What communism has in common with a row of tents?
What happens when you swap your wage-slavery for a rucksack? You get communism. That, at least, was the argument of Aditya Chakrabortty in a column for the Guardian (13 July), drawing on the arguments of the late Marxist philosopher GA Cohen. Camping and caravan trips last year were up 27 percent on the previous year and sales of tents and other equipment continue to climb, as workers cut back on holiday spending due to the recession, according to a report in the same newspaper. But camping, says Chakrabortty, is not just a bit of fun (or a horrific trial comparable to fleeing a war zone with your belongings strapped to your back, depending on taste): it’s also a “socio-political experiment” demonstrating the feasibility of communism.
How so? Well, on a camping trip, “adult hierarchy is flattened, utensils and resources are pooled. Tasks are performed as a unit: you may lay on the food, but your friend is a better cook, and her boyfriend will clean the dishes. There is no question of people being paid differently for different tasks. Nor [can you claim a] ‘banjo bonus’ for providing a highly-valued service enjoyed by less-talented souls.” And the objections to this communist picture? What if someone on your camping trip demands more room in the tent than everyone else? Or a greater share of the food? Or dominates the decision-making about what to do? In real, everyday life, we would just say, “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a schmuck”. But in political discourse, especially in the wilderness of the camp of public opinion, where passions run as high as the bog roll is scarce, and the odd real insight blows by unremarked like tumbleweed, such objections are taken to be the stuff of profound criticism. Chakrabortty will have discovered this for himself if he ever went to read the comments section on his article when it was posted on the Guardian website (see www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/13/camping-for-communists-brain-food). To be fair, although the noise of the screeching in the chimp enclosure was at levels you’d expect from internet discussion forums, all the important issues were also raised, and the comments reflected genuine concerns about the socialist project – concerns that very rarely get a hearing in Camp Public Opinion.
The chief objection was that, as far as Guardian readers could see, there was very little resemblance between a camping trip and a labour camp in Siberia (or alternatively a very great resemblance, again depending on taste). In other words, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ are still associated in the public mind with the state-capitalist tyrannies of the former Soviet Union and China and so on. These arguments are very frustrating to socialists, but actually they make a fair point. To the vast majority of people, the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ refer to realities that they are quite right to reject – indeed, to regimes and practices that genuine socialists have always rejected on principle. That’s why we in the Socialist Party are always careful to explain exactly what we mean by socialism (or communism, by which is meant the same thing): a moneyless, stateless, classless society, where the means of producing and distributing wealth are held in common and controlled democratically by the whole community. This is a different proposition to state ownership. State ownership and control of capitalist industry is just that – an inevitable and necessary aspect of the normal functioning of capitalist society, resorted to as freely by ‘free market’ ideologues as ‘communist’ demagogues. Socialism, on the other hand, is a total change in human relationships; the realisation of the liberal dream of democracy. It means democracy everywhere, from the home to the workplace to the global administration of production, not just the right to choose different management teams every five years.
A related objection is that communism only ever comes about if forced on a country against the will of its people. Again, this is an idea that it is quite right to reject, and the exact opposite of the truth: genuine communism is impossible unless a majority of the population consciously chooses it and expresses its choice democratically, at the ballot box; and not just in one country, but globally.
Another predictable objection, given the example Chakrabortty chose, was that people like living in the modern world and do not want to give up their homes or their hard-won comforts to live in a field or wash in a bucket. Again, the hecklers have a point. Living in a mud hut may appeal to a small handful of romantics, but socialism is all about building on what capitalism has bequeathed us, not razing it all to the ground and heading back to the trees. It will often be conceded that communism is possible among small groups – it can hardly be denied now thanks to the popularisation of anthropology on some very good television programmes, such as Bruce Parry’s Tribe on the BBC – but the idea that it can also take place on a larger scale is dismissed as obvious rubbish. This is false on both levels – hunter-gatherer egalitarianism could be and was organised with millions of people and over vast continents; and if there’s a reason why a postal system, or an airline, or a world-wide industrial system, couldn’t be organised on similar principles, then it has yet to be demonstrated exactly why not.
Of course, Chakrabortty’s specific arguments about camping shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As he says later in the same article, “it’s not as if camping is the only situation where the normal rules of pay-as-you-go market exchange are suspended”. He cites the example of libraries and blood donation, but the examples could be massively extended. As Marx pointed out, even within a capitalist factory or workplace the basic organizational principle is still largely communist internally: if someone wants to use your stapler, you hand it over, you don’t charge by the hour. Within the family, too, the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need” applies: parents do not generally need to put padlocks on the fridge door. Indeed, as Marx shows in Capital, capitalism is actually parasitic on this form of communism – it takes the natural gains of human cooperation and nature as a free gift, then pours them into the pockets of private individuals.
When we go camping, the usual, normal organizational principle of human life – i.e., communism – naturally takes over. The question is, as Chakrabortty says, “if people choose to live like this for a few weeks each year, what’s to stop them doing so all the time”? What indeed? Our answer is nothing at all apart from the political will and the kind of dedicated organization needed to see it ushered in. “The argument then becomes not whether to have socialism but how to have it,” says Chakrabortty. When the argument progresses to this level, assuming it ever does, then indeed socialists will be able to say that they have scaled the north face of the Eiger. And camping will be optional.