civil society

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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Rocking the State

As most of you know, we’re not allowed to say too much about what happened to us on our Eastern European tour back in ’85. But you don’t need to know about us. Obsessing about what Thee Faction did is akin to buying into some sort of ‘Great Men’ theory of history. We all know that’s not how it works. The shifting of the tectonic plates of history never comes down to individual agents. But it can come down to mass movements.

That’s why we recommend this book: Rocking The State – rock music and politics in Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s edited by Sabrina Petra Ramet and was published by Westview in 1994. Don’t know if it’s still in print – we got ours back in 1995.

The trick, when overthrowing regimes and systems, is to take over civil society first. Once you’ve got that, the state topples pretty painlessly. That, in a nutshell, is why most of the Central European revolutions in 1989 were fairly bloodless. Civil Society had been lost by the State in the decades leading up to 1989. In one of my favourite remarks by Antonio Gramsci he points out why the Bolsheviks had to attack the State in 1917, rather than win hearts and minds in civil society. There was no civil society:

“In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”

Rock music played a huge part in taking over the fortresses and earthworks of civil society in the years leading up to 1989. Civil society was still massively under-developed in Central and Eastern Europe – indeed, strip out the Anglo-Saxon propaganda of the time and you’ll see that very few people wanted a capitalist economy. They wanted freedom within civil society. Freedom to negotiate. Freedom to aggregate public opinion. Freedom to express themselves. That’s what the movements we knew were all about – they were building civil society, creating a space between the individual and the state, an oppositional space where, safe from state interference, people could express themselves . Everyone knows about Solidarnosc, or Charter 77. Fewer recognise the part that Polite Refusal, Televizor, Bravo or any of the other revolutionary rock bands played in creating this space.

This book documents all of that, and brings perfectly to life the history, and the possibility, of rock bands embedding themselves within a counter-hegemonic movement, and being a joyful part of its fulfillment. Thee Faction aren’t mentioned directly – perhaps surprisingly – but there are enough oblique references to us to leave you in no doubt of our role.

Beg, steal or borrow a copy, and witness how rock music can not just fight, but beat, the power. And then join Thee Faction in helping history to repeat itself: this time in the West.

There is also, incidentally, a fascinating chapter on Dean Reed, the American singer who chose to live in the German Democratic Republic.