George Walford: The Political Series

Most of the people who think about ideology at all think of it in politics. Its influence appears more clearly here than elsewhere and the transition, from observation of the facts of social life to a grasp of the underlying ideological structure, is most effectively accomplished by way of a study of political movements and relations between them. Part politics makes up only a small part of social life and some of us may feel it receives too much attention already, but if we try to ignore it it is likely to hit us unexpectedly from behind and it does possess the advantage, for purposes of study, of conducting its business mainly in the open. No doubt much that goes on inside each party is kept out of sight, but policies are inherently public and electoral responses to them are on the record. When taking up the study of ideology it is convenient to begin here, afterwards turning to fields of activity which may be more interesting, and perhaps more important, but where the evidence is less readily accessible.

We turn first to the political scene in Britain, and not only because this is the country of the writer, and most of the readers, know best. Britain has enjoyed a greater freedom from disruptive external influences, over a longer period of time, than any equally advanced state. If there are regularities in the relationships between political parties they are likely to appear more clearly here than in countries where military, political or religious interference from without has played a larger part. We shall go on to enquire whether regularities perceptible in Britain also appear in the greater world.

The main British parties and movements fall readily into two groups, one comprising conservatism and liberalism (to be read as including the social democratic movement), the other socialism, communism (including Trotskyism and the other revolutionary socialist bodies) and anarchism. The first group, and particularly conservatism, is widely associated with the wealthy and powerful, the second with the ordinary people, the workers and the poor. Belief in these connections is so strong, and so widespread, that it would be surprising if there were no grounds for it, but it does present difficulties. There are only a few wealthy and powerful people; if they alone supported conservatism and liberalism, and everybody else the other movements, the socialist / communist / anarchist group would enjoy an overwhelming majority, and this does not happen. Things fall into place when we accept that although the connection exists it is not a simple identity. Those who support conservatism and liberalism are not, for the most part, wealthy or powerful themselves but they respect those who are, while supporters of the other movements regard possession of these advantages by a minority as a distortion of the social order. Conservatism and liberalism support (in different degrees) a competitive economy and a government exercising less control over political and intellectual life. The immediate distinction, between the members and movements and those of the other, lies not in their possessions, income, status, or relation to the means of production but in their ideas, views, beliefs or mental attitudes. This holds good also for the difference between individual parties and movements. We have to begin by studying their ideas (etc.), going on later to enquire how they come to hold the ones they do.

It may be thought necessary to begin by specifying the particular ideas held by the different movements, but this is not the best way to grasp their distinctive features. Particular ideas relate to particular circumstances and tend to change with them, they can provide no explanation for the enduring stability characteristic of major political bodies. Through much of the later nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth, the British Empire bulked large in conservative thinking; now the empire has gone, and many conservative ideas with it, but conservatism remains recognisably what it was, and this is because its distinctive features comprise not only particular ideas about particular issues but also certain broad beliefs which endure while the particular ideas come and go. The same holds good, with appropriate changes, for the other movements. To be a conservative, a liberal or whatever, is to accept certain general ideas which govern responses to particular issues as they arise, and we shall be looking mainly at ideas of this type.

Enthusiasts of every color tend to reject any suggestion that systematic relations obtain between political movements; they like to select their own as right and dismiss all others as wrong. This is like saying that all animals are either elephants or not elephants; true or not, it obscures a lot of useful information. There are good grounds for holding that the principle British political movements form an orderly sequence, and we shall find as we go on that this indicates the presence of a firm ideological structure beneath the shifting political surface.

Size and Influence

Each movement exercises upon social life a degree of influence immediately determined mainly by the number of people supporting it. Millions, rich and poor, accept conservative ideas and the movement is correspondingly powerful, not only at the polls but also in less formal ways; the economic and political systems of modern Britain operate largely in accordance to conservative beliefs and have continued to do so even when the Conservative Party was out of office. Anarchist ideas appeal to far smaller numbers, and this movement exercises so little influence that even a detailed history of modern Britain would be likely not to mention it. When these two movements are taken as the ends of a range and the others inserted between them, to produce a series running: conservative, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism; then, consistently over the whole range, a movement tends to be large and powerful, or small and ineffective, as it stands closer to one extreme or the other.

