E. Belfort Bax October 1913

The Guild System and its Implications.

Source: New Age, 30 October 1913, p. 787-788;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The variant of Socialism on its economic side, i.e., the scheme of the industrial revolution as promulgated in the columns of THE NEW AGE under the designation “National Guilds,” has had, as yet, few serious critics. The theory, as propounded by the writers in THE NEW AGE put briefly, I take it, is as follows: The trade unions – organised in the form known as the “Industrial Union,” understanding thereby the syndicalised workers of a complete branch of industry, in contradistinction to the special unions of the various elements and processes of which that industry is built up – should acquire control, complete in all saving one particular, of the means and instruments of production necessary to the trade in question. Of course there are some prime industries, the workers of which are already in a measure syndicalised collectively in the manner suggested, though as yet incompletely, eg., the miners, the railway workers, the transport workers, etc. But on the other hand, very important industries, e.g., the printers, the builders, tailors, etc., are not amalgamated at all as industrial unions such as the theory of “National Guilds” presupposes. This fact, of course, is no insuperable difficulty to the realisation of the theory. The tendency of things is undoubtedly in the direction of the Industrial Union as opposed to the Process Union, and it may be reasonably inferred that a complete syndicalisation of all labour on the new basis is only a question of time and not such a very long time either. Let us assume, then, the complete syndicalisation of all industries on the basis of what is sometimes known as Industrial Unionism, which is, as I take it, practically the same as the Guild principle of the NEW AGE.

This being so, the next step is, of course, the accomplishment of the revolution, which expropriates the capitalist individuals and syndicates who now possess and control the means of the production and distribution of the national wealth. The precise way in which this is affected, whether by general strike, by street fighting, or by the ballot box or finally by a combination of all three methods, does not affect the ultimate issue. The capitalist, whether as individual or syndicate (joint stock company) is eliminated. We are left with, on the one side the Industrial Unions, the “New Guilds,” as THE NEW AGE writers term them, and on the other the general power of society organised as a governing or directing force, call it State or not as you will. Now ‘'National Guilds,” in this respect differing from ordinary syndicalism, postulates the continued existence of the State in the sense named and vests in it the ultimate ownership of the land, means of production, etc., together with the last word in matters of direction and distribution. In this way our friend the “Guildsman” comes into line with the common or garden, Socialist sans phrase.

But notwithstanding the ultimate possession and function of the State as ultima ratio in all matters social and industrial, the usufruct and immediate control of the raw materials and instruments of every trade, are to reside in the members of that trade as organised in their Industrial Union or “Guild.” There is to be therefore, according to the theory of “National Guilds,” what practically amounts to a dual control in matters industrial. The “Union” or “Guild” is to have the immediate control and regulation of the working conditions of the industry in question, and the State, as the organised power of all society, is to supervise in some way, the whole machinery of production, and is to have the last word. Now, it is clear we have here, as it seems to me, the elements of serious friction ready to hand. On the one side are the workers of a particular industry controlling that industry, and on the other the State as representing the interests of all industries – i.e., of the whole community. Now, the power of the “Guild,” as defined by the writers in THE NEW AGE, over its own industry and the means of production therein, is apparently very great. The question, therefore, at once arises what is too happen if the “Guild” of one of the prime industries wishes to assert itself unfairly to the detriment of that of another related industry, or of the community generally.

The potentialities of a very serious conflict arising out of the power of a strong “Guild,” such as the coalminers or the railway workers to hold up the whole industry of the country by a strike for the purpose of enforcing their own separate and selfish claims against those of the rest of the workers, is hardly to be denied. Should a situation of this kind arise it is difficult to see how it would be dealt with on the basis of THE NEW AGE scheme. The whole question would seem to turn on the relative powers possessed by the Social Democratic State as representing the collectivity of the Industrial Unions or “Guilds,” and therewith of the whole community, and the special controling power vested in each “Guild” separately over the instruments and conditions of its own special branch of production. The impression conveyed by the expositions of the writers in, THE NEW AGE is certainly that of a powerful control on the part of the individual “Guild” over the conditions of its own production and the relatively weak control on the part of the State as representing the interests of the community as a whole. If I am right in my interpretation of National Guilds as expounded in this journal, the theory, notwithstanding its reservation of the power of the State in the background, certainly seems to approach that of Syndicalism as commonly understood.

On the other hand, if the possession and control by the Social Democratic State of the means of production, as representing the total interests of the community – and hence the interests of all the Industrial Unions (“Guilds”) equally – is not to be illusory, but real; if the State, understanding thereby the organ of the whole community, is to have the ultimate decision in all disputes arising between the various industrial bodies and their separate interests, and also the power to enforce its decisions as the ultimate directive agency – then the theory of National Guilds would seem to be scarcely distinguishable from that of Socialism or Social Democracy as generally understood. In discussing the theory of National Guilds it is necessary above all things to have a clear understanding as to what differentiates it on the one hand from the modern Syndicalist theory, and on the other from the orthodox Socialist doctrine. Now any clear differentiation such as that suggested seems to be lacking in the various articles that have appeared in THE NEW AGE treating of the subject hitherto. And yet it is surely of the first importance to know in how far the possession of the means of production, etc., and hence the ultimate control of the industrial life of the community as vested in the Democratic State, are to be real or little more than nominal. If the former, in. how far would it have the right and the means of coercing any recalcitrant “Guild” to conform itself to just action as regard any other “Guild” or “Guilds” with which it might be in conflict or as regards the general social welfare?

Again, another point on which the voice of National Guilds seems uncertain is the question of Internationalism. Does it imply the Internationalist outlook of modern Socialism generally, or is it intended to convey the notion that the present National State is to be the ultimate political and economic framework of human society? I have read statements in THE NEW AGE which would seem to point to the latter conclusion. There are many other questions as yet unelucidated or insufficiently elucidated by the protagonists of National Guilds which seem to require further explication before an effective criticism or appreciation of the theory can be made. But the leading points which suggest themselves, I think, I have indicated with sufficient clearness in the present article.