Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Guild in Being

by G.D.H. Cole




The name "Guild" is taken from the Middle Ages. Throughout the mediaeval period the predominant form of industrial organisation throughout the civilisation of Christendom was the Gild or Guild, an association of independent producers or merchants for the regulation of production or sale. The mediaeval Gild was not indeed confined to industry: it was the common form of popular association in the mediaeval town. There were Gilds for social and charitable, and for educational, as well as for industrial purposes ; and every Gild, whatever its specific function, had a strong religious basis and an essentially religious form. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the rise, organisation and decline of the mediaeval system ; but it is necessary to show, both what are the fundamental differences between mediaeval Gilds and modern Guilds, and what is the essential unity of idea between them.

I have adopted the more correct "Gild" in speaking of the industrial organisation of the Middle Ages, while retaining the more familiar "Guild" to denote the modern.

The mediaeval Gild was essentially local, and the Gilds in a single town formed a separate system. This applies less to the merchant than to the craft bodies, but it is true as a generalisation, and especially true of the British Gilds. This fact, which corresponds to the comparative localisation of markets owing to the scanty facilities for transit, of course largely accounts for the break-up of the Gilds at the close of the Middle Ages. The mediaeval Gild again was an association of independent producers, each of whom worked on his own with a small number of journeymen and apprentices. It was an organisation based on small-scale handi-craft production, and it broke down before the accumulation of wealth which made large-scale enterprise possible. The Gild was a regulative rather than a directly controlling or managing body. It did not itself manage the industry, though it sometimes acted as a purchasing agent for materials : it left actual management in the hands of its members, the master-craftsmen ; but it laid down elaborate regulations governing the actions and professional code of the members. These regulations, which are the essence of the mediaeval Gild system, had as their basis the double object of maintaining both the liberties and rights of the craft and its tradition of good workmanship and faithful communal service, as expressed in the "Just Price." They declared war on shoddy work, on extortion and usury, and on unregulated production. They afforded to their members a considerable security, and an assured communal status. They held, in mediaeval Society, a recognised position as economic organs of the body social, possessing a tradition of free service, and, on the strength of that tradition, filling an honourable place in the public life of the mediaeval City.

I am far from contending that the Gilds were perfect, or that they always, even in their best days, lived up to the full demands of their principles. Certainly, in the days of their decline, when they were fighting a losing battle in a hostile environment, they departed very far from their tradition. But we are concerned less with their actual achievement which was, for a period of centuries, very great indeed than with the spirit which animated them, and the principles upon which their power was based. We want to see what in these principles is of value to us in confronting the problems of our own time, and, if their spirit is one that we would gladly recapture, what lessons we can learn from them concerning the foundation on which this spirit rested. For a fundamental difference between mediaeval industry and industry to-day is that the former was imbued through and through with the spirit of free communal service, whereas this motive is almost wholly lacking in modern industrialism, and the attempt to replace it by the motives of greed on one side and fear on the other is manifestly breaking down. It is undoubtedly the case that, though there were sharp practices and profiteering in the Middle Ages, the Gildsman or the Gild that committed or sanctioned them did so in flat violation of moral principles which he or it had explicitly accepted as the basis of the industrial order, whereas to-day moral principles are regarded almost as intruders in the industrial sphere, and many forms of sharp practice and profiteering rank as the highest manifestations of commercial sagacity. In the Middle Ages, there were industrial sinners, but they were conscious of sin; for commercial morality and communal morality were the same. To-day, commercial morality has made a code of its own, and most of its clauses are flat denials of the principles of communal morality. In the Middle Ages, the motives to which the industrial system made its appeal were motives of free communal service: to-day, they are motives of greed and fear.

Clearly, we cannot seek to restore the mediaeval that is, the communal spirit in industry by restoring the material conditions of the Middle Ages. We cannot go back to "town economy," a general regime of handicraft and master-craftsmanship, tiny-scale production. We can neither pull up our railways, fill in our mines, and dismantle our factories, nor conduct our large-scale enterprises under a system developed to fit the needs of a local market and a narrowly-restricted production. If the mediaeval system has lessons for us, they are not parrot-lessons of slavish imitation, but lessons of the spirit, by which we may learn how to build up, on the basis of large-scale production and the world-market, a system of industrial organisation that appeals to the finest human motives and is capable of developing the tradition of free communal service. I fully believe that, when we have established these free conditions, there will come, from producer and consumer alike, a widespread demand for goods of finer quality than the shoddy which we turn out in such quantity to-day, and that this will bring about a new standard of craftsmanship and a return, over a considerable sphere, to small-scale production. But this, if it comes, will come only as the deliberate choice of free men in a free Society. Our present problem is, taking the conditions of production substantially as we find them, to reintroduce into industry the communal spirit, by re-fashioning industrialism in such a way as to set the communal motives free to operate.

The element of identity between the mediaeval Gilds and the National Guilds proposed by the Guild Socialists to-day is thus far more of spirit than of organisation . A National Guild would be an association of all the workers by hand and brain concerned in the carrying on of a particular industry or service, and its function would be actually to carry on that industry or service on behalf of the whole community. Thus, the Railway Guild would include all the workers of every type from general managers and technicians to porters and engine cleaners required for the conduct of the railways as a public service. This association would be entrusted by the community with the duty and responsibility of administering the railways efficiently for the public benefit, and would be left itself to make the internal arrangements for the running of trains and to choose its own officers, administrators, and methods of organisation.

I do not pretend to know or prophesy exactly how many Guilds there would be, or what would be the lines of demarcation between them. For example, railways and road transport might be organised by separate Guilds, or by a single Guild with internal subdivisions. So might engineering and shipbuilding, and a host of other closely-related industries. This is a matter, not of principle, but of convenience ; for there is no reason why the various Guilds should be of anything like uniform size. The general basis of the pro- posed Guild organisation is clear enough : it is industrial, and each National Guild will represent a distinct and coherent service or group of services.

It must not, however, be imagined that Guildsmen are advocating a highly centralised system, in which the whole of each industry will be placed under a rigid central control. The degree of centralisation will largely depend on the character of the service. Thus, the railway industry obviously demands a much higher degree of centralisation than the building industry, which serves mainly a local market. But, apart from this, Guildsmen are keen advocates of the greatest possible extension of local initiative and of autonomy for the small group, in which they see the best chance of keeping the whole organisation keen, fresh and adaptable, and of avoiding the tendency to rigidity and conservatism in the wrong things, so characteristic of large-scale organisation, and especially of trusts and combines under capitalism to-day. The National Guilds would be, indeed, for the most part coordinating rather than directly controlling bodies, and would be concerned more with the adjustment of supply and demand than with the direct control or management of their several industries. This will appear more plainly when we have studied the internal organisation of the Guilds.

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