GDH Cole and Guild Socialism. A Beginner’s Guide

A lot of you who have bought At Ebbw Vale have been asking who GDH Cole is. He gets mentioned on the sleeve, and is, apparently, a bit of a mystery to many of you. For his low profile you can blame an array of people. The Left in the 60s didn’t think he was very sexy – when you’ve got Marcuse and co to market, a rather stuffy old Brit who did a sideline in detective fiction doesn’t quite have the caché you’re looking for. The Labour Party never thought he was very sexy either. He knew all the right people, and was a prominent Fabian, but his blueprints for a better tomorrow weren’t quite in line with the democratic socialist orthodoxy of the moment. He was talked about as having a ‘Bolshevik soul in a Fabian muzzle’. Not the kind of guy the Labour Party were likely to make a song and dance about (though, weirdly, Labour List has published a piece about him today, pointing out that Cameron’s Big Society is just a bourgeois version of GDH Cole’s Guild Socialism). And the rest of the British left simply never knew how to categorise him. He was non-communist, but clearly Marxist in his analysis. That didn’t appeal to the CPGB. He was against a strong state, and had no truck with State and Revolution type thinking, so the Trots didn’t like him much either. Overall, there was no one who was likely to keep the GDH Cole momentum going after he’d left us.

We, of course, have always tried to. We’re a Socialist R&B band. We employ a Marxist analysis of history. But our vision of a better tomorrow is not necessarily informed by communists. Indeed, we have always seen history like Marx, the immediate struggle like Gramsci, and the vision of a better tomorrow like GDH Cole. The three pillars of Thee Faction’s thinking.

You all know how to apply Marxism as a critical tool. You all understand the nature of the war of position, as outlined by Gramsci. But the release of At Ebbw Vale has shown us that you don’t, necessarily, know your way around GDH Cole. So here is the briefest of guides to his way of thinking. There’ll be more of this, should it interest you, in the weeks and months to come. Think of today’s post as a very simple beginner’s guide.

GDH Cole was born in 1889. Between then and his death in 1959, he effectively did all the things you’d expect a man of the British Left to do. He wrote for the Guardian, the Left Book Club and the New Statesman, he ran the Fabians, he was huge in the cooperative movement, he was a Professor at Oxford, he taught Wilson and Gaitskell (not well enough, of course), and he was the inspiration behind Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss (if we tell you that his wife was Margaret Postgate, that might explain why). But so far this is a fairly standard portrait of a solidly Establishment British left-winger of the Webbs, Orwell, HG Wells, GB Shaw type. What separated Cole out from the rest of the gang?

The answer is: Guild Socialism. A million and one blueprints for socialism exist. Most lead unavoidably to Stalinism, because they hand everything over to the State. Guild Socialism doesn’t. That whole area of life that exists between the individual and the state is what needs to be democratised: Civil Society. So where Stalinism destroyed all the space between the individual and the State, ensuring that the State was everything, Guild Socialism offers a path to a socialism where the State is almost nothing.

Guild Socialism is a libertarian socialism for democrats. It’s a way of democratising civil society. The emphasis is on democratising the workplace, and all the other associations we find ourselves a part of when we walk out of our front doors. We self manage everything. Yup, there’ll still be a State. But it won’t have that much to do – just mediate between the different guilds and deal with criminal law. It’s the logical conclusion to the British cooperative movement. It’s socialism as it should be. Imagine – your workplace is democratised. As is the bus service to your workplace. As is the club you drink in after work, and the library you get your books from after that. All of which must work out ways of organising society to make sure all can thrive.

A month or three back we recommended that you read Darrow Schecter’s Radical Theories. There’s great stuff in there on Guild Socialism. But if you can get your hands on any of Cole’s original stuff, read it. It’s great. Avoid his detective novels, mind. They’re deadly dull, as befits a man who Beatrice Webb reckoned had no sense of humour.

Anyway, hope that clarifies things on the GDH Cole front. When you hear about the Big Society, or other daft attempts by the bourgeois state to abdicate responsibility for what goes on in civil society, remember that there is a way of doing just that, but without the abdication of state responsibility, without the moral abacus of the market, and without it being a patronising, top-down gesture. It’s called Guild Socialism, and it rocks like a motherfucker.

Eyes left. We describe ourselves as a Guild, see. Because we try to run ourselves along Guild Socialist principles. Relations between Thee Faction and Soviet Beret are a superb example of life under Guild Socialism. Things are not always harmonious. But they are democratic, and we’re all empowered. Can the same be said of Sony Records and its music-making-minions?

Guild Socialism. Get ready for it, cos it’s on its way brothers and sisters.

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2 comments

  1. A nice post on GDH. It’s important for people to really pay attention to his work on associational independence, and not just his narrower work on Guild Socialism. Associational independence and political pluralism placed Cole well outside of the authoritarian mainstream of sovietism and fabianism of his day, and remains a viable socialist response to the problems and opportunities around debates on “freedom”. His recognition that individual freedom can only be fully realised through group activity and solidarity is an important organising principle today. Look not to parliament but to yourselves, comrades!

    Like

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