Bulletin of Anarchist Research: The Lower Criticism

This review of Beyond Politics appeared in The Bulletin of Anarchist Research No. 25, Autumn 1991; the journal then expired. A successor is in prospect, but not before early 1993. – GW

Anarchists’ social classifications are famously vague. Undefined groups, such as ‘the ruling class’ or ‘the bosses’ are pitted against ‘the oppressed’ without the merest hint of the complex, ambiguous nature of modern power relations. Of course, the aesthetic allure of the notion of a simple, monolithic ‘struggle’ between good and evil is hard to resist. But it doesn’t make for convincing theory or practice when confronted with the plurality of contemporary political identities and movements. Into this breech steps George Walford, Man of ideas. Prodigy of that most orally exultant of left-wing think tanks, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Walford’s book is all about classifying things. Unfortunately it’s also an object lesson in how not to approach the problem of social categorization. The Walford approach has three stages:

1. Treat political ideas as philosophically discrete, objective, ‘things’ that can be neatly arranged in a series. Put ‘non-politics’ (the politics of ‘expediency’) at one end, anarchism (the politics of ‘repudiation’) at the other and dot a few others, conservatism, liberalism and so on, in between.

2. Claim that ‘rather than the major ideologies being adopted in order to further the pursuit of interest, the interest are determined by the ideologies’ (pages 44-45).

3. Make bizarre influences that your categorization reflects the laws of natural science. There is a ‘system,’ Walford mystically informs us, that ‘exhibits regular quantitative relationships’ between ‘the various levels.’ (p. 130) By this he means that ‘there are fewer atoms than fundamental particles… fewer cells than molecules… fewer human beings than multi-cellular creatures, fewer ideological groups than human beings, fewer societies than ideological groups.’ Ah, the beauty of revelation.

Walford isn’t just ‘beyond politics,’ he’s in full scale intellectual orbit. None of the three assumptions he bases his approach on are remotely plausible. The meaning of political ideas is historically, socially and geographically specific and contested. You can’t abstract a handful of vague political categories, rank them like so many entries in the Eurovision song contest, and claim it’s ‘science.’ Similarly, the notion that ideas create interests and not the other way round magisterially bypasses several centuries of dialectical thought.

Other more immediate objectionable indications of Walford’s none-to-firm grip on the Twentieth Century are his stubborn use of the male pronoun as generic and, even more extraordinary, frequent references to the Western world as ‘the civilized world.’ (p. 137). Beyond politics Walford may be but, on the evidence of this tome, he certainly isn’t beyond racism and sexism.

by George Walford
The news that BAR would be publishing a review of my book Beyond Politics brought pleasure but also apprehension. The Anarchist Research Group originated at a university, it holds meetings attended largely by academics, and its title proclaims a commitment to serious investigation: the Group with its journal represents the high scholarship of at least the British part of the anarchist movement. What would their reviewer think of my effort? That question has now been answered, and a new one arises: What should we think of this review? From writers in the Bulletin we expect literacy, knowledge of their subject, clear thinking and a responsible approach. Do these qualities appear in the review of Beyond Politics in BAR 25?

First, literacy: the reviewer can’t tell his inference from his implication. He confuses ‘ambivalent’ with ‘ambiguous’ and says ‘stubbornly’ when he means ‘persistently.’ His great contribution to the sum of human knowledge is the idea of a monolithic struggle; an intriguing conception and doubtless highly dialectical, but difficult to put into practice.

Second, knowledge of the subject: Hard to judge, since the relevant passages do little more than regurgitate detached scraps of the book’s arguments distorted by the addition of loaded terms – ‘neatly,’ ‘dot a few others,’ ‘mystically,’ ‘revelation.’ But catastrophic ignorance of advanced politics comes to light when he calls me a prodigy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The idea that these comrades hold interest to be determined by ideologies, rather than vice versa, may well shake them more than I have managed to do in many years of exposing their fallacies.

Third, clarity of thought. For the reviewer the statement that X is rather A than B means simply that A and not B; the difference between determination and creation also escapes him. He quotes the book: ‘rather than the major ideologies being adopted in order to further the pursuit of interests, the interests are determined by the ideologies.’ As an equivalent for this he later offers: “ideas create interests and not the other way round.”

Fourth, responsibility: The review charges me with treating political ideas as objective ‘things’: I reply with a passage from the book:

‘Government,’ ‘profit,’ ‘conservatism,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘anarchy’ (and many other political terms) also carry different meanings according to the movement using them. For anarchists government is the source of oppression, and communists see it as the executive committee of the ruling class, while for conservatives it represents the nation as a whole. Profit appears to conservatives and liberals as the reward due to those who run successful businesses, thereby providing jobs for the workers; reformers and revolutionaries see it as coming from exploitation. Conservatives see their movement as representing all that is truly British, while to their opponents it consists of a deluded mass supporting the interests of the wealthy few. Many anarchists envisage their favoured society as more orderly than any yet known, while to most non-anarchists the name of this movement suggests chaos. Using the same words for different concepts, the movements also use different words for the same thing. From 1917 up to about 1990 the system operating in the USSR was socialism to communists, rabid Bolshevism to conservatives and state capitalism, oppressive and exploitative, to anarchists. (pp 9-10)

A serious reviewer who read that, and then said the writer of it failed to realise that the meaning of political ideas is contested, would stand self-convicted of venomous mendacity, but the efforts of the BAR reviewer do not carry enough weight to justify such terms. We can more plausibly, as well as more charitably, assume that he has not understood what he reads.

He says the book makes ‘inferences’ (he means implications) that its categorization reflects the laws of natural science; further on comes the suggestion that it claims to be presenting science. These charges float unsupported, and are in fact false; the book nowhere makes or implies any claim to share in the prestige enjoyed by science. (A prestige now shrinking with the repeated demonstration that science can cause harm as well as good).

Charges of ‘stubborn’ (he means persistent) use of the male pronoun as generic and of “frequent references to the western world as ‘the civilized world'” again receive no support and are also in fact false. They are so sweeping that in order to disprove them I would have to call the whole book in evidence, but the reader can judge their value, and the level of responsibility on which the reviewer operates, from the fact that ‘the civilized world’ does not appear, as he says it does, on page 137. No other reviewer (and no reader either) has claimed to discover racism or sexism in this book; one is reminded of the people who find obscenity where nobody else can see it.

The review certainly displays remarkable powers of invention; quite enough for a writer of fiction. A reviewer needs other qualities: competence in the use of language, knowledge of the subject, clear thinking and a sense of responsibility. These do not appear in BAR‘s review of Beyond Politics.

George Walford’s quote from page 9-10 appears to be from the Advanced Reading Copy of Beyond Politics, as it differs from the quote found in the First Edition (and all subsequent editions) of Beyond Politics. – Trevor Blake

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.