George Walford: Ideology as Self-Determined

A paper delivered at the Second International Conference on Ideology, Bureaucracy and Human Survival, New York.

This paper draws attention to the theory formulated by Harold Walsby, an early student of ideology whose results have been almost completely overlooked. Walsby was working on ideology from 1937 until 1947, when he published a book entitled The Domain of Ideologies: a Study of the Origin, Structure and Development of Ideologies. At that date there was little interest in the subject and the book attracted no attention. Walsby was discouraged and turned to other interests. He died in 1975 and his ideological work remains almost unknown.

A superficial survey of ideological behaviour produces an impression of chaos, and this has led many students of this subject to regard ideology as a perversion of the intellect, something that ought to be eliminated. Walsby looked deeper. He saw that running through the conflict and disorder there are certain regularities, and that these indicate the presence of a small number of broad, general, enduring ideologies. Walsby himself did not distinguish these by any special term but they are now known as the major ideologies. According to Walsby they form a hierarchic system which has developed through time. This is why his theory is now called “systematic ideology” and this is the reason, also, for the title of this paper. Walsby’s theory goes against the common assumption that ideological behaviour can be adequately accounted for by reference to non-ideological factors, such as the class position, or the psychology, of the person or group in question; it suggests that the major ideologies have developed one out of another, each being the principal determinant of the succeeding one; together they form a largely self-determining system.

Walsby’s starting-point was a study of the principle British political movements, namely; conservatism, liberalism, labour-socialism, communism, anarchism. Each of these seeks to effect certain changes in society and each has its distinctive conception of the profundity of the changes required. Conservatism seeks to extend practices already well established, private enterprise for example. Liberalism would introduce novelties, such as proportional representation. Labour-socialism, unlike either of these, seeks change in the fundamental social structure; it has as its long-term object the gradual replacement of the present system by socialism. The communist movement would enforce a sudden change to communism, even at the cost of revolution. Anarchism would effect the most profound change of all, abolishing all society incorporating government and authority. In respect of the profundity of the changes they respectively seek these movements form a series. It runs: conservatism, liberalism, labour-socialism, communism, anarchism.

There is nothing very original in that; something like it is commonly accepted. Walsby’s distinctive perception was that if the movements be taken in this order then a number of other features also change consistently over the series. One of them is the extent to which each movement is bound by theory.

Conservatism is sceptical of theory and refuses to be bound by it, insisting on the priority of practice. One recent conservative writer, Sir Ian Gilmour, says: “So far as philosophy or doctrine is concerned the wise Conservative travels light… Conservative thinking is, or should be, grounded in practice.” Liberal thinking is also grounded in practice, but it is a practice informed by theory. It was a prominent liberal, J. M. Keynes, who wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money; general theory is not a concern of conservatism. In labour-socialism theory begins to dominate practice; the movement possess an extensive body of theoretical literature and members are encouraged to guide their actions by this. In communism the dominance of theory becomes overt. Lenin has declared: “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” and the favourite communist term of approval for a course of action is “correct” – that is, in accordance with theory. With anarchism the increasing power of theory over action reaches its peak; anarchist doctrine requires the abolition of government and authority and the movement concentrates on this, holding that all else will follow. Unable to achieve this change, demanded by its theory, it ends by producing no significant practical effect upon society. Conservatism, at one end of the series, is almost free of theory; anarchism, at the other end, is almost completely bound by it.

Other features which exhibit consistent change over the series are: the power ascribed to the supernatural; the valuation of freedom of action in political affairs, the valuation of regulation in economic affairs; the valuations places upon, respectively, one’s own social unit and the environment external to that unit.

Some of these features diminish along the range from conservative toward anarchism, others increase; this depends on their verbal formulation. The crucial point is that each of them changes in the same direction over the whole series, and this does not hold good if the movements be arranged in any other order. There is good reason for regarding this series as a significant one.

Although consistent the change is not smoothly progressive; there is a quantum jump from the form in which a belief is held by one movement to the form in which it is held by the next. The result is a series of discrete sets of beliefs; these are the political ideologies of the various movements. It is, Walsby holds, the fact that each movement is expressing one of these ideologies in relation to the particular issues of its place and time (and not, for example, the class position of its members, or their being of a certain psychological type) that determines the courses followed by the various movements. And it is the common identification of its members with one of these political ideologies that accounts for the distinctiveness, coherence and persistence exhibited by each movement.

