National Guilds

An organisation calling itself the “National Guilds League” is running serial articles in certain trade-union journals. The combined articles constitute a sort of manifesto to the workers. This manifesto is couched in ambiguous and indefinite language which bewilders the reader and nullifies the effect of the very few passages that would otherwise convey something of the meaning they desire to express. One or two examples from the very first paragraph will make this clear. Quoting Rousseau, they say: “Men are born for freedom but everywhere we find they are in chains. The people have struck off the chains of privilege to find themselves loaded with the chains of progress.” To tell us that “the chains of which Rousseau was thinking, was the chains of the past, while the chains with which we are bound to-day are the chains of the future,” does not help to solve the enigma. To say that the people have struck off the chains of privilege is untrue, and the concluding portion of the paragraph is indeterminate and vague. “The great lesson of the 19th century for all reformers must be the recognition of the truth that political liberty unsupported by economic resource is but barren if it be not followed by the deliverance of the vast mass of mankind from industrial slavery. The ideal of freedom will not be recovered till the workers learn to demand that man shall take his economic destiny in his own hands.” In the first place, reformers will not willingly learn anything except how to make their nostrums palatable. Secondly, the workers will gain nothing by learning to demand.

Freedom is only possible for the workers when they recognise that their slavery is due to the class ownership of the means of life, and consciously organising for that purpose, abolish class ownership and establish society on the basis of common ownership with democratic control. Political liberty, or more correctly speaking from the National Guild’s stand¬point, the franchise is not dependent for anything the workers might achieve by its means upon economic resources, but upon knowledge. The various institutions that are encouraged by the ruling class are fully alive to this fact. It is quite true to say that the ruling class en masse, is opposed to the enlightenment of the working class. It is over the question of the spreading of knowledge that the class struggle wages most fiercely. Everywhere the agents of capitalism are busy impeding the diffusion of Socialist knowledge, and promoting the fallacies and superstitions of the other class. The party system of government is not so much an institution for settling differences between sections of the master class, as a method by which capitalist ideals may be forcibly impressed on the minds of the workers. And room is not made in the Government for “labourism” because it represents working-class interests, but because it falsifies the working-class position, declaring as it does all the time for society reform and the perpetuation of capitalism. Trade unionism is encouraged because it imprisons the worker’s mind within the narrow sphere of barter over the price of his labour-power, while religion answers every enquiry with reference to divine omniscience and immutability. On the capitalist side every precaution is taken to hinder the discussion of knowledge and to prevent the worker from exercising his intelligence freely. Wherever the workers “dimly” perceive the antagonism existing between classes, an army of agents are ready with sophistries and lies to intensify the mist, through which they see dimly, and render them impotent. The ruling class fight the working class with knowledge already on their side. Every contingency is provided for as soon as it arises. And the end and object of their political and so-called economic institutions is the continued prostration of the working class and the prolongation of their era of power. Knowing, as we do, that the ruling class thus consciously endeavour to impede or hinder the diffusion of knowledge, it is worse than useless to bewail the fact. Knowing that labour leaders are the treacherous and corrupt tools of the master class, it would be absurd to bemoan their treachery. The National Guild says : “When the doctrines of Socialism began to be preached in England no strong class-conscious labour movement was at hand to demand for the trade union its vital share in the new world of which men were dreaming. Even William Morris was unable to carry his message to any but a handful of the working class. The stupidity of this remark is in itself apparent, for a class-conscious labour movement in England at that time would have been proof that Socialism was not beginning to be preached but that it had already been preached for some time. The essence of Socialism is the recognition of the antagonism of the two classes in society, which is class-conscious¬ness. It is sheer waste of time to deplore the fact that William Morris was unable to reach but a handful of the workers. The only time that is not wasted is that which is spent in understanding and promoting Socialist knowledge.

The National Guilds magnify the function of trade unions, investing them with a significance and importance they do not possess. They are exhorted to invest themselves with ideals to be achieved somewhere in the distant future. “But trade unionists should regard the State neither as a master, nor as an enemy—but as a partner in the future with, his industrial guild.” Of course it is readily seen that the fact of a worker belonging or not belonging to a trade union makes no difference as to how he regards the State. The State, or the organised power of the capitalist class, is expressed through Parliament, which the National Guilds describes as “The executive committee of the governing class.” A “governing class” and a “master class” are synonymous. The sooner, therefore, that the trade unionist regards the State in its true character, as the organised expression of capitalist power, the better will it be for him, because he will recognise his enslavement, master and enemy at once. He will know that it is absurd to think of becoming partners with the capitalist in the capitalist State. Between exploiters and exploited, partnership is out of the question. While they have the power, the exploiters will repudiate it. When the exploited have the power they will deny the right of the exploiting class to partnership in the results of their labour. The governing class will therefore cease to exist. It will be absorbed in the community of free men and women to be established by the working class. The State, the embodiment of capitalist power, will be unnecessary and unthinkable under Socialism, because free men and women are not governed, but administrate things for themselves in their own interests.

