Cole was one of the leading socialist economists of the interwar years. He was influential in the Fabian movement – when he was not actively attacking it – and a prominent scholar. He is best remembered today for his theorising on guild socialism, and it was as a guild socialist that he lectured at the conference in October 1925.
Cole was born in Cambridge on 25 September 1889, the son of a jeweller. He was educated at St Paul’s School and then Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree in literae humaniores in 1912, going on to be a prize fellow at Magdalen College. It was at Magdalen that he began to study economics, publishing his first book, a survey of the trades union movement, in 1913. From 1914 he was a contributor to the magazine New Age, whose other contributors included Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. During the First World War Cole was a conscientious objector and campaigned for the rights of other objectors. One of his fellow campaigners was the poet Margaret Postgate, whom he married in 1918.
Cole joined the Fabian Society and was elected to its Committee in 1914. A year later he attempted to take control of the Society; upon being defeated, he left with a group of followers and in 1915 established the National Guilds Society. This was the beginning of his association with guild socialism, which he saw as alternative to the state socialism advocated by the Fabians. From 1916-25 he was honorary secretary of the Labour Research Group.
Cole saw trades unions as the natural vehicle for socialism, and envisioned a society in which unions and community groups controlled industry and government existed only a highly decentralised form (Cole 1917, 1920). Rousseau and William Morris were among his primary influences, but his thinking about communalism goes further than either of these and is considerably more detailed. Ironically, in the years after the First World War it proved that many trades unionists preferred the notion of state socialism, and put their faith in the rising power of the Labour Party. By 1922 the guild socialist movement was fading away, and the National Guilds Society was ultimately disbanded. Cole returned to academia, taking a post as reader in economics at the University of Oxford in 1925.
Cole remained keenly interested in problems of labour relations, and wrote several books and articles on the subject, some jointly with his wife, Margaret Cole. The Coles also wrote detective fiction together under their own names, producing twenty-nine novels with titles such as Death of a Millionaire and Poison in the Garden Suburb, which often have a satirical quality. Cole became a Fellow of Nuffield College in 1939 and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1944, serving until his retirement in 1957. He was eventually welcomed back into the Fabian Society, serving as chairman from 1939-46 and 1948-50, and then president from 1952 until his death on 14th January 1959.
Cole’s works fall into three categories; his early The World of Labour (1913) which was partly a survey and partly a manifesto for socialist labour; his guild socialist works, Self-Government in Industry (1917) and Guild Socialism Re-stated (1920), and finally his more mature works on the problems and challenges facing labour. During this period he became keenly interested in the history of the labour movement, and among his books which have had most lasting impact are two histories, British Working Class Politics, 1832-1914 (1941), and A Century of Co-operation (1946). Even after the collapse of guild socialism, Cole continued to be a passionate advocate for workers’ rights, including fair pay. He also continued to encourage the notion of allowing workers and works councils to have a greater say in the way that firms were run, and he argued for more cooperation between managers and workers.
Cole was at something of an intellectual crossroads when he came to speak to the Rowntree conference in 1925. Guild socialism had failed, and he had not yet built any intellectual replacement for it in his own mind. His uncertainty is evident in the tone of his lecture, when he admits that he has no clear plan for the future relationship of labour and industry. However, he says, neither does anyone else.
He is scathing about the Labour Party’s inability to come to grips with the problem or to deliver a coherent industrial plan. It may be that Cole is choosing his words carefully, not wanting to argue too passionately in favour of workers’ rights before a largely business audience – and he had only just taken up his post as reader in economics at Oxford – but the sense of uncertainty still comes across strongly in the text. Only at the end does Cole make one point strongly. Workers, he says, will not accept any solution to the problem of labour which requires them to accept a reduction in their standard of living; and if employers try to force this through, there is a very real prospect of attempted revolution. The General Strike of the following year, 1926, proved the accuracy of Cole’s forecast.
Cole’s work is increasingly obscure today, even among other socialists. He never helped his own cause; bad-tempered, misogynistic and seldom enjoying the company of others, he was criticised by his own wife as an ‘unsocial socialist’. Guild socialism was an experiment that failed; his later writing failed to match that early commitment in terms of originality or enthusiasm. His arguments for collaboration between workers and employers interesting but lacked real power or conviction.
The World of Labour (1913)
Self-Government in Industry (1917)
Guild Socialism Re-Stated (1920)
The Next Ten Years in British Social and Economic Policy (1929)
The Condition of Britain, with Margaret Cole (1937)
British Working Class Politics, 1832--1914 (1941)
A Century of Co-operation (1946)