A combination of trade unionism and nineteenth-century medievalism, guild socialism flourished briefly in Great Britain during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The doctrine had its roots in The Restoration of the Gild System (1906) by architect A. J. Penty (1875-1937).
An architect and devotee of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Penty spent his early adult life searching for a solution to his moral and aesthetic dissatisfaction with industrial society. He began as a member of Annie Besant's Theosophical Society. In the late 1890s, he moved from theosophy to socialism, joining both the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society.
Penty believed that a society's morality is reflected in its buildings. Over time, his fusion of politics with aesthetics led him to reject mainstream socialism and create a new political theory that took into account the individual's spiritual relationship to work and art.
Built on a combination of Marxism, trade unionism, the cooperative movement, and the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, guild socialism bears a resemblance to syndicalism, without the anarchism. It begins with the premise that man is a worker for most of his life, and therefore, society must be designed in such a way that man is not alienated from his work.
Marx's theory of alienation holds that when a worker loses control over the conditions under which he works, he also loses control over his life, until “he feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.”
According to Penty, the worker is not free. When a worker accepts a wage from an employer, he gives up all control over the conditions of his labor and what happens to the product he creates. Under these conditions, labor is no more than a commodity. In order for labor to be freed, the capitalist wage system must be abolished.
In its place, Penty urged the return to a simpler economic system that revived the spirit and structure of the medieval guilds, which controlled the price and quality of the goods they produced, trained apprentices in the practice of a trade, and regulated the conditions of individual workshops. Since the obvious body to replicate the guild system was the trade unions, the organization and control of industry should be placed in their hands.
Guild socialism, as presented in The Restoration of the Gild System, was exactly what Orage of New Age was looking for. The magazine became the theoretical journal for the guild socialism movement.
Guild Socialism Reaches a Wider Audience
In the hands of Penty and New Age, guild socialism remained a utopian blueprint for an ideal society. G. D. H. Cole (1889-1959) attempted to turn it into a practical program for transforming society.
As a student at Oxford, Cole became heavily involved in political activities. He joined the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, was an activist for the Workers' Educational Association, and edited the Oxford Reformer. For his thesis, he wrote a comparative account of the development of trade unionism in Europe and North America. Published when he was twenty-four as The World of Labor (1913), the thesis was more than a survey of existing trade unions. Cole turned Penty's guild socialism into an indictment of Fabian-style social democracy.
Like the syndicalists, Cole urged British socialists to abandon the hope of instituting change through Parliamentary politics and look to direct action on the part of the trade unions. Still under the Fabian Society's influence, Cole called for gradual change rather than revolution: unions would use strikes to gain “encroaching control” over industry. The end result would be a society run by a loose federation of unions, organized on the democratic principles of the medieval guilds. The state would be no more than another association, charged with protecting the interests of consumers just as the guilds would protect the interest of their members.
After a failed attempt to stage a coup at the Fabian Society in 1914, Cole founded an alternative political organization, the National Guilds League, which published a series of magazines devoted to guild socialism. Always attractive to socialist intellectuals, guild socialism enjoyed a brief period of working-class influence during World War I. The doctrine was embraced by the shop stewards' movement, which called for worker control of war industries.
After the war, a group of construction workers founded building guilds with government support. The shop stewards' movement ended with the war. The building guilds did not survive the economic slump of 1921. The National Guilds League dissolved in 1925, leaving behind ideas about worker control of industry that became part of mainstream trade union, socialist, and Labour Party programs in Britain.