G. D. H. Cole

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.

G. D. H. Cole
George Douglas Howard Cole

(1889-09-25)25 September 1889
Cambridge, England
Died14 January 1959(1959-01-14) (aged 69)
London, England
FieldCo-operative economics
School or
Libertarian socialism
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford

Early life

Cole was born in Cambridge[2] to George Cole, a jeweller who later became a surveyor; and his wife Jessie Knowles.[3]

Cole was educated at St Paul's School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he achieved a double first.[4]

First World War

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.

In 1915, Cole became an unpaid research officer at the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He advised the union on how to respond to wartime legislation including the Munitions Act. This role enabled him to escape conscription on the grounds that he was conducting work of national importance.

Having secured exemption from military service, during the war years Cole developed a political theory of guild socialism.[5]

Professional life

Cole 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 1929, he was appointed to the National Economic Advisory Council when it was set up by the second Labour government. 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.[5]

Cole was initially a pacifist, but he abandoned this position around 1938, stating: "Hitler cured me of pacifism".[6] During the 1930s, Cole sought to construct a British popular front against fascism. He identified the extent of the military threat before many of his colleagues had abandoned their pacifism. Cole lent strong support to the republican cause in Spain.[3]

He was listed in the Black Book of prominent subjects to be arrested in the case of a successful invasion of Britain.[7]

In 1941, Cole was appointed sub-warden of Nuffield College, Oxford. He was central to the establishment of the Nuffield College Social Reconstruction Survey which collected a large amount of demographic, economic and social data. This information was used to advocate for an extensive programme of social reform.[3]


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 Marxian 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 Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw.

Cole said his interest in socialism was kindled by his reading News from Nowhere, the utopian novel by William Morris, writing:

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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. He and his wife, Margaret Cole, together wrote 29 popular detective stories,[11] featuring the investigators Superintendent Wilson, Everard Blatchington and Dr. Tancred. Cole and his wife created a partnership, but not a marriage. Cole took little interest in sex and he regarded women as a distraction for men. Margaret documented this comprehensively in a biography she wrote of her husband after his death.[12]

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.[13]

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".[14] 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.[15]

Co-operative studies

Cole was also a theorist of the co-operative movement and 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.[16]

A second book, titled 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.[17]

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.

Personal life

In August 1918, Cole married Margaret Isabel Postgate (1893–1980). Margaret was the daughter of the classical scholar John Percival Postgate.[3]

The couple had one son and two daughters in a marriage that lasted forty-one years. However, the marriage does not seem to have been especially happy. Cole expressed little interest in actual romantic attachment and even less in sexual relations. Friends observed that emotional attachments tended to be with men rather than women. Cole was very fond of some of his male students. They included the future leader of the Labour Party Hugh Gaitskell. There is no evidence of any homosexual encounters either before or during his marriage.[3]

Cole and his wife jointly wrote a number of books and articles, including twenty-nine detective stories.[3]


Non-fiction works

Detective stories

  • Cole, G. D. H. (1923) The Brooklyn Murders
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1925) The Death of a Millionaire
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1926) The Blatchington Tangle
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1927) The Murder at Crome House
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1928) The Man from the River
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1928) Superintendent Wilson's Holiday
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1929) Poison in the Garden Suburb aka Poison in a Garden Suburb
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1930) Burglars in Bucks aka The Berkshire Mystery
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1930) Corpse in Canonicalsaka The Corpse in the Constable's Garden
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1931) The Great Southern Mystery aka The Walking Corpse
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1931) Dead Man's Watch
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1932) Death of a Star
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1933) A Lesson in Crime (short stories)
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1933) The Affair at Aliquid
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1933) End of an Ancient Mariner
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1934) Death in the Quarry
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1935) Big Business Murder
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1935) Dr Tancred Begins
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1935) Scandal at School aka The Sleeping Death
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1936) Last Will and Testament
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1936) The Brothers Sackville
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1937) Disgrace to the College
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1937) The Missing Aunt
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1938) Mrs Warrender's Profession
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1938) Off with her Head!
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1939) Double Blackmail
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1939) Greek Tragedy
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1940) Wilson and Some Others
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1940) Murder at the Munition Works
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1940) Counterpoint Murder
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1941) Knife in the Dark
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1942) Toper's End
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1945) Death of a Bride
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. I. (1946) Birthday Gifts
  • Cole, G. D. H. and Cole, M. (1948) The Toys of Death

