Professor GA ("Jerry") Cohen, who has died of a stroke aged 68, was arguably the leading political philosopher of the left. He was the most important interpreter of Marx in the analytic tradition and, in 1978, his Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence engendered a new school of Marxist thought – Analytic Marxism, or, as Cohen called it, Non-Bullshit Marxism. Claiming to be propounding "an old-fashioned historical materialism", he in fact produced a revolutionary reinterpretation of Marxist theory. By submitting it to the logical and linguistic techniques of analytic philosophy, many felt he had dragged it into mainstream bourgeois social science. This, his first book, caused tremendous excitement on the left, and won the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize. In subsequent writings, he applied the same stringent lucidity to attacking the two major political philosopers of the time, the rightwing libertarian Robert Nozick and the liberal John Rawls.
In 1985 Jerry Cohen was appointed Chichele professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford. He was continually amused and amazed at the contrast between the luxurious establishment milieu he had reached and his working-class, communist childhood in Montreal, Canada, where he was born to Jewish parents, both factory workers in the rag trade. From the ages of four to 11, he went to the Morris Winchevsky Yiddish school, which was run by a communist Jewish organisation, and later, while attending state school, became leader of the teenage section of the National Federation of Labour Youth.
In 1961, he got a BA from McGill University, Canada, and did a BPhil in Philosophy at Oxford, where, "under the benign guidance of Gilbert Ryle", he acquired the technique of analytical philosophy, and was also taught by Isaiah Berlin. Cohen did brilliant, affectionate impersonations of Berlin, who became a personal friend. He lectured at University College London (UCL) for 22 years before becoming Chichele professor, was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1985 and, on becoming emeritus in 2008, was appointed Quain professor of jurisprudence at UCL.
Continually modifying his theories in the light of history and his own experience, he was an early critic of abuses in the Soviet Union, and ultimately described himself as an ex-Marxist. But he tried to salvage from Marxism what was most productive and important – the idea of egalitarianism – and always remained a fervent socialist. His constant aim was to elucidate, for himself and his readers and students, social justice.
Always open-minded, Cohen found himself "shaken from his dogmatic socialist slumber" by reading Nozick's argument for the incompatibility of liberty and equality. But, whereas egalitarians tend to attack Nozick's premises and claim that equality is more important than liberty, Cohen, in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), brilliantly turned the argument on its head. To the libertarian insistence that John Locke's laudable principle of self-ownership rules out redistributive taxation and thus the welfare state, Cohen responded that it is precisely devotion to self-ownership principles that underlies the key Marxist theory of alienation, as well as the left's historical opposition to slavery and oppression. The right, however, are guilty of conceptual confusion. What they presuppose is that the existing distribution of property is somehow part of the natural order of things, like weather or death, and that freedom is distributed on top of that.
But surely, urged Cohen, private property is itself already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily restricts. The owner of something is free to use it – others are not. The left had allowed themselves to be wrong-footed in conceding that only under a socialist system would liberty have to be sacrificed, when in fact any distribution of property, being simultaneously a distribution of liberty, requires a trade-off between these different types of "access to advantage". What still needs to be decided, though, is which the best distribution is – socialist, capitalist, whatever. And a good case can be made for saying that unequal distribution destroys, rather than enhances, freedom, and that liberty actually requires equality, and therefore redistribution. Nozick never replied to critics, but Nozickians hastened to claim that Cohen was inadvertently on their side.
In Incentives, Inequality and Community - originally presented in his Tanner lectures, given at Stanford University in California in 1991, and later the first chapter of Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008) - Cohen attacked Rawls's "difference principle". Agreeing with Rawls that it would be absurd to insist on equality per se if unequal distribution could actually improve the lot of the worse-off, he criticised the unprincipled way in which this principle was actually applied. The justification of Nigel Lawson's swingeing tax cuts of 1988, for instance (by Rawlsian liberals as well as by the right) was that, as well as benefiting the already wealthy, they ultimately benefited society as a whole. For (went the claim) they offered the sort of economic incentives that are unavoidably required if talented, productive people are to produce more – more, that is, than they would without these incentives.
But such claims, said Cohen, seem inconsistent with both liberal and libertarian beliefs in personal moral choice, ludicrously echoing Marxist notions of historical forces and naturalistic inevitablity. They confuse the relationship between facts and moral principles, especially if used by the talented people, who are surely not entitled to adopt this "third person", almost biological, view of themselves. Consider, said Cohen, the argument that parents ought to pay a kidnapper's ransom, because otherwise the kidnapper would not return their child: this argument can be innocently put forward by anyone – except the kidnapper, who (though unlikely to be bothered by that) is on a different footing to anyone else since he is talking about himself and what he will do, rather than predicting someone else's action.
The incentives argument has in common with the kidnapper argument that it cannot without oddity be used in the first-person case. It fails "the interpersonal test", which requires of a moral justification that the identity of anyone proposing it be irrelevant. As a policy, economic incentivising is a pragmatic compromise, not a principle of justice, and talented people who hold out for greater rewards instead of lending their talents to a higher equal distribution, are in fact acting against justice. "The flesh may be weak, but one should not make a principle out of that," said Cohen, an argument that seems all the more telling in the light of recent events.
By 2000, when he wrote If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (based on the Gifford lectures he gave at Edinburgh University in 1996), Cohen no longer believed socialism to be inevitable and considered politics a matter of personal moral engagement. He described himself as having moved from historical materialism to a belief that what is needed to bring about equality are changes in individual attitudes and choices – a position, he said, so near to Christianity that it would have shocked his younger self.
Cohen thought that there were important reasons, other than justice, for upholding socialism. In Why Not Socialism? (his last book, to be published next month), he argues that, on a camping trip, even anti-egalitarians would abominate a market forces ethos and automatically adopt socialist practice, in which the strengths of each are enjoyably used for all, simply because it was more fun. Surely everyone will at least admit that socialism is desirable, urged Cohen, even if they doubt it to be feasible outside the camping trip. Why, he unrhetorically asked, couldn't the whole structure of society be organised along the lines of this arduous but exhilarating camaraderie (though he admitted that he would prefer the luxury of All Souls)?
Cohen combined passionate commitment with intellectual rigour, and both with an entrancing hilarity and irreverence for everything, including himself. He celebrated other important values as well as justice – literally celebrated: he was wonderfully life-enhancing, and just to eat at a curry house with him was to see him produce a sort of solidarity of hilarity among all the waiters, and most of the diners. A consummate showman, often doing stand-up performances at conferences, he did only occasional television work (in the series No Habitat for a Schmoo in 1986), which was a great pity, as he would have been the best sort of philosophical populariser.
He was a wonderful, witty, generous teacher, much loved by his students, several of whom, including Jonathan Wolff, Will Kymlicka and Michael Otsuka, have become notable political philosophers. He loved art, and became fascinated by religion, especially Christianity. He felt intensely, loyally Jewish, though typically he would dispute what exactly that involved. Disconcerting and liberating in his forthrightness, he lived his theories with great integrity and was a brilliant thinker for whom the personal and the political really were entwined.
He is survived by his second wife, Michèle, his children Miriam, Gideon and Sarah by his first marriage, to Margaret, and seven grandchildren.
• Gerald Allan Cohen, philosopher, born 14 April 1941; died 5 August 2009
Courtesy: The Guardian