Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Medieval and National Guilds

by Arthur Penty



Once it is realized that the Medieval Guilds were organizations that existed primarily for the maintenance of economic justice and equity, and that they broke down, not from any defect inherent in their constitution, but because they were never co- extensive with society, we begin to understand that one of the conditions of getting capitalism into subjection is to make Guild organization co-extensive with society. Yet when we suggest this approach, we are told that any such return to an old method of organization is impossible, inasmuch as the old form of Guild organization is not adapted to the circumstances of modern industry with its vast machinery and large organizations, and we are admonished by sundry critics to abandon our project of restoring the Medieval Guilds, and to work for the establishment of National Guilds, which they tell us are more adapted to the modern conditions.

Now, such advice sounds very plausible, so plausible, in fact, that to most people it must appear as if nothing but sheer personal perversity prevents us from accepting it. Yet this is not the case, since Medieval and National Guilds are not opposed ideas, as is popularly supposed, but complementary ones; while the success of the National Guild Movement in no way excludes or militates against a revival of Guilds of the Medieval type, as will become evident when the position is clearly understood. They are concerned with different things. National Guilds are concerned with the problem of the large modern industry, and it would tend towards the elucidation of the subject if they were called Industrial Guilds rather than National Guilds, which is a misnomer. The advocates of Medieval Guilds, on the contrary, are primarily interested in the crafts, small industries and agriculture, and they are as much concerned to discover how such activities may be restored to their former integrity as they are in bringing them under Guild control. Such being the case, the relative importance which we attach to these two branches of Guild activity depends entirely upon our opinion as to what will be the future of Industrialism. If it is believed, as National Guildsmen did believe, when their theory was first launched, that the future is entirely with the large industry, before whose advance the crafts must eventually disappear, then Medieval Guildsmen will appear as anachronisms. But if, on the contrary, we recognize, as Medieval Guildsmen all along have recognized, and as National Guildsmen have recently come to believe, that our industrial system is a thing altogether abnormal, carrying within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and is even now on the verge of collapse, then the subject begins to wear a different complexion. The Medieval Guildsman will no longer appear as an anachronism, but as a Futurist in the best sense of the word, inasmuch as he is not content to build his house on the sands of the seashore. Such a view of the fate of industrialism in general is not incompatible with the frank recognition of the fact that certain aspects of the system may survive, while, if we do not come to the conclusion that National Guilds have no validity in the future, we at any rate may recognize that in any normal society the area of their activities will be very much circumscribed.

But there is another path of approach. We may approach Medieval Guilds from the point of view of craft organization, or from the point of view of the moral and economic principles that they existed to uphold. If we look at them from the former point of view, their picturesqueness may interest us, though their possible application will appear circumscribed. But if we look at them from the point of view of the moral and economic principles they existed to uphold, we shall come to recognize them as the type and exemplar of all true institutions, inasmuch as they stood for something that has universal validity, and is in no way limited by the details of their organization. From this point of view, the issue between Medieval and National Guilds is not one of drawing a line of demarcation, of defining their respective spheres of influence, nor finally, between the rival claims of centralized and federated or local organization, but between two different conceptions of the purpose of a Guild. Thus the essence of the National Guild idea is the conception of the organization of industry on an entirely self-governing basis, without any admixture of private interests; while the essence of the Medieval Guild idea is that of a court of appeal, whose primary function is that of maintaining a discipline among the members of a particular industry. For remember, the Medieval Guilds did not seek to organize industry, but to control it. They did not seek to supplant the private individual producer by any system of co-operative production. On the contrary, they frankly accepted the principle of the private management of industry, and sought only to superimpose over each industry an organization to regulate it in the same way that professional societies enforce a discipline among their members to-day, with the difference that in addition to upholding a standard of professional conduct the Medieval Guilds were, at their best period, concerned to promote a certain measure of economic equality between their members, in the same way that Trade Unions are to-day. They insisted that all who engaged in any industry should conform to the regulations of the Guild, which fixed prices and rates of wages, regulated apprenticeship and enforced a standard of quality in production, preventing adulteration and bad workmanship, and ordered all other matters appertaining to the conduct of an industry and the personal welfare of its individual members.

