The Death of the Guilds

Updated: Nov 22, 2020


Pp 200-203, Maeztu, R. D. (1917). Authority, liberty and function in the light of the war .. London: G. Allen & Unwin.


The Guilds died out precisely because their principle of the limitation of individual power did not succeed in becoming an essential part of the organization of all the other callings. Feudal lords, for instance, were able to exploit and expropriate their peasants. In commerce and money-lending callings not regulated by the Guild principle, considerable blocks of capital and money were formed during the Middle Ages. To this there was added later the capital resulting from the discovery of gold and silver mines in America, and the slave labor of the natives of America and Africa.On the one hand, the feudal lords kept on throwing into the towns such vast hordes of laborers that the Guilds could not assimilate them; on the other hand, capitalists, formed by usury and foreign trade, exploited these workmen in new factories built close to the sea, on open land, beyond the control of the cities and their Guild institutions. Hence, in England, the bitter struggle provoked between the corporate towns and the new industries, which ended in the rout of the Guilds and in the triumph of capitalism, with all its horrors. That is to say, the Guilds perished because side by side with them a new economic power sprang into existence which the Guilds could not control. But they would have perished long before if their regulations had permitted their masters to enrich themselves, for those masters would have become capitalists exploiting the work of the craftsmen and apprentices. The ruin of the Guilds did not come about because they limited the power of their members, but because the Guilds did not succeed in bringing agricultural production into the Guild system, and because they were even less able to subject the exploitation of undeveloped countries to Guild control.


Even in this temporary death of the Guilds can be discerned the wisdom' of their principle. What was wrong with the Guilds was that they failed to realize the danger their own life ran by the development of unlimited power not subject to -their control. Their internal constitution was good, for it was inspired by a spirit of balance of power ” among their own members. It was only their short-sightedness which led the Guilds to perish. As well as a domestic policy, they should have had a foreign policy, based likewise on the principle of balance of power. Even at this moment there are Englishmen who would like to see their country holding aloof from continental struggles, and who express the utmost horror at the principle of the “balance of power.” But this principle has saved England. How would England have benefited from saving her expenditure on the present war if, by her abstention, she had permitted to develop on the other side of the North Sea a Germany so powerful that her mere wish would have resulted in the realization of her ambitions? In this world there are no isolated forces. Every material human force which is formed behind our back will one day meet us face to face.


That is why the Clyde engineers have done well, not merely in taking care to improve their own position, but in protesting against the excessive profits of their masters. Capital that accumulates in other hands than those which produce it may tomorrow be utilized against the interests of the workers, exactly as the capital at the disposal of the usurers and the exploiters of overseas countries was turned against the Guilds. The profits which Government contractors are now pocketing will be used to-morrow to build in China factories whose products will lower the price of goods in the world -market, and consequently the wages of workman in Europe. It is not sufficient that the workmen shall rest content with improving their own position; they must also see to it that no power arises elsewhere which tomorrow may threaten their interests.


God grant that the example of the Clyde and Newcastle may be followed as soon as possible in other professions. In none is more urgent the restoration of the Guild spirit than in our artistic and intellectual professions. Perhaps it is because the evil kind of jealousy, the jealousy of merit, is so intense amongst us that we have allowed to fall asleep the holy jealousy of power and success and have consented to the creation of a state of things all over the world in which success is almost synonymous with fraud. An unscrupulous barrister may make hundreds of thousands by juggling with the articles of the law, while a man who reveals and clarifies with years of labour and inspiration the principles of the Constitution may be unable to find a publisher to produce his book except at his own expense. The most eminent living musician, the head of his profession, the composer Sir Edward Elgar, may earn no more than the wages of an artisan, while many prima donnas become millionaires. There is not material sustenance in the modern world either for original thinking or for creative art, but the whole planet is the pedestal of the virtuoso, the impresario, the low comedian, the pornographist, the paradoxist, and the flatterer of the idle rich or of the mob. Would that be possible if the standing and income of every member were fixed by the artistic and intellectual Guilds ?


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