Tuesday, 13 October 2009

“Why Not Socialism?”, by Gerald A. Cohen (Princeton University Press)


A short, direct argument for socialism

In this short volume (it’s roughly the size of a passport), Gerald Cohen offers his moral argument for socialism, arguing that any obstacles in the way of socialism’s wider acceptance are exaggerated. Given the deadly nature of the very word “socialism” in America, it would be interesting to see what American politicians thought of this book. Needless to say, we are unlikely to ever find out.

Cohen opens with a theoretical scenario – one of a camping trip – offering a situation where people naturally need to work together, dividing labour and jobs equally. The question that needs to be considered is whether or not socialism is desirable or even possible?

Cohen’s argument is that the chief obstacle to socialism is not intractable human selfishness (as Hobbes, Machiavelli and others might argue). Rather, it is the lack of an obvious means to harness human generosity that is inherent in us all – because we don’t have a way to harness this generosity, society falls back to relying on the market to address pretty much everything.

To be honest, the book is perhaps too short to really convert many people or alter the overarching argument and discussion overly much. However, what this short volume can do is make those who hadn’t thought about it before get involved in the debate (should they want to).

It’s well written, very easy to read, but I felt the length somewhat dissatisfying, despite Cohen’s capturing the argument quite well (he had a lifetime of studying and theorising socialism, so anything less would have been unthinkable).

Worth a try, if you have a spare hour or so.

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