I recently summarised
Guild Socialism Restated’by G.D.H. Cole. To help make sense of ‘Restated’ I’m going to reflect on some of common critiques aimed at the work. I shall follow up these critiques with a discussion free online chat rooms of why and how the work has value in a later post. Restated and the Guild Socialist movement of its time attracted criticism from many directions with Cole largely accepting many lines of attack in his later life.
Rigid System Building
A common charge against Cole’s work in general and specifically Restated was his tendency towards spending excessive energy on rigid system building. A large part of the work is devoted to designing and discussing each and every institution in a Guild Socialist society, as was a common trait of the movements literature around this time. This system building is argued to have distracted from tackling more fundamental challenges lurking in Guild Socialism theory and its practical application.
Guild Socialism is often stamped with the utopian label. Alternative social models are too easily labelled ‘utopian’ simply because they contrast to the pervasion order. Yet there is clear aspects of Cole’s approach which are open to this charge and no more so then his rose tinted view of humanity. The theoretical approached of Restated is grounded on a assumption of ‘human nature’, and this view is overly optimistic. This optimistic outlook is evident in Cole’s claim that leaders will lead with the general interests of the whole of society at the forefront, followed by personal and group interests. In reality this is in total contradiction to how most individuals think and behave in capitalism. Cole later questioned this rose tinted view of humanity and accepted the reality of human nature as a fundamental challenge for social transformation.
Freedom and Non-freedom
The previous point also leads onto a theoretical tension imported into ‘Restated’ from Cole’s adoption of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ theory (discussed in this post). The theory justifies governance centred on small political units, but it also poses the challenge of how a group can fully conceptualise the interests or ‘will’ of it members. Furthermore, if we spilt society into self regulating and democratic groups why should they lead in the interests of the whole of society. Cole can only answer this question by applying his rose tinted view of humanity and claiming that leaders will put societies interests first.
This theoretical tension is glaringly evident in the practical problem of how to bring about Guild Socialism. Cole calls upon the Trade Union Movement to ‘reorganise’ in a number of ways so to bring about real social change. They are told in one breathe to bring about much greater internal democracy, then in the other to chose a strategy of encroachment. Members are advised not to focus their energies on winning material concessions but to look towards prizing control of the workplace. So union members are given freedom to choose an industrial policy but only have one to choose from.
This contradiction of freedom and non freedom runs throughout Restated and practical questions result from the theoretical tension. If society is made up many democratic workplaces how can we know that they will choose to work in the interests of the guild and the community? Would workers continue to choose democratic principles? Some may wish to be ‘passive’ perceiving the demand to provide input as burdensome and evasive on their leisure activities. How would a Guild Socialist society react to such desires of passivity?