Guild Socialism and the Historians
Blaazer, David, The Australian Journal of Politics and History
Historians have often marginalised or dismissed Guild Socialism, and biographers have underplayed the Guild Socialist commitment of some of its most prominent adherents. This article details the historiographical neglect of Guild Socialism and argues that it has been due not only to the antipathy of historians steeped in the state socialist traditions, but also to the impossibility of placing Guild Socialism within the dominant historiographical paradigms developed by those traditions. The collapse of state socialism in all its forms affords an opportunity to re-examine Guild Socialism, which may yield a fuller historical understanding of the progressive politics of the period, and suggest possible avenues for the development of radical politics in the future.
Guild Socialism has never enjoyed an esteemed place in the history of socialism. Now it is at risk of being forgotten almost completely. The collapse of the authoritarian state socialist regimes in the East and the capitulation of democratic state socialism to the imperatives of "the market" in the West have fostered a general climate of apathy and antipathy towards all forms of socialism. This prospect holds a special irony given that Guild Socialists were among the most perceptive forecasters of the shortcomings of state socialism, and that proponents of state socialism -- both Leninist and Fabian -- have been Guild Socialism's most determined and effective detractors. This essay is an examination of the historiography of Guild Socialism which attempts to account for historians' tendency to ignore or reduce the significance of Guild Socialism in contexts where it might reasonably be expected to be subjected to serious discussion. A major argument of the essay is that the dominance of the state socialist traditions -- rather than anything inherent to Guild Socialism -- has been the major determinant of this historiographical marginalisation. The apparent demise of state socialism should therefore provide an opportunity to re-examine Guild Socialism rather than to send it further into oblivion. Such a re-examination, I will suggest, would be fruitful both for historians of twentieth century British politics, and for those seeking to develop a post-state socialist progressive politics.
Guild Socialism was even more eclectic than most British radical movements. It emerged from A. J. Penty's largely Ruskinite rejection of industrial society in favour of a revival of medieval "gilds".(1) With the adherence of committed socialists like S. G. Hobson and G. D. H. Cole, it soon acquired a modern dimension which drew on syndicalism and industrial unionism, as well as elements of Marxian socialism.(2) While there was no single "mature" Guild Socialism, most adherents advocated the formation of all-inclusive, democratic, industrial unions which would be agents of transformation to a society in which they would become "Guilds" controlling the productive process using means of production owned by the whole community. Consumers too would have their interests specifically represented, although whether through separate guilds or through the state was controversial.(3) Guild Socialism formally operated mainly through a propagandist body, the National Guilds League (NGL) (1915-23). Although the NGL's membership never reached six hundred, and consisted largely of intellectuals, significant numbers of workers were attracted to the operatives' guilds which had some brief success in putting Guild ideas into practice in the years following the First World War. The financial failure of the largest of these, the National Building Guild, created widespread disillusion and recrimination. Together with disputes over the Russian Revolution and the Social Credit ideas of Major Douglas, it was a major contributor to Guild Socialism's demise as an organised movement, which was complete by the beginning of 1925.
Guild Socialism and the Historians
The first, and still the most ambitious published attempt to produce a scholarly account of Guild Socialism which might in some sense be called a history was Niles Carpenter's Guild Socialism. Carpenter, an American sociologist, was attracted to Guild Socialist ideas and chose the movement as the topic for his doctoral thesis. The result was an eminently fair-minded, methodical account coupled with sober criticism. Nevertheless, it suffered unavoidably from the circumstances in which it was written; most notably from the fact that it was written in 1920 or 1921, when the movement was still "constantly in flux".(4) Carpenter could not foresee the destructive role of Social Credit, which he described as a component of Guild Socialism; still less could he foresee the collapse of the National Guilds League in 1923. Carpenter is perhaps unique in having overestimated the importance and influence of Guild Socialism, but his having done so should alert us to the dubiousness of the long historiographical tradition of dismissing Guild Socialism.
The forty-five years after the collapse of the NGL show extraordinarily little historical interest in Guild Socialism. Leaving aside Cole's mammoth History of Socialist Thought, which offered a modest account of the movement's influence with a less modest opinion of the value of Guild theory,(5) the period yields only a rather peculiar booklet of 1940 entitled The Political Theory of Arthur J. Penty -- a precis of each of Penty's works with some critical commentary appended -- and a discussion of Guild Socialism in The Shop Stewards' Movement & Workers' Control 1910-1922 (1959) by Branco Pribicevic, a DPhil student of Cole's. In 1966 there appeared S. T. Glass' The Responsible Society: The Ideas of the Guild Socialists, one of a series of political science monographs designed to inform undergraduates on relatively obscure topics. After only seventy sympathetic and insightful pages Glass concluded that Guild Socialism had been more or less a complete failure, but he asked the reader to admire its ideals, which although too ambitious were nonetheless noble.(6)
There was something of a revival of scholarly interest in Guild Socialism, and especially in G. D. H. Cole, during the 1970s, attendant on the renaissance of the idea of workers' self-management at the end of the 1960s. As well as two articles by Anthony Wright, the decade saw an essay by Margaret Cole and two by Frank Matthews; biographies of G. D. H. Cole by Wright and Margaret Cole, the republication of some of G. D. H. Cole's works, and a substantial discussion of his ideas by J. M. Winter.(7) The strong focus on Cole is inevitable, given his importance within both Guild Socialism and the broader British labour movement, but it is frustrating and misleading for the student of Guild Socialism, who is placed in the position that the student of Fabianism would be in if the only full-scale works of modern historical scholarship in the area were a couple of good intellectual biographies of the Webbs.
Interest in Guild Socialism waned sharply from the giddy peaks of the 1970s. To this writer's knowledge the period 1980-94 saw the publication of only one item exclusively concerned with Guild Socialism: a …
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Publication information: Article title: Guild Socialism and the Historians. Contributors: Blaazer, David - Author. Journal title: The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Volume: 44. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 1998. Page number: 1. © 1999 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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