National Guilds and the State

Updated: 5 days ago


Hobson, S. (1920). What I Believe. In National Guilds and the State (pp. 348-359). London: G. Bell and Sons.


For my part, I do not rate lightly the practical genius that has girdled the globe with the marvels of man's handiwork. The mistake so many idealists make is to assume that there is nothing between the muck-heap and high heaven; that in looking up we can see only the sun by day and the stars by night, blind to great architecture, the conquest of the air, the practical annihilation of time and space. In the production of material wealth, there is ample room for imagination and good motive, untold opportunities for service to mankind. There is nothing despicable, but rather the reverse, in these practical activities, could we but drive the money-changers from the Temple. Nor is there the least reason to suppose that our sons will not achieve even greater things when motivated by the sense of public service instead of personal aggrandisement. All these and more are implied in the Guild principle of qualitative production. But herein lies our danger ; for pre- occupation with work of such magnitude may fill our minds to the blunting and blurring of our intellectual apperceptions, the real source of the spiritual life. And if we have not this, how better are we, save in comfort and security, than under the Capitalist regime? But it is precisely comfort and security that Capitalism now offers to the distracted workers. We may decline because we think, with good reason, that it cannot implement the contract ; our rejection is one of mere mundane prudence, when on such a vast issue our policy should be dictated by enduring principles. For, please note, we have now transcended our own frontiers, and are in touch with other peoples whose views of life perhaps fundamentally differ from ours. These we must meet, not with expediency, but with spiritual understanding. To impose our mechanisms upon others for our own convenience is but a subtle form of exploitation, the persistence, of the capitalist spirit. We may with confidence declare that Western Civilisation is doomed unless it explores the realms of the spirit, finding a new perspective of life in all its forms. Its incapacity to encounter the Bolshevist movement with spiritual weapons is a sharp and significant reminder that man does not live by bread alone, neither by bread nor by organisation nor by glorified industry. We must look under and beyond, sub specie aeternitatis.


