This book, of considerable length and quality, was written one hundred years ago. It has not, however, depreciated in value. If anything, its assessment of political economy is sharper now than ever before.
Whilst Hobson wrote with a healthy optimism that Guild Socialism would be proclaimed in his lifetime, he was mindful of a rather pernicious alternative which could, and did, take its place.
He made the point, time and time again, that “economic power precedes political power”. He was warning against the, then, Labour Party’s doctrine; that all the labour movement needed to do was to capture the state apparatus in order to be triumphant.
Well, we can now see how that all turned out.
After the ’45 landslide, the victorious Labour Party set about on a policy of nationalisation. The capitalist class was paid awfully well for this, both directly (in the form of purchase price) and indirectly (in the form of interest paid on the debt accrued to make such purchases). The working class were, thereafter, kept as wage slaves, if only a little better off.
All of this paved the way for subsequent governments to successfully argue for a gradual rightward shift away from such an arrangement. Culminating in the infamous Thatcher years; nationalised assets were sold back into private hands at knock down prices and all that work was undone.
This was all the fault of the Labour movement or, more over, its leadership for not heeding Hobson’s advice. The working class should have taken control directly, and not by state-proxy, of the means of production and the wage system should’ve been abolished.
“While the wage system persists, Labour is in leash.”
The opening of this masterpiece of a book is spent attacking the system of wage slavery to which the great majority of us are subjected, in every conceivable way.
Instead of being paid, the worker is waged; a distinction Hobson makes very clear. A wage, a payment for hours worked, reduces labour-power to a commodity; in this way, the profiteer, rent-monger and usurer all justify their livelihoods. The working class, the producer of all national wealth, live lives of bare subsistence whilst the capitalist class, the producer of no real wealth whatsoever, live lives of luxury.
They might raise wages from time to time but as Napoleon said: “The hand that gives is always above the hand that takes.” The fate of the working class should not be left up to them.
Hobson, along with his fellow Guildsmen, called for the creation of monopolies of labour-power (in the form of National Guilds) which, democratically accountable to their members, would pay workers what they were actually worth. There would be no room for profit, rent or interest; all of which imply a margin between the value of labour and the value of produce, where none would exist.
“Under capitalism the age of chivalry is dead; the Guild spirit will witness its resurrection.”
Hobson also spent a little bit of time on the spiritual aspect of the idea being propositioned. He suggested that the esprit de corps which exists in certain organisations today, most notably the armed forces, would be universalised. The working class would cease to be alienated from their work; as Guild members, they would have democratic control over the means of production, what work was to be done and how it would be done.
Yet more focus was given to how Guild Socialism would be achieved; that is, what we could do to achieve it. As stated initially, economic power would have to be fought for; political power is useless to all but the convinced liberal who sees no need to change the structure of our economy.
Economic power means, more specifically, labour power. Hearts and minds must be won over and strike action must be called for; nothing but an all-out war against the evil trio of profit, rent and interest will suffice. The worker, after he is empowered with the knowledge that his enemy is not low wages but the wage system itself, must overthrow the money power.
This is, of course, easier said than done; the Guild Socialists of old were foiled, though their work lives on as inspiration, and the power not only of the trade unions but of the average citizen has only, since then, been diminished.
The industrial butchery of the eighties, whereby all the great trades were mercilessly and ceaselessly destroyed, has given rise to an even greater obstacle. Only through a combination of the national and social struggles, can progress be achieved.
The single most important point Hobson makes is that once Guild Socialism is established, it will be impossible to abolish. Once the working class have established democratic control over the means of production, their lives will only continue to get better and better. Increases in productivity will be directly translated into greater general living standards rather than, as is the case today, greater wealth for the capitalist class.
The Guilds and the State will negotiate on economic policy and the former will, holding a monopoly on labour power, always be the stronger of the two.