George Walford: Discussion with a Marxist

These comments by David Murray appeared in the issue of Ethical Record for April 1987 and are reprinted here by permission of the writer. The piece by Colin Mills to which David Murray refers was reprinted in IC29. The reply to Murray by Walford appeared in ER for May 1987. Our thanks to the Editor of ER for permission to reprint. – GW

Colin Mills’ exposition and semi-criticism of Walford’s An Outline Sketch of Systematic Ideology repeats Walford’s own mistakes. The word “ideology” is used initially as if we all know what it means, as if it is just a term of everyday discourse which can be used casually prior to a definition. When the definition is offered we are told that ideology is “the complete set of cognitive assumptions and effective identifications which manifest themselves in, or underlie… the behaviour of an individual human being.” This is a restatement, or perhaps a clarification, of the commonsense use of “ideology” to mean any system of ideas or beliefs. Walford also uses the term to mean the activity of studying belief systems and the theorisation of belief systems thus produced, he compares this use with the use of the term “psychology.”

Now there is in fact another quite different sense of “ideology”; but if Walford or anyone else chooses to use a word in a particular way then there’s not a lot at stake.

But Walford and Mills are actually doing more than that. Walford assimilates his use of the term to this quite different sense: “Before [Walsby’s book, The Domain of Ideologies] the two main landmarks in the field were The German Ideology by Marx and Engels… and Ideology and Utopia by Karl Mannheim” (An Outline… page 4). The point of this claim is to obliterate the distinction which Marx and Engels were drawing between beliefs which function as weapons of oppression and those which do not. Walford assumes that the use of the same word indicates the use of the same concept, that because the word “ideology” occurs in the titles of two books then the books are engaged in the same enterprise. Naturally then, books which do not have this word in their titles are not about ideology. Hence, he ignores works which are in fact accounts of ideology in Marx’s sense. He ignores the work which is Marx’s main analysis of an ideology – Capital, in favour of the earlier polemical, self-clarificatory The German Ideology. He has nothing to say about such major works as Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution or Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness.

The silence on Lukacs’ book is especially important because Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia is a bourgois appropriation of it, much as the sociology of Max Weber is a bourgeois version of Marx’s critique of political economy. The sense in which Walford and Mills use “ideology” is a return to its original sense by the “ideologues” of the French Enlightenment to mean ideas in general. It is actually an ideological strategy (in Marx’s sense) to use “ideology” in this general sense.

The sense which it has in Marx is critical, it is used of analyses which show that particular systems of ideas mask or legitimate social relations which are exploitative. In this critical sense an ideology is always that of an oppressor class. The conceptual strategies operative in ideology are to present relations of exploitation as apparently relations of parity and equality, to present class interests as the general interest and to render historically local social formations as necessary conditions of human existence.

As examples of this, here are some ready-to-hand samples of ideological discourse:

(1) Walford in his Outline… page 29, writes that: “If the people are to do more than barely survive then many other material commodities must also be provided and all of them require, for their production, eidostatic behaviour” (i.e. action which assumes “that it is the static and not the dynamic principle which predominates” ibid page 14). This claim assimilates all goods produced and all forms of production into the historically limited category of the production of commodities. But commodities are not just any goods, they are goods produced for the purpose of being exchanged. Exchange is not the only way in which distribution of goods has been or need be organised. The effect of Walford’s inflation of the category of commodities is to present capitalist social relations as common to all forms of society.

(2) Walford again (Ethical Record, March 1987, page 9) against Steve Coleman: “… there is no direct, experimental or empirical evidence that it [socialism] would be better than what we have or, in – fact, that it would work at all,” so because something does not now exist then we can have no reason to think that it could exist. This is to deny the generation of novelty in history, it is to present the present as the eternally necessary form of life. Another “landmark” which Walford ignores, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is directed against just this form of ideology (see especially chapter 7 “The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One-Dimensional Philosophy”).