Now, what is there to stand in the way of the application of such principles to-day? Though the circumstances of modern industry differ from the circumstances of Medieval industry, yet there is no technical difficulty that stands in the way of the establishment of such control over industry, for the principles to be applied are finally nothing more than the enforcement of moral standards. The only difference between their application under the Medieval Guilds and under our supposed modern Guilds, which aim at the same purpose, would be that, whereas the former exercised control over employers and workers engaged in small workshops owned by small masters, the latter would exercise control over employers and workers engaged in large and small factories and workshops owned by private individuals, limited liability companies and self-governing groups of workers. To make such control effective, it would be necessary to depart from the rules of the Medieval Guilds to the extent that authority would be vested in the whole body of members-- employers and workers--instead of being exclusively in the hands of the masters, as was the case in the Middle Ages. For the typical employer to-day is not a master of his craft, who is jealous of its honour, as was the Medieval employer, but a financier, who is only interested in the profit and loss account, and therefore could not be trusted with final authority. This consideration enforces the conclusion that if any standards of honesty and fair dealing are to be upheld, prices fixed, machinery and other matters necessary to the proper conduct of industry to be regulated, the final authority would have to be vested in the trade as a whole, for only those who suffer from the growth of abuses can be relied on to take measures to suppress them.

In support of this contention, that the obstacle in the path of a restoration of Guilds of the Medieval type is moral rather than technical, attention should be directed to the activities of the Industrial Council of the Building Industry, better known as the Building Trades Parliament, since there are invaluable lessons to be learnt from its experience. This body, which consists of representatives of all Building Trade Employers Federations, and the Trade Unions of England and Scotland, and whose deliberations are watched with close attention by economic students all over the world, had its origin in an attempt to bring disputes in the building trades to an end by removing the causes of suspicion and distrust existing between the employers and the workers. The employers objected to any increase of wages apart from an increase of output, to which the workers in their turn objected. Subsequent negotiations revealed the fact that there were four main factors tending towards a restriction of output. They were (a) Fear of unemployment; (b) Expressed disinclination of many of the operatives to make unrestricted profit for private employers; (c) Lack of interest in the industry evidenced by operatives owing to their non-participation in control; (d) Inefficiency, both managerial and operative.

These obstacles revealed themselves as the crux of the whole difficulty, and frankly facing the situation, the joint committee of employers and operatives set themselves the task of finding ways and means of overcoming them by the promotion of what they rather aptly termed "the team spirit in industry." It resulted in a proposal to organize the Building Industry on a basis of public service. After working for four years on the problem, Majority and Minority Reports were submitted by members of the Management and Costs Committee to the Council at a Conference held in London on November 11 and 12, 1921. The former, which is our immediate concern, divided its proposals into three parts. The first was a scheme with proposals for the regularization of demand, the decasualization of labour, unemployment and holiday pay, superannuation and a minimum system of accountancy and costing. It was recommended for immediate inclusion in the working agreements between the affiliated association of Employers and Trade Unions, without prejudice to the further consideration and discussion of the great question of industrial control, which lies at the centre of the problem of efficient service, and with which the second and third part of the Report deals.

In respect of industrial control, the second part of the Report advanced the proposal that employers and operatives should submit themselves to the control of an organization that would, on the one hand, retain the principle of private management of industry, and on the other hand eliminate entirely the element of profit-making from industry. The means by which this end was to be attained was by guaranteeing salaries to owners, managers, and managing staffs, commensurate with their ability, while allowing a regular rate of interest for the hire of capital, which should be not less favourable than the prevailing rate yielded by debentures in other industries, and by guaranteeing to the operatives standard rates of pay that would ensure a real and satisfactory standard of comfort. The last part of the Majority Report advanced a proposal which was frankly admitted to be an ideal. It was for the organization of a National Guild of Builders, a complete scheme of democratic control, based upon the whole of the personnel of the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives, and other approved organizations of building trade workers, whether administrative, technical, clerical or operative, much on the lines of the Building Guilds.

The Minority Report, which represented the views of a majority of the employers, objected to these proposals for two reasons. Firstly because, as they said, the proposed scheme was a system of which the world has no recorded experience of its having been successfully applied, and therefore they preferred to stand by the present system, because it had persisted in all ages and all countries, and was therefore to be considered as normal; and secondly, because the scheme involved a change in the motive of industry, which they contended was impossible, inasmuch as only the love of gain was capable of supplying a sufficient incentive to industrial undertakings, and therefore industry would suffer demoralization if this motive were removed.