I do not know how far I stand alone in my conception of the spiritual State. No theocracy is intended. The fact that the word " spiritual " is throughout used in its secular sense disposes of that suspicion. The word has an unfortunate history, a bad gift from the Puritans and a confused meaning. My dictionary in part yields the definition I seek: "of or pertaining to the intellectual and higher endowments of the mind." Yet I would add to that. The pure intelligence does not suffice; it must be fused with those emotional faculties that flower from the stems of faith and conscience. It is in the fusion or interplay of these qualities that a certain temper of mind is struck, which, given ample room in the body politic, is precious to the community. An old theological writer voices the idea: " God has made a spirit of building succeed a spirit of pulling down." " Spirit," says Locke, "is a substance wherein thinking, knowing, doubting, and a power of moving do subsist." It is my belief that a civilised people, unless its finer purposes are to be thwarted at every turn, must not only provide the means for the expression of its spiritual impulses but endow them with the only sovereignty worth considering the sovereignty of mind over matter, the enthronement of reason. It is by some such logic that I declare, without hesitation, for the sovereignty of the State, the spiritual State. For upon what is sovereignty based if not upon authority? And how, amidst the clash of the social forces, can authority survive, unless it be the final court of appeal in the sphere of reason? I entreat my readers to believe that this is not idealism run wild. The French Revolution erected an altar, of its own peculiar design, to the Goddess of Reason. There was, however, a fatal omission: no medium was provided in which the Goddess could function unhampered by the economic factors. All through our history, we have paid lip-service to reason; we have never set it in the way of guiding us. Even now, after our blood and tears, the President of the Final Court of Appeal is Marshal Foch. India, Egypt, Ireland do not find their difficulties resolved, their national aspirations satisfied, in the splendour of that gentleman's martial attainments. The universal assumption seems to be that we must each exercise our reason in our own affairs; that there is no call for the special organisation of reason; that there is no vital distinction between the restricted exercise of reason in the concrete and the exercise of abstract reason in public affairs. Coleridge states concisely that pure reason is the power by which we become possessed of principles. With apologies to Aristotle and Bacon, I know of no other way. In our public life, how can we move unless actuated by principles deduced from pure reason? The Cadi under the palm tree, the village father at the lych-gate, may administer rough justice by empirical rule of thumb; but a nation of forty millions, an Empire of five hundred millions, must be rationally governed or it will inevitably disintegrate. Where can it discover its rationale unless in Courts where reason is both sovereign and vocal? The spiritual State is not the emanation of a dream; it is the prerequisite to social reorganisation. For if, on the Guild hypothesis, the economic functions are assigned to the National Guilds, it follows that the State must either secure allegiance to its spiritual status or lapse into desuetude: must be the expression of citizenship on a higher plane, or citizenship will lose itself in the distractions of wealth production, the spiritual heritage of the centuries lost forever in the final triumph of the material forces. The revolts against the State, now looming up from more than one rebellious group, may be broadly divided into two categories. There are those who contend that the control of industry implies the moulding of public policy. It is the materialist interpretation of history applied to existing conditions. The second category does not reject the idea of the State, but assails its present sanctions. For reasons unknown to me the first group sees in Bolshevism the fruition of its hopes. He is a bold man who writes with confidence upon Bolshevist principles or methods. But, so far as the facts have been disclosed, it appears certain that Bolshevism has failed mainly because it has attempted to combine the political with the economic functions. The results are suggestive. Industrially considered, the Soviet system is a failure. One must recognise that, in any event, it was doomed to fail because it took over a bankrupt concern. But Bolshevist theories were relentlessly applied, the technical and directive classes being dispensed with and degraded. It was not until production had sunk to zero that Lenin demanded the co-operation of the technical groups, and offered them terms. Now in Russia, industrialism is not highly developed, comprising less than ten percent of the population. It does not possess the highly complex character of Western industry. Yet it is a pronounced Bolshevist failure. What would have been the situation in Russia had its industrial proportion to population approached or equaled Great Britain's? One may affirm that there would have been no Bolshevist revolution, or, alternatively, the catastrophe would have been infinitely more terrible. I gather, too, that out of this welter of confused functions the political activities have also proved futile. The Soviet was to be the last word in applied democracy; three or four men now govern Russia, particularly in its external relations, with an autocratic power at least equal to the last of the Tsarist ministers. With the second group, led by Mr. Cole, I have considerable sympathy. No Democrat can examine the structure of the existing State without realising that it is a political autocracy backed by a bureaucratic oligarchy, both bound together by tradition, law, and, in the last resort, by military force. The facade of this structure is the Crown and Court. Upon the sovereignty of this particular State, Mr. Cole and I have no kind of quarrel. From top to bottom, its organisation is repugnant to Guild principles. The illicit union (upon which the State levies blackmail) of the political with the economic functions once dissolved, we are faced with the alternative either of the spiritual State, as outlined in this book, or the assignment of special functions to the new State, upon some principle which eludes me. Some surprise was expressed when I declared recently that, in my view, the State, although the dispenser of functions, was itself functionless. I adhere to this view, in the sense that specific functions are assigned to definite bodies and associations ; but that does not preclude the State, as the organ of citizenship, possessing full freedom of movement, itself assuming all or any functions which cannot be assigned to any suitable organisation, particularly in the case of sudden emergencies : it is undoubtedly the appropriate organ for all emergencies, great or small. I leave the subject of the State with the simple admission that Guildsmen and other students have as yet barely touched its fringe. Personally, I am content if the political or spiritual State can function independently of the economic factors, except so far as they affect public policy. As for sovereignty, I end as I began : the citizen (voicing his will through the State) must take precedence over the

Guildsman. I recognise no other sovereignty.


In these chapters I have tried to maintain the distinction between State and Government. The two terms are frequently so loosely used that they seem interchangeable. They are less interchangeable than "master" and "servant" ; they, in fact, connote master and servant. The distinction grows more urgent as sovereign citizenship broadens from precedent to precedent, finally constituting the State, of which the Government is the executive servant. In this connection, too, it is equally important to differentiate the Government from the Administration. The preceding chapters on the Civil Guilds sketch an administration in transition to Guild organisation. Unlike the State, it is throughout actuated by the functional principle. Unless these distinctions are kept carefully in mind, the argument for the spiritual State becomes crooked in

outline and difficult to appreciate.


