, Nikolai Bukharin, eventually came to see Stalinism as a historically necessary means to construct a socialist economic base (Liebich 1997). Just as new revisionists outdo conservatives in their loyalty to the focus group and the permanent campaign, so the Indian Left has come to play by the harsh rules of Indian politics. CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat said after the Nandigram deaths that: ‘The reality of Bengal is that bombs are thrown, pipe guns are used … there is a political culture and practice in Bengal. You can’t ignore that’ (Thakurta 2007).

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