Meaning and Origin of Guild Socialism

After reading this article you will learn about Guild Socialism:

1. Meaning and Origin of Guild Socialism

2. Principles and Objectives of Guild Socialism

3. Methods

4. Criticism and Evolution.

Meaning and Origin of Guild Socialism:

Joad has enlightened us with the origin of Guild Socialism. He says at the beginning of twentieth century A. J. Penty published a book Restoration of the Guild System. According to Penty, in Middle Ages there were various forms of guild and the management of society rested with the guilds. In other words, the medieval societies were self-managed.

From Penty’s book it appears that Guild Socialism was a form of Utopian socialism. It is because people at the initial stage gathered together to form a guild and subsequently without any revolution or application of force they set up socialism. That is, socialism without blood or force or weapon. In this sense it is bloodless or Utopian socialism.

At the primary level some people gathered together to form a guild for the management of the productive unit or organisation and later on it was extended to socialist type of organisation.

Joad is of opinion that in the first decade of the twentieth century there was large scale labour unrest in several major areas of Britain and this continued for several years. This intriguing situation disturbed the minds of some top-ranking leaders of Britain. They felt that the continuation of this situation would inflict irreparable loss upon British economy. There was a magazine New Age.

In its several columns several intellectuals wrote different articles which suggested of building up Guild system. Joad and many others are of opinion that the Guild Socialism can be traced to this type of intellectual venture. Many educated people suggested that Guilds would be set up on the basis of existing trade unions.

So we find that the Guild system was based on the trade union. So we find that both syndicalism and the Guild system were commerce and business-centred. “By 1912 the Guild idea had become for the first time a definite force in the British labour movement”.

In the first two decades Guild systems were set up in almost all the major industries of Britain. Joad observes – The Guild socialists may best be described as a small body of intellectual theorists working within the labour movement.

Principles and Objectives of Guild Socialism:

A number of important persons were associated with Guild Socialism and G.D.H. Cole, Bertrand Russell were prominent. All of them put their faith on Sorel’s view about socialism which is known as syndicalism. But Sorel did not rule out the importance and active role of revolution in establishing socialism. But Cole and Russell were against socialism through revolution.

It is known that Cole was a sincere propagator of socialism through reforms and parliamentary processes. G.D.H. Cole devoted a major part of his life for the cause of Fabian Socialism.

In 1915, Cole resigned from the Fabian Society and devoted to the cause and propagation of Guild Socialism. He firmly believed that only through peaceful ways and parliamentary methods a socialist society could be built up.

Hence according to Cole and several others, the chief principle of Guild Socialism is gradualism. This principle can again be extended to reforms and parliamentary methods. So we find that in guild socialism there is practically no place of revolution or class struggle as envisaged by Marx.

In other words, democracy or democratic means, not physical force, is the central theme of guild socialism and needless to say G.D.H. Cole harped upon this.

If we go through the above, rioted principle we shall find that it resembles Rousseau’s general will or participatory democracy. In fact Cole was largely influenced by Rousseau’s idea of general will and direct democracy.

Originally Cole was a Fabian socialist but later on he found that in this type of socialism there was a very big role of state and that led him to dissociate with the Fabian Society.

The Guild Socialists thought that the members of the trade unions will set up socialist society through gradual methods. A writer has made the following observation – “From Rousseau and Morris in their different ways Cole developed his conception of a community founded upon the cooperation of association, a cooperation which found its source in a genuine community consciousness, a real general will”. The advocates of Guild Socialism were very much concerned with democracy and especially people’s freedom.

They were convinced that only socialism could change their economic condition. But this socialism must come through democratic and peaceful means. Hence Guild Socialism may rightly be regarded a confluence of individual freedom, economic concepts, philosophical ideas and, above all, participatory democracy.

If these ideals are to be achieved then a society is to be federalised. That is, a society based on Guild Socialism cannot be a united society but a federation of a number of societies or association.

Each society or association is to be administered by its members. Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia had suggested of such a society which he calls Utopia.

A society built up on the principle of socialism will always be governed by the principles of socialism and participatory democracy. There shall not exist any controlling role of state or any other superior organisation.

Explaining the principle and ideal of Guild Socialism Maxey makes the following pertinent observation:

“Even if the state were democratic, said the Guild Socialists, the socialist programme could not succeed under state socialism, because state ownership, and operation of the means of production and distribution would throw everything into the hands of professional politicians and bureaucrats the Guild Socialists contended placing each of the major activities of society in an autonomous and democratically governed group somewhat analogous to the trade Guilds of the Middle Ages”.

An important principle of Guild Socialism is that it envisages and strongly supports functional democracy which means that democracy will be based on functionalism.

It implies that representative system will be based on functionalism. There are numerous professions, trades and business. The person of one trade or profession cannot represent the profession of another trade or profession and in that case, each profession or trade will have the opportunity to elect its own representa­tive.

According to Guild Socialism this will be the most democratic way of constituting the representative bodies.

Joad says, “A democratic society will be one which is a coordinated network of functional representative bodies, each of which represents a particular set of wills or purposes which its members have in common”.

Guild socialism strongly advocates the establishment of functional democ­racy because, in modern type of democracy, the state system is all-embracing and highly centralised.

The state is all-powerful, and an all-powerful state is anathema to democracy. The Guild Socialism first of all intends to apply functional democracy in industrial sector and then spread it in all other sectors arid spheres.

Even it may successfully be applied to political sphere. The purpose of Guild Socialism, there­fore, is the democratisation of the state which is also called the political system. G.D.H. Cole is the pro-pounder of functional democracy and he believed that its application would revive democracy in society.