Apparent exceptions lose much of their substance when examined. The Labour Party has repeatedly obtained enough electoral support to form a government, while the rule places socialism among the smaller movements; the explanation lies in the distinction between the movement and the party. Much of the numerical and financial strength of Labour Party party comes from its trade union component, and this for the most part is markedly non-socialist; a trade union works to promote the interests of its own paid-up members rather than the welfare of the community. Socialism remains a minority influence within the Labour Party, a relatively small and weak movement.

Another discrepancy shows up when we recall that since the early nineteen-twenties liberalism has held a smaller number of parliamentary seats than its position in the range would lead one to expect; this results largely from Britain’s electoral system, which consistently under-represents the smaller parties in Parliament. I am using ‘liberalism’ to include what is known in British politics as social democracy, and if seats won in the 1987 General Election had been in proportion to votes cast the Alliance (of the Liberal Party with the Social Democratic Party) would have won 146 seats instead of the 22 actually held. [1]

Provided the distinction (not a novel one) between socialism and the Labour Party be maintained, and we look at voting strength in the country at large, rather than the concentration in particular constituencies that wins parliamentary seats, then the proposition stands up: the farther along the range towards anarchism each movement stands, the smaller its size and influence. When we come to look beyond Britain we shall find that the striking apparent exceptions in Russia, China and elsewhere also fall into place upon closer examination.

Attitudes to Change

Next we ask whether this diminution in numerical support along the range can be linked with corresponding ideological changes. I take first the changes in attitude, towards large alteration in the deep structure of society, which appears as one moves from conservatism towards anarchism.

Conservatives (and liberals also, though to a lesser extent), tend to value the established, priding themselves on being responsible people, too sensible to abandon what has been proven viable in a chase after perfection. Socialists, communists and anarchists, on the other hand, see themselves as reformers and revolutionaries. When we enquire more closely, taking each movement by itself, we find that here also our series holds good; the nearer to anarchism a movement or party stands, the deeper and more extensive the changes sought.

To say that conservatism seeks to preserve things as they are would be going much to far; conservative governments pass laws, conservative ministers issue regulations, and every one of these constitutes a change. Conservatism does, however, maintain a distinctive attitude towards changes, promoting only those which (it believes) will tend to avert greater ones. Placing high value on stability, conservatism conceives it to be threatened and is prepared to put up with much, even with extensive changes, in order to secure it.

In liberalism change comes to be valued as a means towards positive benefits. Nostalgia no longer tempts, the ideal has yet to be achieved. Still holding firmly to the deep structure of existing society, its authoritarian government and competitive economy, liberalism differs from conservatism in seeking rather to perfect than to preserve them, aiming at progress rather than stability. Where conservatism sometimes holds back from the reform of abuses or malfunctions, fearing that interference may produce a condition worse than before, liberalism seeks out opportunities for improvement.

With the next step along the range, to socialism, attention shifts from separate improvements to the reformation (re-formation) of society from the roots up. Here common ownership and co-operation are to replace private ownership and competition, and a government more responsive to the people, the present system of authority modified by occasional elections. These objectives of socialism are often summarised, in a phrase significant for our present concern with the degrees of change favoured by the different movements, as the alternative society.

Moving on past socialism, communism comes to value radical change highly enough to undertake revolution in order to effect it, and anarchism believes it not enough even to revolutionise existing society, proclaiming that the only way of overcoming its defects is to abolish it, leaving people free to follow their inherent leanings towards peaceful co-operation.

When arranged according to the depth and extent of changes they favour the movements fall into the same order as when listed by size. This suggests that the arrangement is not arbitrary but expresses real relationships between them, and as we go on to look at other features we shall find this impression strengthening into a virtually unavoidable conclusion. I shall take their ideas about control versus freedom, first in economic and then in political affairs, and go on to look at the differing valuations they respectively place upon theory as a guide to action.

