Why Not Socialism?

by G. A. Cohen

Hardcover, 2009


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 "e Albert Einstein, humanity has "overcome and advanced beyond the predatory stage of human development."… (more)



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Princeton University Press (2009), 96 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member KelMunger
Considering the way the word “socialist” has been thrown around lately, it’s helpful to do a definition check. G.A. Cohen, a University of Oxford professor who died last August, sums it all up in an informative and thought-provoking little essay. Princeton has published a new, pocket-sized
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hardcover edition that’s both timely and useful. Cohen uses the example of a camping trip to illustrate how society functions, and then expands that illustration to explain how socialism works. He dismantles the idea that human selfishness is the bar to a working form of socialism, acknowledges the failures of central planning and posits a democratic socialism that uses the market rather than attempting to control it. While Cohen admits that all market systems are predatory, that’s no reason to simply surrender. Logically, concisely and deliberatively, he offers some good reasons to seek an alternative.
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LibraryThing member thcson
This very short essay advocates a brand of socialism which seems extreme to me, almost to the tune of "from each according to his ability...". The author uses the reciprocal interactions of a camping trip as an example of socialist behaviour which he would like to see implemented in society at
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large. There's not much weight in the actual argument since it's so short, but I think it still answers the question posed in the title. As the author says (on page 57), "the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run".
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LibraryThing member stillatim
How many analytic philosophical journal articles deserve to be sold on their own as a book? None, not even this one. On the other hand, it's a beautiful little object, and Cohen was such a wonderful human being, and so smart, that I'm happy to have contributed something to whoever he decided to
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leave his copy rights to. This won't convince anyone that socialism is plausible, or even that it's preferable, at least in the short term. But perhaps some college kid somewhere will read it, and it will slowly worm its way into his brain, and he'll become a slightly better person. Maybe.
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LibraryThing member Kavinay
Cohen really is a true believer. At least on a small scale, he really does make good case for socialism. Where it breaks down is really anything applied to a larger scale without a dispute mechanism (i.e. markets). I found his objection to market socialism in particular more telling than
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objectionable as he seems to really want all participants in a socialist system to be true believers too. At that point, I think he's completely lost the plot as we're now dealing with ideologues as the reason why the system works rather than a self-correcting feature of the system itself (i.e. even capitalism would work if it was "true" capitalism and not corrupted by cronyism and regulatory capture, etc.).
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