Professor G A Cohen, the Oxford-based philosopher and defender of Marx, has continued to develop his ideas in recent years, whilst retaining his passionate belief in socialism. In this interview with Mario Scannella, he discusses the moral case for socialism and argues that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxist revolution is still a possibility.
What is Socialism?
Scannella: Your interests have changed from a preoccupation with espousing and defending Marxist dicta to a comprehensive analysis of certain socialist values, in particular equality and justice. This seems to be in order to show the moral superiority of socialism over capitalism. Could you briefly explain to begin with, your interpretation of socialism?
Cohen: Well, I don’t think my interpretation is particularly distinctive. To call a society socialist is to indicate the form of economy it has, a form of economy in which there is a kind of shared ownership of productive assets among all the people rather than private ownership of those assets by individuals.
Now there are various ways of sharing the ownership across society of the assets that are needed to produce things. One way is through the governance of those assets by the state, which makes all decisions with respect to the use of those assets. That is the central planning interpretation of socialism, which, so far in this century, has failed disastrously. You might think it is bound to fail or you might think that one day we’ll know how to work that sort of system, but we certainly do not know how to now. Therefore, if we want to be realistic socialists who believe that socialism is a viable form of society now, given what we now know rather than what we might know one day, then to a greater or lesser extent we have to have a socialism which is not instituted on the basis on central planning, but which uses the market to determine the flow of goods.
In recent years socialist economists have done important work on how a socialist market might work. The extensive historical association of socialism with central planning and the hope that central planning could realise the socialist ideal of a truly sharing society meant that economists of a socialist persuasion did not study non-central planning ways of organising what would still be a socialist economy, what would still be an economy that deserves to be called one, because the assets that are used to produce things are shared. There are, for example, various schemes of workers ownership, different forms of semi-privatisation, for example, at a municipal level; there are attempts to realise the principle of collective ownership in the absence of state direction of all economic activity.
So that’s what I would say socialism is: the collective ownership of the productive resources of the society. But we have to be more imaginative than we have been in the past about what forms that collective ownership can take.
It is a quite distinct question from what socialism is to ask why we would value socialism. The principal reason why we would is that we socialists think that people should be pretty much equal in their life prospects. That is impossible to achieve under private ownership, which produces massive inequality almost by definition, and which, not at all by definition, produces within any known capitalist society not just enormous differences in quality of life, but abject conditions of poverty and want for those at the short end of the inequality. We want collective ownership so that we can institute a form of equality of reward and we also want collective ownership because it is simply inappropriate that the collective activity of production should proceed with facilities which are privately owned.
We want socialism for the sake of equality, but we also want socialism so that we can institute forms of control over the economy which can be difficult to achieve under capitalism, forms of control which are needed to prevent excessive pollution, to use resources at a rational rate and so forth. It is possible to have a capitalist economy on which such rules are imposed from without, but a capitalist economy empowers capitalists whose interests run against those rules and they have means of coercing and cajoling government into not engaging in those forms of regulation. So, in practice, various forms of regulation which almost everybody would agree need to be imposed on an economy (because of ecological restraints, for example) are difficult to achieve under capitalism and easier to achieve under a socialist dispensation.
Scannella: So would you argue that socialism and only socialism would be able to satisfy the two criticisms you level at capitalism in your article The Future of a Disillusion, that is, that the market distributes unjustly to individuals and secondly that it motivates contributions not on the basis of a genuine commitment to one’s fellow human beings and a desire to serve them as they serve you but on the basis of impersonal cash rewards leading to production based on greed and fear?
Cohen: Before I reply to that double-barrelled question, let me enter some background remarks. I am suggesting that the best way to contrast capitalism and socialism is in the dimension of ownership. Capitalism means private ownership and socialism means collective ownership in some form. Let me give a very simple model of that. We go on a camping trip and there are 15 or 20 of us. We have facilities with which we carry out all the activities which we want to carry out, so we have fishing rods, we have canoes etc. On camping trips, as normally carried out, we own and use those things collectively, and we have understandings about who is going to use them when and under what circumstances and why and so forth.
