Thursday, August 13, 2009

Analyze This

The Guardian presents an obituary for Analytic Marxist G.A. Cohen.

I can't claim to have known Gerry Cohen very well—the fact that I knew him as Gerry when everyone else knew him as Jerry testifies to that fact, or else my teenage pedantry—but he was one of my lecturers in the early 1980s when I was at university in London. He gave a course on Marx in one of the large lecture halls in UCL, and from what I can recall, most of the lectures were devoted to his idiosyncratic take on Marx rather than on introducing us to Marx's ideas and helping us to understand wherein the controversy lay. He was perfectly entitled to do so, of course, but at the time, the Marx he presented wasn't one I recognized, and I can't say that I gave Cohen's interpretation the attention it deserved. What I do remember is that he was a witty and sharp speaker and responded to students' questions generously and without condescension. I also remember there being lots of anarchists in his lectures; copies of Freedom and Black Flag conspicuously displayed on desks. I'm sure he never noticed.

It has only been in the last ten years, after doing the reading I should have done in preparation for Cohen's course, that I have come to appreciate what the Analytic Marxist school was trying to achieve, namely, to salvage from a project that was already recognizably moribund some justification for socialism that did not depend on discredited economic theories or an overly optimistic conception of the direction of history. Whether or not they succeeded or simply provided us with a moral argument for socialism that is anything but Marxist is not a debate worth pursuing, but I think Cohen at least eventually got to a place and a position which a lot of other socialists, who did not have to go through the detours of Marxism (and this, perhaps, is largely a generational thing), could be perfectly comfortable with.

RIP Gerry.

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