George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (57)

AGAINST Classism: In Fire from Heaven (Harper Collins), on the 17th Century reform movement in Dorchester, David Underdown shows, in the words of the reviewer, that ‘the campaign for moral reformation had supporters and opponents at every social level; it was not just a confrontation between the urban elite and the marginal classes.’ (TLS 26 June)

MEASURES to protect the environment will mean accepting responsibility for its management rather than withdrawal in favour of nature. Phillip Gates has written Spring Fever; the precarious future of Britain’s flora and fauna (Harper Collins). He maintains that “The whole concept of naturalness… in Britain is profoundly dishonest.” We tend to think of a profusion of wild flowers as natural, but it was an artificial condition produced by the sudden increase in arable acreage between the wars. [1] A major reason for the decline in numbers of toads, both common and natterjack, is the reduction in the number of farm ponds as methods change. [2]

ITALY enacted racial laws in 1938; at that time one out of three Jewish adults there belonged to the Fascist Party. Reviewing Alexander Stille’s Benevolence and Betrayal, five Italian families under Fascism (Cape) Victor Brombert ascribes this to the illusions and wilful blindness of the Jewish communities. Taken together with recent Israeli treatment of the Palestinians it suggests, rather, that ideology functions irrespective of race. (TLS 5 June)

GROWING knowledge of William Morris provides an increasingly clear demonstration of one theme of s.i: that any person who has developed an ideology beyond that of expediency comes to exhibit a range of behaviours. Even when the ideology of repudiation has appeared, and come to govern statements made about social affairs, personal behaviour remains expedient and conduct in business subject to the ideology of domination and principle, approving self-interest provided it observes the conventions. Reviewing William Morris; Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain, by Charles Harvey and Jon Press (Manchester U.P.). Richard Dorment pins him down: no vague arty-crafty idealist but a businessman as ruthless as another. He used the Jacquard Loom, standard in the great commercial mills, not for the weaver’s sake but for the designer’s. Conditions for his workers were better than those in the sweatshops but the pay not much greater nor the hours much shorter, and profit-sharing with the workers remained a theory. Relations between Morris and his partners were democratic, but this provides a limited model for socialism; after 1874 he either bought or kicked them out. IC adds that Morris is not alone in acting, personally and in business, by standards other than those he advocated for society; Marx, Bakunin, Lenin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin and Trotsky also displayed this behaviour-pattern though in different ways, and in fact it appears wherever a complex ideological structure develops. (TLS 24 April)

MATTHEW Henson, a black sledging expert, accompanied Robert Peary on his 1909 journey and seems to have reached the North Pole first by a few hundred yards. He displayed an attitude towards the Eskimo hardly distinguishable from that of the traditionalist white towards the blacks. Comparing them to dogs, and praising their fidelity to himself (the very quality for which Peary praised Henson), he ‘reinscribed the tones and values of the white-black relationship on the black-Inuit one’ (Francis Spufford, reviewing North Pole Legacy by S. Allen Counter, University of Massachusetts Press, TLS 1 May)

CONTRASTING the movements in support of racial, ethnic, sexual and other minorities with old-fashioned socialist reform movements, Paul Hollander’s Anti Americanism (Oxford UP) reminds us that most of their activists are far from being victims of the system themselves. ‘Never before in history have such large numbers… comfortable and privileged to various degrees, come to the conclusion that their society was seriously flawed. What makes him think the earlier movements were different? A prominent feature of the ‘proletarian’ movement, from its beginnings, has been the presence of people not belonging to the proletariat. Marx noted this in the Communist Manifesto, although he omitted to name himself and Engels among them. (TLS 22 May)

SYSTEMATIC ideology indicates that in the order: expediency, domination, precision, reform, revolution, repudiation, each of the major ideologies exercises less influence than the one before it. One of the many apparent exceptions occurred in ancient Athens. This democracy has to be accepted as an early appearance of the precision ideology in politics, and to judge from some accounts it seems to have replaced domination in the management of that society. The persistence of slavery calls the solidity of this appearance in question and Peter Green, reviewing Greek in a Cold Climate by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Duckworth), strengthens the query with a reference to something less familiar. Noting that ‘despite modern scepticism the democracy did indeed achieve a high level of participation among the citizens,’ he adds: ‘nevertheless, a small elite of professional speakers were able to dominate the Assembly.’ (TLS 10 April 92)

[1] TLS 12 June.
[2] Country Living July.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.