Control and Freedom in Economics

Willingness to allow individuals freedom to buy, to sell, to accumulate possessions or to fail to obtain what they need – according to their ability, industry, cunning or avarice – is strongest in conservatism. It weakens in liberalism and is replaced, from socialism onwards, by a strengthening belief in the value of regulation rather than free action.

Conservatism imposes upon competitors few restraints beyond the requirement that they present an acceptable face, it leaves them free to the point where the victors are able largely to exclude the losers from the field, leading to its domination by the multi-nationals, conglomerates and the like.

Liberalism would not allow competitive individualism free rein. In the liberal view competition should be kept open to all, the tendency of the more successful contestants to monopolise possessions being restrained (usually the state). It places greater emphasis than does conservatism upon the obligation of the victors to care for the vanquished, and this also is a restraint upon competition.

Socialism would regulate industry and commerce more closely still, seeking to subordinate competition and private interests to the welfare of the collectivity. Here the economic system, which produces all wealth, is held to be operated not by individuals but by society, and people who enjoy plenty while others, equally members of society, suffer poverty, are seen as taking things to which they have no right. During periods of labour government monopolies and near-monopolies have been increasingly brought under direct government control by nationalisation, and a range of measures has extended supervision to privately-owned enterprises. Where conservatism aims at leaving citizens to spend what money they have as they wish, socialism seeks rather to collect a large part of it from them, particularly the rich, as taxes, providing uniform services in return. In the economic field, in activities connected with material goods, and buying and selling, socialism would regulate behaviour to a greater extent than either liberalism or conservatism. The famous Clause Four of the Labour Party’s Constitution (ignored by the non-socialist bulk of its members) shows socialism committed to common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and to the extent that these are instituted individual freedom of action in this sphere disappears.

With the next step, to communism, the demand for common ownership hardens; the socialist conviction that restraints must be imposed only gently and gradually is rejected and the Labour Party comes to be seen as a tool to be used in bringing about the revolution.

From conservatism to communism restraints on economic activity are to be imposed by authority (whether that of the capitalist state or of that of the dictatorship of the proletariat) and we all know from experience that external controls can never be completely effective. Even the most tyrannical state cannot be constantly watching each of its members, and anarchism advocates a type of control not subject to this limitation. The people living in an anarchist society are to be free of control by the state and subject to no coercive forces; without these constraints they will, anarchists believe, conduct their economic affairs in a more sensible and orderly manner than has yet been known, and this will be due to the self-control to be exercised by each of them. The economic system envisaged is sometimes described as ‘free access’; since resources are inescapably limited this could work, in the absense of coercive forces to compel restraint, only so long as people voluntarily restricted their own demands. Far from offering freedom of action in the economic field, an anarchist society would depend upon exercise of the only inescapable form of regulation, namely self-control, by every member of the community.

Control and Freedom in Politics

Turning to political/intellectual activities, we find the tendencies displayed in the economic/material field reversed; here conservatism and liberalism favour regulation while socialism, communism and anarchism, in that order, accord increasingly greater priority to freedom of action for the individual. The strength of the commitment to economic freedom displayed by each movement varies inversely with its commitment to political and intellectual freedom.

Conservatism holds that authority should control education, restrain agitations and demonstrations, impose restrictions on freedom of speech and publication, strengthen the powers of the police and support the security services. When in power it tends to follow this course and to make no apology for doing so, for this is how its supporters want it to behave. In its internal organisation it follows the same pattern, the leaders exercising greater authority, and the general body of members a less active influence, than in any of our other movements. Strongly supportive of individual enterprise in economic matters, conservatism discourages it in political and intellectual affairs, stressing instead the value of loyalty and conformity.

