Guild Socialism and the Historians

Article excerpt

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. …