By G.A. Cohen
Is socialism desirable? Is it even possible? In this concise book, Why Not Socialism, one of the world's leading political philosophers presents with clarity and wit a compelling moral case for socialism and argues that the obstacles in its way are exaggerated.
There are times, G.A. Cohen notes, when we all behave like socialists. On a camping trip, for example, campers wouldn't dream of charging each other to use a soccer ball or for fish that they happened to catch. Campers do not give merely to get, but relate to each other in a spirit of equality and community. Would such socialist norms be desirable across society as a whole? Why not? Whole societies may differ from camping trips, but it is still attractive when people treat each other with the equal regard that such trips exhibit.
But, however desirable it may be, many claim that socialism is impossible. Cohen writes that the biggest obstacle to socialism isn't, as often argued, intractable human selfishness--it's rather the lack of obvious means to harness the human generosity that is there. Lacking those means, we rely on the market. But there are many ways of confining the sway of the market: there are desirable changes that can move us toward a socialist society in which, to quote Albert Einstein, humanity has "overcome and advanced beyond the predatory stage of human development."
In 2014 Jason Brennan wrote a response under the title Why Not Capitalism?
David Gordon on Mises Institute wrote:
"for G.A. Cohen ‘every market … is a system of predation.’ That is the essence of his short but trenchant and elegantly written last book – Cohen died last August. His object is to make what he calls a ‘preliminary’ case – a tentative case that may, in the end, be defeated by inescapable realities – for a socialist alternative. Is it desirable, he asks, and if desirable is it feasible, to construct a society driven by something other than predation, which doesn’t answer to the ‘shabby’, ‘base’, ‘repugnant’ motivations of the market but is guided instead by a moral commitment to community and equality? In his characteristically lucid, engaging and gently humorous style, Cohen begins by imagining a group of people on a camping trip. [...] Cohen says things that need to be said, often better than anyone else; and his last book is especially effective as an argument against the obstacles to socialism typically ascribed to human selfishness. His style of argument is very accessible, and it is certainly a more attractive mode of persuasion than dreary analyses of how capitalism actually works. But there is surely a way of being morally persuasive while still coming to grips with the realities of capitalism and what would really be required to correct its injustices."
"In Why Not Socialism? Cohen explains in a clear and accessible way why he thinks that socialism is morally desirable. In doing so, though, he leaves himself open to a challenge, and of this he is fully aware. Even if he could demonstrate that socialism is a morally superior system to capitalism, it might turn ought that socialism is impossible to establish. He endeavors to meet the difficulty but, as we shall see, he fails adequately to confront the principal reason that would derail a socialist economy."
Cohen Arguing against Capitalism
Not specifically about this book, but along the same political lines:
Alternatively, you may enjoy this sample (6 min) of the audio book edition of Why Not Socialism.
Table of Contents
- The camping trip
- The principles realized on the camping trip
- Is the ideal desirable?
- Is the ideal feasible? Are the obstacles to it human selfishness, or poor social technology?
About G.A. Cohen
Gerald Allan "Jerry" Cohen (1941 – 2009) was a Marxist political philosopher who held the positions of Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, University College London and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, Oxford.