Liberalism holds that the function of government in political and intellectual affairs is not to reduce differences of opinion, but to encourage them so far as may be consistent with the security of the state, and Liberal Assemblies tend to carry this theory into practice. They are inclined, noticeably more than Conservative Conferences, to pass resolutions going against the policies favoured by their leaders.

When the Labour Party holds power it often finds itself obliged to act, in many respects, in the same way as conservatism, but it cannot do so with the same wholeheartedness. Its socialist component, holding the state to be an enemy of political and intellectual freedom rather than a defender of it, strives for a reduction in the control exercised by government over political and intellectual life. Here, again, the theory advocated appears in party practice, the socialist wing using its freedom of action to put forward ideas that often do much to alienate the electoral support gained by the carefully moderate pronouncements of the leaders.

Communism (to be read, we recall, as including Trotskyism and the other revolutionary socialist bodies) would go still farther than socialism, demanding freedom to propagate not merely peaceful reform but revolution, violent if need be, while anarchism would abolish all political/intellectual control. Required to restrain their demands for goods and services, the people of an anarchist society would be expected to exercise the fullest freedom in the realm of ideas.

In moving along the range from conservatism towards anarchism the degree of economic freedom favoured dwindles while political/intellectual freedom increases, but each of these changes is consistent over the whole range. In respect of these features, also, the movements fall into the same order as before.

Theory as a Guide to Action

I will take one more feature in confirmation: the valuation the movements respectively place upon theory as a guide to action. Conservatism sets this low. One book by a prominent modern conservative has a chapter entitled ‘Conservative Philosophy,’ but any idea that this may indicate high valuation of theory disappears on reading its opening sentences:

So far, then, as philosophy or doctrine is concerned, the wise Conservative travels light. Conservative principles cannot be precisely tabulated. To ask what is the nature of Conservatism is more to the point than to seek to categorise it. [2]

The same author adds that from Hume conservatives get ‘skepticism, the sense of the fallibility of human reason,’ and from Burke ‘the love of the concrete and the hatred of abstraction.’ Adherence to what experience has proven viable, reluctance to go adventuring after strange theories, sound as dominant notes in conservative thought.

Liberalism allows theory a more prominent role, taking its philosophy straight and recognising the Philosophical Radicalism of Bentham and others as one of the sources from which it sprang. The movement has been described, by the editors of one collection of extracts from liberal writers and speakers, as ‘a set of ideas,’ [3] a phrase conservatives, preferring to be guided by ‘traditional manners of behaviour’ and ‘balance, prudence and moderation] [4] would not welcome as a description of their own beliefs. Emphasis upon this distinction was a feature of the long struggle of the two parties through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, conservative writers repeatedly accusing liberalism of being so committed to rigid theories as to have lost necessary pragmatic flexibility.

From some of the viewpoints available today this difference between conservatism and liberalism looks like hardly more than a shift of emphasis; the next step brings a more substantial change. Unlike liberalism, socialism accepts only provisionally the private ownership, nationalism and status differences of existing society, and in seeking to move forward to a new earth, if not also a new heaven, it relies upon theory to show the route. At this point in the series theory comes to be valued above practice and experience as a guide to action.

Communism launches out more boldly. Already in 1848 Marx was saying of the communists:

they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general prospects of the proletarian movement. [5]

This understanding they can derive only from theory, and Lenin has declared: ‘the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory’ and ‘without communist theory, no communist movement.’ [6] Here theory is valued so highly that even violent revolution is acceptable to bring practice into agreement with it.

In anarchism theory takes over more or less completely. Anarchist groups despise the practical compromises accepted as temporary expedients by communism; nothing short of a complete absence of authoritarian institutions seems to most of them worth working for, and although there have been communes living in this way it has always been within a society in which authority and coercion played a large part. There is no direct evidence at all to show a whole society operating by anarchism to be feasible; those who work to bring it about do so in reliance upon theory, without direct support from experience.

When arranged to the extent to which each believes that theory ought to influence action, the movements fall into the same order as before.

