George Douglas Howard Cole (25 September 1889 – 14 January 1959) was an English political theorist, economist, writer and historian. As a libertarian socialist he was a long-time member of the Fabian Society and an advocate for the co-operative movement.
He and his wife, Margaret Cole (1893–1980), together wrote many popular detective stories, featuring the investigators Superintendent Wilson, Everard Blatchington and Dr Tancred.
Cole was educated at St Paul's School and Balliol College, Oxford.
As a conscientious objector during the First World War, Cole's involvement in the campaign against conscription introduced him to a co-worker, Margaret Postgate, whom he married in 1918. The couple both worked for the Fabian Society for the next six years before moving to Oxford, where Cole started writing for the Manchester Guardian.
Meanwhile, he also authored several economic and historical works including biographies of William Cobbett and Robert Owen. In 1925, he became reader in economics at University College, Oxford. In 1944, Cole became the first Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He was succeeded in the chair by Isaiah Berlin in 1957.
Cole was initially a pacifist; however, he abandoned this position around 1938: "Hitler cured me of pacifism".
He was listed in the 'Black Book' of prominent subjects to be arrested in the case of a successful invasion of Britain.
Cole became interested in Fabianism while studying at Balliol College, Oxford. He joined the Fabian Society's executive under the sponsorship of Sidney Webb. Cole became a principal proponent of Guild Socialist ideas, a libertarian socialist alternative to Marxist political economy. These ideas he put forward in The New Age before and during the First World War, and also in the pages of The New Statesman, the weekly founded by the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw.
Cole said his interest in socialism was kindled by his reading News from Nowhere, the utopian novel by William Morris. He wrote,
"I became a Socialist because, as soon as the case for a society of equals, set free from the twin evils of riches and poverty, mastership and subjection, was put to me, I knew that to be the only kind of society that could be consistent with human decency and fellowship and that in no other society could I have the right to be content."
Neither a Marxist nor a Social Democrat, Cole envisioned a Socialism of decentralised association and active, participatory democracy, whose basic units would be sited at the workplace and in the community rather than in any central apparatus of the State.
In 1936 Cole began calling for a Popular Front movement in Britain, where the Labour Party would ally with other parties against the threat of fascism.
Cole was a powerful influence on the life of the young Harold Wilson, whom he taught, worked with and convinced to join the Labour Party. Before him, Hugh Gaitskell was a student of Cole's.
Cole wrote at least seven books for the Left Book Club, all of which were published by Victor Gollancz Ltd. These are marked with LBC in the list of his books given below.
Although Cole admired the Soviet Union for creating a socialist economy, he rejected its dictatorial government as a model for socialist societies elsewhere. In a 1939 lecture, Cole stated:
If I do not accept Stalin's answer, it is because I am not prepared to write off Democratic Socialism, despite all its failures and vacillations of recent years, as a total loss...Democratic Socialism offers the only means of building the new order on what is valuable and worth preserving in the civilisation of to-day.
In his book Europe, Russia and the Future published in 1941, Cole claimed that however immoral the new Nazi-dominated Europe was, in some ways it was better than the "impracticable" system of sovereign states that had preceded it. In economic terms it could be said that "it would be better to let Hitler conquer all Europe short of the Soviet Union, and thereafter exploit it ruthlessly in the Nazi interest, than to go back to the pre-war order of independent Nation States with frontiers drawn so as to cut right across the natural units of production and exchange". Cole also stated: "I would much sooner see the Soviet Union, even with its policy unchanged, dominant over all Europe, including Great Britain, than see an attempt to restore the pre-war States to their futile and uncreative independence and their petty economic nationalism under capitalist domination. Much better be ruled by Stalin than by the destructive and monopolistic cliques which dominate Western capitalism".
Cole was also a theorist of the co-operative movement, and he made a number of contributions to the fields of co-operative studies, co-operative economics and the history of the co-operative movement. In particular, his book "The British Co-operative Movement in a Socialist Society" examined the economic status of the English CWS (the predecessor of the modern Co-operative Group), evaluated its possibility of achieving a Co-operative Commonwealth without state assistance and hypothesised what the role the co-operative might have in a socialist state.
A second book, A Century of Co-operation, examined the history of the movement from the very first co-operatives, to the contribution of the Chartists and Robert Owen, through to the Rochdale Pioneers, as well as the movement's development (in Great Britain) over the following century.
Cole contributed to An Outline of Modern Knowledge, ed. William Rose (Victor Gollancz, 1931) along with other leading authorities of the time, including Roger Fry, C. G. Seligman, Maurice Dobb and F. J. C. Hearnshaw.