A Short Story from the June 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
Skip was squatting on a bedroll amid the wellingtons, tweed jackets, tractors and mud of a farm auction; bearded, longhaired and wearing a floppy hat, like a relic from the hippy revolution. He was on a sponsored walk from Land’s End to John O’ Groats and had come to the auction in passing. So I invited him home for tea.
You don’t often meet round the world sailors on top of a Somerset down, particularly not one with a badge on his hat that read “One World for One People”. 1 asked him how we could get such a world and shyly he put his case.
He was an anarchist down to his toenails, with a butterfly mind that flitted from hatred of the rich to contempt for the law he’d served seventeen months for vagrancy and theft. “I’ll be hitching at a roundabout”, he said, “and every police car will stop and tell me to move. They even tell me where I ought to stand on this earth! That’s really bad news! We’ve got to do away with those pigs and all their rules. We don’t need them. Everyone knows right from wrong. The law doesn’t help you in a force seven gale on the Atlantic.”
Incongruously he was a trained boat designer and builder who, as well as refitting yachts for capitalists (the bastards!), had planned and made his own dory and a junk-rigged yacht that was destroyed at anchorage in a storm. Now unemployed, his dream was to get enough money out of penny-a-mile sponsors to build a new yacht for a circumnavigation; proclaiming pacifism by example, against all the talk of politicians, with a crew of fourteen, in a boat called World Peace.
“We’ve got to destroy the concept of war” he said, warming up. I pounced: “No good, they’ll invent a new one. Even if you get rid of the rockets, tanks and guns, the armies, navies and air forces of all the nations of the world, it wouldn’t destroy war. It’s the competition between nations for markets, materials and spheres of influence that brings armies into being and drives each towards war". It was a bit too concentrated for him and he returned to the topic of his voyage.
The springs of anarchist thought are truly amazing. His boat was going to be designed and launched according to the principles of the Cabbala or Talmud! The most magical of all numbers is seven. So his boat had to be seventy-seven feet long, seven times longer than its beam, with a seven-sail schooner rig. His last boat had been launched at 7 minutes past 7, on 7 July 1977! Pressed for a reason, he twinkled and said, “it just happened that way”.
The idea of promoting an alternative way of living by high adventure is not new. In the 1930s the lone climber Maurice Wilson hoped to encourage his own brand of asceticism, fasting and peace, by conquering Everest. John Harlin, who died on the North Face of the Eiger in 1965, was a more modern example:
He was convinced that through the gospel of climbing, which he would preach in his International School, a panacea for the world’s sickness would emerge. Differences of race, colour and creed would disappear in the collective search for the truth and beauty of life as revealed by the climbing of mountains. (D. Whillans and A. Ormerod, Don Whillans, Penguin, 1976, p. 266.)
Internationally mixed expeditions are often commercially promoted using a weaker form of this sentiment, as with the Thor Heyerdal raft and boat journeys. Anyone who has read the literature of the attempts on the South Pole before the First World War must be impressed by the incredible idealism which drove men to trek across a thousand miles of ice. Yet all this heroism means nothing as far as creating a new world goes. Scott was a leader who inspires followers and patriotic death or glory boys. Harlin was a climber of incredible strength, reach and drive. Skip is a phenomenal sailor, who ran the teak-built Virtue class yacht Jan Guilder from Britain to the Azores and back in a race. Each in their own way prove only what exceptional people can do in extraordinary fields.
But the new world that Skip wants must be one which the majority can form and take full part in; what then is the use of example? The attempt to change from competitive capitalism to co-operative socialism, has nothing to do with the heroic striving after impossible goals by supermen and superwomen. It is a task for ordinary people, and must fall within the scope of ordinary lives and experience.
The romantic impulse, wherein a hero dares to do something against all the odds, while it may have spurred the early socialists to press their analysis of capitalism past the awful point where state power was challenged, has little relevance for a democratic social revolution. Socialism requires that men and women, safe in their terraces and semis, should dare, against all the heroes of capitalism who failed, to change the world, using only the ballot box.
Still, Skip and his crew might achieve something worthwhile. An anarchistic circumnavigation would knock a great big hole in the myth of the essential captain on the high seas, the capitalist of sailors ruling the waves.
Good luck Skip. I hope you get round the world. On a cold assessment your example will confuse and divert workers from the simple democratic and political solution of abolishing capitalism. Yet unreliable and quixotic as you are, I feel you will be with us on the day of revolution.
B. K. McNeeney