Gilmac: The Domain of Sterilities

The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947, William Maclellan, Glasgow, 10s 6d) is a very disappointing book.  Purporting to be a new and a scientific explanation of the origin, development and structure of ideologies, it consists mainly of baseless statements, logical fallacies, and the rehash of outworn ideas; the whole of which is presented in a cloud of words.

In the forward the author writes:

What follows in this book – breaking, as it does, much that is virgin ground – is a humble endeavor, on the one hand, to stimulate a wider objective interest in the subject and a wider appreciation of the social importance of this field of study, and on the other hand, to make some concrete contribution towards the filling in of what amounts to a grave and broad lacuna in the general body of systematized knowledge (page 10).

First of all let us note the statement by Mr. Walsby in his forward that the evidence for his contentions is drawn mainly from the research and conclusions of the psychologists.  This is a disastrous start for a book that claims to be the very essence of the scientific outlook; psychology is such a welter of discordant views that one writer, A. H. B. Allen, was compelled to state in a preface to his book:

In the present state of psychology, however, there being little enough agreement on general principles, it is practically impossible to treat of anyone part of the mental life as a closed-off department, separated from the rest (Pleasure and Instinct, 1930, The International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method.  Kegan, Paul.)

Mr. Walsby himself, on page 139, quotes McDougall as follows:

… we talk of psychology, of economics and of political science, of jurisprudence, of sociology and of many other supposed sciences; but the simple truth is that all these fine names simply mark great gaps in our knowledge, or rather fields of possible sciences that as yet have hardly begun to take shape or being…

If a book aims at stimulating a “wider objective interest” the material with which it is concerned should at least be put forward in an interesting manner.   A large part of the book consists of quotations used in such it way that the reader is left in doubt its to whether they are intended as illustrations of something or as evidence of the author’s point of view.  Another large part of the book consists of pseudo-scientific jargon – sonic simple propositions presented in long and complicated phraseology and a number of questionable propositions presented, in like manner, as accepted truths. After ploughing through the tortuous phraseology of this book the reader is at least entitled to expert  an explanation at the end summing up the results of the alleged investigation and setting forward clearly the author’s new and concrete contribution towards an understanding of the subject investigated; but this is what he gets!  The last chapter, comprising three pages, opens with this statement:

The point has now been reached from which this book really sets out. That is to say, we have now reached, in our account, that stage in the intellectual development of the individual where his further progress depends on his recognition of an independent, self-determined ideological domain – i.e. as a domain, realm or class of phenomena which, because it exhibits its own characteristic laws, processes, mechanisms, interrelations and interactions peculiar to itself, has therefore a large measure of independence (or, what is the same internal dependence, or self-determinism); and which, because of its interaction with other classes of phenomena, partly determines and, at the same time, is partly determined by, these latter.

It entails his recognition of ideological form (as distinct from mere recognition of ideological content or subject-matter) and, also, an understanding of the various ideological forms as systematically and fundamentally related – as comprising, in fact: (a) a chronological succession of typical stages in the evolution of intellect and (b) a permanent hierarchic structure of co-existent, interacting and mutually-dependent levels of intellectual development (page 228).

Then follows some paragraphs on the alleged frustration by the intellectual – which appears to be the object and main burden of the book. The last few lines of the book are a striking illustration of the mental uncertainty of the author:

Human society, with the aid of science and the deterministic principle, has largely conquered the limitations and problems imposed upon it by material nature. But the large-scale application of science in industrial and economic life has served merely to bring to the fore-front the increasing ideological problems imposed by human nature. With the aid of science and the self-deterministic principle, these problems, too, may eventually be conquered. Human society would then be master, not only of inanimate nature, but of itself.

Note the author’s doubt the problems may he solved, he is not sure of it.  Why? Because he is troubled with that old bogey-man “human nature.” The professed aim of the book is to show that a social hierarchy is  permanent and that that a few must always direct the many; how then can human society he master of itself?  This is just one of Mr. Walsby’s logical tangles.

Now let us examine in a little detail the two paragraphs quoted from page 228.

First of all what does this cloud of words really mean? Does the author mean:

(1) We must distinguish between the way we think, how we acquire knowledge, and what we think about; and that thinking, like singing and running, follows a method of its own. Further, that, just as running is influenced by climate, the ground upon which we are running, the nature and strength of our muscles, and so on, so thinking is also influenced by forces outside of the actual process of thinking; for example, we cannot think without having something to think about, and what we think about is determined by our experience of the world.   If this is what Mr. Walsby means then (a) why doesn’t he say so in plain English, and (b) what is there new in it?