The Non-Political Group

The range of movements now on the table comprises the main active constituents of British political life but not the whole population, or even the whole electorate. At each general election this century some 20% have refrained from voting (in 1987 the figure was 24.6%), while ‘swings’ and ‘landslides’ indicate the presence of a body of voters without enduring commitment, a body large enough, when many of them move in the same direction, to sway the result. Doubtless some of the non-voters are anarchists, or others who have studied and analysed the policies on offer and reached a considered decision that no party deserves their support, but such people are not common. Through any political excitement great numbers, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, carry on as if nothing were happening; even the largest demonstration loses its impressiveness when one thinks of the numbers who have preferred to stay at home or at work. The proportion of Don’t Knows reported by each survey of political opinions, the complaints, from activists of all parties, of widespread apathy, and the contacts we all make in everyday life indicate that the largest group of all consists of those not committed to any part or movement. These people often ignore elections, and when they do cast a vote it is guided by considerations other than adherence to any set of political principles. The indications are that most of the non-voters, and the ‘floating’ voters too, take little or no thoughtful interest in politics; they vote for this or that party, or stay away from the polling-booth, as they think will best serve their interests at the time, and I shall call them the non-politicals.

The movements discussed above all seek to modify society. Conservativism seeks less radical change than any of the others but it, too, works to bring social practice into agreement with its beliefs; in the conservative view wealth and status are to be enjoyed, and payment, profit and perquisites pursued, within the conventional decencies. Seen from positions closer to anarchism, with their more severe restraints upon individual enterprise, the restrictions imposed by adherence to conservative beliefs may seem so slight as to be almost negligible, but the non-politicals are not limited to even that extent. Being without commitment to any principled conception of the way society ought to operate they are free, so far as their own beliefs go, to seek personal advantage without rendering any service or tendering any value in return. This does not have to mean they will behave rapaciously, and few of them do so; the demands made by most members of this group even in the wealthiest countries are remarkable for their modesty. It means they are free to follow their personal inclinations unencumbered by any burden of doctrine. In economic affairs members of the non-political group are even less influenced by a regard for the common welfare, more individualistic, than conservatives. Emotional responses may lead them to behave towards individual people with generocity and even self-sacrifice, but there is nothing in their beliefs committing them to act with considered regard for any general social group such as a nation, a class or a people.

Turning from the economic field to the political, here again the non-politicals exhibit the tendency of conservatitism but in a stronger form. Politically passive, they form the featureless base from which conservatism distinguishes itself, and accordingly they have no reason for protesting, as some conservatives are sometimes driven to do, that government control of political and intellectual activity is becoming oppressive. And of course they pay no noticeable attention to theory as a guide to social conduct.

These people constitute the largest group of all, and hence the one possessing the greatest influence even though they seldom actively exercise it. Abstainers from voting and uncommitted voters as they are, their numbers none the less have the effect that it lies mainly in their hands to decide which party shall hold office and the main outlines of the course to be followed. In this respect, as well as by their beliefs, they join themselves to the end of our series as a sixth term out beyond conservatism.

We now have before us six political units, which together embrace nearly all British adults, and four features which powerfully influence political and economic life. When the units are arranged in the order: nonpolitical, conservative, liberal, socialist, communist, anarchist, then each feature changes consistently right along the range, and these systematic relationships do not appear, with features of comparable importance, if the units are arranged in any other order. This comes close to being proof that this arrangement of the parties, groups and movements of which we have been speaking express real and significant relationships.

Looking Beyond Britain

The British parties do not appear in the rest of the world, and verbal correspondences are usually misleading. The Bolsheviks originated as one wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party, but this does not make a British Social Democrat a Bolshevik (or a Menshevik either), and an American liberal is not the same as a British one. The British parties possess features peculiar to themselves, and so do those of every other independent state, but in their more substantial features the major ones link up, none the less, with political regularities extending throughout the advanced world. The three classes into which the principle British political units fall – the non-politicals, the defenders and improvers of existing society, the reformists and revolutionaries – appear in all advanced countries (proportional representation tending to increase the number of organisations into which each class is divided) and they everywhere exhibit substantially the same features and relationships as in Britain.

