George Walford: From Politics to Ideology

We now have before us six movements (strictly, five movements and one group), each of them extending over most of the world although under various names and with adaptations to suit local conditions. In introducing them I have taken the opportunity of showing that they form a series, and we shall find greater significance in this when we come to discuss the origin and development of ideologies. For the time being we concentrate upon the factors which link the members of each of them constituting them a movement and distinguishing that movement from the others.

The members of each of these movements vary among themselves in income, status, personality, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, diet, geographical location, heredity, physical constitution, accustomed climate, toughness or tenderness of mind, language, education, upbringing, toilet training, relation to the means of production and particular ideas about political matters. They are linked together, constituted a movement and distinguished from the members of other movements, by their common adherence to certain ideas or beliefs, and the ones most clearly distinctive are those highly general ones we have been speaking of.

In our dealings with the physical world we tend to be more impressed by mountains and canyons than by the presence of a continuous solid surface, and something similar happens in politics. Specific policies and concrete proposals tend to be valued above inclinations and tendencies. Yet these persist while policies and proposals come and go, and the ability to endure forms an important part of what we mean when we describe something as real.

On any particular issue a movement may alter its attitude according to the circumstances. The Communist Party of Great Britain at first opposed British participation in the Second World War and later supported it, even demanding that it become more vigorous. After the war several conservative governments accepted the greater part of the existing state ownership of industry, the party going in enthusiastically for privatisation only under Mrs. Thatcher. Looking at the details, even such large ‘details’ as these, the behaviour of the movements seems erratic, but in each case the particular courses chosen were motivated by one enduring inclination. The SPGB, both when opposing British participation and when supporting it, was following a lead given by the USSR believing that thereby it was helping the move towards a society without political restrictions, one in which the means of production would he commonly owned. The Conservative Party was consistently following its practice of holding back from change until confident the outcome would be beneficial; only with Mrs. Thatcher’s accession to leadership did it acquire this confidence. In each case the action taken, although a response to the circumstances, was a response guided by the broad ideas and general beliefs, tendencies and inclinations forming the most stable part of the movement’s ideology, and political responses are regularly influenced in this way.

This may sound plausible, even self-evident, but on reflection the establishment of a connection between these general beliefs (etc.) and the people who execute the response presents difficulties. Many of those to whom I have been ascribing a preference for a stable or dynamic society, or opinions about the degree of freedom or control desirable in political or economic systems, and the role properly to be played by theory as a guide to action, would look rather blank if asked to say what they thought about these matters; they have been thinking about particular instances rather than overall tendencies. This shows the terms I have been using, such as broad ideas, and general beliefs, to be inappropriate, for it does not make good sense to speak of people being unaware of their own ideas, or not knowing what beliefs they hold.

The way out of the difficulty lies in the concept of assumption. We have all undergone the experience of having it pointed out to us that we acted as we did because, without realising it, we had taken something for granted and the ‘broad ideas’ and ‘general beliefs’ forming the main trunks of the different ideologies tend to be accepted, and to produce their effects, in this way. They do sometimes enter conscious reasoning, particularly among the writers and thinkers, but more often they exercise their influence below the level of awareness.

General ideas and beliefs tend to be recognised as assumptions more readily than particular ones, but no rigid distinction can be drawn, ideas and beliefs do not fall into two classes, the members of one taken for granted and those of the other validated by conclusive evidence. Every idea or belief has some evidence in its favour, even if this be only an illusion or an error, and no one of them is ever established beyond all doubt; there remains always the possibility of misunderstanding, of evidence to the contrary overlooked, of error and illusion. All ideas and beliefs include some element of taking-for-granted and this entitles us to treat them all as assumptions, some better supported than others.

Systematic ideology concerns itself mainly with the effects of assumptions upon behaviour, and for this purpose questions of their truth in any absolute sense are largely irrelevant. It is enough for them to produce their effect, that those holding them believe them to be true, and even this is not always needed. The material objects which appear so solid have been shown to consist mainly of empty space, yet even those who have demonstrated this still step forward boldly, expecting the floor to bear their weight. Conservatism and anarchism cannot both be true in an unqualified sense, yet each of them affects the behaviour of its adherents.

