Socialism has become somewhat of a dirty word in many parts of the world. In his classic essay, Why Not Socialism? marxist philosopher G.A.Cohen provides an eloquent case for reorganizing our lives around socialist principles. In this article, we will explore Cohen’s argument for socialism, answering the question ‘is life like a camping trip?’ along the way.
G. A. Cohen’s Life and Work
G.A. Cohen (1941-2009) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Originally Canadian, he spent most of his working life in England as a professor of Philosophy at Oxford. In political philosophy, he made significant contributions to debates on distributive justice and egalitarianism, and marxism.
Perhaps best known for his books Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality and If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich?, over the course of his career Cohen defended a socialist alternative to both John Rawls’ social contract theory and the libertarian account of rights Robert Nozick develops in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
One of the things that sets Cohen apart from Rawls and Nozick is that he didn’t limit himself to trying to influence the views of his fellow philosophers. He also set about using his blend of humor and analytic rigor to write for a wider public, quickly making him one of the British left’s most influential thinkers. His reinterpretation of marxism using the tools of analytical philosophy, which he termed “No-Bullshit Marxism”, was particularly influential in widening the appeal of marxist thought.The focus of this article will be Cohen’s best known short, more popular essays: Why Not Socialism?
Why Not Socialism?
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Like much philosophical writing, Why Not Socialism? starts with a thought experiment. To set up a preliminary case for organizing our lives along socialist lines, G. A. Cohen asks us to imagine we are on a camping trip. He writes:
‘You and I and a whole bunch of other people go on a camping trip. There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as possible, the things that he or she likes best. […] We have facilities with which to carry out our enterprise; we have, for example, pots and pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, a soccer ball, decks of cards, and so forth. And, as is usual on a camping trip, we avail ourselves of those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip.’
(Cohen, 2009, p. 6)
When camping together, Cohen argues, we are joined by a common concern: so far as possible, we want everyone to both do what they want to do (fish, canoe) and contribute to other people doing what they want to do. To question these norms, Cohen argues, is to violate the spirit of the trip. To see why, Cohen asks us to imagine a different camping trip, which proceeds on different norms.
In this alternative camping trip, instead of the campers sharing their tools and resources, the campers charged each other for their use. Instead of being allowed to use the knife someone else brought to peel the potatoes for everyone’s dinner, the owner of the knife could rent out the knife to the potato peeler, who in turn, could charge others for the peeled potatoes.
Most people, Cohen argues, would hate this camping trip. The bargaining and exchange of money would be tedious and would detract from the general goal of having a nice time away from home. Socialist principles are simply the best way to run a camping trip. But, what are these principles? Cohen argues the camping trip exemplifies two principles: a principle of equality and a principle of community.
Equality and Community
The first principle that the camping trip exemplifies is a principle of equality. More specifically, it is a principle of socialist equality of opportunity. Socialist equality of opportunity aims to compensate people for all unchosen disadvantages including natural disadvantages in abilities (e.g. fishing) and disadvantages caused by social-economic arrangements (e.g. poverty). The only permissible inequalities, on this view, are inequalities caused by people’s different tastes, such as whether people prefer more income or more leisure.
The second principle that G.A. Cohen thinks obtains in the camping trip is a principle of community. This principle of community holds that ‘people care about, and where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another.’ (Cohen, 2009, p. 35). Maintaining our bonds of community, Cohen argues, requires ensuring that inequalities between people don’t become too big. The reason is that, if there is too much inequality, people become alienated from one another.
To illustrate this, consider two people, A and B. Whereas A is rich and drives an expensive and comfortable car to his well-paying job, B is poor and has to ride the bus to an exploitative and low paid job every day. In this case, A and B can’t share a genuine sense of community, because their lives are too different. Person B labors under conditions that person A will scarcely be able to imagine.
Socialism: Not just for the Holidays
At this point one might ask: what does camping have to do with society in general? Even if, as Cohen argues, we ought to run the camping trip along socialist lines, we can’t directly infer that everything must be run that way. There are too many potential differences between the scenarios for us to infer that directly. Although similar, camping trips are not completely analogous to all the other things we do in a modern economy.
On the camping trip Cohen describes, the people know each other personally. There are also no rival camping groups with which to compete for resources with. Nor do the participants have competing priorities (e.g. doing what is best for one’s family) which might temper their enthusiasm for communal living. Nonetheless, Cohen argues that we should seek to extend the model of the camping trip to wider society. Socialist community isn’t only possible among friends and acquaintances. We can, and should, attempt to expand the circle of people we relate to as ‘fellow-campers’.
This isn’t to say this would be easy. Substantial feasibility challenges to instituting society-wide socialism abound. Most notably, we would need to find a way of coordinating production of goods that people want without using market mechanisms. However, what isn’t in question – according to Cohen – is the desirability of this endeavor.
Life Isn’t a Camping Trip: Criticisms of G. A. Cohen
Not everyone shares Cohen’s view that the desirability of socialist is nearly self-explanatory. In her paper Life is not a Camping Trip – On the Desirability of Cohenite Socialism, Miriam Ronzoni challenges Cohen’s view that the camping trip provides an appropriate ideal for society at large.
Ronzoni accepts that, when it comes to camping trips, it does indeed seem desirable to organize activities along socialist lines. The problem is with the inference that the same is true of other activities in other contexts. The reason is that camping trips are distinctive in two ways. First, in the camping trip, realizing the values of communal living as a group is the main goal of the campers. It isn’t a goal that needs to be balanced against other goals that people may have. When we go on a camping trip together, we decide to do so on the basis that we will be camping together on a communal basis. Under these circumstances, people put other (more personal) projects on hold for the duration of the camping trip, demanding less time away from the group. In short, on the camping trip, the communal lifestyle is voluntarily chosen, which is not the case with life in society at large. We don’t join a political community through consent, we are born into it. As a consequence, we need to make greater space in society at large for people to pursue personal projects and live less communally.
The second relevant difference between camping and society at large is that we aren’t always on a camping trip. It is this feature, Ronzoni argues, that makes the socialist values so appealing on the camping trip. The communal and frugal life we live on a camping trip is desirable precisely because it is a break from wider society. It is less clear we’d value this form of life if we had to live it all the time.
Cohen, G. A. (2009) Why Not Socialism? Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Ronzoni, Miriam. (2011) ‘Life is Not a Camping Trip – on the desirability of Cohenite Socialism’ Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Vol. 11, pp. 171-185