Saturday, 20 July 2024

From The Liberty Wall – National Liberal Trade Unionists – Restore The Guilds (Part 4)

AS NATIONAL LIBERAL TRADE UNIONISTS, we seek nothing less than the national & social liberation of our people. But where – or who – do we look to, in order to achieve this?

Despite what they may tell us, we feel that modern day Socialists & Capitalists (and those on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ who promote these ideas) are just really interested in concentrating power & wealth in the hands of the few – basically themselves! We on the other hand, seek ideas and practical methods of spreading power & wealth to the many.

One idea which may go some way to achieving this is the restoration of the Guilds – the Guilds being generally understood as ‘an association of craftsmen or merchants formed for mutual aid and protection and for the furtherance of their professional interests.‘

With this in mind, the NLTU came across a thought-provoking article in the Plough Quarterly, a US-based ‘magazine of stories, ideas, and culture to inspire faith and action.’ Written by Gary Dorrien, the article – – provides an excellent history of Guild Socialism (called ‘Christian socialism’ in the article).

We invite our readers to share their thoughts when this article is reproduced on the NLTU Facebook site – – or the National Liberals Facebook site It goes without saying that there are no links between Gary Dorrien, Plough Quarterly, the NLTU and the National Liberal Party. We’d also like to point out that whilst the article is written from a Christian perspective, the NLTU and NLP welcomes members & supporters from all religions and none. Please note that we’ve kept the original US spellings and phrases as they are. This article should be read in conjunction with Parts 1, 2 & 3 – see links below.


Restore The Guilds – What today’s labor unions, democratic socialists, and mutual aid societies might learn from the colorful history of Christian socialism in Britain.

(Left) George Holbrook Jackson (1874 – 1948) and (right) Alfred Richard ‘A R.’ Orage (1873 – 1934). Orage, a primary school teacher, was born in Dacre, Yorkshire. He met Liverpool-born Jackson (a lace merchant & freelance journalist) in 1903, when they formed the Leeds Arts Club. It was one of the most advanced centres for modernist thinking – combining politics, philosophy, spiritualism, modernist art and poetry – in pre-WWI Britain. Visiting speakers included George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, W.B. Yeats & Hilaire Belloc. In 1906 they moved to London. With financial help from George Bernard Shaw & Lewis Wallace they bought The New Age, a struggling Christian Socialist weekly. With the help of Cecil Chesterton (younger brother of G.K. Chesterton) and Clifford Sharp, they transformed it into an influential arts journal. Around 1913, The New Age was promoting syndicalism & Guild socialism. After WWI it also supported the Social Credit ideas of Major C.H. Douglas.

Edwardian England, a brief and hollowed-out version of Victorian England, crashed ingloriously just before World War I. The Victorian expansion of the British Empire had waned. The Boer War drained the English economy and dominated English international affairs. The clash between corporate capitalism and a growing union movement made labor strife routine. The Victorian belief that England had a national mission waned along with the British Empire and economy. In 1910, nine kings rode in the funeral procession for Edward VII, a formal ending. Britain seethed with protest movements over economic oppression, imperial overreach, women’s rights, Irish home rule, and political representation. Syndicalists won beachheads in the railway unions and Welsh mines, espousing the syndical doctrine that workers should run the country and One Big Strike would make it happen.

This was the context in which guild socialism arose. It was a declaration that the nineteenth century had not settled what was possible and what socialism should be. Guild socialism was a blend of Christian socialism, radical democracy, syndicalism, Fabian theory, and nostalgia for the medieval artisan guilds. Syndicalism had a marginal status in British unions, which did not like the rhetoric of violent overthrow. Guild socialists played down the syndical fantasy of One Big Strike. They contended that socialism should be about worker determination, not building a collectivist government. The productive life of the nation should be organized and operated by self-governing democratic organizations embracing all workers in every industry and service. These national guilds would emerge from the existing union movement.

Guild socialism attracted Christian socialists from the Maurice tradition, secular readers of Ruskin and Morris, followers of Catholic authors Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who wanted to recreate the medieval guild economy, and disciples of political theorist John Neville Figgis. For twenty years it attracted the best of the upcoming generation and caused a ruckus in the fledgling Labour Party, opposing its Fabian leadership. The guild movement, which began in 1906 when Penty’s book The Restoration of the Guild System registered the disgust he felt at Fabian meetings, had become a force to be reckoned with (1).

To describe Penty’s book more positively, it showed why he treasured Ruskin and Morris. Ruskin said trade unions should convert themselves into self-governing guilds, refashioning the medieval guilds. Morris imagined a decent, beautiful, civilized society in which people found happiness in equality. Penty grieved that Fabian technocrats brushed aside these ethical visions of a good society. It seemed Ruskin’s dream of worker self-governance had died with Ruskin and Morris. Resurrecting it was imperative.

Somehow the medieval traditions of craftsmanship, self-regulation, and self-government had to be recovered. Penty said capitalism was corrupting and dehumanizing, while Fabian collectivism was corrupting and balefully bureaucratic. The guilds could not be recovered by refashioning modern lines of development. Only social forces that opposed modern development could do it. He named three: trade unions, the arts and crafts movement, and religion. Religion was crucial because it always linked back to something; Penty argued that any serious hope for the future must be rooted in reverence for the past. His book inspired two Fabians, A. R. Orage and Holbrook Jackson, to revamp an old radical magazine, The New Age, in May 1907, with Shaw’s money. Orage, a brilliant editor, turned The New Age into a must-read sensation, the best politics-and-culture magazine of its time. He recruited a sparkling cast of writers featuring Shaw, Penty, Belloc, Chesterton, Ezra Pound, Havelock Ellis, H. G. Wells, Belfort Bax, and most importantly, S. G. Hobson, a political economist and Quaker(2).

(1)  Arthur J. Penty, The Restoration of the Guild System (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1906).

(2) Editorial [A. R. Orage and Holbrook Jackson], “The Outlook,” The New Age: An Independent Socialist Review of Politics, Literature, and Art, New Series 1 (May 2, 1907), 1.

•  THIS ARTICLE should be read in conjunction with the following:

From  The  Liberty  Wall  –  National  Liberal  Trade  Unionists  –  Restore  The  Guilds  (Part 1)–-national-liberal-trade-unionists-–-restore-the-guilds-part-1

From  The  Liberty  Wall  –  National  Liberal  Trade  Unionists  –  Restore  The  Guilds  (Part 2)–-national-liberal-trade-unionists-–-restore-the-guilds-part-2

From  The  Liberty  Wall  –  National  Liberal  Trade  Unionists  –  Restore  The  Guilds  (Part 3)–-national-liberal-trade-unionists-–-restore-the-guilds-part-3

• CHECK OUT the following debate hosted by Liberal Worker – The Voice Of The National Liberal Trade Unionists:

Liberal Worker Debate (1) – How Should Workers View Stop & Search?–-national-liberal-trade-unionists-liberal-worker-debate-1-–-how-should-workers-view-stop-search

Liberal  Worker  Debate  (2)  –  How  Should  Trade  Unionists  View  Open  Borders  &  Mass Immigration?–-national-liberal-trade-unionists-liberal-worker-debate-2-–-how-should-trade-unionists-view-open-borders-mass-immigration

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