George Douglas Howard Cole (1889-1959) was one of (if not) the leading intellectual figure of the British labour movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He wrote prolifically, and in the 1930s with a degree of urgency, as his multiple contributions to the Left Book Club illustrate, and had an important intellectual influence over numerous Labour Party figures, notably Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. Cole was himself a product of Oxford University. Educated at Balliol College, Oxford (1908-11), his first teaching posts were with the Workers Educational Association (WEA) in Newcastle (where he also taught philosophy at Armstrong College, the forerunner of today’s Newcastle University). His undergraduate performance – a double first – ensured him a prize fellowship at Magdalen College (1912-1919), and he remained in the city for much of the rest of his life. Before being appointed as a reader in economics and fellow of University College, Oxford, in 1925, Cole worked as a journalist, writer, and activist, tutor, and he was for a time labour correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. He remained at Univ until 1939 when he was appointed fellow of Nuffield College. In 1944, he became the first Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, a post he held until retirement in 1957. Succeeded at All Souls by Isiah Berlin, Cole returned to Nuffield as research professor, remaining there until his death in 1959.
Cole’s political and intellectual legacy was, at least in his lifetime, felt far and wide, particularly within guild socialist and Fabian circles, as well as the WEA. Despite this, he was dismissed later in the twentieth century as old fashioned and even ‘conservative’ and remains something of a neglected figure who is appreciated more, now, for his contributions to the political theory of the Left than to economics. It is not my intention in this blog to rehearse these debates, but rather to explore the reception given to GDH Cole’s ideas in social democratic circles abroad. Although not, in the conventional sense, a social democrat, nor was that a label he accepted, Cole was often received as such in Europe and further afield – most notably in Japan where his work was first translated in 1919. What follows is based primarily on Scandinavian sources, partly for interest’s sake and partly because it was in Scandinavia that social democracy developed most strongly in Cole’s lifetime. But it is important to recognise that Cole’s reception in Scandinavia was different from his reception elsewhere in Europe and in Japan. So whilst the central theme of this blog is – to what extent was one of Britain’s leading leftist thinkers engaged with in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and what reception was given to his ideas? – it remains necessary to see this is as just one part of a broader picture, which I hope to come to infuture blogs.
To begin with, then, and this was very much in keeping with his reputation in Britain, Cole’s reception in Scandinavia was the result of his work on guild socialism and industrial democracy. As Noel Thompson records, ‘works such as The World of Labour, 1913, Self-Government in Industry, 1917, and Guild Socialism Restated, 1920, establish[ed Cole] as its [guild socialism’s] most important theoretician and effective populariser’. It is clear from the writing of the Norwegian journalist and lawyer Inge Debes that Cole’s Self-Government in Industry (1917) was read in Norway in English and it subsequently appeared in Swedish as Industriells Självstyrelse in an edition published by the Stockholm-based Tidens Förlag in 1921. The translation was undertaken by Otto Bucht (1887-1951) and served as a contribution to the contemporary debates on industrial democracy and the response of the Swedish and Norwegian labour movements to the Bolshevik Revolution. With the emergence of the Swedish Communist Party in 1921 and the Norwegian Communist Party in 1923, these debates waned somewhat, as did Cole’s presence in Scandinavian leftist debate. Although he hardly slipped into obscurity, Scandinavian readers had to make do with either the English originals or translations into German or French, and this meant the sum total of Cole’s prolific output escaped even dedicated followers, as the Danish writer Even Marstrand confessed in 1933.
In the global economic and political turmoil of the Great Depression, however, Cole’s writings gained a new lease of life. In this, Cole was aided through his association with Victor Gollancz and the intellectual debates encouraged by Gollancz and the Left Book Club. In 1935, for instance, Cole’s The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (1932) appeared in Norwegian, by coincidence often appearing in the same advertising lists as the Norwegian edition of Trotsky’s autobiography! Published by the Labour Party’s printing arm, Tiden, it cemented Cole’s presence in social democratic debate in Norway. The translation was first advertised in Norway’s leftist press in the autumn of 1934, drawing on its substantial sales in Britain. The edition was translated and abridged by the archivist Jakob Friis (1883-1956), the economist Arne Skaug (1906-1974), and the librarian Henrik Johnsen Hjartøy (1892-1971), all of whom were active in the Labour Party and (at times) the Communist Party. The previous year, amidst discussions on how to resolve the effects of the economic crisis on Norsk Hydro, which struggled to turn a profit for much of the 1930s, Cole’s work on industrial democracy was revived and appeared as part of a special series in the social democratic newspaper Det 20de århundre (The Twentieth Century).
