In 1871 John Ruskin began a series of Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, which were to run into four volumes, published under the title Fors Clavigera. In these letters Ruskin proposed the establishment of a “Guild of St. George,” which would directly and actively oppose industrialism and its waste of lives and resources. By placing his guild under the patronage of St. George, Ruskin intended to focus attention on the Christian ethos in which the social good was held superior to individual greed. Whilst Ruskin’s Christian faith, in the sense of Credo – “I believe” – was, to say the least, somewhat eccentric, it is beyond dispute that his values and ethics were of a high Christian morality. It might be said that whatever his deism, he was an “ethical Christian” and one of the noblest minds in English history. It was from Ruskin and the “Guild of St. George” that William Morris and others drew their inspiration.
The development of Ruskin’s teachings by his disciples after 1906, however, certainly seems to have been away from any explicit Christian ethos, as was later to become apparent with the defection of Palme Dutt, William Gallagher, and Maurice Dobb, among others, to the newly founded Communist Party of Great Britain. After an unsuccessful attempt to take over the Fabian Society, the “guild socialists” established their own National Guilds League.
William Titterton described the guild approach to industrialism:
"[I]t proved the virtue, the necessity, of organization from the productive unit, the master-craftsman, outwards, instead of organizing inwards from the consuming unit, conceived by the Fabians as the nation, if not the world."
However this very high degree of organization, which has something of the those of Bellamy’s Looking Backward about it, was the cause of division. S. G. Hobson developed a more moderate programme and had the support of A. R. Orage and the influential New Age. It was their proposed organization of all workers in a given occupation into a single guild – which would therefore have a monopoly of both labour and capital – which G. R. Stirling Taylor and A. J. Penty rejected. It might be convenient to distinguish here between the two schools of thought, reserving the term “guild socialism” for the “organization” men and “guildism” for the decentralists, with the proviso that the division was neither clear-cut nor hard and fast. In The Guild State, Stirling Taylor offered a pragmatic, trial-and-error approach, concluding his preface with the words: “Their interpretation owes more to the teaching of everyday life than to the professors.”
The guilds must not, he maintains, begin with a “blue-print,” a mass of regulations, caveats, and codicils, but develop organically by testing what works and rejecting what does not. They are not, in fact, a “new” thing, rather they have their roots in custom, in a tradition, and it is this tradition which calls men back to their roots – and what can be more radical than that? This view of society is one which echoes Chesterton’s defence of tradition in Orthodoxy as “the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn.” In contrast to the guild-socialist aim of “National” Guilds, Stirling Taylor proposes, on the medieval model, “local” guilds, which may be municipal or even operate in a single ward; which may have a hundred members or only a dozen; which may compete with each other, moderately, and leave choice to the customer. In comparing the author’s proposals with the social teaching of the Catholic Church it must be remembered that the economy of truth requires that the Church defines the minimum of doctrine, leaving much open to exegesis. It is in the Catholic ethos that we will find the larger concordance with “guildism,” rather than in the body of defined doctrine. On the issue of subsidiarity, however, we find Stirling Taylor at one with the authoritative, and subsequent, teaching of Pius XI in his 1931 Quadragesimo Anno:
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone . . . (§80).
The social policy of the State, therefore, must devote itself to the reestablishment of the Industries and Professions (§82).
Pius XI continues his exposition of the nature and purpose of such associations in the clearest terms, which might indeed have been suggested by The Guild State. The bonds which claim the allegiance of men, the encyclical asserts, are not forged by their position in the labour-market, but by their being united in the functions they exercise in society:
For it is natural that just as those who dwell in close proximity constitute townships, so those who practice the same trade or profession, in the economic field or any other, form corporate groups. These groups, with powers of self-government, are considered by many to be, if not essential to civil society, at least natural to it (§83).
It would not be too strong to say that Taylor and Penty were confidently proposing a Catholic alternative to the secularist view of the guild socialists. I say “confidently” because Belloc, one of the founders of Distributism, which is clearly inherent in Taylor’s decentralist proposals, had given Catholics a new and assertive confidence in their roots and in their past. He had called the modern world before the bar of history, and found it wanting. He had proclaimed to his fellow Catholics that they “mistook the hour of the day. It is not the night, it is the dawn.” Taylor and Penty, thanks to Belloc, were certain that the Catholic ages had done things better and to these they proposed a return, not in detail, but in spirit.
Ruskin, in Unto This Last, had demolished, in scintillating prose, the “iron laws” of that “common or garden political economist,” who leaves out of the equation the most vital element – human affections. The just master, who is considerate of his workmen and of their re-creation, will always be given more, better, and more willing service than the harsh taskmaster who adheres to the so-called “iron laws” of rent and wages. In the same way some of the guild socialists, chiefly those who defected to communism, left out of account the social ethic without which the National Guilds would wither and die – as indeed they did. This might perhaps be illustrated with a simple example.
A cricket (or baseball) club is founded on an ethic, which we term “sportsmanship.” The components of this ethic cannot be disentangled from the whole, and they certainly cannot be exhaustively subjected to “laws,” a point Stirling Taylor makes concerning the guilds and the state. In fact, in a sport such as cricket or baseball, the “laws” will rarely be changed, nor will the match be stopped every few minutes whilst the players argue about the laws and demand changes – that would be contrary to the ethic of sportsmanship. A player may know all the rules of the game and be master of all the skills it requires, but if he lacks the ethic he will be a cheat and bring dishonour on the club. If we apply this model to the guilds and their place in the wider society, we will see immediately, as Stirling Taylor saw, that the guilds can only flourish, or indeed exist as guilds and not as the petrifacts of a by-gone age, in a society governed, not by regulations, but by an ethic, a sixth sense which tells a man what he may do, what he may not do, and what he ought to do. For the medieval guilds that ethic was Catholic Christianity, and the whole guild socialist attempt to do without it ended in failure.
