The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

The Guild System

Traditional wrought-iron guild sign of a glazi...

Traditional wrought-iron guild sign of a glazier – in Germany. These signs can be found in many old European towns where guild members marked their places of business. Many survived through time or staged a comeback in industrial times. Today they are newly created or even restored, esp. in old town areas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Hilaire Belloc

The Guild is the oldest, most necessary, most deeply rooted, of all human institutions. It has appeared in all civilizations which are at all stable, because it is necessary to stability. It has flourished especially at a time when our race was agreed upon a common religion and had a common high civilization. It only disappeared comparatively recently. We shall be compelled to restore it if we are to enjoy freedom at all, and the sooner we do so on the right lines the better. It will be especially valuable in the industrial field, which is that part of human life which most needs setting right today.

The Guild is essentially this:—An association of men engaged in the same occupation, and its primary object is mutual support. These general terms involve a number of particular ones, which we have today mainly forgotten, and which we must recall if we are to restore property and make it stable and permanent—which is the condition for restoring freedom and human dignity and the family, all of which Industrial Capitalism has so grievously wounded.

The detailed function which the Guild performs, apart from its general function of mutual support and guarantee among men of a similar craft, are as follows:

First, it guarantees their property. It does not destroy it as Communism would do; it does the exact contrary. It makes property permanent and sees to it that undue competition and hostile action between the various members shall not lead to the eating up of the poorer man by the richer man. Thus, of the very first activities of the Guild which we discover in full use for hundreds of years, is the making of laws for the conduct of its special trade by its own members, and the making of those laws so that each member may continue to be, within certain limits, a free members of the Guild and a free owner of his own means of livelihood. The Guild does not prevent the industrious man from flourishing, nor set a premium on idleness or inefficiency, but it makes rules whereby entrance into the Guild is only to be obtained on certain conditions, whereby there is a term of probation before a man becomes a full member, whereby those who desire to work in such and such a craft must belong to the Guild and whereby undue competition is checked.

Second, the Guild has by charter from the State the right to deal with the matters which are the occupation of its members, and the right to such occupation is restricted to members of the Guild; but the State does not allow the Guild to exclude willing workers, still less to sell the privilege of membership. Entry to it must be open to all upon a sufficient test of efficiency in the trade concerned.

Third, a Guild member must observe in his competition against other Guildsmen of his own craft certain limits. There are things he may do and things he may not do. There are rules for his professional conduct which he must obey under penalty of being turned out of the Guild and thereby losing his livelihood, and these rules are designed for two main objects, the good working of the craft and the maintaining of its members, so that each, with a certain minimum of industry and efficiency, is certain of a livelihood.

Fourth, the Guild is self-governing within the limits of its charter, the charter granted to it by the public authority of the State.

The way in which the Guild works when it is in full life we can only study nowadays from the documents of the past—and they should help us to restore the Guild today. But we get clear ideas of it from the relics of Guild action in the little that remains of the old Guilds. We see it in some degree among lawyers and still more among doctors, especially in old European countries. Thus, even in England, highly capitalist though England is, a man is forbidden to practice as a doctor unless he has proved, under examination and by medical practice during a time of probation, his ability to exercise that trade. In many places a doctor is, by the rules of his society, forbidden to advertise. A doctor, by the customs of his society—which have the force of law, for he cannot break them without losing his place in the corporation—does not take a patient out of a colleague’s hands without the colleague’s leave. A doctor is bound to preserve certain rules of honor and discretion in connection with his profession which are virtually guaranteed by the Guild of which he is a member.

What is here true of the medical profession used to be true of all activities in the State.

The corporate union of the Guilds guaranteed the independence of each member. The right working of the craft in which he was engaged and the restriction of competition within reasonable limits were assured. Its general effect was to prevent the undue enrichment of one member at the expense of others, and though the rules were elastic and the margin for differences in earning corresponding to differences in talent and opportunity was wide, the Guild was the safeguard of continued property and independence.

The Spirit of the Guild, even if the name Guild was not used, applies to much else than productive crafts or learned professions. It applies to agriculture in the shape of co-operative institutions for the village and of guarantees against the absorption of the land into too few hands. It applies to distribution and it applies to transport. In distribution today the Guild would be especially valuable; it would check competition and guarantee the small man his livelihood and preserve the better customs of trade: protecting the public against adulteration of goods, against scamped work and against deficiency of all kinds.

The Guild, to be serviceable to a great State, must be subdivided. There may be any number of local Guilds, but they must have some common bond, just as trade unions have today. (Trade Unions resemble a Guild in a sort of imperfect way. They do not guarantee property; on the contrary, they were invented to protect the proletariat against a minority of owners and they are concerned with the limiting of production instead of the excellence of it: but they got their spirit of co-operation and of checking competition from the traditions of the Guild).

We shall do nothing toward the restoration of property unless we also re-establish the Guild. And we must apply the principle of the Guild to every kind of human activity in order to stabilize and to guarantee property; and, with property, independence, in order to make the labor of every man worth the laborer’s while. We can make of the Guild the co-operative owner of great undertakings which require such co-operation; we can make it the protector of the small owner, of the small owner of one store, for instance, and of the owner of individual shares in a large store where many distributors work together.

Every kind of good would flow from the re-establishment of the Guild, and without the re-establishment of the Guild the effort to maintain well-distributed property, even if we had already achieved that good distribution, would be vain; for the Guild alone can guarantee the permanence of well-distributed property.

But there is one obstacle to the founding of Guilds. There is one rock upon which any attempt to restore the Guild may be shipwrecked. Until we have learned to avoid the obstacle or to blast it out of the way the restoration of property cannot be secured. That obstacle is the foolish and irrational principle of unlimited competition. The whole spirit of the Guild is opposed to that idea. The Guild, one might almost say, comes into existence, and has always come into existence, with the object of preventing men from being destroyed by the demon of unrestricted competition, which is only another word of unrestricted greed.

So long as men confuse freedom with the abuse of freedom in this form, so long will not only the Guild, but property, to maintain which the Guild exists, remain unattainable. Men must be accustomed to the idea of a limited society with the privilege of exercising this or that function, open to all (but only under the condition of accepting Guild membership) before our effort at the restoration of property can be begun.

Perhaps the revival of an idea to which men have grown so unaccustomed will be the hardest part of our task. Yet, unless we succeed in that task we must despair of that very liberty the name of which may be used by our opponents for defeating our efforts. Without property held by the mass of citizens—by a determining number of citizens—there is no freedom; and without the Guild there is no permanent maintenance of property.

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