The sentence following the last quotation is more ambiguous still. “It is the task of the leaders to lead the workers to this goal ; it is the business of the rank and file to see that they do” ; but if the rank and file know the way they can do without leaders : they have already learned to walk.

Then an attempt is made to define the terms “State Socialism” and “State Capitalism.” Under the latter nationalisation of railways is given as an instance and its operation clearly shown in the following remark. “Nationalize the railways to-morrow on this basis and you will not have moved an inch towards the destruction of the wage system.” So far they are on safe ground ; any capitalist hack would admit so much, even while mouthing the doctrine that the railway worker shared with the working class in the national ownership of the railways. They seem to imagine, however, that the Utopia of Bernard Shaw and Edward Bellamy would not only destroy the wages system but that such a utopia is the natural outcome of social evolution-the actual form with which society will next invest itself. Briefly, it works–fiction of course-thus: “The community would pay a fixed or an equal sum to all, whether they did little or much, hard or easy work.” The absurdity of this dream-society consists in the impossibility of its establishment. Either the working class or the master class would have to usher it in. The latter can be left out of the question, it cannot be anything but capitalist. The working class, on the other hand will only move towards emancipation scientifically. It will have had enough of limited incomes, equal or not under capitalism. Until the workers under¬stand Socialism no change of a revolutionary nature is possible. Understanding Socialism they will not waste time and energy in arranging Utopias, preserving a cash basis for everything, of filling museums with profit and loss accounts. Production and distribution will be carried out with the least possible expenditure of labour-power, because every saving of labour-time would mean more time for enjoyment.

We may be sure that those who write of “incomes under Socialism” will follow with some remarks on prices, the second is implied when the first is postulated. They say : “In order to be free the workers must be directly self-governing–not, of course in the fixing of prices which must be regulated in consultation with the consumers’ authorities—but in the process and method of this work.

The first slip leads naturally to the second. An income is a stipulated amount of the means of exchange, this income under the guilds is to represent the total exchange-value of all the use-values each member is permitted to consume in given period. Obviously, then, every use-value is priced, in order to confine the individual to his income. The use-value is then still a commodity, an article produced for exchange. No only so, under the guilds these commodities are produced for profits, for we are told that “such surplus-value as may accrue after paying the expenses of each industry will go to the common exchequer, not as profits of a common exploiter, but as the necessary funds for carrying on State activities.”

We have, therefore, under the proposed system, to be known as the guilds, commodities, incomes, exchange and prices, all of which are capitalist institutions that, in the opinion of the writers, should be preserved. This opinion clearly shows their admiration for the forms and methods of capitalism. Elsewhere they tell us that price includes surplus-value, but it does not seem to strike them that the only reason for the existence of prices is that the owners of commodities may realise this surplus-value. Having abolished the capitalist, they had to invent, or rather, preserve a receiver for this surplus-value—the State, with activities too, as though the workers were not, even now, sick of State activities, State interference, diplomacy, aggression at home and abroad.

That they really mean some sort of organised State with real power, and consequently inimical to freedom is shown in the following: “It is essential to democracy that the workers should vote, not only for their political rulers, but also for their industrial rulers.” Under the guilds, then, we have two sets of rulers and—mere workers ; the difference being that the workers elect both, whereas now they only elect their political rulers, which ought, in the meantime, to impress them with the stupidity of setting up rulers of any kind.

Under the heading “The Method.” we are introduced to an old friend thinly disguised: Industrial Unionism. The introduction is preceded by the usual criticism of Labour-Party methods, that, of course, being the industrial unionist conception of working-class political action. But note the reason given for the failure of the Labour Party.

“Now we claim that much of the energy that has been expended upon building up the Labour Party has been wasted. The so-called political power which it has conferred upon the workers is largely fictitious, and it is fictitious because it does not represent power in the economic sphere. An interest or a party can only express itself in Acts of Parliament when it has economic security to back it, and labour lacks that economic security. To use a phrase that is now becoming somewhat threadbare by repetition, Economic power precedes and dominates political power.”

Not “much,” but the whole of the energy expended by the workers in support of the Labour Party has been wasted, because that party has never stood for Socialism. One mistake, both on the part of the Labour Party and the National Guilds, consists in their belief that it is possible to improve conditions for the working class by “Acts of Parliament.”

They try to prove their “threadbare” phrase by citing the case of “The economically powerful railway-owners, the mine-owners and merchants and ship-owners” who were “allowed to dictate their own terms to the Government” during the present war, while the railway-workers and miners were granted a small bonus, and that only “because they threatened the economic interest of the owners, they threatened to strike. Where the owners were concerned, Government was pliable ; where the non-possessors were concerned, government was indifferent—until the non-possessors threatened the owners in the economic sphere.”