You could imagine a camping trip where everybody brings their own piece of equipment and bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay who what to be allowed, for example, to use their knife on the potatoes, and how much he is going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes which were originally bought off another camper etc. You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and private ownership of the facilities required.
Now everybody would hate that. Everyone loves the first kind of camping trip, not the second. The trouble we have as socialists is that we don’t know how to simulate that camping trip on a nation-wide scale with the resources of the society. There isn’t any question that socialism is a more desirable form of ownership than capitalism, but the problem it faces is not in the dimension of desirability but in that of viability. We don’t quite know how to do it. We need to experiment with the forms which give collective ownership the real meaning that it has in the camping story but which it didn’t have in the Soviet Union or in countries like that. They had an ideology of collective ownership, but people didn’t really share the assets.
Let me now address the question you posed. I distinguish between capitalism and socialism in terms of ownership. Capitalism means private ownership and private ownership induces inequality because people fare differentially well with their assets on the market. The only alternative to private ownership is collective ownership. Therefore the only alternative to inequality is socialism. Capitalism entails inequality, and, being the alternative to it, socialism is the only form of society that can extinguish inequality. The reason why it is the only alternative is because they are distinguished in the dimension of ownership and you either have private or collective ownership of the assets. Although there can be loads of mixed forms, there is no independent third form.
Now the second part of your question is more complicated: whether capitalism is necessarily a society of greed and fear and whether socialism is the only society in which motivation can be different from that.
When I say that the motivation under capitalism consists of greed and fear, I mean that in a fundamental sense nobody cares at all how well or badly anyone other than herself fares in the economic game. You co-operate with other people, not because you believe that co-operating with other people is a good thing in itself, not because you want yourself and the other person to flourish, but because you want to flourish and you know you can only do so if you co-operate with others.
So under capitalism I serve you only in order that I be better served as a result. If I thought my service for you would not yield anything for me either by way of getting something I desire, which is greed, or by way of ensuring that something I want to avoid is avoided, which is fear, if in those general senses greed and fear are not the motives for what I am doing, then I have no reason to co-operate with you within a capitalist society: I do not relish co-operation for its own sake. What I mean by “relishing co-operation” is that, if I do so, then, instead of serving you because I want you to serve me, I serve you in the expectation that you will also serve me and what I consider as proper and good is that we serve each other. I don’t want to be a sucker and serve you regardless of whether you are going to serve me, but I value both parts of the conjunction – I serve you and you serve me – as ends in themselves, other than regarding one part – I serve you – as simply a means to my real end, which is that you serve me.
Now, in a capitalist economy, in so far as the market dominates what happens in the society, the market as we normally understand it, then so do greed and fear. In 1981 an American political theorist called Joseph Carens published a book called Equality, Moral Incentives and the Market. Carens designs a society which is capitalist in the sense that prices determine what people do and people are trying to maximise their incomes in the usual way, as in a capitalist society, but where the state then taxes everyone so that everybody ends up with exactly the same income. In that society people respond to prices because they know that a society is productive when people do so but not because of the reward associated with that response in a capitalist society, since, although the reward goes to them in the first instance in Carens’s society, so that market efficiency functions in the normal way, ultimately it gets taken away by the state and the only reason why they sought it was because they all believe in replicating the efficiency properties of capitalism: none of them are greedy.
Well, you might ask whether the Carens society should be classified as a capitalist one with a completely redistributive taxation system, and wonderful motives, or as a form of socialism. I would call it socialist because in effect everything is collectively owned, since nobody benefits privately from their own activity. The Carens society is, evidently, extraordinarily utopian. But you can more or less approach it by people being more or less heavily taxed, because although they treat market signals as information about where they will be productive, they do not treat market rewards as their sole incentive. If you want to call that a capitalist society then you can have capitalism without greed and fear. But there is as much reason to call it a socialist society and at that point the question becomes one of words: it loses its sociological substance.