[Here two paragraphs on other subjects have been omitted. Ed. IC]

(4) The editor of the Ethical Record (in the March issue) gives us a cascade of “world problems”: “natural disasters… endangered species, trade barriers, restrictive practices… poverty… social fragmentation, family breakdown, discrimination… ” As if all these were of the same status and were all alike problems for… well, for who? Only for an illusory general human subject, classless, genderless, groupless, in fact the same abstract and general individual which figures in the bourgeois ideology of liberalism and empiricism. These “problems” are not all of the same status and in the real world they are not all problems either for every person or for “humanity in general.”

Restrictive practices are indeed a problem for the employer seeking to increase profits but not for the workers who use them to defend wages. Family breakdown is a problem for the Christian moralists; for many people the problem is rather how to break out of oppressive institutionalised personal relationships. The category “world problem” throws together into one conceptual box issues which are of radically different kinds. In thus promoting confusion it is operating ideologically in the critical scientific sense of that word, which must be distinguished from the debased, bourgeois, commonsensical usage as seen in Walford and Mills.

Marxists feel obliged to write aggressively; let us look past David Murray’s fireworks to the substance of his critique. This deserves serious attention.

Colin Mills was also criticised; he is well able to speak for himself. I am accused of holding ideas about ideology which differ from those of Marx; the charge is fully justified and there is good reason for the difference. Marx’s theories led him and his followers to expectations that have not been realised; over a century has gone by since the first volume of Capital appeared, and the changes anticipated have not taken place. Russia, China, Cuba, one after another the revolutions led by groups flying the Marxist banner raise bright hopes only to tread them down into bloody dust.

Marx set no dates on his expectations so it is still possible that he may be justified by the event, but as the years and the decades go by, and the centuries begin to pass, it grows more and more unlikely. The conclusion that Marxist theory suffers from crippling limitations becomes increasingly hard to resist, and systematic ideology indicates that one major blind-spot is the failure to recognise the universality and relative autonomy of ideology, the attempt to present the communist movement as non-ideological and ideology as nothing more than a weapon in a struggle between classes.

It is often convenient, and usually harmless, to speak as if ideology were something “out there,” but it is not in fact observable, it does not provide, as a brick may be said to do, a range of sense-impressions against which proposed definitions may be tested. Ideology has been invented rather than discovered, it is an explanatory device (the concept of class is another) adopted in order to render some crucial observations comprehensible, and the better conception of it is that which provides the more extensive and better-integrated explanation in practice. The inadequacy of the Marxist conception has been demonstrated by the historical activity of society, and David Murray’s critique, like all other Marxist writings, has to be read with this in mind.

He tells us that “in [Marx’s] critical sense an ideology is always that of an oppressor class.” This may have been the sense in which Marx intended to use the term, but his own respect for evidence interfered. The Communist Manifesto recognised that the bourgeoisie do not behave as a unit in ideological matters; some of them, Marx said, had joined the communists.

Turning from the bourgeoisie to what Marxism calls the proletariat, we find this class also divided, the majority actively or passively supporting capitalism and a minority opposing it. The “bourgeois” ideology is not that of a class but of part of one class and part of another.

Supporters and opponents of capitalism are not distinguished by relation to the means of production. In that respect these two groups are substantially alike, each of them comprising a proletarian majority and a bourgeois minority. They are defined by their respective sets of ideas, beliefs, values, assumptions.

I call each of these sets an ideology; Murray tells us support for capitalism is ideological while opposition to it is not. He tries to use “ideology” as a weapon. This potentially invaluable concept, offering a way past the frustrations in which Marxism lands its followers, he reduces to a prop for the banal claim that he is right and his opponents wrong. One result is that exploitation suffers little restraint from anything he and his Marxist colleagues can do about it.

The major ideologies are not well understood as side-effects of class interests or weapons used by classes. Rather do class distinctions become comprehensible when they are seen as a consequence of ideology, classes persisting because the general body of the people are ideologically inclined towards active or passive support of hierarchy. Marxists themselves implicitly admit this when they set out to change ideologies, by means of education, propaganda and the raising of political consciousness, as a contribution towards altering the class structure.