There is one more influential group in British politics; it consists of those without enduring inclination toward any one political moment. Many of these people do not vote; others vote (as the figures for successive elections show) sometimes for one party, sometimes for another. They act according to the circumstances of the time, without regard for theoretical consistency. That is to say, their behaviour is even less governed by theory than is that of conservatism. Also, this group is less concerned to effect changes in society than is conservatism; its members tend to accept existing social arrangements and make the best they can of them. Similarly with the other features mentioned above. In short, the nonpolitical group forms another term in the series, a term proceeding conservatism. The series runs: nonpolitical, conservative, liberal, labour-socialist, communist, anarchist.

Beliefs about political affairs tend to appear not singly, and not in random assortments, but in determined sets; these sets are the political ideologies of the various movements, but to list the beliefs of a movement would not be to exhaust its ideological features. Each movement also exhibits a characteristic mental attitude, a predisposition toward certain types of behaviour. Walsby calls this the form of its thought, and the forms of thought characteristic of the political movements are not restricted to the political field. Conservative writers sometimes distinguish between conservatives with a small “c” and Conservatives with a capital “C” – they are saying, in Walsby’s terms, that there are people unconcerned with politics who exhibit the form of thought characteristic of the Conservative Party. In many social activities it is possible to display the mental stance and pattern of behaviour characteristic of, for example, conservatism or communism, without committing oneself to conservative or the communist political movement.

This Walsby took as supporting the hypothesis that there exist ideologies more broad, general and inclusive than the political ones, ideologies capable of expression, in both thought and action, in relation to society and the world in general. These are now known as the major ideologies. The various political movements formulate and express the major ideologies in relation to that particular field; other movements and groups formulate and express them in other fields, in science, philosophy, religion and education for example.

The short-term behaviour of the various political movements, particularly toward the non-political end of the series, is largely dictated by circumstances and consequently appears chaotic. In their more long-term behaviour the element of randomness diminishes and the element of system becomes stronger. In their longest-term behaviour, in the system of major ideologies with which they are enduringly identified, the element of systematic relationship is dominant. The major ideologies form not merely a series but a coherent logical system, each of them presupposing the previous one and implying the succeeding one.

Walsby derived his theory from study mainly of British conditions, but it applies to society generally; in other advanced countries the British political parties are not found but the political field is occupied by expressions and formulations of the same system of major ideologies as in Britain. In America for example there is no organisation corresponding to British labour-socialism, but there is an influential group in favour of socialised medicine and the extension of social welfare. In Soviet Russia there is no conservative party but there is a large group of Russians who support Russian institutions, Russian traditions, Russian leaders and Russian nationalism in the same anti-revolutionary way as the British Conservative Party supports those of Britain. As a friend of mine has phrased it: In Russia there are only communists, but there are nonpolitical communists, conservative communists, liberal communists, labour-socialist communists, communist communists and anarchists communists.

The development of the system of major ideologies can be traced in the history of society, at least in the negative sense that the more sophisticated ideologies are not found, as significant societal influences, in the earlier forms of society. Hunter-gatherer society for example, even though it is sometimes claimed as “primitive communism,” exhibits none of the concern with theory, none of the demand for profound social change, none of the atheism and none of the revolutionary fervour characteristic of the communist movement. Neither does it exhibit a conservative concern with institutions, a liberal concern with quantitative democracy, a labour-socialist concern with gradual reform or an anarchist concern with the abolition of government and authority. The behaviour of hunter-gatherer society, and the social behaviour of its members, implies identification exclusively with what I have termed the nonpolitical ideology, the one preceding conservatism in the series.

In relation to Walsby’s theory two principle phases can be distinguished in the development of society. In the first phase theory supports, and helps to develop, the extension of social power over the environment; this phase is cognate with the nonpolitical, conservative and liberal ideologies. In the second phase theory becomes critical of society; further extension of social power over the environment is resisted (as by the ecological and anti-nuclear power movements) and the social structure, not any lack over the environment, comes to be held responsible for human suffering. This phase is ideologically cognate with labour-socialism, communism and anarchism.