(2) Does “a chronological succession of typical stages in the evolution of the human intellect” merely mean that man, in his development from the early representatives up to the present, has gradually acquired knowledge and changed his conceptions of himself and of the world around him, and that further, this evolution is also manifested in an abbreviated form in the development from babyhood to maturity? If that is what the author means then there is nothing new in that either, nor is there anything new in his further piece of jargon, which we will not bother to translate, “a permanent hierarchic structure of co-existent, interacting and mutually-dependent levels of intellectual development.” There is no evidence whatever in the book for this last idea; there are simply either some unsupported statements of his own or some unsupported statements drawn from equally dubious sources. But before we deal with these let us call attention to a writer who proceeded on lines similar to what Mr. Walsby has done.

In 1899 S. N. Patten wrote a book entitled The Development of English Thought. The first chapter contains an explanation of the psychological theories underlying the book according to which there is a stratification of society, and the writer says: “Political changes are due less to changes in national character than to rearrangements of classes in society. Classifications of society based on wealth or social position are superficial: they should be according to psychic characteristics.” (Page X).  He then gives the four main strata of society as “The Clingers, the Sensualists, the Stalwards and the Mugwumps.”

On the other hand Professor Wm. McDougall, one of Mr. Walsby’s sources of “evidence,” gave to the world in 1921 the following views: “We have pretty good evidence that capacity for intellectual growth is inborn, that it is hereditary, and also that it is closely related with social status.” (Is America Safe for Democracy, page 612) Fourteen years later Prof. McDougall demonstrated to the world the value of his studies in psycho-analysis. On the 11th February, 1935, the News Chronicle contained a report from which we have extracted the following paragraphs:

Professor William McDougall, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and now of Duke University, North Carolina, is one of the world’s best known psychologists, but his knowledge of the human mind and its vagaries failed to save him from being tricked by a New York confidence man.

The police here last night arrested Walter King as a fugitive from justice in North Carolina, where he is wanted on at charge of defrauding the professor of £4,100.

Inquiry showed that the victim in question was the former Professor of Psychology at Harvard and now head of the Psychological Department at Duke University, where he had sponsored a series of remarkable researches into thought-reading.

According to the police report King and an accomplice, who posed as a State senator from Iowa, impressed Professor McDougall so much that he entrusted them with money to invest in Iowa oil wells.

Comment on the above hardly seems necessary, but we cannot refrain from suggesting that the Professor must have got mixed up about the social status of the swindler’s intelligence!  It also gives an indication of the value of the professor’s researches, of which Mr. Walsby might take note.

At the beginning of his book Mr. Walsby has a diagram of a pyramid which is supposed to represent the proportion of people at the different levels of intellect, the nearer the apex the higher the level of intellect. Commenting on this diagram he tells us that proof of its accuracy in reflecting the real position is that the higher you go the more you find the narrower level occupied by the “left,” with an increasing proportion of scientists among them. Yet on page 22 he writes:

Although there may be among them a higher proportion which tends towards the Left, scientists and scientifically-minded people are, on the whole, almost as divided as the layman when it comes to political theory.

Mr. Walsby ignores the fact that there are many trained scientists engaged in the study of political theory; his only explanation of the fact that scientists are just as muddled over the question as the bricklayer or the dustman can be, is that politics is not scientific.  It apparently has not occurred to him that when it comes to politics, class interest and the social outlook both of a class-divided society “weighs like an alp on the brain” of the scientist.  On page 23 we read this pearl of wisdom:

Science can only become political in so far as politics becomes scientific.  It cannot be a one-sided affair; science cannot enter politics with political theory remaining in its present controversial and anarchical condition.

So politics has to become scientific without the aid of scientists because they cannot enter until politics becomes scientific! In other words, according to Mr. Walsby’s outlook, politics can get on quite alright and clean its own doorstep without the aid of the scientists.

Chapter 4 entitled “The Masses and Emotional Suggestability” consists of ten pages in which are quoted statements by Le Bon, McDougall, Freud and Chakotin. Chapter 5 opens with the statement: “What are we to gather from all this evidence from the psychological study of large groups and masses of people?” But no evidence was given. All that was given was the point of view of four writers in statements that contain much that is debatable, or is only partially true. For instance, Chakotin refers to “the thinking and reasoning persons who are immune to emotional propaganda.” Are there such people either inside or outside of the crowds to which he so often refers? No evidence is given for this, although the persons in question are supposed to be the intellectual minority of leaders.

