GDH Cole: the socialist who invented the real ‘Big Society’


GDH coleThe Paul Richards column

If you want to imagine what George Douglas Howard Cole was like, you could do worse than watch an episode of Bagpuss. Oliver Postgate, the creator of the children’s animated story, modelled Professor Yaffle, the ‘carved wooden bookend’ in the shape of a woodpecker, on Cole, his uncle. Yaffle is a batty, brilliant, sceptical, and slightly eccentric old academic. We must assume Cole was much the same.

Cole was converted to the idea of socialism by reading William Morris’s News from Nowhere. At Balliol, Cole joined the Fabian Society, and came under the spell of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Cole’s relationship with the Fabian Society was like that of quarrelsome lovers. In 1915, Cole stormed out of the executive. His point of departure with the Webbs was the role of the state, and centralised planning and administration. The orthodox Fabian view was that the state could be ‘captured’ and turned into a benign organ, delivering benefits to the working classes. With the right politicians at the top, and an enlightened class of administrators, the economy and society could be gradually reformed.

The Fabianism of the Webbs was essentially elitist. This is what Cole disagreed with. His ideas for socialism were based on self-government for working people, through local units of control and accountability, with different centres of power. This was not ‘state’ socialism, but something far more radical: the idea that workers could do it for themselves. Cole did not invent guild socialism, but became the thinker most associated with it. The Guildsmen were socialists who rejected the idea of the central state. They wanted human society organised into ‘guilds’, both in industry and in the community. In Guild Socialism (1918), Guild Socialism Re-stated (1920) and Self-Government in Industry (1917) Cole elaborated a view of society which was democratic, fraternal and egalitarian. Power was diffused, both in the economy and in society, and democracy placed a duty on citizens to take part. This is the real ‘big society’ – as part of the radical, socialist tradition, not the Tory version of charities and flag days.

Although a member of the Fabian Society, he was described as a ‘Bolshevik soul in a Fabian muzzle’. Cole described the guild socialist idea as ‘a form of socialism designed to oppose the bureaucratic control of state-owned industries and to assure self-government to the producers while safeguarding the interests of the consuming public.’

‘Prolific’ is an often over-used word to describe writers. In Cole’s case it scarcely does him justice. His wife Margaret described him as ‘a natural writer almost to the point of disease. Sit him down anywhere, in practically any surroundings, lovely or squalid, still or moving – even put him to bed with a cold – and he will immediately start writing as though a plug had been pulled out.’

He wrote more than twenty-five heavyweight books about political theory, history and political figures from William Cobbett to Robert Owen, including six for Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. He averaged one every other year all his life. And he also had the energy to write, with Margaret, over thirty detective novels, with titles such as The Murder at Crome House (1927), Death in the Quarry (1934) and The Knife in the Dark (1941).

In 1935 one of Cole’s students at Oxford was Harold Wilson, who was recruited to the socialist cause by the professor. Wilson’s Memoirs fifty years later say:

“I had long held GDH Cole in high regard and found this closer contact with him most congenial. He was a good-looking man, of medium height with a good head of hair, and most attractive in speech and address, except for the manner of his lectures. I had attended a number of them, which he delivered at great speed, eyes down, without a single note . . . I took to spending most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings with him, helping with copy for and proofs of his articles for the New Statesman and Nation. When the work was finished, he used to pour out for each of us a glass of Irish whiskey, which he preferred to Scotch. On one of these occasions he was celebrating his fiftieth birthday. He announced that he had made a resolution, to forswear all reading of books and concentrate on writing them. He was already publishing at least one a year in addition to his other writings . . . It was GDH Cole as much as any man who finally pointed me in the direction of the Labour Party.”

He served as president of the Fabian Society 1952-7 and died in 1959. Cole was inspired by the romance of William Morris, but his contribution is almost entirely cerebral. If Morris was a dreamer, Cole was the builder. What is really exciting about Cole’s contribution is that it conceptualised a version of socialism without a strong central state. Whilst fellow Fabians and Labour Party members were beguiled by the Soviet Union, and a later generation fetishised central planning and nationalisation, equating it with true socialism, Cole mapped an alternative course. He deserves to be dusted down and re-read by today’s socialists, not for the prescriptions and policies he advocated in his own times, but for the general approach he adopted. Socialism as local ownership and democratic control; citizenship as an active, not a passive, state; democracy as a way of living, not an abstract theory; a small, strategic state atop a panoply of regional, local and neighbourhood bodies and agencies run, owned and accountable to the people: these are ideas whose time has come. No single theory or doctrine can give all the answers, but Cole comes close.

Next Week: George Orwell

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