With the outbreak of war and the invasion of Norway in 1940, the transmission of ideas and Scandinavian commentary on British social democratic thought inevitably went underground. The only major translation to appear was a Norwegian edition of Cole’s Left Book Club contribution The Means to Full Employment (1943) published in Stockholm by the cultural arm of the Norwegian trade union federation LO in 1944. Five years later, alongside the European federalist, Ronald Mackay, he contributed a chapter (translated into Swedish) on social democratic politics in post-war Britain to Rickard Lindström’s What Can Social Democracy Do For World Peace(Vad kan socialdemokratin göra för världsfreden). Then, in July 1951, alongside former WEA organiser Elizabeth Monkhouse, Cole visited Oslo to take part in a British-Norwegian summer school at Sørmarka. There he spoke on the ‘British labour problem’ and the role of planning in British social democracy. Monkhouse spoke on European Unity and European federalism. By the 1950s, Cole could be introduced as someone who, in the words of one newspaper, ‘had had a significant influence on the older generation of Norwegian labour activists’.
This post-war period was also the peak of Cole’s influence over Danish social democratic thought, too, with the appearance of his Introduction to Economic History (1952) in Denmark in 1955, and much greater coverage of his work in the Danish press. What was true of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, however, seems not to have been true of Iceland and Finland, for here Cole’s work was less well known and although he appears to an extent in the Iceland press after the Second World War, it’s not quite so apparent that he was held in the same regard as elsewhere in the Nordic world. But then, in neither Finland nor Iceland, the two republics of the Nordic world, was social democracy quite as evident, so that might well provide an explanation as to Cole’s relative lack of significance there.
Summing up Cole’s intellectual trajectory, A.W. Wright remarked that there was ‘early emphasis on problems of social theory, followed by a long period in which economic concerns predominate[d], itself followed by a return to the very earliest interest in problems of social theory and organisation’. Both of these trends can be seen in the reception of Cole’s work in Scandinavia. Wright notes also that Cole’s political allegiances moved from an anti-parliamentarian and anti-state position to one that accepted a moderate role for the state and its mechanisms – he was, in fact, attacked by Beatrice and Sidney Webb for his steady ‘moderation’. The Webbs’ attack was a false one. For Cole was, by his own definition, and despite his embrace of Fabian politics, ‘neither a communist nor a social democrat’. These were, he thought, both ‘creeds of centralisation and bureaucracy’ which could not resolve the fundamental dilemma of escaping capitalism. A truly socialist society was one in which ‘equalitarian principles of human brotherhood […] rest on the widest possible diffusion of power and responsibility’.
Given this, it might seem curious that Cole’s writing was ever properly absorbed into the mainstream Scandinavian social-democratic milieu. After all, his views did not really accord with (in Mary Hilson’s words), ‘a government-funded welfare state, an egalitarian tax system, and strict job regulation’ and a state in which power was vested primarily in parliament rather than the commons. And yet, there he is. There is, of course, a flip-side to this seemingly esoteric exploration, namely that for the post-war years historians have become accustomed to reading about British social democrats visiting Scandinavia and yearning for the kind of social-democratic stability available in Norway, Sweden, and, to a lesser extent, Denmark. (See, for instance, Perry Anderson’s attack on Tony Crosland in the NLR.) It was there even in the Left Book Club of the 1930s and 1940s. It is less frequently recognised that this was two-way traffic with a vintage of several decades, and that Scandinavian social democrats took a very keen interest in what their British comrades were saying and doing.