Academic journal article Capital & Class

A Recipe for a Cookshop of the Future: G.D.H. Cole and the Conundrum of Sovereignty

Academic journal article Capital & Class

A Recipe for a Cookshop of the Future: G.D.H. Cole and the Conundrum of Sovereignty

Article excerpt

In light of the collapse of authoritarian state socialism and the debacle of democratic state socialism that we are currently witnessing, the pressing need to re-examine non-statist alternatives to liberal-democratic capitalism could hardly be more urgent. In recent years, the increasing dominance in political discourse of theories of globalisation has tended to switch attention away from debates on state sovereignty, and into the domain of international relations. This has effectively marginalised the assertions of those who continue to argue that the concept of state sovereignty remains deeply problematic. One of the earliest and best-known exponents of this view was Karl Marx. His powerful argument that the sovereignty of the modern state is somewhat illusory is of lasting value. For Marx, since this state defends the private ownership of the means of production, it is actually socioeconomic relations that for the most part remain sovereign. However, for all of their undoubted brilliance, Marx's combined writings leave many organisational questions unanswered. In his early works (1843-4), Marx indicates that a non-authoritarian--indeed, a libertarian socialist alternative to social democracy and state socialism is possible; but he fails to sketch its institutional contours. This paper explains that the necessary interpretative completion is accomplished in the work of the lesser-known Left libertarian critic G. D. H. Cole (1889-1959).

While Marx made it clear that he had no desire to write 'recipes for cookshops of the future', Cole embraced such a challenge. Cole was part of a small circle of radical intellectuals who, like Marx, insisted that the sovereign state was fundamentally flawed. They united under the banner of guild socialism, of which Cole was the most sophisticated and influential proponent. He set himself the demanding task of constructing a theoretically sound, politically pluralist alternative to state sovereignty.

The fact that he largely succeeded has, disappointingly, escaped the vast majority of contemporary readers. In what follows, the argument is made that Cole's guild-socialist blueprint embodies an institutional setting that contains a genuine alternative to sovereign power. In his scheme, the need for ultimate control, whether overt or covert, either by a body resembling the modern state or by a small yet dominant economic class, is not a prerequisite for the democratically planned decentralised economy he sketches. The paper is divided into two parts, with subheadings within each. The first part provides a fairly brief exposition of Marx's critique and delineates Cole's system-building. The second section defends Cole's scheme from critics who question its political pluralism. The conclusion confirms that not only is there an affinity between the thinking of Marx and Cole but, moreover, that it is the latter who makes explicit what is only implicit in the former.

This argument will hopefully appeal to those who are in any way troubled by global capitalist governance, and/or have become disillusioned with statist attempts to realise socialist goals. Within the state-socialist traditions of Leninism (revolutionaries) and social democracy (reformers), economic power must be centralised in the hands of the state. These approaches have been dominant, and throughout the twentieth century, socialism was largely associated with social-democratic reformism, Leninist vanguards, centralism, state planning, etc. Guild socialism, however, is fundamentally concerned with the question of how to devise a system that empowers producers in their own spheres, while at the same time protecting citizens as a whole. Central to Cole's political thought are questions concerning political pluralism, decentralised forms of participation, and the critique of the doctrine of state sovereignty. Since there has been a general disinclination, on the parts of those working within the dominant state-socialist perspectives, to acknowledge that emancipatory politics are unlikely to flourish without a socialism based on ideas such as these, the endeavour to re-emphasise these themes could hardly be more urgent. …

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