A. W. Spencer-Bragg (Harold Walsby): While Rome Burns

One of the most terrifying symptoms of the present time is the complete indifference of the average person to politics, apart from the squabbles about party.
-Professor Sir John Graham Kerr, M.P.

In earlier chapters we have drawn attention to the magnitude and urgency of the problems arising from the impact of science on our ramshackle, haphazard political and economic structure. It is to be expected that many readers will consider this as merely stressing the obvious; nevertheless, the broad masses do not display any acute awareness of these problems:

Two items from to-day’s news: three thousand people wait six hours to see the Dynamos meet the Arsenal. Only 41 percent of the electorate in South Kensington took the trouble to go to the poll in the by-election.
(Evening Standard, 21.11.45.)

At a recent Youth Session in London, organised by and well publicised in one of our great daily newspapers, on the subject “Atomic Energy, Good or Evil?” with five prominent people on the platform, only 250 people attended.

It is very obvious to all thinking people that one great danger of atomic warfare breaking out would arise from a survival or rebirth of fascism. With the complete military defeat of Italy, Germany and Japan there was a general belief in the democracies that fascism had been finally “wiped from the face of the earth.” We were soon disillusioned, but there is little evidence of mass concern about the survival of that which millions died to destroy. Certainly there is no great mass movement against it. It is even doubtful whether many of those who take an interest in these matters are aware of the support still received by National Socialism in Germany, as revealed by this extract from a talk broadcast recently:

… with a view to finding out what progress German minds have made towards democracy, Military Government has been making surveys of public opinion. In the middle sized city of Darmstadt, for instance, they took what amounted to a Gallup Poll. They asked people first: ‘Was National Socialism a bad idea or a good idea badly carried out?’ A majority thought it was a good idea badly carried out. It was only among people aged more than forty that the Poll showed a majority who thought National Socialism was intrinsically bad. Secondly they were asked: ‘Did they think Germany needed a new Fuehrer?’ And here there was a sharp difference of opinion between men and women. Votes in favour of a new fuehrer came from fifty-five per cent. of the women, but from only thirty-eight per cent. of the men. And yet even at that figure, it’s hardly an encouragement for the friends of democracy.

The third question concerned the de-nazification policy. The Germans were asked if they thought the nazi party members should be dismissed from leading political and economic positions. Forty-three per cent. said yes they should be dismissed, but forty-four per cent. said no, and the rest were undecided.
(Forthcoming German Elections by Chester Wilmot, 4.1.46. Quoted by permission of the B.B.C.)

Nearer home the incidents at the sale of effects at the German Embassy in London, when one man paid £500 for a bust of Hitler, revealed the existence of a network of fascist groups, at least one of which went so far as openly to compare Hitler with Jesus Christ. The British Union of Fascists retrieved its files, membership lists and office equipment from storage – hardly the action of a movement which knows itself finally defeated. Sir Oswald Mosley announced his intention to start a publishing arm, saying:

The ideas that will be put forward in the publishing venture are those I formulated before the war, except that they are now further developed.
(Reported in The Sunday Pictorial, 2.12.45.)

What was the public reaction to all this? One might have expected a wave of protest to sweep the country. No such thing occurred. The newspapers ran front-page stories for several days, one or two questions were asked in the House of Commons, one or two Trade Union branches passed resolutions and some meetings were held in one or two of the big towns. Greater public interest was aroused by the visit, about the same time, of a team of Russian footballers.

We have tried to show – and, once the question is faced, it can hardly be denied – that the masses take little interest in these matters; they do not recognise the danger. What of those who make it their business, to study politics? The case of the majority is, in this respect, not much better. Seldom, if ever, in any political journal, does one see the survival of fascism in Germany given the prominence it warrants, and fascism in Britain tends to be regarded – particularly by the Left-wing – as a minority movement supported only by a few extreme reactionaries, whereas German experience shows clearly that it has the power, by reason of its dynamic, emotional appeal, to arouse the enthusiastic support of those great masses who remain largely uninterested in democratic politics.

This inability, on the part of a majority of political intellectuals, clearly to recognise the dangers inherent in fascism, arises from their failure, referred to in Chapter Five, to grasp the essentially irrational nature of mass mentality. They persist in believing, against the great weight of evidence, that the masses are coming to take an increasingly intelligent, active and critical interest in the politics and economics of democracy. A common expression of this unjustified assumption is the assertion that the ascent to power of a Labour Government proves the masses are becoming increasingly politically conscious. It has frequently been pointed out, but it can be repeated once again, that the Labour Party did not receive the support of a majority of the electorate; 15,012,489 voted for Labour and its associated groups, 9,960,809 against, and, most significant of all, almost nine million were not sufficiently interested in the questions at issue to go to the polling booth. (It should be emphasised that this is quite a normal proportion of non-voters at General Elections. At by-elections this figure is usually much higher.) This is sometimes dismissed as “hair-splitting”; it is stressed that more votes were cast for Labour than ever before, and this is held to indicate an increasing mass interest in political questions. But we must never forget, unpleasant though the memory may be, that in both Italy and Germany fascism followed a Left-wing government.

The crucial importance of mass mentality has only very recently been recognised, and much work remains to be done before it can be fully understood. It takes us into a new field of knowledge, the field of ideology, which is a science as distinct from psychology as this latter is from biology. But although distinct, the two sciences are closely related, and it is worth stressing that so far as psychology concerns itself with these questions, it emphasises the irrationality which dominates group mentality.

Ever since psychology became a science the great weight of its conclusions has gone to show the importance of unconscious and irrational factors in determining man’s activities. These results were drawn mainly from the study of individuals, but quite enough evidence has been collected to show conclusively that men tend to behave not more but less rationally when acting in groups:

… the intellectual capacity of a group is always far below that of an individual … groups have never thirsted after truth, they demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.
(Freud : Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, pp. 17-19.)

If this is the case with groups in general, it would indeed be strange if the largest of all groups – the masses – should be growing more rational – if the people as a whole, or even the majority, should be coming to take an increasingly objective and critical interest in political problems. Yet this is the assumption now underlying the activity of most of those who endeavour to be scientific in their political thinking.

It becomes evident that there are factors which have been given insufficient importance or even left out of account in most current thinking about social problems. Much labour has been devoted to the elucidation of the laws governing economics, the circulation of commodities and the distribution of wealth. Proposals have been put forward for the cure – at least the alleviation – of the existing economic disorder, but, because no sustained mass support for these proposals has so far been forthcoming they remain largely inoperative. We have shown there is reason to believe that this separation of theory from the masses, arises largely from an unjustified assumption of mass rationality, leading to a false conception of the relationship between the intellectuals and the masses. In the next chapter we shall probe into this question a little more deeply, endeavouring to indicate (a) some of the ways in which mass mentality relates to the broad ideological division in society, and (b) how the present consequences of this division may be overcome.

Continue reading 999 – Emergency! (1946)
The Child with the Loaded Pistol | Social Hari-Kiri | Are Scientists Inhuman? | The Rape of Science | Scientific Superstitions | While Rome Burns | The International Volcano | The Final Crusade