George Walford: From Politics to Ideology

This article follows on from the one entitled THE POLITICAL SERIES in IC34. The six groups spoken of are the main-sequence political movements, those known in Britain as conservatism, liberalism, socialism and communism, with the non-political people preceding conservatism and anarchism (including the (A-)SPGB) following communism. – GW

We now have before us six groups which appear, under various names and with adaptations to suit local conditions, over the whole of the advanced world. The members of each of them differ from each other in race, personality, nationality, age, sex, diet, geographical location, heredity, physical constitution, accustomed climate, toughness or tenderness of mind, language, education, income, status, upbringing, toilet training, relation to the means of production and particular ideas about political matters. The one thing all the members of each group have in common, constituting them a group and distinguishing that group from the others, is attachment to a certain set of general ideas, and when such a group, or part of one, acts as a party or a movement these ideas decide the overall direction of its efforts. They govern the main course of political life, and if we are to understand our own society we need to know more about them.

They tend strongly to occur in definite sets, so that when a political movement turns up holding one of them, whatever the circumstances, the period or the place, its other principal beliefs can be predicted with a useful degree of reliability. A movement that favours operation of the economic system by a number of units, each of them pursuing its own interests, will tend to support restrictions on freedom of speech and publication, and to claim to have its actions judged by their practical success rather than their conformity with any theory. This explains why argument and evidence have so little effect upon political convictions Each major belief being bound into a set, to attempt to dislodge it is like trying to pick up what seems to be a loose stone but is in fact the tip of a buried rock.

The influence exercised by the linkage of ideas into sets usually remains unrecognised. If a movement places high value on, for example, theory, freedom of speech and social ownership of industry, its members will believe themselves to be favouring each of these because it is in some way better than its contrary, rather than because it is bound to the others.

Beneath the changing responses to daily problems lie enduring sets of long-term beliefs, each of the main-sequence movements holding firmly to its own. The persistence of these sets, and the determination with which they are held suggests that something other than purely rational thinking may be at work, and this finds confirmation in a feature which has received less attention than it deserves. Over the whole political range, any effort to achieve full comprehension of the beliefs making up a position tends to come after it has been adopted, communism being studied mostly by committed communists, conservatism by committed conservatives, and so on. Commitment comes before the accumulation of reason and evidence to justify it, conviction precedes comprehension.

Each movement declares realisation in practice of its own beliefs to be the most worthwhile political activity, but none of them possess direct evidence to support the assertion. This shows up most dearly at the anarchist end of the range, where the purists of the SPGB make a point of asserting that the society they seek to establish does not exist and never has existed. It follows that their confidence in its virtues cannot be supported by direct evidence, for we know nothing of the never was. This does not trouble them. They require only that a majority should understand and accept what they say; given that, they would abolish present society, with its demonstrated ability to maintain the current world population, and replace it with their favoured system. They insist that for the change to be successful it must be complete, world-wide and effected without any transition period. The conception allows no preliminary testing, no experiments, no pilot projects. Burning the bridges behind them, they would make the lives of five thousand million people dependent on a system without any direct evidence to show it workable. They claim to be scientific in their approach, but science advances tentatively, testing the ground at every step, sometimes finding itself on the edge of a precipice of error and retreating, the SPGB would advance to total reliance upon an untested social system in one megadeath-defying leap. The depth of their conviction is unquestionable, but it does not rest upon the results of investigation and experiment. They do not hold the beliefs they do because of any evidence showing their version of anarchism to be better than capitalism; rather do they maintain it to be better because of the beliefs they hold.

Communism, socialism and non-purist anarchism do not take this black-or-white approach, envisaging instead a period of transition between the old society and the new, a time of experimental advances, adjustments and, should they prove necessary, retreats. Pursuit of an object whose value has not been demonstrated in practice plays a smaller part in the activity of these movements, but it still appears, for each step forward goes beyond what has been previously experienced, evidence of its viability coming (if at all) only after it has been taken. The same holds good even for conservatism and liberalism, for each of these also works towards an end which remains, in some respects at least, unknown until it has been attained. No party has experienced exactly the condition it seeks to establish and consequently no party can provide empirical evidence that its proposals, put into practice, will not create difficulties worse than the ones they are intended to resolve. Experience shows that new solutions commonly do create new difficulties; the dangers we face from nuclear armaments, increase of population and damage to the environment arise from solutions to problems in particle physics, in public health and in technology. In spite of this each movement presses forward to realise its beliefs in social practice. When we seek the reasons why political movements, parties and organisations behave as they do we find ourselves face-to-face with the sets of ideas that have become known as ideologies.

In our dealings with the physical world we tend to be more aware of wind than of air, more impressed by hills and valleys than by the presence of a continuous solid surface, and something similar happens in politics. Movement and particularity attract attention while stable continuities sink into the unnoticed background. Specific policies and concrete proposals tend to be valued above the general ideas, inclinations and tendencies that constitute the deeper levels of ideology. Yet general ideas and inclinations 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. Full understanding of ideology and its effects requires study of all its features; I am concentrating upon the deeper and more enduring partly because circumstance has less effect upon them so their inner connections show up more clearly, and partly because they tend to be undervalued.

The ideas and beliefs immediately in question are those highly general ones which go to constitute the major ideologies and these operate, very largely, below the level of awareness; many of the people to whom I have been ascribing 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, not generalities. But the particulars unavoidably imply the general, and only when the influence of the general is taken into account does consistency become comprehensible. When we observe socialists consistently (though not invariably) advocating the nationalisation of major industries while conservatives consistently (though not invariably) oppose it, we are entitled, indeed almost bound, to infer that these groups are influenced, the one by a high valuation of economic collectivism, the other by a high valuation of economic individualism.

