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Why Not Socialism? [Hardcover]

by G. A. Cohen
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 13, 2009 0691143617 978-0691143613 0

Is socialism desirable? Is it even possible? In this concise book, 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."



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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Characteristically lucid, engaging and gently humorous. . . . 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."--Ellen Meiksins Wood, London Review of Books



"Is socialism really such an alien way of organizing human society? In this stimulating essay titled Why Not Socialism? (just 92 pages long), the late Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen invites us to think seriously about what socialism has to offer in comparison with capitalism."--Sanford G. Thatcher, Centre Daily Times



"Beautifully written. . . . In sublimely lucid fashion, Cohen draws up taxonomies of equality, offers ethical objection to capitalism . . . and distinguishes between two questions: is socialism desirable?; and, if desirable, is it feasible? . . . Tiny books are all the rage in publishing nowadays; this is one of the few that punches well above its weight."--Steven Poole, The Guardian



"[A] stimulating and thoughtfully argued advocacy of the better world that we need to fight for."--Andrew Stone, Socialist Review



"A quietly urgent book."--Owen Hatherley, Philosophers' Magazine



"Cohen brings his characteristic clarity to his final defence of socialism."--Tim Soutphommasane, The Australian



"No doubt the best forms of socialist organization will emerge, like everything else, after much trial and error. But a vast quantity of preliminary spadework is necessary to excavate the assumptions that keep us from even trying. With Why Not Socialism?, Cohen has turned over a few shovelfuls, bringing us a little nearer the end of the immemorial--but surely not everlasting--epoch of greed and fear."--George Scialabba, Commonweal



"[Here] we have a renowned scholar producing an accessible, concise work addressing a vital topic from a committed, progressive standpoint: would that more of today's academic star scholars would follow this example."--Frank Cunningham, Socialist Studies



"Why Not Socialism? is a lucid and accessible statement of some of Cohen's deepest preoccupations."--Alex Callinicos, Radical Philosophy



"However small the package . . . the problems that Cohen addresses in this slim volume are of enormous importance, and can be taken seriously by readers ranging from those with only a tangential interest in the field, to serious scholars of egalitarian and socialist thought."--Robert C. Robinson, Political Studies Review

From the Inside Flap


"Why Not Socialism? very elegantly advances philosophical arguments that Cohen has famously developed over the past twenty years, and it does so in a manner that is completely accessible to nonphilosophers. The book brilliantly captures the essence of the socialist ethical complaint against market society. Why Not Socialism? is a very timely book."--Hillel Steiner, University of Manchester


"Cohen makes out the case for the moral attractiveness of socialism based on the rather homely example of a camping trip. The positive argument of his book is impressive, and there is a rather disarming combination of simplicity of presentation and example with a deep intellectual engagement with the issues. It is very clear that there is an analytically powerful mind at work here."--Jonathan Wolff, author of Why Read Marx Today?



Product Details

  • Hardcover: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691143617
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691143613
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 4 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #157,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Share this book September 2, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Why Not Socialism?
If you are considering buying this book be sure to read the "Product Description" so that you know the size of what you are getting for your money: it is not just "concise," it is tiny, no more than about 10,000 words. As an alternative, you may want to check your library for an earlier version, which appeared in Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong?, edited by Edward Broadbent (2001).

If you are not already familiar with Cohen (or even if you are) you may want to view the obituary that appeared in the Guardian (August 10, 2009), which provides an excellent overview of his life and thought: [...]

In this little essay Cohen pursues a helpful allegory, that of a group on a camping trip, to probe reciprocity and exchange motivations and principles. He illustrates how three forms of the principle of equality plus the principle of community might apply to the campers' behavior. He advocates "communal reciprocity," a principle that involves giving or sharing not because of what one can get in return, but because the recipient needs what is given. Think of it as a counter-balance to the role of selfishness in the classic allegorical work on economic motivations, Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees.

Further details of Cohen's argument are ably summarized in the Gintis review, so I will not repeat them. I will say, though, that Gintis seems too harsh on Cohen on a couple of points. First, Cohen is more accepting of markets than Gintis suggests -- Cohen allows that markets perform a valuable information function and he rejects central planning for that reason (it is perhaps unfortunate that he uses the term "predation" to characterize market motivations).
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149 of 187 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Read this and you will know why not August 31, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Gerald Allan Cohen was a Marxist political philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford. He was a curious combination of rigorous analytical thinker and yet supporter of virtually unsupportable Marxian doctrines, including an economically determinist version of historical materialism, and a view of human nature according to which Marx's 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program doctrine "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I never met Jerry (as he was called), although he had close intellectual exchanges with several of my closest colleagues, including John Roemer, Jon Elster, and Samuel Bowles. At the cost of being uncharitable to a keen intellect, I suspect that his studied ignorance of standard social and psychological theory, common among philosophers of the mid-Twentieth century, who did not want their judgments to depend on empirical facts, accounts for his ability to spout socially bizarre theories in a perfectly logical and reasonable manner.