It is plain from the text that Stirling Taylor rejects the notion of “common ownership” adopted by the National Guilds League in favour of the Distributist (and medieval) concept of ownership of workshop and tools by the master craftsmen, their families, journeymen, and apprentices, associating in a guild. In this he is at one with Leo XIII’s defence of private property in Rerum Novarum (1891):
We have seen that this great labour question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners . . . (§46).
Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labour of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them . . . . These . . . important benefits, however, can be reckoned on only provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation. The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether (§47).
Penty’s “guildism” and Distributism met in the pages of Orage’s New Age where they were later to be joined by Douglas’ Social Credit. There were, as already mentioned, very profound disputes. Orage, for example, declared himself a “Distributist,” even though he concurred in the centralization of organization implicit in National Guilds and was prepared to accept the factory system. Penty and Chesterton on the other hand looked for the end of the factory system and the decentralization of production. Belloc, whilst championing ownership also saw a role for the guilds as complementing private property with cooperation.
Distributism was associated with, and perhaps even part of, the wider “back to the land” movement. One result of this was that Distributists, typified by Titterton, tended to think of “property” as ownership of land. They overlooked the fact that, for example, a practice such as a doctor, dentist, solicitor, architect, etc. is “property,” albeit abstract property, even if conducted from rented premises. So also might be a workshop or factory owned by, as Stirling Taylor suggests, a guild of common function.
With the meeting of these three strands in the pages of The New Age, and later in G.K.'s Weekly, “social Thomism” was brought back to life and into the twentieth century.
It was St. Thomas’s argument for social self-sufficiency, as explained in De Regimine Principium, that convinced Penty of the supreme necessity of getting away from an industrial commercial society. Aquinas decried the growth of “cosmopolitanism,” “as detrimental to fostering a stable life based on one’s own social environment.” . . . Penty’s entire philosophy came very close to one of the strongest traditions of Catholic social thinking, namely, the emphasis on the efficacy of the self-contained organic community.
There was of course, as already touched upon, disputation, for all these men were original thinkers, not likely to follow-my-leader meekly or mouth the unthinking slogans of conventional wisdom. Belloc grasped Douglas’s theorem as quickly as Orage. Indeed he illustrated it more clearly than Douglas himself:
Industrial Capitalism has broken down because it is producing an amount of wealth greater than it is distributing purchasing power for that wealth; and to put it very crudely indeed, if I want to make a hundred thousand boots, or rather employ men to make those boots, and by the time the boots are made I have distributed to the men who make them the money wherewith to purchase thirty-thousand boots, what am I to do with the seventy thousand boots left?
Belloc did not dispute the correctness of the Douglas theorem, but he regarded it as of less importance than the distribution of ownership. He overlooked what the late Canon Drinkwater pointed out in Why Not End Poverty? – that given security of income by the national dividend, men would in fact be able to buy property.
Douglas in turn approved Orage’s guild socialism, seeing a first step towards it in the shop steward movement. He took the view that the Social Credit proposals for honest money and just prices were the practical mechanism for achieving Distributism.
It is profoundly significant that what is now called “Socialism,” and pretends to be a movement for the improvement of the underprivileged, began as something closely approaching the Distributism of Messrs. Belloc and Chesterton, of which the financial proposals embodied in various authentic Social Credit Schemes form the practical mechanism.... It (Socialism) was penetrated by various subversive bodies and perverted into the exact opposite of Distributism: Collectivism.
Titterton never fully accepted that Orage was a “real” Distributist because he accepted the factory system as permanent; but why should not factories be owned by syndicates of those who work in them, or better still, by guilds founded upon shared function, as Stirling Taylor advocates?
Maurice Reckitt, convinced alike of Distributism and the correctness of the Douglas theorem, worked hard – though without success – for a synthesis of all three strands.
What would that synthesis be? It would embody the Catholic teaching on property, its inalienable rights and corresponding duties. It would embrace, through Stirling Taylor’s and Penty’s “guildism,” the Church’s teaching on cooperation between classes by unifying those sharing the same economic function. It would give us the just price, so long the subject of theological examination, and it would give us honest money, safeguarded from loss of value (i.e., theft) from both inflation and deflation.
Stirling Taylor’s prose is calm and stately, often Bellocian in its insights and dismissals. I have hinted already that there are passages in Pius XI's encyclical which echo his thought. I have not discussed the organizational details of the guilds for the good reason that Stirling Taylor himself appears to consider them as secondary to the spirit of the guilds, which must be guided by the Church and the Holy Ghost if it is to triumph. His ideas must be maintained against the time when industrialism and usury implode for lack of the very resources which they have wasted.
I have endeavoured to reflect the Catholic-Distributist ethos of The Guild State without resorting to extensive quotations from the text, for that, after all, is what you will be reading next.
July 2, 2006
Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
THE WEAVERS’ HALL
THE COOMBE, DUBLIN
For the book, please visit IHS Press.