A G(u)ilded Pill

An Old and Discredited Belly-Gripe in a New but Thin Disguise

A Review of the National Guilds’ publications : “The Guild Idea,” “Towards a Miners’ Guild,” “National Guilds,” and “The Guildsman,” Jan. 1917.

When a new organisation, offering a programme to the workers, presents in glowing language a vivid picture of their system as they see it ; when details, carefully chosen, have been elaborated and objections, advanced by themselves, met and destroyed, it is just as well to be inquisitive, if not suspicious. While it would not be true to say that every quack who harps on the virtues of perfect health advertises worthless remedies, many adopt that method for the same reason that the angler baits his hook. The founders of the “National Guilds League” may honestly believe they have worked out a solution of the poverty problem by explaining how their system would work when established ; but the average worker will have scant sympathy for their imaginative efforts unless the means of establishment are made plain. It is one thing to tell the worker that—

“His job would be secure ; he would be subject to the control neither of a capitalist nor a capitalist’s nominee, nor of an outside official, appointed from above, but of his own fellows. He would be controlled only by foremen and managers of his own choosing, making goods for use and not for profit”

but quite another thing to persuade him to “kick against the pricks” indefinitely in the vain effort to achieve it when neither science nor common sense dictates the line of action.

Industrial Unionism is the basis of the Guild philosophy. Trade Unions are the starting point ; the first move being to make them black-leg proof. The Trades Councils must carry on propaganda to this end. Next, the reformism of Trade Unions must give way to—

“a more revolutionary idea : the attempt to ameliorate will he replaced by the attempt to attain freedom through the destruction of the wage-system.”

With this must come the amalgamation of all Unions and the complete organisation of both “manual workers and salariat.”

Next, Arbitration must be abolished and the Conciliation Board must become a Negotiation Board dealing with every question that can possibly arise between employer and employee, until the Negotiation Boards are made the real controlling body in every industry.

Briefly, this is an outline of the Guild’s proposals. Trade Unions may or may not develop into Industrial Unions; but granting they do, assuming that the workers become organised into “one fighting force,” that the proposed “Boards of Negotiation,” with the full support of the organised worker, demand control of the means of production, must the ruling class submit ?

The Guild think that under the threat of a General Strike they will. Historical precedents and the experience of trade unionists in many a brutal conflict contradict their gratuitous assumption. In such a crisis the real power would still be on the capitalist side, and the “Negotiation Boards” with the workers behind them might have bullets for breakfast, dinner, and tea without affecting the appetites of their masters or the wherewithal to satisfy them.

In pamphlet No. 3 we are told that—

“The way to oust the employer is to render him unnecessary, and this can only be done by securing an ever-increasing share in control, and so eventually thrusting the owner from his monopoly.”

This is the climax to an insinuating movement which is plausibly outlined from such small beginnings as, for example, the formation of a committee of employers and workers to deal with absenteeism, but extended to questions of discipline and management at the demand of the Derbyshire miners. V.H.R. in “The Guildsman” admits that a measure of “workshop control” may be conceded, or even imposed, by the capitalist in his own interest, to reduce friction and increase output. But what the Guild overlook is the fact that, so far as actual production and distribution is concerned, the capitalist is unnecessary to-day. He performs no useful function whatever, yet capitalists as a class continue to appropriate the total wealth produced by the workers.

It is this appropriation that the Guild propose to abolish by means of the General Strike. This is their real weapon—the “Boards of Negotiation” are the instruments. And—

“as the power of the workers increases, control will be transferred gradually to them from the employers. This, however, will never come about unless the unions keep intact the right to strike, on which their power depends.”

Thus “The Guild Idea” is the Industrial Unionist pill coated with the gold leaf of an imaginative Utopia. An idea only, sentimental and economically unsound, its founders speak correctly when they describe it as “a gamble” (“The Guild Idea,” p. 13). It is a gamble, but a gamble without even a sporting chance for the workers.

In the same place we are told that—

“The economic basis of our societv is struggle, the struggle to buy labour cheap and sell it dear. In such a warfare the most powerful weapon is monopoly. The capitalists are dominant in proportion to their monopoly of the means of production ; the workers in the same way can exercise power just in so far as labour is scarce or organised. . . Both parties are driven by the economic struggle to obtain a complete monopoly, and this can only be done by careful regulation of both labour and of capital. The extent to which Labour has held its own is the extent to which it has been organized.”

But the economic basis of capitalist society is the class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution (and the resulting merchandise character of human labour-power). The class struggle results from it. Monopoly is not a weapon, but through the control of the political machinery the capitalists are able to use various weapons, for instance, capitalist education, religion, labour decoys, and armed forces. As the capitalist class control all these they are completely dominant ; the workers’ power, even when labour-power is in demand and well organised, is therefore secondary and dominated.