It can occasion no surprise that opposition was forthcoming. Ideas so revolutionary can only become really practical after the lapse of time, after a long propaganda has been undertaken on their behalf, when they have become common property and familiarity brings consent. Hence it was that at the Conference already referred to, a resolution was carried which threw the responsibility for the main decision on the national adherent bodies, while the Management and Costs Committee was asked further to consider and report on the less controversial details. To make a long story short, the matter has been shelved, and it is likely to remain so for an indefinite period, for there can be no doubt as to the fundamental character of the opposition. It first found expression in the debate on the Interim Report (August, 1919), at which I was present, and it was certainly a most instructive debate. It was not a debate between employers and operatives as such, but between two rival conceptions of industry--production for service versus production for gain. The operatives, with a minority of employers on the one side, fighting a majority of employers on the other. The latter group maintained that the only incentive to industrial efficiency is love of gain, and that all classes of the community will be best served by maintaining unhampered our present competitive system of enterprise and industry. The other group as obstinately maintained that the real incentive is the joy of service, and not the love of gain--the creative impulse, not the possessive one. The debate, having taken this turn, was no longer concerned with the details of the scheme. It became a debate on morals, in which appeals were made to the authority of Christianity and Ruskin. I never realized before how far the influence of Ruskin had penetrated. Everybody, employers and operatives alike, appeared to be familiar with his teachings, and he was accepted apparently by both sides as a final court of appeal, though how it came about that employers, who maintained that only the motive of gain could be a sufficient stimulus to industrial efficiency, reconciled their ideas with Ruskin and Christianity is a mystery I will not attempt to explain.

Now, what bearing has all this on the issue of Medieval and National Guilds? Just this: that when representatives of employers and operatives began to consider practical ways and means of organizing a great industry for public service, unhampered by a priori theories of class antagonism, they instinctively proceed along Medieval lines as the line of least resistance, since, apart from the proposal to form a National Guild of Builders on the lines of the Building Guild, which was included in the report as an ideal rather than as a practical measure, the Report is Medieval through and through, inasmuch as the practical proposals advanced frankly accept the principle of the private management of industry, while seeking to superimpose over such private businesses an organization that would regulate it so as to eliminate entirely the motive of profit-making. This is all the more remarkable because the original source of inspiration was more a product of the National Guild than the Medieval Guild propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact in the Majority Report the National Guild, rather than the Medieval Guild, was postulated as an ideal.

This, I feel, was a pity; not only because the great monuments of Gothic architecture were produced by the Medieval Guilds, but because a frank acceptation of the Medieval Guilds as an ideal would have given the reformers a perfectly consistent position, inasmuch as Parts I and II of the Report, which were recommended for immediate adoption, were defensible as steps towards the restoration of Medieval Guilds, but not as steps towards a National Guild, which appears in the Report as an anti-climax. By maintaining a consistent position, they could have put up a much stronger defence against the opposition. For the majority of employers could not then have opposed the scheme on the grounds that it proposed to establish over the building trades a system of organization of which the world has no recorded experience of its having been successfully applied. The great monuments of Medieval architecture could have been cited as proving the contrary, and these, it could have been urged, were just as much the counterpart of the economic order, that obtained under the Medieval Guilds, as the chaotic architecture of to-day is the counterpart of the economic chaos that follows economic individualism.

And there is another lesson that we may learn from the experience of the Building Trades Parliament. It is that behind the problem of organization there is to be found the problem of morals, for men take sides ultimately on moral issues. Economic theories may be the occasion that divides them. But it is the moral issue that finally divides men, for, as we saw, the difference of opinion over the practicability of the proposals of the Building Trades Parliament resolved itself finally into a question of morals: the question as to whether any other motive but that of gain could ever promote industrial efficiency. And here again it is to be observed that a frank acceptance of the Medieval Guilds as an ideal would have strengthened the hands of the reformers, for the issue would no longer have been one of opinion, but of fact.

The moral issue, then, is fundamental. It not only separates those who uphold the present competitive order of society from those who demand the reorganization of society on some corporate or communal basis, but it also underlies the division of opinion among reformers themselves. The scheme of the Building Trades Parliament developed along the lines it did because it was based upon the assumption that the goodwill necessary to put it into operation would be forthcoming. But when such hopes were disappointed, and it became evident that the scheme would not be acceptable to a majority of the employers, a new development took place. The Manchester section of the Operatives Federation seized the opportunity that the housing shortage provided, by setting up a Building Guild Committee, and made an offer to the City Council (Feb., 1920), to build two thousand houses. This action led to the organization of Building Guilds in various parts of the country, of which upwards of a hundred are nowadays (Dec., 1921) in existence, and which we must now proceed to consider.