We commonly distinguish between, on the one hand, knowledge, ideas, beliefs and other items of mental furniture which are present to awareness and, on the other, assumptions which are not, but this distinction, too, is one of degree. Knowledge often drops below the level of awareness, needing an effort to recall it, while assumptions are not irrevocably hidden; critical examination of behaviour reveals them. In systematic ideology ‘assumption’ is used to cover the whole range, from assumptions remaining unrecognised unless a special effort be made, through the things known but not at the moment being thought of, to the ideas, beliefs and so on standing in the forefront of awareness.

An assumption may be well supported or not, present to awareness or not, and true or not. As used in systematic ideology the term includes not only things taken more or less completely for granted but also all knowledge, beliefs, opinions, theories, conclusions, principles, ideas, and so on and so on; all items of cognition. It is, of course, still open to us to use the familiar terms – idea, belief, theory and the rest – when we wish to indicate some particular sort of assumption, and I shall often do so.

All our knowledge of assumptions comes from observation of behaviour, our own or that of others. Some types of behaviour provide more information about assumptions than others, the richest source being speech-behaviour. Most of our knowledge of assumptions comes from written or spoken statements. We noted earlier the strong tendency for political beliefs, especially the broader ones, to come in determinate sets. Having now identified these beliefs as assumptions we can say that an ideology is a set of assumptions. (This, of course, is a first approximation, to be clarified and rendered more definite as our work goes on).

I have been speaking only of the six main political groupings. More specialised movements, such as trade unionism and anti-abortionism, also possess distinct sets of ideas, beliefs and assumptions, distinct ideologies. These, however, concern smaller areas of behaviour than those of which we have been speaking and they do not form a significant series; each of them is a specialised formulation, adapted to a limited range of purposes and circumstances, of some part of the main range, and in order to show the ideological connections between two or more of them we have to trace them back to their roots in these main ones. For these reasons (and for others appearing later) we distinguish the ideologies upon which our attention has been focused, the ones going to form the main sequence, as the ‘major’ ideologies.

In the next chapter we shall go on to look at some of the effects produced by the major ideologies in fields of activity outside party politics, and in doing this it will be convenient to have names for them which do not suggest that ideology has only political importance. Each set of broad assumptions functions to a large extent as a unity, and this endows the behaviour characteristic of each major ideology with a distinctive quality which I propose to call its ethos. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines ethos as ‘the prevalent tone of sentiment of a people or community,’ and the people or community in question here are those identified with the assumptions constituting any one of the major ideologies. [1]

In distinguishing this behavioural aspect of the major ideologies we also distinguish, by contrast, their cognitive features, the assumptions of which each is constituted becoming its eidos. The ethos is more or less directly displayed, while the deeper features of the eidos usually require analysis to reveal them, and this has the effect that ethos rather than eidos supplies the popular stereotypes. The figure of the wild anarchist, for example, derives less from any widespread awareness of anarchism’s tendency towards political individualism than from the repudiation of established society inherent in this movement. The major ideologies are highly complex syndromes, but it will be convenient to denote each of them by its ethos.

At one end of our series stand the non-politicals, those who vote either not at all or as seems most advantageous at the time. These are adapting their conduct to the circumstances, following the convenient or advantageous course (the advantages in question not being only material ones) without regard to any more remote or long- term considerations. They display the ethos of Expediency.

Adjoining this ideology in the series stands the one finding political expression in conservatism, and this movement distinguishes itself from the non-political group by not seizing the advantage of the moment but guiding itself by considerations such as duty, loyalty, patriotism, consistency, moderation, responsibility, respect for superiors and consideration for inferiors. Here we have the ethos of Principle.