The Motivation For Socialism
Scannella: You seem to emphasise in your writings that a socialist society is more just not just because of collective ownership but also on the part of the motives of the individual. How important is it, for any socialist society to be called just, that the motivations of the agents are to be based on just principles?
Cohen: Well, I think that abstractly speaking you can have justice where people are not themselves motivated by justice. For example, you have 11 people, 10 of whom are motivated by nothing but greed, but one of whom believes in justice, and has power, and therefore cuts the cake into 11 equal pieces. There is them a just distribution of the cake, but the motivations of the parties in this society are not just, only the ruler is just. So you can get just results without just motives because of the way in which human activity is exogenously structured.
For example, if you happen to think “first-come, first-served” is a just principle, which, within limits it is, and the escalator is such that only one person can go on at a time and nobody would be advantaged by trying to get ahead of them, then you will get that just principle of “first-come, first-served” being implemented regardless of whether any one cares about justice, and here there no external ruler enforces it: it just works out that way because of the sheer physics of the situation. So in order to have a just distribution of in society and just practices, it isn’t necessary, by definition, that people themselves be just. But I do think it is inconceivable, in the conditions of a complex advanced economy, for there to be a just distribution without people’s motivations being just.
Return to the example I gave earlier. Carens’s utopian socialist society, which is a completely capitalist one at stage one, but where there is then a total redistribution of what’s produced. That society’s success depends on productive people not responding to taxation by reducing their productive input. If people respond to high taxation of high income by reducing their productive input, then high income and high taxation won’t do what is hoped it would do in an egalitarian socialist society, namely, induce a redistribution which makes most people better off; it might, instead, make everybody worse off because of its disincentive effect. Taxation is not a disincentive only if the highly taxed person thinks it just and fair that, although she happens to be more talented than other people, and is therefore more productive,. she gets more than others do. She knows she’s lucky to possess greater talent and she therefore accepts high taxation: and that acceptance requires just motives. Since it is inconceivable that you can have a socialist economy without a market and it is not conceivable that we can have a market consistent with egalitarian principles without taxation, it is necessary for there to be just motives in order to have socialism in the complexity of real-world circumstance.
Scannella: Thus just motives are a necessary condition for any socialist society.
Cohen: Yes, that’s right. People have to accept the regime of equality that prevails in that sort of society, you could not impose it on them.
Socialism and Revolution
Scannella: You also argue that the conditions that Marx stated for a revolution will never come into existence, so you argue that the basis for the motivation of the proletariat is a desire to get rid of injustice as opposed to a desire to rid themselves of a state of abject poverty in the face of unjust oppression. The latter would unquestionably be seen as a strong enough motivation, but do you really see the former as a strong enough motivation for people to risk their relatively, historically speaking, comfortable standard of living?
Cohen: Well, the challenge to me is deeper still than that, because my point about the transformation of the conditions of a capitalist society is that the proletariat itself in the classical sense simply does not exists anymore. There is not even this body of people who are the mass of the population and who can really count as a proletariat. It is obvious that if you forecast that people whose existence would otherwise proceed under an oppressive yoke will rise in revolution, then you are on much safer ground than if you forecast that people will come to see that a certain way of life is unjust, unworthy and contemptible and will therefore get rid of it. But I am not forecasting that: I am only advocating it.
You could ask, “Does the advocacy of that sort of revolution have any realism in it? How are you going to have a revolution just because people who are not particularly oppressed think that the present order is wrong and that another would be superior. Why should they risk what they have?” I think that to answer to that question, you have to distinguish among meanings of the word “revolution”.
I think that the word “revolution” has borne four meanings in the socialist tradition. We can distinguish four senses of “revolutionary change” as opposed to “non-revolutionary change”, senses which correspond to four meanings of “revolution”:
- A revolutionary change is a violent one rather than a peaceful one.
- It is unconstitutional, rather than occurring within the rules of the constitution.
- It is sudden rather than gradual.
- It is comprehensive rather than superficial.