Marx and Engels were the first to formulate the conception of ideology, in the modern sense, as a major factor in social affairs, but they did not grasp the full significance of their own perception. Like other thinkers they were influenced by the conditions of their place and time; when Marx’s theories were being developed, what he called the proletariat had hardly had time or facilities to display its ideological dividedness; he did not go hard against the evidence then available in expecting each class as a whole to develop an ideology fundamentally governed by its relationship to the means of production. But it has not happened, and to persist in expecting it now, after more than a century of solid evidence to the contrary, is just the, sort of mechanistic thinking that Marx spent much of his life combating.

Murray takes up two statements of mine and his comments need answering. I said commodities are necessary for survival, and he protests that the statement is not valid for the whole range of social conditions past, future and possible. Of course it isn’t; it was never meant to be. This becomes clear when the sentence extracted from my pamphlet is replaced in its context. The next sentence reads: “We can conceive of a society in which these activities would not be necessary, but as a practical matter, if we are concerned with the well being of our children and our grandchildren… ” My statement refers to a particular set of historical conditions; Murray is right to speak of assimilation and inflation but they are his, not mine.

I pointed out that there is no direct, experimental or empirical evidence that the “socialism” of the (A)SPGB would be better than what we have or, indeed, that it would work at all. He says this denies the generation of novelty. Nothing of the sort; it recognises the possibility of “socialism” coming into being. (I emphasise possibility; the probability of this happening is a different matter). Other groups, such as Labour Party socialists, communists, Trotskyists and some anarchists, use the word “socialism” to mean something which has proven its value, but Murray does not say in which sense he takes the term. His article suggests to me that he stands with those who give it the positive, constructive meaning, and if so then the differences between us are not as sharp as the sparks struck out in controversy may suggest.

Murray describes Capital as “Marx’s main account of an ideology,” but Marx himself saw it differently, giving it the descriptive sub-title “A Critique of Political Economy”. Here I am on Murray’s side, for Capital is in fact about ideology in an even deeper sense than he recognises. It is not only a critical exposition of some operations of one ideology but also an unintended revelation of the workings of another, the one expressed in Marxism. As for Lukacs, Luxemburg and the rest, if Murray wants to bring them or anybody else into the argument it is for him to demonstrate their relevance. To list names, claim that some support a contention and hurl “bourgeois!” at others, is to indulge in a parade of empty academicism.

Murray complains that I give no initial definition of “ideology” (and goes on to quote the definition I do give). He himself gives no definition at all, initial, intermediate or final, of “bourgeois,” but he uses it as a term of condemnation; by applying it to Weber and Mannheim he has, he thinks, disposed of their work. Friedrich Engels, collaborator of Karl Marx, was a wealthy Manchester manufacturer, a bourgeois of the bourgeoisie, and if we are to follow the common practice of regarding anybody with a university education as bourgeois then Marx himself comes under the ban. In using “bourgeois” as a term of condemnation Murray binds himself to repudiating his founder’s chosen lieutenant and perhaps that founder himself. The hole he has dug himself into there I leave him to get out of.

Let me end with an attempt to bring David Murray down from his intellectualising about struggles between the abstractions known as classes, down to within stretching distance of the way some real people live in a real society, in a real set of historical conditions. He says:

Restrictive practices are indeed a problem for the employer seeking to increase profits but not for the workers who use them to defend wages.

Taking strikes as a concrete instance of “restrictive practices,” I have to tell him these can be a problem for workers as well as employers. The Guardian of 18 April 1987 reports:

Hundreds of hungry people yesterday besieged emergency centres in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow’s sprawling Easterhouse scheme for food and money after being left short by the civil servants’ strike.

Every ideology imposes limitations on its adherents and, as that example shows, David Murray’s is blinding him to things that matter. When he recognises this he will be on the way towards overcoming the contradictions of Marxism.

from Ideological Commentary 30, November 1987.