Radio plays

  • Murder in Broad Daylight. BBC Home Service, 1 June 1934 (As by GDH and M Cole)
  • The Bone of the Dinosaur. (Detection Club: Series 1, Episode 6). BBC Home Service, 23 and 27 November 1940 (As by GDH and M Cole)


  1. Morris, Jeremy (2017). "F. D. Maurice and the Myth of Christian Socialist Origins". In Spencer, Stephen (ed.). Theology Reforming Society: Revisiting Anglican Social Theology. London: SCM Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-334-05373-6.
  2. "George Douglas Howard Cole Papers", p. 3. Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam. On line.
  3. Stears, Marc. "Cole, George Douglas Howard (1889–1959)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 October 2017.
  4. Marc Stears, ‘Cole, George Douglas Howard (1889–1959)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 7 May 2017
  5. Marc Stears, ‘Cole, George Douglas Howard(1889–1959)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32486, accessed 25 Oct 2017]
  6. Martin Ceadel, "The Peace Movement Between the Wars: Problems of Definition", in Campaigns for Peace : British peace movements. Edited by Richard Taylor and Nigel Young. Manchester University Press, 1987. ISBN 0719018927 (p. 84).
  7. Walter Schellenberg, The Schellenberg Memoirs, London 1956 (Deutsch: Aufzeichungen, München 1979) pp 174.
  8. G. D. H Cole, "World Socialism Restated," pamphlet (1956), quoted by Margaret Cole, The Life of G. D. H. Cole, Macmillan/St. Martin's (1971); cited, Harry Barnes, Three Score Years and Ten (24 July 2006).
  9. Peter Sedgwick, "A Return to First Things", Balliol College Annual Record 1980, pp.86–88 (review of A. W. Wright, G.D.H. Cole and Socialist Democracy). Marxists’ Internet Archive. Online.
  10. Daniel Ritschel, The Politics of Planning: The Debate on Economic Planning in Britain in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, 1997 ISBN 019820647X (pp. 282–83)
  11. Marc Stears, ‘Cole , Dame Margaret Isabel (1893–1980)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 7 May 2017
  12. Curtis Evans (28 November 2016). Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall. McFarland. pp. 131–. ISBN 978-0-7864-9992-2.
  13. "The Decline of Capitalism". Lecture to Fabian Society, 1939. Quoted in A. W. Wright, G. D. H. Cole and Socialist Democracy. Clarendon Press, 1979. ISBN 0-19-827421-1 (p. 226).
  14. G. D. H. Cole, Europe, Russia and the Future (London: Victor Gollancz, 1941), p. 104.
  15. Cole, Europe, Russia and the Future, p. 104.
  16. Cole, G. D. H., "The British Co-operative Movement in a Socialist Society: A Report for the Fabian Society", London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1951.
  17. Cole, G.D.H., A Century of Co-operation, Oxford: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1944.
  18. "Penguin First Editions". Penguin Publishing.


Party political offices
Preceded by
Viscount Addison
Chairman of the New Fabian Research Bureau
Office abolished
New office Chairman of the Fabian Society
Succeeded by
Harold Laski
Preceded by
Harold Laski
Chairman of the Fabian Society
Succeeded by
John Parker
Preceded by
Stafford Cripps
President of the Fabian Society
Succeeded by
Margaret Cole
Academic offices
New office Chichele Professor of
Social and Political Theory

Succeeded by
Isaiah Berlin
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