George Walford: Introduction to Beyond Politics

Books on ideology usually invite the reader to join the author in looking down, comfortably, on the antics of those suffering from the infection. Our approach will have to be more modest, for we shall find good reason to believe that ideology affects all of us and all our thinking, playing a part not only in failure, conflict and frustration but also in success, co-operation and progress.

This will come as less of a novelty today than it would have done even ten years ago, for ideology has begun to gain acceptance. But it has not yet become fully respectable and the study of it is seldom recognised as a distinct discipline. No university maintains a chair in ideology and the Subject Catalogue of the London Library lists nothing under this heading, referring the reader to philosophy, political science and social science. There is no agreed theory to account for the presence of ideology or to predict what effects it is likely to produce in future.

It was at the end of the 18th Century that the term ‘ideology’ first appeared, and in the mid-19th that it came to be used in something approaching the modern sense, but it was not then that ideology began. Its effects can be traced, as we shall see, in the earliest human communities. Ideology has been present since thinking started, and the question whether it arises as cause or consequence of conditions of life is one we shall have to consider.

Zvi Lamm has divided the history of the study of ideology into three sections. The first of these began with the introduction of the term (in the French form) in 1796, and continued through Destutt de Tracy’s Elemens d’ldeologie of 1801-15 and the writing by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels Of The German Ideology in 1845-6 to its publication in 1922, when the second, the classical, period began. In this the prominent landmarks are Lukacs’ History and Consciousness, 1923, and Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, 1932. Lamm’s third period began when the subject started to engage more academic attention in the early 1960s and is still continuing. [1]

Of the theories claiming to amount for ideology the only one to have made much public impact is that of Marx and Engels, presenting it as an influence imposing false consciousness upon the workers, dissuading them from revolution. The supporters of existing society were later to turn the concept against their critics, but not until the mid-twentieth century did a work appear showing that ideology affects all purposeful behaviour. This insight was achieved by Harold Walsby. He started work in 1937 or 1938 – such undertakings rarely have beginnings which can be accurately dated – but spoke at first of psycho-politics, adopting the term ideology only in the mid-1940s and publishing his one book The Domain of Ideologies, in 1947. Since that date the word has come into general use, and the growth of interest in the subject which began in the early 1960s made it necessary for me to introduce, in 1976, the term systematic ideology to distinguish Walsby’s theory from the rapidly growing number of others in the field.

The concept of ideology has served mainly as a political weapon, which is like using a computer as a club. Walsby’s theory offers a more fruitful use, and one that extends far beyond the political arena, but he did come to it by the political route. As a young man in the 1930s he was attracted by the view that the answer to the difficulties being encountered by advanced industrial society lay in establishing common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, but he soon came to realise that the facts of social and political life did not agree with socialist theory and were not coming to do so. The socialists (and the communists too), believing themselves to represent the interests of the great majority against a dominant and exploitative minority, expected to receive overwhelming support. This had not been forthcoming, and the evidence did not show it to be any more likely than when the socialist movement had begun, over a century earlier. The great majority persisted in preferring their familiar way of life to the novelties offered them.

The reformers and revolutionaries, or at least the more thoughtful ones, were of course aware of this discrepancy between their theory and the social realities. They ascribed it to the influence of the capitalists and argued that this was diminishing. They believed that as the contradictions of class society developed, and the people gained experience of its oppression, exploitation, warfare, misery and insecurity, they would realise where their true interests lay and come to support socialism or communism (or, at a minimum withdraw their support from capitalism, enabling these movements to operate). But Robert Owen, for whose work the word ‘socialism’ was invented, had issued The New View of Society in 1813. The Communist Manifesto had appeared in 1848 and the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Decades had gone by, generations had lived and died, the centuries had begun to pass, and the new society had yet to appear. The bright hopes raised by the Russian Revolution had been trampled into bloody dust. In the absence of any predicted date for the socialists’ victory it was still possible that their expectations might be realised, but it was becoming increasingly unlikely. Most of those who had been expected to provide the strength of the reformist and revolutionary movements persisted in supporting capitalism and the prospect of a collectivist economy attracted only a minority. Events of 1989 and early 1990, in the USSR, Eastern Europe and the People’s Republic of China, have demonstrated that this is still so today.

Walsby rejected attempts to explain away the discrepancy between social reality and socialist expectations. He accepted the awkward fact, that people generally did not behave as these movements expected, and set out to examine the possibility that socialism might be not the expression in politics of the interests of the great majority but something else; the outcome of his work was the theory now known as systematic ideology. This explains how it comes about that there is no country in which the general body of the people subscribes to socialism or communism or anarchism. It also accounts for something less often recognised as needing explanation: the fact that in every advanced country each of these does enjoy a certain amount of support. Systematic ideology goes far to account for the presence of other political movements, their relative sizes and the degree of success or failure they encounter, but political activity is only a part of the behaviour it helps us to understand. It brings within one coherent system of thought, to name only three items, the facts that Democritus assumed his atoms to be indivisible, that the USSR and the People’s Republic of China have moved towards official acceptance of competition and private ownership, and that policemen were invented before psychoanalysts.

Beliefs about the broader issues of politics, such as the desirability or otherwise of strong leadership, powerful armaments and a competitive economy, tend to come in sets, each of them with a group of people attached to it. These sets have come to be termed ideologies, and any general theory of ideology has to provide an explanation for them, for their presence and for their features. How does it come about that radically different ideologies appear within the one society? Are they restricted to political affairs or do they exercise a wider influence? Shall we have to reckon with them in future? We shall start our enquiry where the influence of ideology is generally recognised, in politics. In this area of activity, perhaps more than elsewhere, declared beliefs and intentions are sometimes difficult to reconcile with observed behaviour; this arises largely from interaction between different ideologies and we shall come to it later; at first I shall be speaking of each political ideology, and the effects it tends to produce, without taking into account its interaction with the others. After showing that there are grounds for carrying our thinking about ideology beyond the Marxist conception I shall sketch in the approaches adopted by the familiar political parties, drawing attention to features often regarded as secondary or even trivial and to their ideological implications. Then we turn to the influence of ideology in fields other than politics and in the history of society at large, finally investigating its origins and development. To begin with I shall speak indiscriminately of people having or holding ideas or beliefs, later examining these concepts more closely.

Discrepancies will sometimes appear between what I am saying and the results of direct observation, agreement being found only after analysis, but this is common in any serious study of an extensive field; many a hydrogen balloon has soared without disproving the law of gravitation. In the welter of daily politics one effect of ideology often interacts with another to produce confusing appearances, and the foreground is commonly taken up by events of the moment which divert attention from features more significant but less dramatic; Ben Hecht has remarked that trying to find out what is going on in the world by reading the newspaper is like trying to tell the time by looking at the seconds-hand. The influence of ideology appears most clearly in the long run and the broad outline, but we cannot rest there. In the long run we shall all be dead, and the broad outline has little to do with the price of whisky; if our work is to be of more than academic interest we shall also have to struggle with the difficulties of relating our results to life as we live it. We shall not be undertaking original research in the sense of discovering facts never known before, but rather bringing forward the significance of relationships, usually ignored or dismissed as unimportant, between events and phenomena familiar to every thinking person.

Walsby’s work is unique among theories of ideology in that it accounts for theories of ideology, itself among them. In Lamm’s words:

its solution to the problem of the point of view from which one discusses an ideology is embodied within the theory itself, and does not require support from another historiographic theory, as is the case with Marx, or a sociological one, as with Mannheim. [2]

That solution will appear as we go on.

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