Conservatism will often tolerate practices which embody the principles professed only in a general way, as we speak of a course of action being correct in principle, meaning it may be faulty in detail. It tends to cherish methods and institutions proven viable by experience even when their performance is admittedly defective, rather than risk endangering them in a chase after perfection. O’Sullivan, for example, entitles the first chapter of his book (by no means a hostile study) ‘Conservative Ideology: a Philosophy of Perfection.’

The next term in the series, liberalism represses this flexibility much as conservatism represses expediency. It seeks to specify principles exactly and put them fully into practice. The liberal emphasis being upon getting things exactly right we identify this as the ethos of Precision, but this should not be taken to mean that liberalism always attains precisely the ends it sets itself, for manifestly it does not. The term indicates, rather, that liberalism seeks precision. The tendency of this ethos towards even arithmetical accuracy appears in the maxim of the Utilitarians, recognised precursors of modern liberalism, ‘the greatest good of the greatest number,’ and William Beveridge spoke of replacing natural law by the rule of the expert. [2] J. A. Hobson spoke in the same spirit when proposing a system of administration by an expert official class trained for the purpose while elected representatives made known the will and desires of the people; ‘when a rational Democracy is formed laws, like hats, will be made by persons specially trained to make them.’ [3] With its almost scientifically precise demarcation of function the concept is distinctively a liberal one.

Unlike these three groups the next term in the series, socialism, does not regard existing society as either acceptable or capable of being rendered so. Even if capitalism held to its professed principles in practice, even if it did so precisely, it would still, socialism holds, impose unacceptable conditions upon the majority of people. Socialism proclaims the need for a substantially different system and sets out to achieve it peacefully by an accumulation of minor changes. It exhibits the ethos of Reform. (Here the term carries the sense of re-shaping; its more limited meaning, of putting right parts of the system that are not working as they should, belongs rather to liberalism).

Communism has already been mentioned; it boldly displays the ethos of Revolution, and anarchism goes beyond even this, seeing its function as the elimination of authority and coercion; that accomplished the people themselves, acting as people rather than as anarchists, are to establish and maintain an orderly, humane, peaceful and satisfying society. The ethos of anarchism stresses rejection of all that would limit political-intellectual freedom, and does so the more uncompromisingly as it approaches more closely to the purist condition. It is marked by Repudiation.

Relations between the ideologies are by no means as free of stress as this schematic presentation, intended only to introduce the names we shall be using for them, may suggest. We shall be taking up the dynamics of the system later, but here it can be said that the hostility so prominent between political movements arises largely from the fact that in developing its characteristic feature (principle, precision and so on) each of them represses that displayed by the movement preceding it in the series, and both repression and resistance to it are resented.

As a useful spin-off from the concept of ethos comes a set of jargon-free names for the major ideologies ‘themselves,’ distinct from the political movements through which they find expression. When we denote each of them by its ethos the series runs: Expediency, Principle, Precision, Reform, Revolution, Repudiation (with one more to be brought forward later) and I shall refer to them from now on by these terms. The names are not intended, of course, to provide complete definitions of the ideologies but rather to serve the purpose names usually serve, acting so as to speak as handles by which they may conveniently be picked up when required. [4] It is becoming clear that we have hold of something more substantial than the set of relatively superficial beliefs, ideas and values usually taken to constitute an ideology. Rather than affecting politics, ideology provides its substance and subject-matter. Rather than the major ideologies being adopted in order to further the pursuit of interests, the interests are determined by the ideologies. Even evidence and reasoning depend upon ideology, rather than the reverse, for the ideology of each movement leads it to reject some facts and arguments and methods of thinking while accepting others. The anarchist journals Freedom and Black Flag seldom report much of the same news as the Times, and when different groups do accept the same fact they commonly give it contrasting values. To socialists the introduction of subsidies for families with young children was a step towards equality; to the SPGB it appeared as a refinement of exploitation, making it possible to reduce the wages of workers without children. What liberals believe to be clear thinking appears to conservatism as arid intellectualism and communism claims to possess a distinctive method of thinking, known as dialectical or historical materialism, which overcomes the limitations of formal logic. Even when we recognise that ideology provides the substance of politics this still does not go far enough; political parties and movements are best understood by taking them to be ideological entities, in the sense that a rock is a physical entity and an animal a biological one.