Now, if you think about it (and please do – it is a worthwhile exercise) you will see that each of these features is logically independent of the other three. You can have any combination of those four features, and because of that you can mean many different things by “revolution”. People on the left are often confused, they don’t really know what they’re talking about, when they say you can have or can’t have a revolution, because these four different features are mingling in their minds, and they haven’t distinguished them and pinned them down.
I think that if you are talking about a violent, unconstitutional and sudden change on the basis of people’s perception of what is right and wrong, of course that is out of the question, whereas it may well have been in question for people suffering from massive oppression and material want. But if you are talking about a comprehensive transformation of society, which could be something which happens gradually, peacefully and constitutionally, then I do not think that we know that people are unable and unwilling to produce that sort of change. There are a lot of things now that are a lot less lousy than things were in the past and one of the reasons why the mass of people accept the way things now are is that they know that what they have is miles better than what their parents and grandparents had. But that does not mean that there are not a lot of oppressions in their lives and indignities and subordinations to market forces which are extremely unattractive, which they might come to resent more when memories of bygone worse things have faded. They might come to care more about the admittedly lesser oppressions than it now seems possible that they would ever care about them. I am not saying that I know that, I am just saying that nobody really knows that it is not so.
Scannella: You seem to suggest by your last answer that a socialist society can be reached through a liberal democratic path, which if we look at the recent state of the British Labour party seems very unlikely. Do you believe that socialism can be reached through this way?
Cohen: Well, I don’t know if socialism can be achieved at all. I have not claimed it can be achieved, but I am 100% certain that if I can be achieved then it can be achieved through a liberal democratic path. The reason is that I do not believe it can be achieved through any other path in a society which is a liberal democracy. That’s to say, where you have czarist dictatorship, where people do not have the suffrage and therefore cannot express themselves politically and can only express their political will violently, then of course there is no liberal path to socialism. But if you have a society in which the popular will can be expressed through the ballot box, then the only reason why you would want to produce socialism non-democratically is because it is not properly consonant with the popular will, and if it is not consonant with it, then you will not get socialism. You cannot impose socialism on people. Socialism, the collective ownership of the resources by the people as a whole, has to be something that people willingly engage in, as a centrepiece of their lives.
This does not mean that there cannot and will not be violence on the road to that socialism. You see, you have to distinguish between constitutionality and peacefulness. For example, you could envisage a socialist government being elected which has to take very severe measure against private ownership. Those who enjoy private ownership will try, and might manage, to suborn parts of the violent apparatus of the state – the military and the police or whatever – to prevent serious inroads against their power. If the legitimate socialist government successfully used violence to defeat them, that would be a case of violent without (on the part of socialists) extra-constitutional behaviour. Take the example of the loyalist government that was elected liberal-democratically in Spain. Franco organised the capitalist and reactionary forces against it, and there as a war. Suppose the loyalist government had won that war. Well, in that case you would have had what I would regard as a constitutional transition to socialism, in the sense that at least the socialists did nothing unconstitutional, but it would also have been a very violent transition. Socialists should not abandon liberal-democratic norms as an integral part of their socialist project, but they must anticipate that others will, if they reach a certain degree of success in their project.
Scannella: Do you feel that the role of traditional left of centre Labour parties in the west has changed since the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union? If so, what do you see as their new role and to what extent do you fell that the British labour Party is fulfilling this role?
Cohen: Well, in the short term the collapse of the Soviet Union has had, and will continue to have, profound anti-socialist effects for the consciousness of people in the west. This was the grand attempt to institute socialism and this was one of the grandest failures in history. In the longer run the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union may be quite different. With the removal of the Soviet Union and societies like it from the scene, and with the gradual loss of memory of what they were like, people’s complaints about capitalism will less and less be answerable by “if you don’t like it here, why not go over there?” So it is conceivable that the removal of bastard socialism from the scene, which is an unachieved and deformed form of socialism, could increase rather than decrease the degree of resistance to capitalism.
