The New Start Journal

    Vol 2. Issue 4

    May 2021

    Odoo text and image block

    An Editor’s Progress.

    By A. R. Orage.


    It was not, however, plain sailing. To begin with, the guild idea had been revived by Morris and resurrected by another genius, Mr Arthur Penty, for the express purpose of recapturing what they little realised was not the first fine rapture of the middle-ages. Lovers of the crafts, they, and Penty more explicitly than Morris, hoped to decentralise industry and to restore small workshops and hand production. Tradeunions to them were only a concomitant symptom of the fall from the middle-ages, justifiable as proletarian defences, but superfluous in a guild community. What a time we had with Mr Penty on this question! And it was the more difficult because I had some years before 1907 sponsored his earliest book on the Restoration of the Guild System, and been the first secretary of a Guild Restoration League. However, I could not agree to dissolve the trade-unions in mediaevalism; nor could I convince myself that they had no possible function in a reformed community. Guilds and trade-unions had somehow to be reconciled; and, in the end, Mr Penty unwillingly but handsomely consented to their possible union.

    The next storm to be weathered – be it understood that the storms were mostly in a tea-cup little larger than a very small office, since nobody outside the circle of our few readers paid as yet much attention to our contemptuous backs – was the dispute between syndicalism and nationalism. There was not much proletarian classconsciousness in England in those days; and, indeed, it is my judgment that the English working classes will never turn red until they see red. They think too well of the upper classes, including their own, to attribute to them any deliberate or obdurate injustice (in which, perhaps, they are not mistaken). But on account of the propaganda of the Independent Labour Party, there was enough articulation of class-consciousness to make the association of trade-unions with the nation a matter of suspicion among the babes.

    Parliament was declared to be nationally non-representative, a plutocratic classinstrument; its functions, at their ideal, were purely political to the exclusion of economics; the trade-unions were capable of undertaking the control of the whole ofindustry without any other authority’s “by our leave.” “Trade-unions unite” took the place of “workers unite,” and the proper object of the unions was independent sovereignty over industry. The great war, of course, later on knocked all the nonsense out of syndicalism. As the trade-unions scrambled to offer their services to the political sovereigns, the few remaining stalwarts of syndicalism turned their eyes away, their dream perishing before them. But long before the war, THE NEW AGE had disposed, for mere intelligence, of the theories of syndicalism. Upon no ground had it a defensible leg to stand on. The proletarian element in any community and, still more emphatically, the active working section of it, is in any conceivable event only a part of the community. There are hosts of perfectly legitimate and essential communal functions altogether outside the possible purview of trade-unions; and the dispossession of the national sovereignty by a class of a class sovereignty, was likely to prove as impossible in practice as in theory. In the end, we won on that issue, too; and before many months had gone by, after our retreat from the official schools, we began to publish the first series of articles under the title of National Guilds, in which the political sovereignty of the nation was preserved, while the trade-unions were given the task of organising industry on behalf of Parliament.

    It is true that as yet THE NEW AGE had not cut much ice with our old friends of the older groups. But from Ishmaelites we had become Adullamites; and there began not exactly to flock to our new standard an assortment of independent thinkers, chiefly the younger men. Mr S G Hobson was the actual writer of the series of articles referred to, and the author, under my editorship, of the first and still standard work on National Guilds. But we were soon joined by energetic young men like Mr G D H Cole, Mr Maurice Reckitt, Mr William Mellor and others, who immediately formed a society called the National Guilds League. Mr Will Dyson, the foremost cartoonist in England, did our designs for us. I may say at once, that I never was a member of the league myself. To tell the truth, I had begun already to have doubts! Undoubtedly,

    however, the adhesion of these men, their admirable methods of propaganda, and the publication outside the almost private pages of THE NEW AGE of the text of National Guilds, put the subject on the public map of discussion. A vast polemical literature began to appear, references to our existence began gingerly to occur in the speeches and articles of the old gangs. Above all the older organisations began to cease to enlist the pick of the new recruits; their prestige was waning to the size and sickle-shape of an interrogation-mark.

    But they need not have disturbed themselves! Our worst storm or, rather, difficulty – since there was nothing positively active about it – was still before us; and, frankly, national guilds would certainly have foundered in it even if the war had not anticipated the sinking. The dispute with the mediaevalists had been successfully compromised; the dispute with the syndicalists had been translated into uncongenial and harmless French; the existing Socialist and political Labour groups had had their young men and brains drained away. But we had still to count with the trade-unions, and to persuade them of their own good. This was the job! 