The latter part of the above quotation is, like many another passage, almost meaningless. How can both parties be driven by the economic struggle to obtain a monopoly which both already possess ? The workers are the sole purveyors of labour-power, and the capitalists are complete owners of the means of life. The careful regulation of capital, i.e., the better organisation of the master class in the class struggle, renders labour-power plentiful and the position of working-class organisation less secure. The success of one class is the failure of the other. Yet, according to the Guild, both parties (classes) can obtain a monopoly by careful regulation. By careful regulation and incessant struggle they can both obtain what both already possess, but which the one possessing, excludes possession by the other.

Something of a key to this ambiguity is contained in the last sentence : “The extent to which labour has held its own is the extent to which it has been organised.” But it does not alter the situation, because on every occasion when the relative strength of the two classes has been tested by means of strike or lock-out, the capitalists have easily maintained their dominant position, and the working class have suffered a heavy reduction in their standard of living, during a time, too, when labour-power was in demand. The ability of the Trade Unions to improve conditions has diminished rather than increased with their growing numbers.

The Guild writers utterly fail to understand, capitalist society. It is no surprise, therefore, to find them determined to preserve capitalist institutions and superstitions while at the same time declaring that production must be carried on for use. Their main superstition is that, any form of society must necessarily be divided into producers and consumers. It is quite true that in capitalist society the capitalist class consume without producing, though, even there the working class consume—mostly rubbish, it is true. But a society in which all were producers and consumers alike could have no object, in setting up organised division.

But the Guild would transform the capitalist State into a consumers’ league—to which every producer would belong—with power to tax the producers (themselves) after they themselves had fixed the prices at which the producers (themselves again) must sell their commodities to themselves.

It is only fair, however, to add that the Guild do not see it in that light, although asserting that “the producer and consumer represent not different people, but different points of view.” Having postulated antagonism, even though it is based on a “point of view,” to ensure a balance they find it necessary to allocate to each functions to be exercised in their defence.

Although wealth produced for use would no longer be “an immense accumulation of commodities,” the Guild insist that society should regard it as such, presumably to preserve their two points of view. Producers and consumers, although the same in reality, must have some system of exchange. Illustrations are given to show the futility of trying to fix prices under capitalism, yet under the Guild system the State, representing the consumers, will overcome this difficulty, and the producers in each industry will simply arrange the details of production in order to meet the demand. A single tax will he levied on the productive guilds in accordance with their net income—and this tax is the community’s final weapon against exploitation by the Guild.

The Guild system is thus seen to carry with it the possibilities of exploitation, a real conflict of interests arising out of the two points of view which result from the same individual facing two ways at once.

To sum up, the Guild Idea is Utopian, to the point of absurdity. It preserves antagonism while it would abolish classes. According to its propagandists capitalist society is divided into capitalists and wage-slaves, and elsewhere, the public, with whom they express special sympathy because they are “mocked, cheated, and robbed by the exploiters of modern commerce and afraid of trade unions, afraid of the producing classes.”

Because they fail miserably to understand capitalist society, even while mouthing its abolition they would preserve its most detestable institution—exchange of commodities and all that it implies. Relying upon the threat of a General Strike (their only weapon, which they falsely call economic power) the only real power in capitalist society—control of the armed forces through the political machine—is regarded by them with contempt and left in the hands of the capitalist class, because, they say :

“Under present economic conditions, an alternative to a capitalist ministry is unthinkable, and political propaganda to that effect mere foolish prattle.”

Control of the political machine by the working class is, of course, unthinkable to those who have made up their minds that the working class will organise to the point of a General Strike and that the ruling class will relinquish power at the mere threat, or be hopelessly beaten in the actual contest. The pamphlets and monthly organ of the National Guilds League are, like most Industrial Unionist literature, unscientific, confusing, and foolishly sentimental. Their ignorance of capitalism is only surpassed by their ignorance of Socialism, their only conception of which is the “Servile State.” Their outlook in “The Guildsman” is purely national, if not radical. They say:

“If Mr. Lloyd George cleaves to his Imperialist friends, and relies upon methods of coercion, the working classes must organise to oppose him ; and if he comes forward asking for their real co-opeation, they must organise to help him.”

The Guild System, therefore, is not based on the class struggle, nor does it place international solidarity of the workers before capitalist national interests. As an organisation, therefore, we have no hesitation in placing it in the same category as the so-called Socialist parties that act as decoys, whose special function is to confuse and mislead the workers as to the real meaning of Socialism.

F. F.

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