The reactions of the spiritual State upon the life of the community are of immense speculative interest. Assuming the release of the political activities from economic entanglements, that, subject to public policy, State affairs can be arranged on a basis of pure reason, is not the way opened to new conceptions of communal and private life? Shall we not then discover new canons and principles in our relations as a community to other peoples, in our personal relations to each other ? Can we not predict with confidence that the habit of reason will induce refinements of thought and conduct ? It is, of course, unthinkable that any nation, the British least of all, can maintain a State organisation, set free to judge great issues on their merits, without vitally affecting the economic life of the Guilds. The man who in his capacity of citizen is trained to decide on the intrinsic right or wrong of a public question is the same man who, as a Guildsman, must, according to his function, decide industrial policy with its inevitable economic effects. Even though he decides these dual problems on different assumptions, he retains but one habit of mind. The one brain reaches a political or an industrial decision: reaches each decision in a different atmosphere and in different associations: is one man with one brain functioning in politics or in the Guilds. He is not two but one. Why, then, it may be asked, these fine distinctions between the political and economic activities, why all this elaboration of the spiritual State? I answer that I am not predicating an immediate or even an ultimate reign of reason. Life is too difficult and complex. But the very complexities that surround us at every turn compel us to seek some method of systematising our problems: urgently demand the appropriate media in which we shall express our wills and aspirations. Above all, we must ever distinguish between the economic means and the spiritual ends. Means and ends necessarily react upon each other, even though they are in different categories of thought and action. The tragedy of modern life is that the great mass of mankind is preoccupied with the means of life and not with its purpose.


It is only in this richer conception of life that we shall compass that craftsmanship which to many is the real attraction of the Guild idea. I sometimes fear that this interesting group puts the cart before the horse. Relying upon the precedents of the mediaeval Guilds, many of which (but by no means all) excelled in craftsmanship, they seem to argue that we must first recall the craft spirit before we can achieve a definitely aesthetic life. Progress will be found in the influence of intellectual pursuits upon the work of men's hands.


Craftsmanship is not only the child of joy in work, it is equally the offspring of good taste. Good taste, in its turn, springs from habitual touch with truth and beauty, the imponderable fruits of culture. I do not doubt that even now the artisan can make things, from chairs to Guildhalls, much more beautiful if the conditions of his work are rendered pleasurable ; but a limit is set to the quality of the product by the general appreciation of what constitutes fine craftsmanship. Here and there a genius rises superior to current taste, and in doing so may raise the standard of taste and quality in his particular craft; nevertheless, it is true that, even when the conditions essential to craftsmanship have been secured, the average craftsman cannot rise much beyond the popular level. For the simple reason that he is as his neighbours. Nor can we foresee what the cultured taste of the community will be under a spiritual State, economically based upon National Guilds. I do not think that we shall revert to the mediaeval period jfor our inspiration. Industrial craftsmanship was undreamt of in the days of the mediaeval Guilds; yet it is a very real and enduring factor in our national life. The finest emanations of the mechanic spirit, whilst probably repugnant to the mediaeval spirit, may yet conform to a new sense of beauty, yielding joy to the craftsman and pleasure to the community. Nor is it contrary to the craft spirit that commodities, fabrics, boots, engines, bridges, aeroplanes should be produced by group effort. If certain obvious dangers are guarded against notably intense specialisation or repetition work who shall say that industrial, as distinct from aesthetic, craftsmanship is not desirable both from the social and individual point of view? In these pages, when using the term " qualitative production," I include every type of craftsman, from the artist in colour and design to the artist in mechanical construction, from the product of the hand to the product of the machine. How and in what direction these various types will develop is beyond our ken. This at least we know: unless we can supplant quantitative production for profit (either for personal aggrandisement or to pay the war debt) by qualitative production for civilised use, we shall be subjected for another generation to economic servitude.


Of the interaction between the spiritual State and the National Guilds, little remains to be said. The entire burden of production and distribution being thrown upon the Guilds and no longer shared by the State, I believe that the heavier responsibilities will meet with adequate response from Guildsmen, both leaders and rank and file. The differentiation of the civil and industrial functions will, we may reasonably expect, lead to finer specialisation of function, with fuller opportunities to every man to exercise his true vocation. If, as citizens, they must cultivate the habit of intellectual sincerity, we may rest assured the same habit will assert itself in Guild administration. The two besetting sins of great organisations are extravagance and vainglory. Extravagance obtains to-day because they who practise it do not pay the price. We may say of every form of extravagance that the classes enjoy it, but the masses bear the cost. In the life of the Guild, the temptation would possibly remain to certain groups. But all extravagance is either feckless waste or ostentation. Would not intellectual sincerity cure the disease, even if the democratic method failed? In a world where the standards of life tend to approximate, when the a community is bound together by equal social responsibilities and universal obedience to functions, natural or assigned, good taste would sternly forbid class, group, or individual ostentation as unspeakably vulgar. Nor need we fear the vainglory that would vaunt the superiority of one Guild over another. Since each Guild would know precisely all it wanted to know of the others, no reason could be found for arrogant or pretentious demands in Guild relations. With all its idealism, democracy is realist. Both in State and Guild, it will not be diverted from essential truth : will esteem modesty in word and deed : will, by its example, teach an exhausted world that the true regimen needful for recovery is plain living and high thinking.


