Dead Socialist: G. A. Cohen, 1941-2009

Jerry Cohen collapsed yesterday and died this morning.

The words that follow were written by Frederick Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge on 15 March 1883, the day after his friend Karl Marx had died, they are words that Jerry knew very well and in which he found inspiration, and they seem appropriate for this very sad morning.

Be that as it may, mankind is shorter by a head, and the greatest head of our time at that. The proletarian movement goes on, but gone is its central figure to which Frenchmen, Russians, Americans and Germans spontaneously turned at critical moments, to receive always that clear incontestable counsel which only genius and a perfect understanding of the situation could give. Local lights and lesser minds, if not the humbugs, will now have a free hand. The final victory is certain, but circuitious paths, temporary and local errors – things which even now are so unavoidable – will become more common than ever. Well, we must see it through. What else are we here for?

And we are not near losing courage yet.

[Picture credit: Chris Bertram]

4 thoughts on “Dead Socialist: G. A. Cohen, 1941-2009”

  1. There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
    There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
    Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
    That ever with a frolic welcome took
    The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
    Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
    Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
    Death closes all: but something ere the end,
    Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
    Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
    The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
    The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
    Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
    ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.
    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    — Alfred Tennyson, “Ulysses”, third stanza.

  2. *** CHAPTER SEVEN: Ways That Bad Things Can Be Good: A Lighter Look at the Problem of Evil

    Lecture 7 could not be reproduced here. That is because it was a multimedia exercise: the audience accepted my invitation to sing with me, to the accompaniment of tapes, a set of American popular songs that illustrate how bad things can be good. People familiar with baseball will know about the seventh-inning stretch, when the crowd is asked to rise and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” usually to the strains of a loud organ. Ten lectures are, I considered, more demanding than nine baseball innings, partly because they are ten, but mainly because they are lectures. So I thought my audience would, like baseball fans, appreciate a moment of respite; but the respte that I laid on cannot, alas or otherwise, be embodied in mere print. ***

    — G. A. Cohen, If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, p.116.

  3. This is very, very sad. Not least because he had only just begun his retirement, and last time I heard him speak he was still so incredibly full of energy and life.

    I only just heard about this tonight. Although I never knew him personally, I think he had more influence on the development of my political outlook than anyone else whose work I studied. Hume may have shaped my ideas more widely in philosophy, and I took a great deal from Rawls and Waldron…but it was always Cohen that provided the critique, always Cohen that showed there was another, often better and invariably more radical, way.

    Very, very sad.

  4. Indeed, I remember a second-year handshaking that went something like this:

    Chris B (to me): “I know you’ve become very interested in what Jerry Cohen has to say, and you often agree with him…but do remember that other people can be right too. Jerry is excellent, but I think the technical term for many of his positions are that they’re “a bit mad”.

    Kinch H: “Chris is right, don’t be a “true believer”. Always make up your own mind!”

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