Professor Jerry Cohen: Maverick philosopher who subjected Marxism to the rigours of analytical philosophy

Proof of the catholicity and openness of British philosophy is that it could embrace and heap the highest of its academic honours upon a maverick such as Jerry Cohen.

When he died of a massive stroke he was Emeritus Professor at Oxford, and a Fellow of All Souls, having held one of the grandest chairs in philosophy, the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory, in which he succeeded Isaiah Berlin. Cohen was celebrated as the leading light of "Analytical Marxism," an attempt to examine Marx's own arguments and subject them to the rigour of the analytical philosophy developed in the 20th century.

He was born in 1941 in Montreal to Bella (née Lipkin), a communist sewing-machine operator in a garment factory. Though her Ukrainian Jewish father had been a well-to-do timber merchant who took the family to Canada in 1930 because of anti-bourgeois oppression following the end of the New Economic Policy, Bella retained her faith in Bolshevism. Cohen's father, Morrie, a dress-cutter from Lithuania, had no secondary education and, in the words of Cohen's memoir Politics and Religion in a Montreal Communist Jewish Childhood, "unlike her, had an impeccably proletarian pedigree." In contrast, "my father belonged to the United Jewish People's Order, most of whose members were anti-religious, anti-Zionist and strongly pro-Soviet. He did not join the Communist Party itself, not because he had ideological reservations, but because his personality was not conducive to Party membership."

The home was militantly anti-religious. His first school, which he entered in 1945, "was named after Morris Winchewsky, a Jewish proletarian poet. At Morris Winchewsky we learned standard primary school things in the mornings, from non-communist gentile women teachers; but, in the afternoons, the language of instruction was Yiddish." The culture of his left-wing Yiddish-speaking upbringing disappeared after the War, riven by the same internal disputes that destroyed the Canadian (and American) communist movement, but Cohen never lost his affection for or pride in it. Of his political views, Cohen wrote: "Thorough disillusion with the Soviet Union came only ... when I was in my twenties, as a result of personal travels (to Hungary in 1962, and to Czechoslovakia in 1964)", and of "public events," chiefly the Prague spring of 1968. "By the time I first visited the Soviet Union itself, in 1972, I expected, and found, little that was inspiring."

In 1953 Cohen entered Strathcona Academy in Montreal, a school run by the Protestant school board, where 90 per cent of his classmates were Jewish, though all the teachers were non-Jews. (The explanation: though the Jewish population was only six per cent, until 1998 all Montreal Schools were run either by the Protestant or by the Catholic school boards, and hardly any Jewish pupils wished to be taught at the French language Catholic schools.) In 1961 he left McGill University with a first in Politics and Philosophy, a highly developed sense of irony, an ability to make himself the self-deprecating centre of attention (aged 12 he had made "a speech before an audience of a couple of thousand at the Canadian Peace Congress in Toronto"), a wonderful gift for mimicry in at least three languages and a strong, gentle, never cruel sense of the funniness of it all.

By the time he reached New College, Oxford that autumn to do a B.Phil. in Philosophy, Cohen had perfected the role of stand-up comedian avant la lettre. Some of his monologues have been recorded; they ranged from his famous Philosophers' Boxing Match (in which, for example, W.V.O. Quine attacks Gilbert Ryle with a left-hook existential quantifier, and Ryle responds with a swift right category error) to his 10-minute absurdist disquisition – delivered in the exact intonations of President Eisenhower – on "the fin(n)," at the end of which the listener still does not know whether the subject is a fish, an aeroplane or a native of Helsinki. This was the golden age of philosophy at Oxford, and Cohen studied under Ryle and Berlin before taking up his first teaching post in 1963, as Assistant Lecturer in the philosophy department at University College, London. His was the last generation of academics of whom a Ph.D. was not required to hold a university post. When I joined the department as a graduate student the next year, Cohen had already become a full Lecturer, and was Reader from 1979-1984.

The years at UCL were important for Cohen. Richard Wollheim had just become Professor, and he ran the department as an intellectual community without hierarchy, status-consciousness or adherence to any particular school of thought. Myles Burnyeat, the distinguished Professor of ancient philosophy, who succeeded to Cohen's post in 1964, remembers that we all used to meet regularly in Wollheim's enormous room at Gordon Square to discuss the arguments of a book of the moment, whether it was Peter Strawson's Individuals or R.M. Hare's Freedom and Reason, or to consider someone's latest work on Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Plato or Freud. We all had our special interests – logic, politics, ethics, aesthetics, the classics – but these were submerged in the general cultural background we shared at these frequent seminars, and at the universally attended lectures by visiting philosophers. Jerry and I sat together furiously taking notes at a particularly fine series given by Bernard Williams on the table of contents of Kant's First Critique, a subject that sounded absurdly minimalist to non-philosophers, but which absorbed us for an entire term.

