In 1978 the Canadian philosopher G. A. Cohen wrote a book called Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Cohen’s work updated Marx’s ideas for the contemporary world, and it has since come to be regarded as a classic of political philosophy. Although Cohen rejects “dialectical thinking” and many other ideas usually considered central to Marxism, he is a Marxist in the sense of someone who has been broadly influenced by Marx, and who takes Marx’s concerns seriously.
Cohen is now affiliated with All Souls College, Oxford. Several of his college’s “Fellows,” as academics who work there are called, have proposed changing how All Souls is funded. Rather than express delight at this new scheme, Cohen has written that “my gut reaction to these proposals is negative.” He uses his reaction to the All Souls funding proposal as an example of his “conservative attitude” in a recent paper called “A Truth in Conservatism: Rescuing Conservatism from the Conservatives.” As Cohen puts it:
I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice, and I here mount an exposition and defence of what I believe to be my widely, although perhaps not universally, shared, conservative attitude. I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue). I am a kind of conservative not only in that I have the strong small-c conservative attitude that I shall describe, but also in that I endorse certain conservative factual assessments according to which a lot of valuable things have been disappearing lately. I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”
Cohen is not the first Marxist to align himself with some form of small-c conservatism. In his book Marx’s Revenge (2002), the socialist economist Meghnad Desai expresses sympathy for the ideas of Austrian philosopher-economist Friedrich Hayek. Although Hayek once wrote a paper called “Why I am not a Conservative,” there is a strain in his writings that is in keeping with Cohen’s gut reaction to change, a strain that emphasizes traditional knowledge and the value of the known over the unknown. Similarly, the Marxist literature professor Frederic Jameson has found inspiration in the writings of conservative journalist Hilton Kramer, whose negative attitude toward postmodernism influenced Jameson’s discussion of the topic in his 1991 book Postmodernism. Last but not least, the left-wing literary critic Irving Howe once wrote an essay for The New Republic (Febuary 18, 1991) noting that famous Marxists such as Georg Lukacs, Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci all exhibited great respect for the literary canon and other aspects of “the classical heritage of mankind” (something Howe thought modern left-wing academics had lost sight of).
At first glance it might seem strange that so many Marxists would have a conservative side. However, I would argue that the conservative attitude Cohen is referring to has no particular politics. It is a rather a mood, one that has been felt at one time or another by everyone who lives in the fluid and fast-changing modern world. From this point of view, what separates a leftist from a political conservative is not an impulse toward preservation, but which particular institutions and goods they want to keep around. After all, it was Marx himself who complained of life under capitalism that it is too hectic and unstable. As he wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”
Clearly there is good authority in the Marxist tradition for being suspicious of new-fangled developments. Nevertheless, it would seem possible to carry left-wing fuddy-duddyism too far. Consider the attitude toward technological progress exhibited by Terry Eagleton, a professor at the University of Manchester and arguably the world’s most prominent Marxist academic. If you are a prospective student hoping to drop Prof. Eagleton a line electronically, his Web page may come as something of a shock. Click on it looking for an email address, and you get the following message instead: “Terry Eagleton prefers conventional mail to email.”