    In the first place, there was no getting at them directly. All the branch as well as the general and congress meetings are held under the careful auspices of the officials; and the latter, being by this time usually hell-bent for a place in the parliamentary sun, had no temptation to assist our counter-propaganda amongst their chief financial supporters. Never upon a single occasion in my recollection was any accredited spokesman on behalf of national guilds invited or permitted to address an officially convened trade-union gathering. The alternative was practically useless – meetings at which the general public was predominantly present. We got their approval, but the famous “rank and file” of the trade-unions we never had a chance of speaking with. And needless to say, a reader of THE NEW AGE or anything else among them was in the proportion of spirit in near-beer.

    What they allowed to be said on their behalf without any protest was, moreover, quite as discouraging. They had no ambition to control or even to manage their own industries. They had no hatred of their status as wage-slaves (as we provocatively named them), nor any contempt for their employers. They knew enough of their own officials to doubt if their class could be trusted with power, even over themselves.

    They wanted just more wages and less work. In strike after strike we intervened to beg for an issue to be made of control instead of only wages. A few of the employers were prepared for it. In fact, there were a number of employers among the members of the National Guilds League. Except upon one or two occasions, the wages issue remained unaffected even to the extent of words. And in the exceptional case of a

    builders’ strike, where a group of strikers actually undertook and were empowered to work as a guild, the immediate result was a local mediaeval guild and in no practical sense any approximation to the national guild of our imagination. My experiences during that period (1907-14) have made me doubt even the apparent evidence of my senses that a movement of ideas is possible among the proletariat. Belly-movements are possible, of course; and even then they are slow; but proletarian movements directed by and composed of heads accessible to ideas – they belong for me to the mythology called history and “propaganda.”

    To clinch a matter that needed no clinching, the Parliamentary Labour Party was by this time making good in its own eyes and in the eyes of the ambitious trade-union leaders. As habitually with them until recently, the English governing classes knew how to stage a defeat to make a triumph out of it. No sooner had the Labour Party actually forced its way into Parliament than all the old stagers began at once to prepare it for their better digestion. Public honours were poured upon them. Absurd and really insulting compliments were addressed to them. Privately and personally they were treated with the condescending courtesy meted out to ex-butlers who have come into a moderate fortune. Above all, and artfullest stroke, their wives were patronised and begged by dowagers, in the name of their common class, to dissuade their husbands from ruining the old country. Many and patriotic were the comedies of which I was myself the eye-witness. Many and foolishly bitter were the jibes at the cunning of the one side, and sycophancy of the other, published by THE NEW AGE. We had enemies enough before; but during this  campaign against the ultimate roots of English conservatism we made many more. 

    But for the fact that THE NEW AGE was undeniably “brilliant,” brazenly incorruptible and independent, and could always count on the support of the young of all ages, including Mr Belloc and Mr G K Chesterton, cheerfully; Mr Shaw and Mr Wells, grudgingly; and many greater and lesser powers, for worse or better reasons; it would surely have died of lack of circulation. Strange to say, however, the more enemies we made, the higher in prestige THE NEW AGE became, until at last it was our just boast that we were a classic, everywhere spoken of, but seldom read. I can never be sufficiently grateful for the colleagues of those days. They only missed making history for the simple reason that history is never made by ideas, but only by facts.

    Only a word or two deserves to be said concerning the second plank in our platform. (It will be remembered that I said there were two.) While the rest of the Socialists had abandoned even the pretence of political nationalism in favour of a class politics, based on the wage-earning section, THE NEW AGE acquired a degree of non- and anti-Socialist credit by criticism, impartially distributed among all the political groups, including – perhaps first and foremost – the Labour group. It must be admitted, however, that with nothing solid at the back of us, we realised that we were engaging a tide with a broom. The failure, in fact, to secure a constituency to support our proposals in any section or in any leader of trade-unionism was fatal to our representative character. We could only speak for ourselves; and ourselves, in point of power, were negligible. Thus we more or less wearily dragged along until the war suddenly put fresh blood into the nation and drained more out. But with that episode, I hope never to be concerned again. There followed the hideous peace – and then the new ideas for which national guilds, and all the rest had been, as it appears, preparatory – the ideas of Major C H Douglas, author of “Economic Democracy” and “Credit-Power and Democracy.”