George Douglas Howard Cole

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Cole, G. D. H.



George Douglas Howard Cole (1889–1959), English historian, economist, and sociologist, was the son of a small builder in Ealing (West London). He had a brilliant career at Oxford, where he was known as a classical scholar and a minor poet, as well as an advanced social thinker. He became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1912; later a fellow of University College, All Souls, and Nuf-field and first reader in economics; and, thereafter, Chichele professor of social and political theory. Throughout his life, which was divided between Oxford and London, his influence upon successive generations of students was immense; before his death a hostile periodical (the Economist) asserted with angry exaggeration that the majority of the leaders of the emergent states appeared to have been indoctrinated by Cole or Harold Laski. Unfortunately, only the briefest notes of Cole’s lectures have survived.

His first book, which seemed to presage a new type of socialism, was The World of Labour (1913); it was a study of all labor movements—unions as well as political bodies—throughout the world and pointed to a method of reconciling the two main revolutionary theories of that time, syndicalism (or industrial unionism) and parliamentary, or state, socialism. The new program, worked out in conjunction with William Mellor, A. R. Orage, and others, basically called for public ownership of the main industries and democratic control of them by the unions; it took the name “guild socialism” in conscious memory of the Middle Ages, and its inspiration came more from William Morris than Karl Marx. Although guild socialism as an organization was disrupted by the Russian Revolution, its influence remained powerful especially through Cole’s own expositions, of which Self-government in Industry (1917) was the first and the most influential.

After World War I, Cole attained a position of great influence as a teacher, political theorist, and adviser. He was the most complete polymath of his age and was widely consulted by every section of the labor, radical, and trade union movement, but he was less successful in direct political action. Although he was untiring in organizing committees, schools, societies, and journals, he frequently left them in an explosive manner. His enormous output of books and pamphlets (at one time he said he could easily write three thousand words a day) defies enumeration, but it falls into three main categories.

(1) Several of Cole’s books were of a factual character, surveying the whole world economically and politically. They were long, detailed, clear, and at that time invaluable; they will almost certainly be turned to by students of history, but they are of course dated as reference books. The most important are The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (1932), The Intelligent Man’s Review of Europe Today (1933), and The Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Post-war World (1947a), one-man encyclopedias of usually more than a thousand pages each. The Condition of Britain (1937) and Local and Regional Government (1947b) are examples of shorter but equally meticulous studies. In most of these and many other of his works, his coauthor was his wife, Margaret (née Postgate).

(2) Subsequent to the guild socialist books al-ready mentioned, the most important of his works on economic theory are Gold, Credit and Employment (1930), What Marx Really Meant (1934), Principles of Economic Planning (1935), and Money: Its Present and Future (1944).

(3) Cole’s historical books have, naturally, suffered far less from the passage of time than his economic works and in the 1960s were still widely studied as textbooks. His best biography is Life of William Cobbett (1924) and next to it Life of Robert Owen (1925); his A Short History of the British Working-class Movement (1925–1927) and A Century of Co-operation (1945) are classics in their sphere, but the most continuously successful book has been The Common People, 1746–1946 (1938), written in collaboration with Raymond Postgate. Cole’s monument, however, will probably prove to be his five-volume History of Socialist Thought (1953–1960). Four of these volumes were published at his death, and a last volume was completed by his widow. No other work of such comprehensiveness had ever before appeared, and no study either of modern social philosophy or of mass political or social movements can in the future be written without reference to it.

Between 1923 and 1945, Cole also wrote, as a parergon (as he would have said), a score of thrillers in collaboration with his wife. His style was clear and plain. When he wrote for political journals, it could sometimes carry emotional over-tones but was usually detached and even aloof, as he often was himself; his main fault, stylistically, was excessive fluency.

He was thin, dark, fairly tall, and in his youth remarkably handsome. In his later years, partly because of diabetes, he became difficult in temper and indiscriminately censorious, but he was by nature kindly and generous. He is remembered with affection and respect not only by his many pupils but by almost all who worked with him.

Raymond Postgate

[For the historical context of Cole’s work, seeEconomic thought, article onsocialist thought.]


(1913) 1919 The World of Labour: A Discussion of the Present and Future of Trade Unionism. 4th ed. London: Bell.

(1917) 1920 Self-government in Industry. 5th ed., rev.London: Bell.

(1924) 1947 Life of William Cobbett. 3d ed., rev. London: Home & Van Thal.

(1925) 1930 Life of Robert Owen. 2d ed. London: Macmillan. → First published as Robert Owen. A reprint of the second edition was published in 1966 by Shoe String Press.

(1925–1927) 1948 A Short History of the British Working-class Movement: 1789–1947. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan; London: Allen & Unwin.