The emergence of this second phase has not entailed elimination of the mode of behaviour characteristic of the earlier one; the two now exist together, though not passively side by side. The activity characteristic of the second phase, criticism of society and the attempt to reform, revolutionise or destroy it, can only be carried on provided the activity characteristic of the first phase, namely the establishment and maintenance of society, continues to be performed. Failing that there is no society in existence to maintain the critics and enable them to criticise, reform, revolutionise and attempt to destroy it. Similar asymmetrical relations of dependence exist between the minor phases within each of these two principal ones but these are too complex for a short paper. The latest ideology to emerge as a significant social influence, the anarchist one, has not displaced the earlier ones or the modes of behaviour associated with them. It exists in addition to (though not passively beside) all the others which have successively developed through history.

From what has been said so far Walsby’s theory may sound interesting, it may even be thought to offer new tools for social analysis, but it does not seem to be of any great practical importance. There is, however, another aspect of it. Walsby posits a tendency for the relative magnitudes of the groups identified with the various major ideologies to be determined by the position of each ideology in the system. The more sophisticated a major ideology, the nearer it stands to what I have been calling the anarchist end of the series, the smaller tends to be the group identified with it. I suggest that if this hypothesis should be substantially confirmed then it will have to be accepted that Walsby’s theory is of considerable practical importance.

Walsby is cautious and reserved in his claim, and here I must be particularly careful not to misrepresent him. He does not claim that each political movement is smaller that the one before it in the series. He speaks only of a tendency and he claims only that this applies as between the groups identified with the different major ideologies.

Whatever may be the beginnings of ideology in any fundamental sense, its origins as a social influence are found in the relations between human beings and their environment. Every human being begins life under conditions which require behaviour in accordance with the nonpolitical ideology. If the infant is to survive it has to act without theory; it has to accept, and adapt itself to, the conditions it encounters; it has to accept subservience to powers which in relation to its own are supernatural; it has to act as if it valued its social unit above the environment external to that unit. The child’s social unit at first comprises only itself and the mother; any child preferring table-legs to the breast will not survive.

The need for behaviour in accordance with the nonpolitical ideology is deeply impressed upon every child during the first and most malleable years; the child comes to assume, to take upon itself, this ideology. Although the ideology of children it is not a childish ideology; every new adult carries it from the family circle into general society and many adhere to it throughout life. Adults holding this ideology ascribe overwhelming evidence to supernatural powers (such as luck, or the influence of race); they take no cognisance of social theorising, do not seek to alter the social conditions under which they live, and value their own social unit (their state, country or nation) over the environment, human, social or material external to it.

Further ideological development consists of the progressive modification, through a series of discrete, determinate and predictable stages, of this primary ideology. This process is not dependent, except in trivial respects, on the class position or the psychological type of the person or group in question. The stages through which it moves are the major ideologies of which I have been speaking.

Of the people who reach each stage some remain there and some pass on to the next; the result is the tendency for each successive major ideology to have a smaller group identified with it than had the previous one. The number reaching the end of the series and becoming identified with the major ideology of anarchism is very small indeed.

In conclusion, let me try to recapitulate in a few sentences; I must emphasise that in doing this I am omitting all of Walsby’s careful qualifications. He is saying that if the major ideologies be plotted vertically in ascending order of increasing theoretical sophistication, and if the size of the group identified with each of these ideologies be plotted horizontally, then the result is a stepped pyramid. This, “the ideological pyramid,” is one representation of the ideological structure of present-day advanced society. This structure has developed through time, the primal ideology being co-eval with human society, the most sophisticated ones having only recently developed as significant influence. The groups identified with the earlier and less sophisticated ideologies are not tending to diminish in either size or in influence. This structure is not a consequence of any transient or localised set of social relationships; it is a development, ultimately a logical development, from the primal society which was adopted by the earliest society, and is still adopted by each new human being, as the alternative to extinction. If Walsby is right then for the foreseeable future we have to reckon with the influence of this ideological structure upon the behaviour of our society.

It seems to me that Walsby has made out a prima facie case, and I put his theory forward as worthy of further attention. I am a stranger to you, and not an academic; my opinion cannot carry much weight. Dr. Zvi Lamm of the Hebrew University, now at Harvard, is better known. Dr. Lamm has authorized me to say he agrees that Harold Walsby’s theory, now known as systematic ideology, deserves more attention than it has yet received.

September 1983