Why not socialism?

Claudio Cretti (Journal of Reviews)


Introduction to the newly edited book.

The Prague Preamble

The real title of this conference is “Why Not Socialism?”:[1] that's what I call it when I have to teach it in places other than Prague. However, here in Prague, in the city of Franz Kafka, sometimes disguises are necessary, and it seemed sensible not to use “Why Not Socialism?”, the real title, and instead the title as advertised, “Are equality and community possible?” In my opinion, the meaning of the two titles is very similar, but the difference between them may seem much greater to you than it seems to me.

I believe that most Czech men and women would react to the title “Why not socialism?” angry, or believing it to be a joke, or both. Czechoslovakia experienced brutal tyranny and monumental crimes in the name of socialism. And, what is even worse, from the point of view of a socialist, the country suffered this fate in part as the result of an absolutely sincere attempt to build a truly socialist society.

During the years of communism, the name and ideal of socialism were cynically manipulated as a way of obtaining gain, personal power and self-promotion, but there was also, alongside this manipulation – and please forgive me for repeating this –, there was a dedication absolutely sincere in relation to the socialist ideal. If the now-deceased experiment had had no relation whatsoever to true socialist principles, having carried only the name “socialism”, then we socialists – I say “we” because I remain a socialist – would have less reason for the dismay caused by the fact that the experiment been a disaster of what we actually have.

As a child and as a young man growing up in a working-class communist home in Montreal, I was a member of the international communist movement. I was one of millions of people who believed, with all my spirit, with all my heart, and with everything good and positive in me, that the Soviet Union and what we then called people's democracies and people's China were creating societies devoted to social justice and human flourishing.

I acquired this belief when I was five or six years old, in 1946 or 1947, as a result of my upbringing in a working-class communist family in Montreal. I began to lose belief in the early 1960s, when I was in my early 20s, and I lost it completely no later than August 21, 1968, the day I said to what was then my wife: “For the first time in my I am anti-Soviet for life.”[2] By this I don't mean that I was naive about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before tanks came into play. On the contrary: already at that time I understood myself as an extreme critic of existing communism.

However, until that day there still existed, at least conceptually, a “you” [you] to whom my criticism and anger could be addressed. The Soviet Union lost its “you” status for me, and became a monstrous “it” when, at 8 o’clock in the morning, the newspaper of with the BBC reported: “Soviet, Polish, East German, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops entered this morning…”.[3]

I recognize that what I believed to be paradise, or the path to paradise, was, for you and your ancestors, a form of hell. I don't believe I can be blamed for not realizing this, or for thinking the exact opposite. My erroneous belief was the result of noble feelings. However, rationally or not, I feel that I must, in any case, offer my apologies, and so I will.

My Soviet alignment comes from being raised a Marxist (and a Stalinist communist) in the same way that other people are raised Roman Catholic or Muslim. My parents, and most of my relatives, were working-class communists, and many of them, for their convictions, served a few years in Canadian jails.

One of the people who had been arrested was my uncle Normand: he was married to my father's sister, Jenny, who, I can assure you, once danced with Josef Stalin. In August 1964, I spent two weeks in Czechoslovakia, in Prague, on Lermontova Street in Podbaba, where Norman and Jenny's house was at the time. They lived there because Norman was the editor of World Marxist Review, the now-defunct theoretical magazine based in Prague of the now-defunct international communist movement.

During the day, I wandered around Prague talking to whoever wanted to talk to me. I spoke a little Russian and a little German, and Norman and Jenny were very busy, so that I had a lot of free time to wander around this glorious city and talk to people and, in the evening, argue with Jenny and Norman about what I thought I discovered.

As I went out and walked around the city, I didn't find anyone who could tell me good things about the regime. The first day I came home and told Uncle Norman this, perhaps in a slightly sadistic way. I was punishing him for my deception: wouldn't his total identification with the regime make him a justified target of this punishment? Norman, however, had an answer. “Wow”, he exclaimed, “you must have met some very strange people!”