1930 Gold, Credit and Employment: Four Essays for Laymen. New York: Macmillan.

1932 The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos. London: Gollancz. → The title of the American edition is Guide Through World Chaos.

1933 Cole, G. D. H.; and Cole, Margaret I. The IntelligentMan’s Review of Europe Today. London: Gollancz.

(1934) 1937 What Marx Really Meant. New York: Knopf.

1935 Principles of Economic Planning. London: Macmillan. → Also published by Knopf in 1935 under the title Economic Planning.

1937 Cole, G. D. H.; and Cole, MargaretI The Condition of Britain. London: Gollancz.

(1938) 1956 Cole, G. D. H.; and Postgate, RaymondThe Common People, 1746–1946. 2d ed. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published by Methuen in 1961. The title of the American edition is The British People, 1746–1946.

(1944) 1947 Money: Its Present and Future. 3d ed., rev. London: Cassell.

1945 A Century of Co-operation. London: Allen & Unwin.

1947a The Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Post-war World. London: Gollancz.

1947b Local and Regional Government. London: Cassell.

1953–1960 A History of Socialist Thought. 5 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → Volume 1: Socialist Thought: The Forerunners, 1789–1850, 1953. Volume 2: Marxism and Anarchism, 1850–1890, 1954. Volume 3: The Second International, 1889–1914, 2 parts, 1956. Volume 4: Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931, 2 parts, 1958. Volume 5: Socialism and Fascism, 1931–1939, 1960.


Sweezy, Paul M. 1957 Professor Cole’s History of Socialist Thought. American Economic Review 47:985–994.

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George Douglas Howard Cole

George Douglas Howard Cole (1889-1959) was an English historian, economist, and guild socialist. His teaching, writing, and commitment to political activism affected three generations of Englishmen.

The son of a builder in West London, G. D. H. Cole went from St. Paul's School to Balliol College, Oxford. He coedited the Oxford Reformer, acted in social causes, and joined the Fabian Society. He attempted to reconcile syndicalism and socialism in World of Labour (1913), a plea for public ownership of major industries under the democratic control of unions modeled upon medieval guilds. With a first class in classical moderns and greats, he was awarded a fellowship at Magdalen College. Elected to the Fabian executive in 1915, he rebelled against the old guard to head the quasi-independent Fabian Research Bureau.

During the next decade Cole was away from Oxford writing, often with his wife and fellow Fabian rebel, Margaret Postgate Cole; directing tutorial classes at the University of London; and organizing professional trade unions. He returned to Oxford in 1925 as fellow of University College and university reader in economics and was to have compelling influence upon students such as Hugh Gaitskell. From 1944 until his retirement in 1957 Cole was at All Souls College as first Chichele professor of social and political theory.

Cole was for many years chairman of the Fabian weekly, the New Statesman, contributing to almost every issue during his lifetime. In 1931 he formed the Society for Socialist Information and Propaganda but broke with the society when it moved toward communism. That year he formed the New Fabian Research Bureau as a politically neutral agency for accumulating objective information. This group formed the basis for union in 1938 with the older, badly splintered Fabian Society. Collectivization was omitted from the new rules as a concession to Cole.

Cole's prodigious writings (over 130 works) may be divided into five broad and overlapping categories: guild socialism; history; biography; economic, political, and social analysis; and fiction. His strongest treatment of guild socialism, Self-government in Industry (1917), was an appeal for the pluralistic and romantic socialism which moved Cole all his life. In Case for Industrial Partnership (1957) he tried to adjust the earlier plea to new times.

Cole's historical and biographical work provided the evidence against which he tested his socialist faith and reliance upon the individual. This was especially true in his classic five-volume History of Socialist Thought (1953-1960).

Of Cole's perceptive biographies, the two best are The Life of William Cobbett (1924) and The Life of Robert Owen (1925). The analytical writings, intended to influence or explain, include Principles of Economic Planning (1935) and An Intelligent Man's Guide to the Post-war World (1947). For recreation he wrote, largely with his wife, more than 15 detective novels.

Further Reading

Although there is no biography of Cole, various aspects of his life and thought are discussed in the book by his wife, Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (1961). See also Anne Fremantle, This Little Band of Prophets: The British Fabians (1959), and As a Briggs and John Saville, eds., Essays in Labour History: In Memory of G. D. H. Cole (1960; rev. ed. 1967), which contains personal recollections of Cole by Ivor Brown, Hugh Gaitskell, Stephen K. Bailey and G. D. N. Worswick. The discussion of Cole's thought in Henry M. Magid, English Political Pluralism: The Problem of Freedom and Organization (1941), suffers from an inadequate historical context. □

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