In his various works he gave an elaborate plan of functional democracy which is the core of Guild Socialism.

A problem may arise regarding the management of industries, because ordinary workers cannot manage the technical aspects of industries. On this issue the Guild Socialists have suggested that technical experts will manage the technical side and ordinary workers will manage production.

Methods of Guild Socialism:

So far as methods are concerned Guild Socialism stands opposite to Marxian socialism because it does not advocate revolution or class struggle. It is interesting to note that Guild Socialism does not utter a single word about revolution or application of force for the attainment of goals.

Like Fabian Socialism, Guild Socialism is a kind of evolutionary socialism which means that socialism or socialist goals can be achieved through gradual or evolutionary ways. Through a gradual process or number of ways or processes a capitalist society can be converted into a socialist society. Guild Socialism laid its full faith on the trade union.

Here it is to some extent akin to Marxism, because Marx relied upon the workers for the socialisation of society. Guild Socialism believes that the trade unions will fight against exploitation or exploitative measures of the capitalists and they will do the job in concerted way. That various trade unions of different industries will work under one flag.

Guild Socialism does not favour small trade unions. There will be larger and fewer trade unions. It is because the small number of trade unions will intensify the attempt to set up socialism.

Guild Socialism further suggests that the leaders of the trade unions will try to discipline the workers.

The workers will try to avoid militant methods to achieve goals. Like Fabian Socialism, Guild Socialism relies on peaceful ways. According to Guild Socialism, militant attitude on the part of the workers will stand in the way of achieving success.

The supreme objective is to establish socialism and for that purpose the Guild Socialists will keep open the door of discussion and compromise. The workers of the industries will elect representatives and they will start talks with the capitalist or the leaders of various industries.

Criticism and Evolution of Guild Socialism:

It is quite obvious that the main purpose of Guild Socialism is the re-organisation of society for the purpose of democratisation. If we seriously go through the entire process suggested by Guild Socialism we shall find that the state will, practically, have no place in the whole of social structure.

Which means that it will invariably be deprived of sovereign power and this will threaten the very existence of state. Maxey has drawn our attention to this point and that is why we find him say: “The Guild Socialists argued that the state should be deprived of its sovereignty and reduced to a status of equality with the Guilds. But they were unable to agree among themselves as to the precise role of the state in the Guild system”.

It is believed that the downgrade of state to the status of a Guild or trade organisation will not ensure a better management of society.

Prof. Harold Laski has suggested four limitations of the guild theory. He says, “while it is practically possible to discover adequate units of consultation, it is practically impossible to discover practical units of government” Laski further asks “is there any way in which a distinction can be drawn between the area of the Guild congress and the area of the territorial assembly?”

That is, the functions of the Guild and assembly cannot be properly demarcated and this will lead to complication in the administration. He further raises the issue by pointing out that some functions of the Guilds and the territorial assembly may be separated but the judicial functions cannot be separated in the same way. His apprehension is that if the Guild system at all succeeds that will invariably complicate the functions of society. But this not at all desirable.

Syndicalism and Guild Socialism two forms of non-Marxian socialism are treated by many as protest movement against Marxian socialism and state control economic and political system. It is also a protest movement against capitalism because it is regarded as the chief cause of workers’ exploitation and unbound misery.

So both syndicalism and guild socialism want the abolition of capitalism and, at the same time, want a socialist society minus state interference. Since only a socialist society is capable of emancipating workers and poorer sections of society this form of society is to be set up. But Marxian form of socialism based on revolution and class struggle is not acceptable. In these two forms of socialism there shall be abundant scope for workers’ participation in the transformation of society.

In the prevalent form of socialism there is found a “central democratic society” which practically controls everything of society and keeps nothing for the workers.

According to Syndicalism and Guild Socialism this cannot be regarded as the proper form of a socialist society. Hence Syndicalism and Guild Socialism conceive of a socialist society where there shall not be any scope for state intervention.

According to Syndicalism and Guild Socialism economic issues are the main parts or aspects of socialism and these can effectively be tackled by workers who are closely connected with production and other related aspects. Naturally, workers shall have the main part or role in reorganizing economy in socialist forms and ideals.

This argument of syndicalism is quite laudable. These two non-Marxian socialism, want both socialism and freedom of person. The advocates of these two forms of socialism have stridently argued that in Marxian socialism there is very little opportunity of better relationship among the workers.

Everything is imposed by the higher authorities and the workers must obey the order of the higher authority. The advocates of these two forms want both socialism and democracy. In Marxian socialism the state or the top managers of the communist party uttered the last word about almost everything.

The very popular concept of Marxian socialism is democratic centralism. The decision will be taken at the central level but it is through democratic process. The Syndicalism and Guild Socialism are against imposing anything upon the workers in any form.

The advocates of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism drew the ultimate conclusion that only through trade union movement and, especially, general strike, sabotage and other militant activities the workers can free themselves from exploitation.

According to them these are the most effective ways of forcing the capitalists to accept their demands. But critics of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism have argued that the general strike and sabotage are not always effective means of achieving success. Only workers cannot establish a socialist society. The peasants and other sections of society must participate. The complete dependence upon the workers is invariably a faulty way.

Notwithstanding the deficiencies, both Syndicalism and Guild Socialism were popular among a section of workers. These also encouraged the movement of the workers. It is unfortunate that Syndicalism and Guild Socialism could not meet the demands of time and situation. Socialism is a highly complex issue and goal; it cannot be achieved easily.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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