So I set out again the next day, and, after my opinion poll yielded the same result, I introduced her to Uncle Norman once more. Now his response was more serious. “You have to understand that, before the revolution, there was a considerable middle class that lost a lot from the workers’ revolution.” The response to the third day's findings was: “You have to understand, Prague had a huge middle class.” After the third day, I stopped looking for clarification from Uncle Norman: I didn't want to hear that the middle class had been even bigger than huge.

What did I think about Czechoslovakia before my travels and research, the fruits of which I presented to Norman on those August afternoons in 1964? I believed that Czechoslovakia was doing tolerably well in material provision, but that it was suffering an unjustified loss of freedom of speech and other civil liberties. I mention freedom of expression in particular because this issue is at the heart of the greatest lesson I learned in Prague in August 1964. Before I explain what that lesson was, a little context is in order.

The communists of my childhood used to respond in three different ways to the accusation that communist countries restricted freedom of expression, and these three responses could be listed in different degrees of sophistication. The first, and the crudest of them, consisted of simply denying that there were restrictions on freedom of expression: I will explain in a moment how it was possible for people to believe such a falsehood.

The second response, a little more sophisticated, acknowledged the existence of restrictions with an expression of regret, followed by a justification of the restrictions based on external and internal enemies: regrettably, there could be no freedom of expression, because the capitalist world would exploit this freedom for counter-revolutionary purposes. There were many variants of this answer. You could offer it without ceasing to think, for example, that the authorities had gone too far.

You could also think that some restrictions on freedom of expression were justifiable, but that the restrictions that were actually adopted were broader than those that could be justified: and with that you could show people how critical, how free you are. it was in saying these things.

And finally, there was the most sophisticated answer of all, which was the one I believed in, namely, that, contrary to the first answer, there was an enormous restriction on freedom of expression and that, unlike the second, (practically ) none of them were justified, but those who were actually affected by this were only, or mostly, intellectuals, and we should not evaluate the issue from that perspective. The lack of freedom was bad, but it was a limited evil: we needed to be careful not to conclude that it was a greater evil than it actually was.[4]

And in August 1964, I learned that my belief was a paternalistic view, because the lack of freedom of expression alienates all people from the truth. If all we have access to is the Pravo rude, and we know he lies, we can't really know what's going on in the world around us, and we know our information is controlled by liars, even if we have no desire to express anything.it's ourselves.[5]

Freedom of expression is an imperative not only because no human being has the right to silence another, but because, furthermore, not only do human beings have the right to express themselves, they have the right to access the views of other people and the truth, rights that go far beyond the right not to have arbitrary intervention in our freedom (which includes the right to freedom of expression), rights that are more positive, but no less urgent because of it. In the absence of freedom of expression, not only whoever speaks wears a gag, but everyone lives in a prison.

That said, I had promised to address the problem of how it was possible for anyone to believe that European communism was realizing socialist ideals. How was it possible, for example, for anyone to believe the first crude response to the charge that free speech was being suppressed, a response that simply denied it? How could a person close their eyes to something so obvious? Wouldn't beliefs like these be a reflection of selfish interests or, at least, of an analysis permeated by desire?

Now, that was undoubtedly what the people who believed in her wanted to believe. However, this tells us why they were motivated to believe, not how it was possible for them. I may be motivated to believe that my wife is faithful, but I could not believe that if I found her in someone else's arms.

Here we need to draw a distinction between those who had visited the Soviet Union, or some other communist country, and those who had not. I will only consider the vast majority who had not visited them. Like us[6] Could we simply disbelieve what the press reported, and what the vast majority of people around us believed? Well, we believed that the vast majority of people got their opinions from the bourgeois press, so much so that what we really need to explain is why we didn't believe the press.