However on the basis of these statements Mr. Walsby treats groups as if they were homogeneous.   In fact the random groups to which he refers frequently develop internal conflicts because they are made up of people with opposing outlook, not due to different levels of intellect but merely to different allegiances, as in the case of football crowds or gatherings of opposing nationalities.

According to Mr. Walsby the intellectual (by the way he does not define what constitutes an Intellectual) suffers from frustration or, as he puts it, “the group restraints.” One alleged method of overcoming this is “by withdrawal, by renunciation, by rejection of the mass modes of expression and retiring, withdrawing, from the mass group. This is the method which is pursued by the intellectual and it is, in fact, the mark of the qualitative or vertical intellectual advance.” (Page 85.) There is a footnote to this which enlightens us about the method and the intellectual. It runs as follows:

This independence of the mass group is not only expressed intellectually but in many other ways – e.g, circumstances permitting, in particular forms of behaviour and aesthetic tastes, certain modes of dress, long hair, beards, etc.

On this basis the lady who appears in unusual dress or wearing some weird form of headgear has the guinea stamp of the intellectual, so also has the bewhiskered tramp in his holey rags with his bag or pram of curiosities. Many a mediocrity has worn long hair and a beard to give him a false artistic standing, and many another has a dirty neck because he is too lazy to wash himself. A great deal of oddity has as its basis simply a desire to get that admiration which lack of accomplishment has barred the individual from obtaining. Instead of its being a desire to escape the influence of the crowd it is a direct expression of the influence of the crowd, a desire for recognition.

On page 87 we read:

It will readily he seen that this brief description of the ascent of the developing intellectual through these various ideological levels, accords well with the facts of the existing structure of the whole system of political groups as shown in our original diagramatic scale of political levels. (Fig. 1).

Here the reader feels that he must have missed something that he has been looking for all the time – a description of separate and distinct intellectual levels. He turns back to Fig. 1 (page 27) and what does he find? A triangle with a dotted line cutting through it just below the apex. On the left, above the dotted line, are the words “Left-Wing Minority” and on the right “Economic Collectivism.” There is also a dotted line cutting through the triangle just above the base. On the left, above this dotted line, are the words “Right Wing Majority” and on the right, “Economic Individualism.” In the text on the same page we are told that the base and the apex of the triangle represent the two extremes of opinion and the numerical support for the opinion; that as we go upward from the base opinion tends to shade into the strata above and that “the inverse-ratio relationship is preserved generally throughout between ‘height‘ in the scale, of any section of opinion, and the numerical support it commands.”

This is the authors idea of a diagramatic scale of the political levels of the whole system of political groups – a triangle, two dotted lines and four phrases of two and three words! One might just as well argue that there are separate levels of daylight and darkness because day and night shade into each other. Elsewhere in the book (e.g. page 80) the author knocks the bottom out of his “inverse-ratio relationship” when he describes Nazism as the lowest level and Conservatism as the next. Fascism does not get the support of the “masses” and, at the last General Election, neither did Conservatism; so the base must shrink and there must be something wrong with idea of “the masses.”

It is difficult to disentangle either anything useful or anything understandable out of this welter of words, and one is tempted to surmise that the complicated phraseology is deliberately used to hide the lack of fresh ideas or of systematic and logical thinking. Sometimes the reader thinks he is going to get somewhere as, for instance, on page 28, where Mr. Walsby gratuitously describes “intellectuals” as those occupying the highest parts of his scale, “masses” as non-intellectuals who occupy the lowest level of his scale; intelligence as inborn and intellect as acquired; intellect as consisting of two aspects, wide knowledge and deep knowledge – wide knowledge being a large assembly of facts and deep knowledge the capacity to generalise. Naturally Mr. Walsby does not put it as plain as that; he has to introduce “Vertical” and “Horizontal,” “Qualitative” and “Quantitative,” but all he is apparently talking about is the capacity to accumulate facts and the capacity to generalise, which every one possesses but which is increased by training. Anyhow there Mr. Walsby leaves us without explaining what all the bother is about, or what the connection is between intelligence and vertical and horizontal intellect. What he does do is to state, on page 29, that “the term ‘masses’ does not necessarily exclude persons of the greatest intelligence.” So there you are!

