George Walford: Letter to an Enquirer

(This is an edited version of the letter that was sent, with alterations intended to improve its clarity.)

Dear ______,

Far from not having much idea what s.i. is all about, you are raising some of the crucial issues. I would like to reply more promptly but do not find these things can be handled quickly or easily. If you find this letter abstract – well, you should have seen the first draft!

It is generally recognised that our assumptions sometimes affect our behaviour. When asked why we did something we commonly reply: “Well, I assumed that… ” We acted as we did because we took something for granted, and we are constantly doing this, usually without realising it. The assumptions we make influence our behaviour.

This is not so only in personal activities but also in the behaviour of social groups: teams, parties, clubs, movements and others. Assumptions are among the influences affecting social behaviour and we badly need to know why our society, and the groups which constitute it, behave as they do. Yet while other influences – psychology, climate, leaders, economics, history and so on – have received a great deal of attention assumptions have been little studied. We all know, and often say, that they affect our behaviour, but there has been no established body of theory to help us understand these effects. The result has been that assumptions have continued to act as a wild card, their effects upon behaviour upsetting the most careful and apparently well-based plans and predictions.

Harold Walsby’s central insight, from which s.i. derives, is that assumptions, particularly the broad, general ones which greatly influence societies, tend to occur in sets. Each major set is the core of one of the major ideologies; when, in s.i., we speak of ideological behaviour, we mean behaviour influenced by one of these sets of assumptions.

Your particular concern is the attempt to restrain the proliferation of nuclear armaments. In describing this as an ideological activity I was not in any way demeaning, diminishing or reducing it. All activity in social affairs involves the broad, general assumptions that are the roots of the major ideologies, and therefore all such activity is ideological. But to say this is not merely to state a tautology, for the concept of ideology brings out this neglected feature of social activity, that it is affected by assumptions, and consequently that in order to understand it we have to study assumptions and the ideologies they constitute.

In the present connection we need to understand how it comes about that some people are concerned to restrain this proliferation while others are not, and the first approximation to answer is that those who would restrain possess assumptions which are different from those of the people who do not seek to restrain. Among these, two important ones will suffice for present purposes. One is the assumption that it is proper for citizens to strive actively to influence their rulers; this is not present in large numbers of people who tend to accept without question what their rulers decide. Another is the assumption that proliferation of nuclear armaments can usefully be tackled as one separate problem; this is not present in the groups of the more extreme left which hold that this, with all other social problems, is a consequence of capitalism and therefore the only useful action is to attack that root of social evils.

That, as I say, is a first approximation. It leads us on to the need for an explanation as to how different social groups come to hold different assumptions and whether they will continue to do so. That is the general problem to do with which s.i. is concerned, and for an answer to it, so far as one has yet been developed, I have to refer you to this and other issues of IC and all the other material on s.i. which has been published.


from Ideological Commentary 13, September 1984.