Now I say “could”, not “would”: I do not say more than that. The transformation of labour and socialist parties in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union is simply the short term effect. The long-term effects could be different. As for the British Labour party in particular, a very large question mark hangs over what will happen when, as I am sure they will, they form the next government of Britain, because it is an open secret that the left of that Party has been as silent as it has indeed been because 18 years of Tory Power have put an anti-Tory victory as people’s prime goal and they are willing to sacrifice everything to achieve it. Just yesterday in my home in Oxford I was canvassed by the local elections Labour party candidate and I told her that I was strongly considering voting Liberal Democrats nationally because they are actually to the left of Labour. She said, “Yes, I know, I find it very difficult.” Now a woman like that, who herself admits that the Liberal Democrats are to the left of Labour in their posture in this election, is nevertheless not going to say this and make a fuss about that to the detriment of Labour’s chances, but she is not gong to keep her mouth shut once Labour are in power: and there are tens of thousands like her. There are enormous expectations despite the fact that the Party said they will stick to a Tory budget for the first two years, which means that there will not be a significant change in, for example, the NHS waiting lists and the crisis in the health service, which also means that there will not be an improvement in the living standards of the poorest people in society. So although they have no commitments which would be broken by their failing to attend to urgent deprivation in the first two years of their term, they have expectations surrounding them which will be severely dashed and I think there will be strong conflicts and I do not know how they are going to respond to these conflicts.
The present election is the most boring I have experienced and this is the tenth election I have experienced since coming to Britain in 1961. This is the most amazing election, where issues are not discussed, where the issue is, “Is he saying the same thing he said last week?” and “Does he mean what he says?” It is not the content that counts but these secondary features and that is partly because there is so little difference between all three parties and partly because the hegemony of the media, which have induced a situation where newsworthiness comes from error. It’s banana skin politics, where everybody is waiting for someone to make a big mistake, so everybody just tries to avoid making mistakes. So although the election is the most boring I have ever known, the post-election will be interesting because of the pickle Labour will be in.
It will also be interesting to see the bear garden that the Tory party will become as they tear themselves apart and vote for a leader that not everybody will want. Anyway, I cannot give an evaluation of the Labour party at the moment because I just don’t know what is going to happen.
Scannella: To what extent do you fell that Blair is himself a closet socialist?
Cohen: I believe that Blair is not a socialist and therefore I do not believe he is a closet socialist, in the sense of socialist that I articulated. But we know that Blair is enormously electorally conscious and will adapt lots of strategies in order to win, so it would be extraordinary if every single piece of ideological manipulation which he has engineered reflects his own personal, electorally uninfluenced views. There must be lots of changes which he has engineered which were for electoral purposes. That is not to disparage him by any means. His syllogism is: we have to do everything we can to get into power; unless we change in these ways we do not get into power; therefore we have to change in these ways. It’s a very seductive syllogism and that is why so many people who are not Blairite have been won over. You can question it in various ways. You can raise long versus short term perspectives: if, in order to get in power, we have to do these things, then is it worthwhile trying to get power now? Or you can question by saying that even if we have to trim to get into power, it does not follow that we have to be maximally cautious. So he has engineered changes for electoral rather than for independent reasons. It does not follow that if and when he does get into power he will retreat from these changes, because he will then have as large a motive for staying in power as he did for achieving it in the first place.
The Value of Equality
Scannella: Going back to your conception of socialism, one of the reasons why you favour it so much is because you feel that it ensures a much more fundamental sense of equality. Why, as a philosopher, do you feel that equality matters so much?
Cohen: Well, there are two absolutely different reasons why it matters. It matters because it makes the worse off people in society better off that they would otherwise be, and it is a very compelling moral idea that when we organise society, the worst off in the society should not be worse off than anyone in a society needs to be. By and large, if you equalise things, you bring up those at the bottom, whatever happens to anyone else.
One of the most common Tory arguments for inequality is that it makes those at the bottom better off, and if that factual claim about inequality were correct – if the trickledown theory, according to which as the rich get richer all boats rise and the poor get richer too than they otherwise would be – if it were true then the case for socialism on the grounds of justice would be severely prejudiced. But it isn’t correct and the statistics show that the material welfare of the worst off in this society was savaged by the government that propagated that ideology. So one reason to be in favour of equality is that it makes the worst off better off. But that is not the whole of it.