The rule, outside Britain as within, is that the smaller the changes one of these political classes seeks to achieve the bigger its size, and, consequently, the greater its influence. The consistency with which this obtains is not self-evident; trouble makes news, and it takes an effort to remember the millions living peacefully behind the violent upheavals that fill the screens and the front pages. Even after this distortion has been allowed for the exceptions to our rule may still appear to be so many and so great as to render it worthless, but they largely disappear upon examination.

In France, Australia and elsewhere parties calling themselves socialist have been voted into office, but these are hybrids like the British Labour Party, in which the large and powerful main body of trade unionists, and others seeking better conditions within capitalism, outweighs the small socialist section. None of these parties have established socialist principles in the functioning of the states they have governed. None of them have had the power to do so, for no party has ever been elected, anywhere, under an open system, with a mandate to bring the means of production under common ownership and democratic control, remove the restrictions on political and intellectual activity, and do away with the distinctions between rich and poor.

In a number of countries, including the one with the largest population and one of the two super-powers, parties flying one or another version of the Marxist banner now control the state. It may seem perverse to say that here, also, communism is a minority protest movement, but there are good grounds for doing so. I am using ‘communist’ in the classical sense, to mean a humane, non-militarist,non-nationalist society emerging from revolution, with full political freedom and without class divisions, in which the means of production are owned and democratically controlled by the people as a whole; also, by extension, the movement working to bring such a society about. This is what Karl Marx, founder of the communist movement, meant by the term, but nothing reasonably close to it appears in the so-called communist countries. Periods of disorder opened the way for communist parties to grasp control of the state, but the outcome has not matched either the hopes of these groups or the fears of their opponents. Following Marx’ prescription the expropriators were exropriated, but most of the workers and peasants refused to play their allotted part.

In Russia the adoption in 1917 of the famous slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’ (that is, to the democratically-elected local governing committees of the time) indicated the belief of the Bolshevik leaders that, the rule of the oppressors having been overthrown, the people would now take over and build the new society for themselves. It did not work out like that.

As the dust settled after the upheaval the new leaders found their way forward blocked by a non-communist, non-socialist, non-anarchist majority. Rational persuasion did not win general acceptance for the new ideas and propaganda had little more effect. The popular demand was for distribution of the land, not collectivisation of it, and the stubborn persistence of the general body of the people in pursuing their private interests proved to be the rock on which the attempt to establish communism came to grief. They showed no enthusiasm for merging themselves in one great economic community, they persisted enacting as independent individuals, some operating farms and businesses, other pursuing their private interests as employees. The resistance against collectivisation was strong enough to oblige Lenin, in 1921, to ease the pressure for adoption of the new methods; with the New Economic Policy the Bolsheviks accepted a strong element of competition and private ownership into their economy.

In the 1930s under Stalin the attempt at collectivisation was renewed, this time using the full coercive power of the state. It produced one of the greatest man-made famines, but as an attempt to establish communist or socialist principles in the operation of Russian society it was a failure; the tendency for individual people and groups to pursue their own economic interests, irrespective of the effect upon the community, could not be eliminated. What took place, under the name of collectivisation, was little more than what has happened, less violently, in the West; the emergence of a small number of large units which swallowed up most of the small ones. The collective farms and great industrial and commercial undertakings of the USSR equate with the agri-businesses, the conglomerates and multi-nationals, that dominate Western production and economic distribution. In each country economic activities are motivated by the pursuit of personal satisfactions rather than a regard for the welfare of the community, the main differences being that in Russia the control exercised by government is more open and direct, and those receiving the greatest benefits are high-level bureaucrats with inflated salaries and privileges rather than capitalists receiving profits.