The shared general analytic-philosophy culture of the era was such that Myles and Jerry gave a joint undergraduate seminar on "Knowledge and Belief," though neither of them specialised in epistemology. The only rule was to argue fairly. It was from experiences such as these, and those he'd already had in Canada and at Oxford, that Cohen knew the difference between losing an argument and losing a philosophy.

This was the Sixties, though, and Cohen was an enthusiastic participant in its diversions. These combined with the honesty he felt compelled by philosophy to embrace, and with an alarming absence of shame, which meant that Jerry would speak with equal warmth about sex, the state of his bowels, or his imagination. It was all of a piece, and attractive. In 1965 he married Margaret Pearce, and they had the three children to whom Jerry remained a devoted and interested father; they divorced amicably in 1996.

With his background and interests, it was inevitable that Cohen's great project would be to treat Marx as a respectable philosopher, and examine his arguments by the lights of contemporary analytic philosophy. While at UCL he wrote and in 1978 published his first book (expanded in 2000), Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. In it he uses the tools of analytic philosophy to defend an orthodox interpretation of Marx's historical materialism. Cohen accounts for the evolution of productive forces by appealing to the rational character of human beings: when an opportunity presents itself to adopt a more productive technology that will diminish the burden of labour, human beings will tend to take it. Thus, human history can be read as a series of rational steps that increase human productive power.

Publication stimulated the formation of a group of academic philosophers and social scientists who variously called themselves Analytic Marxists, No-Bullshit Marxists, or the September Group, because starting in the Eighties they held a meeting to discuss topics of common interest in September. Besides Cohen, its original members included Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright, Robert Brenner, Hillel Steiner, Philippe Van Parijs, Robert Van Der Veen, Samuel Bowles and John Roemer, and guest scholars were often invited.

Cohen published History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx in 1988. In his later Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), Cohen defended equality, contrasting his view with the right-wing libertarianism of Robert Nozick via an extensive analysis of the Lockean concept of self-ownership, and the Lockean proviso regarding the acquisition of worldly resources; and in If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? (2000), he addressed the questions of what sort of personal behaviour is demanded of those who subscribe to egalitarian principles. John Rawls in his enormously influential A Theory of Justice, like Nozick gave a justification for inequality of distribution: that justice was satisfied in allowing the talented to have more, as incentives to be productive, as this would improve the lot of the worse-off more than if equality had prevailed.

Against Rawls, Cohen argued that the worse-off would be still better off if the talented were by that much more productive and there was an equal distribution. To the extent that the talented cared about justice they would favour equal distribution. Cohen's chief work in his later years was to attack powerfully these two most influential justifications of inequality. His last two books were Rescuing Justice (2008), and Why Not Socialism? (to be published in October). Cohen's work has inspired so many other thinkers that his books have been translated into Chinese and Japanese as well as many European languages.

In 1985 he succeeded his own teacher, Isaiah Berlin, as Chichele Professor, moved back to Oxford, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy. Though Cohen's Marxism and Berlin's liberalism might seem to conflict, in fact each found the other a source of wisdom. (When I once asked Isaiah how he felt about his successor, he said "I love him.") Taking up residence at All Souls, Jerry met Michèle Jacottet, who was crucial to the running of the place; they married in 1999. His Oxford years were enormously productive, and led him down some suprising by-ways. Good use was made in seminars of his encyclopaedic knowledge of the lyrics of Broadway and West End musicals (and tunes – he had a good ear and pleasant tenor voice), and of his repertory of jokes. His room at All Souls was filled not just with books on philosophy, his morning work, but increasingly with works on art and architecture, to which he devoted his afternoons. His passion for the latter seems to have sprung up at All Souls, where he knew the details and history of every feature, and spread swiftly to encompass modernist architecture. This led to a love and knowledge of painting and sculpture.

So perhaps it is not so surprising that about five years ago he began circulating a paper, written in his most conversational style, which he called "A Truth in conservatism: Rescuing conservatism from the Conservatives", in which, beginning by musing on his devotion to All Souls, he says: "A conservative regulation gives life continuity. We cannot reinvent ourselves, or our language, or anything that really matters, every day according to what our resources now are and what our opportunities now are. We cannot keep everything 'under review'."

He did, though, reach a robustly radical conclusion: "For the sake of protecting and extending the powers of wealth, big-C Conservatives regularly sacrifice the small-c conservatism that many of them genuinely cherish. They blather on about warm beer and old maids cycling to church and then they hand Wal-Mart the keys to the kingdom."

Cohen travelled a good deal, with visiting appointments in 1965 and again in 2000 at McGill, and in 1975 at Princeton, and he especially relished his journeys to India and China.

Gerald Allan (Jerry) Cohen, philosopher: born Montreal, Canada 14 April 1941; educated at McGill University (BA 1961), New College, Oxford (B.Phil. 1963); Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, Reader, Department of Philosophy, UCL 1963-1984; Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, 1985-2008, Emeritus 2008-09; married 1965 Margaret Florence Pearce (divorced 1996, one son, two daughters), 1999 Michèle Jacottet; died Oxford 5 August 2009.

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