This essay is an attempt to piece together the elements of G. A. Cohen’s thought on the theory of socialism during his long intellectual voyage from Marxism to political philosophy. It begins from his theory of the maldistribution of freedom under capitalism, moves onto his critique of libertarian property rights, to his diagnosis of the “deep inegalitarian” structure of John Rawls’ theory and concludes with his rejection of the “cheap” fraternity promulgated by liberal egalitarianism. The paper’s exegetical contention is that Cohen’s work in political philosophy is best understood in the background of lifelong commitment to a form of democratic, non-market, socialism realizing the values of freedom, equality and community, as he conceived them. The first part of the essay is therefore an attempt to retrieve core socialism-related arguments by chronologically examining the development of Cohen’s views, using his books as thematic signposts. The second part brings these arguments together with an eye to reconstructing his vision of socialism. It turns out that Cohen’s political philosophy offers a rich conception of objective and subjective freedom, an original understanding of justice as satisfaction of genuine need, and a substantive ideal of fraternity as justificatory community with others. If properly united, these values can suggest a full-bloodied account of the just polity, and give us a glimpse into what it means, for Cohen, to treat people as equals.
KeywordsG. A. Cohen Historical materialism Luck egalitarianism Marxism Second-personal reasons Socialism
I knew Jerry Cohen, first as his student and then as a friend, from 2003 to 2009. He possessed a razor-sharp mind, a deep human sensitivity, and a brilliant sense of humour. This essay is a grateful acknowledgement for his patience, generosity and friendship for the 6 years I knew him. I wish to thank Faik Kurtulmus and Maxime Lambrecht for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft. During the writing of this essay, I have benefited from financial support by the ARC project on sustainability (French-speaking community of Belgium).
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