In Russia in 1917, as in Britain then and now, the great numbers who constitute the bulk and substance of society, workers and poor peasants as much as bourgeoisie and kulaks, tended to think as a body and to act in economic affairs as individuals favouring the modes of behaviour Lenin and his colleagues were working against. The upheaval of 1905, and the cataclysmic events of 1917, were produced less by any longing for socialism or communism than by the growing inability of Tsarism, under the stress of the Russo-Japanese War and later the First World War, to maintain the society familiar to its people. With the great majority seeking a return to familiar ways of living after the October Revolution the communist minority, even though in control of the state machinery, were powerless to bring about the changes they sought. After the revolutionaries and their heirs have been in control in the USSR for nearly three generations communism, and socialism too, remains hardly more than a verbal cosmetic, thinly spread over a society operating its economy rather by competition than cooperation, with divisions between rich and poor, between those who command and those who obey, as wide as in any professedly capitalist country, and militarism and nationalism flourishing. The course of events in Russia since the revolution indicates the presence there of a range of political groups corresponding, in their relative sizes and their principal features, to those found in Britain.

Explanations have been offered for the failure of the Russian Revolution to produce the expected results, ranging from the feeble to the fantastic. Stalin was an Asiatic, Lenin no Marxist but a secret follower of the conspiratist Blanqui, the rulers were in the pay of Western capitalists. They are beside the point, for no leaders, however firm their determination, however strong and pure their convictions, could have established communism, or socialism either, in the face of a great majority otherwise inclined.

In China the drive towards communism came in the shape of repeated pushes alternating with periods of relaxation but there, also, the initiative was defeated by the silent, untheorised, almost unthinking adherence of the people to their accustomed ways. The works of William Hinton are illuminating. A supporter of the revolution and of Chairman Mao who lived in the country for long periods at the relevant times, he tries hard to persuade himself and the reader to accept the authorised version of events, but reality keeps breaking through:

Mao time and again unleashed enthusiastic mass movements of the people. As they rushed forward, threatening everything in their path, they jeopardized the prerogatives and careers of innumerable officials who […] misdirected, blocked or co-opted every popular thrust [8]

That is of course the orthodox communist picture; the masses, eager for socialism (if not yet for full communism) being urged forward by a hero-leader, but their joint efforts frustrated by entrenched reactionaries; it is the myth that led to the slaughter, by communists and their associates, of more Chinese than any Emperor had ever had killed. The unusual feature of Hinton’s account is that he himself provides the evidence for the falsity of the myth. His narrative shows that the repeated drives towards communism – the Socialist Education Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution – were not undertaken by Mao together with the masses. It may well be true that Mao provided the initial impulses, but each of them, although supported by many activists of the Chinese Communist Party, was resisted by the broad masses and it was this, rather than any cunning manoeuvres of a minority of bureaucrats, that defeated them. Every attempt to induce the general body of the people to work primarily for the collectivity to which they belonged was a failure. At the beginning of the Great Leap the East Wind Commune guaranteed each of its members three meals a day and two-and-a-half yuan in wages even if they did no work at all. This was the outcome:

Since everyone could eat free of charge and everyone who lay at home all day got paid, those who had always been most active began to slow down. If one could eat and earn whether one worked or not, why work? [9]

The interests of the commune, let alone the wider Chinese community, did not come into it, and the welfare of the workers of the world was still less relevant. What mattered was the individual interests of the people concerned, and among those interests and advantageous trade-off of work against rewards ranked high. As Hinton puts it towards the end of his book:

While political rhetoric remained militantly socialist, reality tended towards the ‘capitalist road’ […] [10]

Communism in the classical sense can only function with the willing cooperation of the overwhelming majority, and this has nowhere been forthcoming; the general body of the people, educated and uneducated, rich and poor alike, persist in putting their private interests before those of the community, and they have carried the day. By their sheer numbers and silent, almost unintentional persistence they have, so to speak, dragged social practices towards their end of the range. For decades now Russia and China have been moving, in irregular jerks, towards open recognition that their system works to meet the expectations of the great majority rather than in accordance with its professed communistic principles, and as this has happened so the groups appearing in Britain as conservatism and liberalism have increasingly moved into positions of power. Anarchists have been denied freedom of political action from soon after the revolutions and now communists, and socialists too, increasingly find themselves driven into opposing both the state and the general body of the people; they appear as a minority of dissidents, courageous if they dare to protest and fortunate if they get away with it. We have no good reason for expecting the other ‘communist’ states to follow any very different course.