Now, this new development did not proceed along the lines of the Medieval Guild, but of the National Guild, and this followed naturally from the fact that, as a result of the refusal of the employers to co-operate, their organization had to be based upon the personnel of the local Federations of Building Trade Operatives rather than upon the building industry as a whole. In providing an answer to the contention of the majority employers of the Building Trades Parliament, that only the motive of gain can supply a motive power to industry, the Building Guilds have more than justified their existence, for they have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that an organization in which the workers participate in control promotes efficiency by securing their loyalty and goodwill. But there is no reason to suppose that they will be any more successful than the Building Trades Parliament in effecting the guildization of the building trades as a whole, for their position is precarious in the extreme. They came into existence to execute the Housing schemes of various municipalities, and it is possible that with their completion they may disappear, for there is no denying they are very much at the mercy of circumstances. They are at the mercy of the Government's housing policy, and they may be strangled by the Anti-Waste campaign, while, as it so happens that financial and industrial activities have in every direction reached a deadlock--and a deadlock that will remain until the facts underlying it are frankly faced--the prospects of getting hold of a sufficient quantity of private work to enable them to carry on is doubtful.

If, then, there is no prospect of the Building Guilds being able to effect the guildization of the building trades, there is still less of this principle being able to effect the guildization of our industrial activities as a whole, for no other large industry is as fortunately placed as the building industry for embarking on such an experiment. The Building Guilds were possible because of circumstances peculiar to the building trades. There was, in the first place, the housing shortage, which provided the immediate opportunity. There were labour-controlled municipal councils that were in a position to give them work, while there was the further consideration that the element of fixed capital, so important in other large industries, is, in the building trades, unimportant compared with the charges connected with each particular job, material and labour entailing almost the whole costs in the building. These circumstances made the principle of industrial self- government a fairly simple proposition for the building trade operatives, but it obviously supplies no more precedent for the guildization of other large industries where immense fixed capital is required, and where the market cannot be localized, than the municipal gas and water of Collectivists provided a basis for the nationalization of all industry.

Nevertheless, the influence of the Building Guilds is not going to be ephemeral. If they provide no precedent for the guildization of other large industries, they do apparently for small industries, for a whole crop of small Guilds are coming into existence. There is a Furnishing Guild, a Clothiers Guild, and an Agricultural Guild already in existence; while news reaches us of a Dairy Guild, a Blacksmith's and Farrier's Guild, a Fruit Grower's Guild, a Packing Case Guild and a Commercial Vehicle Maker's Guild that are in process of formation.

Whether any of these Guilds will be able to establish themselves permanently is extremely doubtful, for they are being launched amid adverse economic conditions. Should they fail, as they may, it can be safely predicted that their failure will be followed by some disillusionment of many who are nowadays so hopeful, while it is a certainty that the failure will be used by opponents to discredit the Guild Movement. But Medievalists must attempt to assess these experiments at their true valuation. Their failure will not discourage them, for they have always been somewhat sceptical about National Guild policy. They have always maintained that our industrial system was not a thing of permanence and stability, and doubted the possibility of successfully superimposing Guilds over its activities. So while I should welcome the success of these experiments as removing an obstacle from our path, yet such success is not guaranteed, for behind the economic problem is the problem of men and machines, and the unwillingness of reformers to face this fact places us at the mercy of forces we cannot control.

Whatever may eventually prove to be the fate of these Guilds their organization has been more than justified, for they have cleared up for us many issues, while providing us with invaluable data that will pave the way towards a more intelligent discussion of the subject. But even if they should survive the present economic crisis, it would be a mistake to expect that any national system of Guilds could follow a mere extension of their activities. For one insuperable obstacle stands in the way of any such development--the tendency for all such activities to become choked by a multiplicity of committees. To guard against this evil, such self-governing bodies must be local and small. The units of their organization must be as small as is consonant with the function they are required to perform. And if for such purposes as those of finance and the buying of material a larger unit is found desirable, then the larger unit must consist of federated groups, while the functions of such federated groups should be limited to those that can be performed properly in no other way. Hence any national organization must be.independent of such bodies. The National Guild will be of the Medieval type on the lines foreshadowed by the Report of the Building Trades Parliament; because seeking to regulate industry rather than to organize it, the issues with which it would have to deal would be few. Such an organization would not suffer from too great a multiplicity of committees. Under the control of such national organizations of the Medieval Guild type, Guilds of the Building Guild type would find a place side by side with privately conducted businesses.

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