This little book---and I do mean little, being about 3% to 10% as long as your usual academic offering---is Cohen's last word on the subject of socialism published before his death. Cohen shows no trace of the historical materialism he formerly, and brilliantly, espoused, and he does not believe that the modern economy is conducive to a socialist alternative. Rather, Cohen argues that markets are morally offensive institutions that most people would be happy to get rid of if they could figure out some alternative compatible with the standard of living we are accustomed to in advanced market societies. "The market" says Cohen, "is intrinsically repugnant...Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation." (pp.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why not more Socialism? February 25, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Why Not Socialism?" presents a short, utopian argument that contains many interesting nuggets of truth. I agree with Cohen that greed and predation are the two critical attributes of a market economy, but I think Cohen generalizes too much. Globalization has given the world a capitalism that is beyond juridical checks and balances; reform and regulation are desperately needed. But I am not willing to say that the operation of small-town or regional capitalism, and the markets they respond to, is necessarily antithetical to the values of community and equality. Those of us who consider ourselves leftists must recognized that Socialism, national or international, is a pipe-dream. It's never going to happen and it shouldn't. But if I might expropriate Cohen's last sentence in the book, "I do not think the right conclusion is to give up" on moving certain key industries (health care and energy production/distribution are two that immediately come to mind) out of market-place capitalism and into non-market socialism. It is here that Cohen's arguments based on community and equality ring most true. It is this socialism that can happen and should. It is this that we socialists need to work towards.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review August 16, 2013
By CB
Format:Hardcover
I was not aware when I ordered this book, that it was in fact not a book. Sure it has a hardback cover, but it's really a journal article or essay, with book binding. It can be read in one sitting. This has an upside and a downside.

The upside is, in few words, and clear writing, Cohen gives a stellar defense of socialist values over capitalist values and practice. He does this by opening with an example of a camping trip. In general campers experience a sense of community and equality, and work towards the success of the trip on the old Marxian notion of "from each according to her ability to each according to her need." If one were to say "since I built the fire, I deserve the largest marshmallow" or "because I stumbled across these berries by happenstance I get half," the campers would probably rebuke that person and/or not invite them along next time. At the very least none of us would tolerate one camper privatizing all the gear and equipment, letting us borrow it for work, and hoarding the surplus for himself. But how comes once we leave the camping trip those socialist values of equality and community are seen as nasty, ideological, and not worth consideration? Why do capitalist values flourish when we go back to work? This leads Cohen to defend the values developed on the camping trip in the face of capitalist values, and then wrestle with the questions of: is socialism still desirable (yes), and is it feasible. To the later question he claims to be an agnostic. It's clear that state socialism according to the old USSR and China models were a nightmare. It's not clear that that's the only form socialism can take.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read
Idealistic but still a very good and concise read. The problem with Socialism is that people aren't generally that unselfish. It is a very good principle however.
Published 4 days ago by Sha'Allah Shabazz
1.0 out of 5 stars Baffling.
When I read these sorts of books I am always baffled. This author takes a subject he is clearly in favor of and strips away all of its negative and tragic history, and basically... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Commisioned
4.0 out of 5 stars Easy to read = Easy to share
Well written and accessible; an interesting approach to the question. I enjoyed the discussions of the types and challenges of the different forms of inequality and the discussion... Read more
Published on July 29, 2011 by S. Girard
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well Written
Opposers of socialism are not opposed to its true merits but on logical fallacy. They often bring up Stalins Russia to discredit socialism. Read more
Published on April 9, 2011 by Kyosuke Hanakara
5.0 out of 5 stars Why not indeed?
The late great thinker G.A. Cohen advocates again, this time in only 82 pages, for a better society in which the principle of community can temper the principle of equality,... Read more
Published on August 31, 2010 by Bartolome Mesa Gil
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and concise argument for an attractive ideal
As with all of his other works, "Why Not Socialism?" is sharp and meticulously argued. I found it to be an extremely quick and enjoyable read. Read more
Published on December 29, 2009 by Uptown Philosopher
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Short, but Still Interesting
I hoped this book was longer than what it actually was... the book is small with big font and less than 100 pages. Read more
Published on October 16, 2009 by Joshua Purcell
5.0 out of 5 stars A camping trip to Utopia
Gerald Allan Cohen's small book with the title 'Why not Socialism?' is refreshing reading in comparison with the heavy structural artillery of many former Marxists. Read more
Published on September 14, 2009 by Sirno Samppa Pellervo
1.0 out of 5 stars Why not slavery?
To describe socialism as cooperative, and the market as predatory is the most complete reversal possible.
The bromide about the different forms of socialism (e.g. Read more
Published on September 14, 2009 by Jesse G. Forgione
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