The harder point to defend is that equality is good in itself. Here I would borrow some ideas of Ronald Dworkin, although I do not know how much I have added to them. His response to the argument that equality only matters as a means to make the worst off better and has no other value is this: Imagine that you are a parent of, say, four children, and you have resources to distribute among them: it is simply wrong to distribute them unequally. You are not going to distribute what you have to distribute to them unequally, even if, were they unequally treated, the one at the bottom would be better off than he would be if they were all equally treated. You are going to treat them equally because you believe it is appropriate: it is the right relationship between you and them that they be treated equally.
Now, the complex question is, can we understand the society to which we belong as a collective agent which we together comprise, one that properly relates to each of us in a similar fashion, so that it is inappropriate or unjust if our society treats us unequally, quite apart from how badly off or well off any one of us in particular is? Suppose that the society we live in is invested with gigantic resources, which would enable everyone to be a millionaire, but instead it is so distributed so that some people are half-millionaires and some people are super-millionaires. Now nobody could make a song and dance about how badly off the people at the bottom are, that could hardy be regarded as an urgent matter, but the society would nevertheless be unjust, because it is not treating all those very fortunate people equally. So that is the way to go if you want to vindicate equality as an end in itself.
The Philosopher and Society
Scannella: As a philosopher, one value you must endorse is intellectual integrity. Do you think that there may be a tension between articulating a coherent philosophical defence of socialism and producing a revolutionary and political doctrine which stimulates people to action? Could not one argue that this tension is epitomised in your criticism of the labour theory of value and historical materialism? Alternatively, where is the politics in analytic Marxism?
Cohen: I think there is a serious issue here. You cannot guarantee that the truth will always be good from a revolutionary point of view. How could that conceivably be guaranteed? Now if I did not believe that there was a broad coincidence between what’s true and what could and should motivate people, then my intellectual enterprise would be incoherent. I am a socialist intellectual because I believe in socialism and if, in general, discovering things about socialism is not going to advance the cause of socialism but to retard it then I have to choose between being an intellectual and being a socialist. I do not think that a broad contradiction exists, but I do concede that there may be individual contradictions, whether or not the ones you have mentioned are among them. You certainly do discover things which it might be better to hush up because they tarnish the ideal in various ways.
I think that every person has a right to be honest. I think that individuals have rights against collective demands, even against the collective demand to produce a better society, and I think I have the right not to tell lies even when those lies would be beneficial for the socialist movement. This does not mean you have to be a political idiot and never take account of what the effect is going to be of what you say in a given context, but there is a difference between that kind of public tact and outright deception. One has a right not to engage in deception.
So I would acknowledge that the two desiderata of promoting socialism and being honest can conflict, but I deny that they can conflict on a wide scale. If I thought they conflicted very broadly, then I would find it difficult to be a socialist. Where individual conflicts exist, a degree of diplomacy is clearly in order. But if no reasonable degree of diplomacy can conceal the damaging truth, then you cannot expect the intellectual to not come out with the damaging truth, because the intellectual does have a right to be honest.
Scannella: So is this where you see the value of philosophy, in that it sharpens our analytic skills and thus enable us to be more honest as human beings?
Cohen: Well, I do not think it has only one value, but that is perhaps one of its values.
From a socialist political point of view, philosophy is invaluable because it assists in two essential tasks. The first is that it exposes the lies, the hypocrisy and the sophisms of those who defend inequality and injustice and capitalism. These deceptions are enormously powerful: look at the impact the arguments in favour of the capitalist system have had. That’s one of the reasons why so many people believe in it, because in a certain sense it is well argued for. In order to address those powerful arguments you have to be highly skilled and that’s one of the reasons why philosophy is important from a socialist point of view. It is important to combat the enemies’ lies because they are not such straightforward lies.