The three great political classes – the non-politicals, those who support existing society on principle and those who would replace it by a radically different system – appear (with local and temporary exceptions) not only in the professedly capitalist countries but in the ‘communist’ states too. They are found all over the industrialised world, exhibiting everywhere broadly the same features and relationships as in Britain.

Provided we look past superficial appearances to deeper and more enduring characteristics we can take the correspondences farther; wherever these three political classes appear they are subdivided (again, with temporary and localised exceptions) into movements substantially parallel to those found in Britain. Under a variety of names, organised in different ways in different places and often enjoying only restricted freedom of expression, these movements play their parts in the workings of all developed states.

Taking the supporters of existing society first, these subdivide into one movement emphasising the value of authority in political affairs and another pressing for the maximum of individual political liberty consistent with the security of the state. In Russia the authoritarian attitude ruled almost alone under Stalin, but the equivalent of liberalism began to throw off its suppression with the arrival of Kruschev and is strengthening under Gorbachov.

Moving farther along the range, the Labour Party is a peculiarly British construction, the schisms, programmes and commitments of the British communist movement find no precise equivalents abroad, and British anarchists have concerns they do not share with those of any other country. But the socialist, communist and anarchist attitudes towards political and economic affairs appear in all industrial societies. Indeed, it is misleading to speak of societies in the plural, for industrial society forms one world-wide system, everywhere exhibiting substantially the same structure both political and economic.

The political structure of the civilized world consists of non-politicals, traditionists, improvers, reformers, revolutionaries and repudiators, the movements becoming smaller and less influential as they place greater value upon freedom in political affairs and regulation in economic matters, seek wider and deeper changes, and tend more strongly to accept theory as a guide to action. These relationships cause advanced society, under whatever title it appears, to behave like one of the old ‘mandarin’ figures, pointed at the top, rounded and weighted at the bottom; it can be tilted in any direction but persists in returning to a position governed mainly by the mass towards its base.


[1] New Statesman 24 July 1987, Guardian 11 June 1987
[2] Ian Gilmore: Inside Right, a Study of Conservatism, London, Hutchinson, 1977, p 109.
[3] Alan Bullock & Maurice Shock, Editors: The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967, p xxxiv.
[4] Gilmour, op. cit. pp 110 – 111.
[5] Manifesto of the Communist Party in Lewis S. Feuer, editor, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Political and Philosophy, London, Collins, Fontana Books, 1978, p 62.
[6] Lenin, V. I.: What is to be Done?, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1973, pp 29, 28.
[8] Hinton, William: Fanshen: a Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, London, Martin Secker and Warburg, 1983
[9] Ibid. p 250. [10] ibid. p 704.

[Reference [7] and page number for reference [8] missing in original]

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We hear much of the harm done by the Europeans to their colonies and subject races; there was also another side to the story. After the conquest of Sind in 1843 General Napier forbade the practice of burning widows alive. Brahmans protested that suttee was an immemorial custom of their people, and Napier’s reply was brisk:

My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom.

(Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command Penguin, 1979, p. 180

During the terrible Irish famine of the 1840s the ruling principle of free trade dictated that milk, butter and eggs should continue to be exported from Ireland. Deliveries to the seaports were protected by the military, in case the starving people should attempt to break the rules. They must, government decreed, buy their own food on the free market.

An extreme example, but it does make the point that a society with free trade is not a free society. On the contrary; for trade and the market to be free the people have to be restrained.

from Ideological Commentary 34, July 1988.