And the answer to that is that we knew – I said we knew, and we didn't believe it – that the bourgeois press lied. This is not to say that she lied about the living conditions in the Soviet Union, since, most of the time, she didn't lie about it, because she didn't need to. I mean that we knew that she lied about capitalism, that she, for example, distorted the strikes, that she covered up poverty. The capitalists owned the press and it reported what it reported from a capitalist point of view.

She was motivated to lie about capitalist Quebec and capitalist Canada, and we knew she did, so why shouldn't she also lie about the rival socialist society, for exactly the same reasons? How could we know that she had no need to lie about actually existing socialism to paint it in such dark colors?

We thought equality and community were good, we tried to achieve them, and we produced a disaster. Should we conclude that what we think is a good, equality and community, are not, in fact, a good? This conclusion, so commonly inferred, is foolish. The grapes may indeed be green, but it is not the fox's failure to reach them that shows us that they are.[7]

Should we conclude that any attempt to produce these goods will necessarily fail? This is the case only if we believe either that this is the only possible way to produce them, or that what caused this attempt to fail will cause all similar attempts to fail, or even that, for some other reason, any attempt will necessarily fail. I don't think we can say any of these things. In my view, the correct conclusion to be inferred from this is that we should try differently – in different degrees and senses of “differently” – and that we should be much more cautious. It is in this spirit of obstinate but cautious dedication that the text Why Not Socialism?, to which these notes constitute a preamble, was written.[8]

*GA Cohen (1941-2009) was professor at All Souls College, University of Oxford. Author, among other books, of On the currency of egalitarian justice, and other essays in political philosophy (Princeton University Press).


GA Cohen. Why not socialism? Translation: Lucas Petroni. São Paulo, Unesp, 2023, 128 pages. [https://amzn.to/41uGkJ0]


[1] Text first published as Chapter 2 of Finding Self in the Other, by G. A. Cohen (edited by Michael Otsuka), Princeton University Press, 2013, was originally prepared in the form of introductory notes for a conference on socialism entitled “Are Equality and Community Possible?”, which was to be given by the author in Prague , current capital of the Czech Republic and former capital of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, in 2001. The preamble, however, was not presented due to technical difficulties involving Cohen's entry visa into the country. (T.N.)

[2] Cohen refers to the day of the occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia by the forces of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, putting an end to the Prague Spring, the experiment in political liberalization and democratization of the Czechoslovak regime begun about a year earlier by the reformist leader Alexander Dubček. (T.N.)

[3] The author alludes, in this passage, to the distinction established by Martin Buber between two different modes of existence. Interpersonal relationships, in which the parties recognize each other as equals in moral claims, “I-Thou” [Ich – Du], and epistemic, or technical, relations of the “I-It” type [Ich-Es], in which one of the parts, the “it”, is taken as a nut of reality. See Martin Buber, Me and you (translation by Newton Von Zuben), Centauro Editora, 2009. (N. T.)

[4] Most likely Uncle Norman inconsistently believed all three answers. As to that, I can only speculate. However, I can report that, regarding critics sympathetic to communism, he said in a scathing way that “they make a fetish of freedom” – whatever interpretation one gives to that phrase.

[5] Pravo rude, or “Red Justice” in Czech, was the regime’s press organ equivalent to the Pravda of the Soviet Union. (T.N.)

[6] As explained previously, I believed that there were considerable restrictions on expression, but there are many other things that I believed, or disbelieved, that would surprise you.

[7] Allusion to the parable “The Fox and the Grapes”, by Aesop (rewritten by La Fontaine), in which a fox, faced with the failure to reach beautiful grapes hanging on the vine, irrationally convinces himself that they would, in fact, be , green or sour. In the essay “The future of a disillusionment”, Cohen uses the problem of “sour grapes” – or sour grapes, in English – as an illustration of the mechanism of adapted preferences and to understand the future of socialism after the failure of the Soviet experience. The essay was published in New Left Review 190 (Nov./Dec. 1991) and republished as Chapter 11 of the book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Cambridge University Press, 1995. (NT)

[8] I thank Michèle Cohen for her attentive dialogue.

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