In all I have written, I have never thought or contended that National Guilds would originate in altruism. All to the contrary ; I believe that they are inevitable, unless economic development takes a turn in some unexpected direction. Nothing is inevitable unless willed; nor is it then inevitable. But an economic course once indicated with reasonable certainty is only diverted by a supreme exercise of national will-power. The advent and final triumph of the great industry has met with little, if any, opposition in Great Britain. It is, in fact, hailed by the vast majority of thinkers and writers as one of the great world achievements. Its critics have not condemned it ab initio; rather have they urged modifications, mainly in the direction of rendering the conditions of labour more endurable. Their most humane discovery has been the economy of high wages, a point, I think, which the modern classical economists have not sufficiently emphasised. Concurrently, we have had certain social reforms deliberately intended to render the system more bearable factory regulations, old-age pensions, and, as a war measure, unemployed donation benefits. These social and financial salves notwithstanding, it is now evident that the capitalist system, under the pressure of events, has developed fatal defects. We now know that the wage-system, the foundation of capitalism, has reached

its limits; that production by wagery tends to fall ; that all the emollients have failed to conciliate Labour, which grows more discontented, not, as formerly, decade by decade, but literally month by month. There is no student of industry who, whatever his private expectations, would deny the possibility of a revolution ; there is no man of affairs who would deny that Labour to-day strains at the leash that binds it to the master-class. Apart from its obvious defects and failures its shocking treatment of the labour reserve during a century of pitiless exploitation, its arrogant claims upon the State for subsidies of one kind or another, invariably followed by arrogant sneers at the Bureaucracy to which it always appeals in times of difficulty is there one serious thinker to contend that capitalist production is in tune with the genius of our race, one serious thinker to deny that it is repugnant to human nature? An unbiased reading of our industrial history reveals the tragic story of a people acutely conscious of poison in the body politic, and feverishly seeking the antitoxin. In vain No anodyne has eased the pain; victory, whether in battle or in the factory, has brought no surcease from misery. Here, indeed, is matter for a Greek tragedy. The false gods, haughty in their seeming omnipotence, relegate the thinkers and teachers to the kitchen to live on the scraps left by courtiers and courtesans. From the Heavens it is suddenly proclaimed that the day of the tyrants draws to its end. Frantic with fear, the false gods rush hither and thither appealing to the wise men to confound the new spirit that would compass the destruction of the doomed order. The seats of learning are scoured for men of weight to come to the dread tribunal to reassure the judges sent from on high. Starved wisdom is ominously silent. Only hoary tradition steps out of the gathering gloom, mumbling the ancient litany to a chorus of homunculi strangely garbed in wigs and gowns. All to no purpose. It is ordained that the oppressors, having by devilish arts dragged apart the workers from the fruits of their labour, and can in no wise redeem their unnatural crimes, must in their shame take themselves to the Nether Regions.


A judgment of Westbury's was wittily epitomised as " Hell dismissed with costs "; Capitalism, too, is condemned with costs, the monstrous debt due to a community whose labour has been prostituted to selfish ends and reduced to the exchange-value of dead things.


We need not compute the indemnity ; it can never be paid. Better to look to the approaching new order for the recompense of a new life, instinct with new ideas, finer purposes, and other methods. If, in the preceding chapters with all the tedious dialectic from which there is no escape, I have seemed to argue on low grounds and in a minor key, it is not because I do not in my heart and conscience believe that the conception of the new life adumbrated in National Guilds calls for high endeavour and worthy sacrifice. The image is locked in our hearts, whilst the politicians and social reformers


Dotards a-dozing at the very nonce, After a life spent training for the sight!


pursue their futile course of compromise and makeshifts. I blame myself more than others if I have been too reticent in boldly declaring my belief that wage-abolition, with its logical sequel of an infinitely more humane structure of society, marks a great epoch in the history of Western Civilisation.


4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All