We opened our enquiry with the observation that the main British political movements fall into two groups, conservatism and liberalism together on the one hand (to these we later added the non-politicals) and socialism, communism and anarchism on the other; going on to consider the movements as forming a series we rather lost sight of this. Some features of social behaviour are best understood in terms of the broader classification and it also has its uses in exposition, for the verbal complications which a rise when handling six terms often obscure the point at issue. It is sometimes better to rough out an answer to a problem using the two main categories, going on to the finer divisions afterwards.

During the approach to the British General Election of 1987 Norman Tebbit described his Labour Party opponents as ‘firmly united in fraternal hatred of each other’s guts,’ and the remark brings out a significant difference between the two principal political classes. Only the non-politicals are without political divisions, the conservatives having their ‘wets’ and liberalism having split once under Mr. Gladstone, again in the early 1920s between Lloyd George and Asquith, and again in the 1980s between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. But although these qualifications have to be made, the predominant tendency in each of these movements is towards fusion, conservatism functioning for the most part as a united movement and liberalism coming more or less together again after each split. In the other ideological class the contrary tendency predominates. Socialism from its beginnings has been less a united movement than a number of sects declaring the need of working together but meeting with limited success in their attempts to do so. Bolshevism originated in a split within the Russian Social Democratic Party and itself split soon after the Russian Revolution into Stalinists and Trotskyists, the two going on to spend much of their energy fighting each other and further schisms developing. Anarchism consists of individual people and small groups so independent of each other that the very existence of an anarchist movement sometimes gets called in question.

Divisiveness commonly appears to those affected as a matter for regret, but not always. Derrida, Hobsbawm and other revolutionaries have spoken against the dangers they see in unity and unanimity; they extol the value ‘not only of autonomy and local identity, but of every kind of disagreement.’ [5] In politics, as in physics and geology, the appearance of a split indicates a force at work, and Walsby hit off one of the principal differences between the two great ideological classes by entitling the first the eidostatic and the second the eidodynamic. This distinction runs through the major social activities and we shall be going on to trace it and some of its effects in fields outside party politics. In doing this we shall he following a pattern which appears repeatedly in the history of thought: a system of regularities first recognised in a limited connection turns out later to apply more widely. Geometry as it had been known for some two thousand years was shown by the non-Euclideans to be one part of a more extensive field; Copernicus, Newton and others showed the earth to be subject to the same laws of celestial mechanics as the (other) heavenly bodies, and a series of investigators culminating in Darwin extended the theory of evolution to include humanity. Each extension brought a massive increase in understanding.

Directing our enquiry first towards politics, as the area in which the influence of ideology was originally perceived, we have found that perception to be the first glimpse of something deeper. Beneath the shifting confusions of the party struggle lies a system of ideologies, each of them responsible for distinctive tendencies on the part of its adherents. This system is not visible as it were to the naked eye, its presence is a conclusion drawn from study of observed behaviour; as we take it into account so the broader trends informing daily politics become more readily comprehensible. A comparison may be drawn with the series of chemical elements; outside the laboratory few of these are encountered in their pure form and the whole series not at all, but relating chemical events and phenomena to the series makes it possible to solve problems otherwise intractable.

Communists and anarchists, whatever their class, income or status, tend to he enthused by the prospect of revolution while conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, are likely to be horrified and the non-politicals – workers and employers alike – indifferent or apprehensive. Political behaviour, in this instance as in others, cannot be adequately accounted for by reference to the material conditions of life of the people concerned. It would he absurd to dismiss these as irrelevant, but between the stimulation they provide and the political response elicited something intervenes, something powerful enough and sufficiently independent of social circumstance, to cause people living under similar conditions to respond in contrasting ways, and our investigation indicates that something to be the influence of ideology. It remains, of course, to account for ideology but we have more ground to cover before we can tackle that.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis