Guild socialism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of pluralism and workers’ control developed in Great Britain.

Workers should control their own crafts and industries, but should be responsible to the interests of society as a whole through representative institutions based on occupation rather than geographical constituencies.

This was a compromise between syndicalism and social democracy.

Source:
Rodney Barker, Political Ideas in Modern Britain (London, 1989)

History and development[edit]

Guild socialism was partly inspired by the guilds of craftsmen and other skilled workers which had existed in England in the Middle Ages. In 1906, Arthur Penty published Restoration of the Guild System in which he opposed factory production and advocated a return to an earlier period of artisanal production organised through guilds.[2]:102 The following year, the journal The New Age became an advocate of guild socialism, although in the context of modern industry rather than the medieval setting favoured by Penty.[3]

In 1914, S. G. Hobson, a leading contributor to The New Age, published National Guilds: An Inquiry into the Wage System and the Way Out. In this work, guilds were presented as an alternative to state control of industry or conventional trade union activity. Guilds, unlike the existing trade unions, would not confine their demands to matters of wages and conditions but would seek to obtain control of industry for the workers whom they represented. Ultimately, industrial guilds would serve as the organs through which industry would be organised in a future socialist society.

The guild socialists “stood for state ownership of industry, combined with ‘workers’ control’ through delegation of authority to national guilds organized internally on democratic lines. About the state itself they differed, some believing it would remain more or less in its existing form and others that it would be transformed into a federal body representing the workers’ guilds, consumers’ organizations, local government bodies, and other social structures.”[4]

Ernst Wigforss—a leading theorist of the Social Democratic Party of Sweden—was also inspired by and stood ideologically close to the ideas of Fabian Society and the guild socialism inspired by people like R. H. Tawney, L.T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson. He made contributions in his early writings about industrial democracy and workers’ self-management.

The theory of guild socialism was developed and popularised by G. D. H. Cole who formed the National Guilds League in 1915 and published several books on guild socialism, including Self-Government in Industry (1917) and Guild Socialism Restated (1920). A National Building Guild was established after World War I but collapsed after funding was withdrawn in 1921.[2]:110

Admiration of guild socialism led to a more “individualistic” form of it being suggested as a natural outcome for a united humanity in the science fiction work of Olaf Stapledon-although hundreds of years in the future.

Cole’s ideas were also promoted by prominent anti-communist intellectuals[5] such as the British logician Bertrand Russell, first through his 1918 essay Roads to Freedom.[6][7] Other thinkers who incorporated Cole’s writings on guild socialism include the economist Karl Polanyi[8] R. H. Tawney,[9] A. R. Orage, and the American liberal reformer John Dewey

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