This section is designed to show the weakness of the workers in comparison with the capitalists in the House of Commons ; a comparison that loses its point when we remember that the writers have already described Parliament as the executive of the capitalist class. Having once postulated this much it is childish to forget it so quickly, and to suit the later contention, regard Parliament as a sort of independent tribunal that must bargain, both with the workers and with the class whose interests it represents. This is precisely what they do in their effort to substantiate their claim that “economic power precedes and dominates political power.”

If the statement read, economic weakness precedes political power, there might be some reason for its becoming threadbare, like many another platitude or proverb. The fore-runners of the capitalist class, before the revolution, were bled by the monarchy and aristocracy, and were powerless to stop the process until they obtained political power and control of armed forces. In the most recent historical example, therefore, they can find no confirmation for their statement.

By economic power is meant, presumably, control of wealth or the means of wealth production. But this is only possible when there is adequate protection for such control or ownership. In any form of society divided into possessors and non-possessors, protection can only be ensured by the display of physical force. Under Feudalism the barons maintained their possessions by trained bands immediately under their control. But under Capitalism the defence of property is vested in the executive of the whole robber class. The real power of the possessing class lies in their control of the armed forces ; without these their continued ownership would be impossible, because they dare not oppose the demands of the workers. Being numerically weaker than the working class, the first general clash of interests would mean their complete subversion. A large measure of the success of trade unionism in its early days was due to the unpreparedness of the capitalist executive. The armed forces and police were not adequate in numbers or organisation to cope with the riotous action of the strikers.

Then follows the application of this threadbare phrase to the working class. Before they can hope to win political power they must control wealth, or the means of wealth production. This task is embodied in “the method,” and endorses Industrial Union methods from the “irritation strike” to “the lock-out of the masters.”

Neither trade unions nor industrial unions can, with unemployment increasing and wages falling, accumulate funds to carry on numberless strikes with the success necessary to inspire confidence in the workers to ensure their continuance. Bluff will achieve but little against the master class. The workers’ organisation must have the solid backing of unlimited funds ; without these they can withhold their labour-power only for a limited period. The “League” treads lightly over this ground; they seem to recognise these limits. They say : “the men have their labour power, which is equally necessary, but not being properly organised it cannot be withheld for any great length of time.” Here, as elsewhere, they deliberately shirk the point. Organisation, and particularly their own form, has become a fetish to them, so much so, that the real necessity—funds—is pushed into the back-ground and forgotten.

“If labour is organised for economic effort, political power follows” is another phrase which, unsupported by evidence is unproven, but which tacitly admits the necessity of the working class to conquer political power. There is ample evidence in this manifesto to prove that its writers utterly fail to understand the meaning of their own phrases. Political power seems a mystery to them, because they are unable to see that it means control of organised physical forces.

A working-class party must be a political party, because its first object is political: the capture of the entire political and administrative machinery. This is the only means by which the ruling class can be dispossessed of the means of wealth production, the character of these means of production, or the tools and methods in operation when the working class gain control, will determine, both, production and distribution and the form of organisation necessary for a real democratic administration of the means of life.

The “League” provides minute instructions to trade unionists as to the ideals that are to be kept constantly before them, and the details of present action that make for the ideals some where in the future. They are “lifted” from Industrial Unionism. Unions must be “blackleg proof.” “Managers, superintendents, clerks of every grade within an industry must be persuaded or forced to unite and control. . . . By these means the workers create organisations capable of carrying on production co-operatively. . Then we can say to the capitalist you are no longer necessary, we are prepared to take your place.” And the masters, observing the truth of the remark, will have no alternative but to change places, when, of course, we shall all be capitalists in the guilded Utopia of the “League,” where “The unit of production is the factory,” not the individual, he, or she, will still be a hand and still submerged and a slave to the tools he uses.
“The guild is a trading body. . . . The State will own the means of production, the guild will manage production. As owner, the State will impose on each guild such a charge as it can bear, tax, rent, royalty, or whatever you may call it. … Taxation, prices, and such questions to be fixed by a joint authority, representing both producers and consumers. . . . Just as all consumers are linked up in the great national body, the State, so all the producers will need to be linked up in their great national body. . . . The consumer needs to be assured of securing the commodities and services he requires at a fair price.”

All this only proves how much the writers are in love with capitalism. The shoddy ideals of a mercenary age appeal to their bourgeois minds. It is no wonder that they fail to understand Socialism ; they have never yet understood capitalism or they would not plead for the perpetuation of the hideous machinery of exchange that can only exist in society when wealth is individually or class owned.

F. F.

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