Such generalities influence political behaviour, they even determine its main course, and they do so although those affected may never have formulated them and may even be unaware of their presence. This shows the terms I have been using for them, “ideas,” and “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 generalisations making up the different major ideologies tend to be accepted in this way. They seldom enter conscious reasoning but form a taken-for-granted background which produces its effects unperceived by the agents. Non-political people, conservatives and liberals assume themselves to be living in a society which is or ought to be stable, while socialists, communists and anarchists assume that it is or ought to be radically changing, and these differing assumptions produce different responses to the same stimuli, communists and anarchists being enthused by the prospect of revolution while the non-politicals may be indifferent or apprehensive and conservatives and liberals horrified. For these responses to occur it is not necessary for either group to be aware of its general assumptions concerning the nature of society, their conscious thinking, conducted as it commonly is in terms of the situation immediately confronting them, leads them in this direction without the influence upon it of their more general assumptions becoming apparent.

I began with politics as the field in which the influence of ideology has been most dearly recognised, but it is not only here that the set of general assumptions accepted, the major ideology held, determines the main course of action. Every time we act with purpose, in whatever field, this influence operates. Minor, transient ideologies set our minor, short- term objectives, but these imply the presence of broad, long-term ones. We eat and drink, take care crossing the road, avoid precipices and dangerous animals; in each particular situation our behaviour is immediately governed by particular assumptions, but it all falls under the general head of self-preservation and implies the general assumption that it is better to maintain our individual existences than not to do so. Sometimes this assumption changes, one of us coming to assume it better to put an end to life; then behaviour changes in one or more particular connections.

Since the the major ideologies produce effects in fields of social activity outside party politics, it will be convenient to have names for them which do not suggest that they have 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 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. [4]

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 considerable analysis to reveal them, and this has the effect that ethos rather than eidos supplies the popular stereotypes. The figure of the Bolshie agitator, for example, derives less from the arguments in favour of social ownership of the means of production than from the revolutionary quality inherent in communism. Every ethos is of course a complex syndrome, but it will be convenient to select for each of them an over-riding tendency by which to denote it; flesh will grow on these dry bones as the discussion continues.

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, acting expediently. They display the ethos of expedience.

Next comes conservatism, advocating strong leadership, law and order supported by powerful police forces, authoritarian religion (paternalistic or maternalistic) and firm distinction between upper and lower classes. Here we have the ethos of domination. (Since domination entails submission a more fully descriptive term would be domination-submission, but I shall use mainly the shorter form). The strength of the distinction between this and the previous ethos becomes dearer when we note that in conservatism those holding superior positions are expected not to use their status in whatever way may be expedient but to regulate their conduct in accordance with principles such as loyalty, honesty, duty, patriotism, fair play, consistency, responsibility and consideration for inferiors.

Conservatism wilt 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 defective in many details. It tends to cherish methods and institutions proven viable by experience even when their performance is admittedly inadequate, rather than risk endangering them in a chase after perfection. Liberalism displays greater rigour, seeking to specify principles exactly and put them fully into practice. The liberal emphasis being upon getting things exactly right (rather than right in principle) we identify this as the ethos of precision. 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 almost arithmetical accuracy appears, for example, in the maxim of the Utilitarians, recognised precursors of modern liberalism: “the greatest good of the greatest number.” Ruskin hit off the conservative view of the distinction between the ideologies of domination and of precision when he said “Honourable performance of duty is more truly just than rigid enforcement of right.” [1]

J. A. Hobson proposed 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.” [2] With its almost scientifically precise demarcation of function the concept could only have come from a liberal.

Unlike these three groups, 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; 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 anarchist movement has no political end other than elimination of restrictions upon political-intellectual freedom, and this negativity defines its ethos. An anarchist poster in my possession proclaims. “No war, No Ayatollah, No Shah, No President, No Nationalism, No Militarism, no Ideology, No Religion, No God, No State, No Leaders, No Followers. Destroy that which destroys you.” It offers no positive objective. 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.

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: expedience, domination, precision, reform, revolution, repudiation. The names are not intended, of course, to define 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. [3]

It is becoming clear that we have hold of something deeper and 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 subject-matter. Rather than the major ideologies being adopted in order to further the pursuit of interests, the interests express 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 as irrelevant or invalid while accepting others. The anarchist journals FREEDOM and BLACK FLAG seldom report much of the same news as the TIMES, the DAILY MIRROR makes a different selection again, 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 anarcho-socialists of the SPGB it appeared as a refinement of exploitation, making it possible to reduce the wages of workers without children. 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.

1. Ruskin quoted by J. Morris 1980, Farewell the Trumpets, Penguin, p. 379.

2. Quoted in Bentley 1987, The Climax of Liberal Politics, Arnold p.85. Edward 12.

3. An earlier series of names for these six ideologies ran: protostatic, epistatic, parastatic, protodynamic, epidynamic and paradynamic; for some purposes these possess advantages over the ones given above.

4. This use of “ethos” is meant to bring out, in a less “philosophical” way, the feature Walsby expressed by distinguishing between the “form” and the “content” of thinking.

See also: From Politics to Ideology, from Beyond Politics (1990)

from Ideological Commentary 39, May 1989.