Equally, in the more positive task of socialist construction, it is very important for philosophers to participate with economists, sociologists and others in addressing the problems of the design and functioning of a socialist society. Marx used to say when he was asked what socialism would be like, “I do not want to write recipes for future kitchens.” He thought the issues of socialist construction would come up in the future and that they could only be addressed in the future. That was one of his biggest mistakes because unless socialists have a tolerably definite conception of the socialist society which they favour, they will not attract anyone else to their vision. You cannot get people to abandon capitalism in favour of socialism just because socialism sounds good. You need a tolerably detailed prospectus. If I say I am going to build you a wonderful house and that it is going to meet all your dreams and you will love it, and you then ask how many rooms it will have, how will it be heated, and so forth, and I say “I cannot answer any of these questions, but, believe me, it will all work itself out,” you will rightly be sceptical. So socialists need to provide maps and blueprints and discussions about practical issues about how socialism would function for the political purpose of winning people to the cause. They also need to do that for the more evident direct reason that if and to the extent that socialists gain some power, they have to be intelligent about what they are going to do with it, and if they do not do a lot of prethinking they are going to get into a mess; and that’s been the record of history.
Scannella: Beyond combating capitalist ideology, what other advice would you give academic socialists as to carrying out practical political action?
Cohen: Well, partly it depends on how old they are and how much experience they already have. If you are a young person and profess to be a socialist, you should get into some real experience of real struggle with people on the ground, as many young people do. I am not going to say you should belong to the Socialist Workers’ party rather than the Young Socialists or The Socialist party, but it is very important to engage in some action, to know what political activity is and also to be with people who are not just intellectuals and see how they experience things. It is not because your body is needed. You as an intellectual will probably ultimately make a greater contribution by sitting at your desk and working on these difficult problems. There is a division of labour. But you will not know what it is to be a socialist or what socialism is, unless you mingle with non-intellectual people for whom socialism is designed, and not just relatively privileged people like yourself.
The political activity that an intellectual specifically engages in is the activity of trying to get questions about socialism clear and that is important for the reasons I gave in my previous answer to your question.
Scannella: Do you feel that, at least to some extent, intellectual socialists merely interpret the world rather than change it?
Cohen: Intellectual socialists have for a hundred years contributed to important changes in the world by virtue of their interpretations of the world that they have offered. If there had never been intellectual socialists criticising capitalism, talking about ways of diminishing its impact on exposed and weak people, talking about different ways of organising society, there would never have been the massive changes that there have been over the last hundred years, even though those changes also cost blood. They did cost blood and of course they were not the immediate result of a good idea in an armchair or at a desk. Not if there had not been a lot of pain and struggle at that armchair and at that desk there would have been less clarity about what people were fighting for and there would have been less good changes. So to say that you are interpreting the world, not changing it, is an utterly false dichotomy. A major way of contributing to social change is by correct, incisive and innovative interpretation of the world that we live in.
Scannella: Surely, most of the people you wish to commit to action are not intellectuals and will not be able to understand or wish to read our ideas.
Cohen: Well, there are different intellectual levels at which the ideas can be articulated and some of my ideas are expressed in a way that makes them pretty widely accessible and others are much too refined and arcane to be widely accessible. I teach people who are influenced by my ideas and these people in turn go into professions and activities where they express those ideas in fashions which are much more accessible than the one in which they heard it from me. Therefore it is false that in order for my ideas to reach ordinary people I have to express them in a fashion that makes them accessible. The process of ideological change in a society is much more complex than that; it’s millions of different people talking to one another at all kinds of levels, sometimes symmetrically and sometimes asymmetrically. You are part of a very large process.
Scannella: You argue in general that Marxism should be completely and utterly philosophically justified, or as you put it, “free of bullshit.” How guilty do you think some of your philosophical predecessors, particularly Marx, are guilty of bullshitting?
Cohen: I think that a bullshitter is someone who does not care about the truth but simply wants to appear to be right whatever the truth may or may not be, and when you criticise a bullshitter they will dishonestly shift ground, and not change their position. They prefer wilful obscurity to clarity because clarity can undermine your own position.
Although he was at times obscure, because of the influence of Hegel on him, Marx was not a bullshitter. He was not disposed to defend his theories in an intellectually disreputable way