On page 28 we have one of the numerous examples of Mr. Walsby’s care not to commit himself to anything definite. This is what he writes:

Psychologists have shown that intelligence is largely and predominantly inborn, or inherited, and that it remains fairly constant throughout the major part of a person’s life.

Psychologists have not done anything of the kind nor has Mr. Walsby produced any evidence that they have. In fact they are at odds on the question. Here are some examples:

Our conclusion is that we have no real evidence of the inheritance of traits… Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select… doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (J. B. Watson, Behaviorism, page 32).

Perhaps on no aspect of human behavior is there greater diversity of opinion than on this question of the origin of individual differences. Among laymen there are ardent advocates of a doctrine of ‘determinism’ which makes all variations inborn, the direct result of inheritance; and equally ardent advocates of the opinion that training, surroundings – the environmental conditions of life – literally ‘make the man.’ Among Biologists, Sociologists, Psychologists there is a similar diversity of opinion – similar divisions into camps which wage at least verbal warfare over their disputed position. (Morris S. Viteles, Industrial Psychology, page 83)

Referring to Watson’s point of view McDougall writes:

This mechanical psychology is decidedly preponderant at the present time; and my book therefore is largely a polemic against all psychology of this type and on behalf of purposive psychology. For I am sure that nothing is to be gained by slurring over this issue, and that it must be frankly faced and resolved before psychology can go forward with the harmony and general agreement upon fundamentals which prevail in the physical sciences. (William McDougall, An Outline of Psychology, 1947, Preface page viii)

We will digress here to point out that McDougall, in the book from which we have just quoted, has this to say of Freud:

The sensational psychology, based on such rotten foundations as these, serves to sell the books which contain it by the hundred thousand; but I am not sure that the popular interest in psychology of this kind gives ground for rejoicing.  It is useless to argue with a Freudian, he is a devotee of a sect, not a man of science, and, like all sectarian enthusiasts, he is impervious to the shafts of reason… The Freudian reasoning is in the main a peculiar process which can be characterised as ‘persuasion by innuendo’.” (Footnote to page 431)

Mr. Walsby’s sources of evidence seem to be at logger-heads over the very problems which he has taken as solved by them.

Now let us go back and look at the quotation from Mr. Walsby again. It will be noticed that intelligence is only “largely” or “predominantly” inborn, not wholly so; that it does not remain constant but only “fairly” so, and not even through the whole of life but only through the “major” part. Mr. Walsby does not tell us which part of intelligence is not inborn nor how it can change (if it only remains fairly constant it must be subject to change). This is a fair sample of most of Mr. Walsby’s writing, but let us give another.

On page 122 we find the following:

But here, we must remind the reader, it must be carefully and clearly borne in mind just what it is we are questioning. It is important to realise that we are not calling into question the capacity of the masses to acquire knowledge or to extend their knowledge as such; we are not even questioning their capacity to increase, as such, their rationality – that is to say, to extend their existing level of rationality over a broader field…

When we question the mass-rationality assumption, what we are doubting is, not whether the masses are capable of developing or extending their existing made of thought (i.e. quantitatively), but whether they are capable, as a mass, of developing the qualitatively higher modes of thought – of exchanging, in short, their existing made far the independent, analytic ideological mode of the scientific intellectuals, same of whom, according to Bernal (see above) “have been forced to adapt new mental attitudes which involve a break with the traditions of thought reaching as far back as the Greeks, if not farther.” (Note also Bernal’s further statement: “The simple logic of the schools derived from grammar and commonsense has been found inadequate to cope with the more remote complexities of the atom and the starry universe… what we call common sense is just a convenient but crude human tool, suitable enough far a simple life… “)

It will be noticed that (1) Mr. Walsby is only “questioning” and “doubting,” he is not asserting; (2) that he is doubting whether people, as a mass, are capable of thinking like the “scientific-intellectuals.” In the first place, outside of his particular line, the “scientific-intellectual” is capable of being a fathead: Sir Oliver Lodge (another of Mr. Walsby’s sources of evidence) demonstrated this with his mysticism, and Bernal in his attitude to Russia. In the second place, with the development of educational facilities demanded by Capitalism scientists are being produced in increasing quantities, approaching the product of the sausage machine. In the black army of Haiti it was at one time a mark of distinction not to be an officer; the time is approaching, owing to the demands of industry, when it will be a mark of distinction not to be a scientist. In the third place what is the meaning of the phrase “as a mass” in the above setting? If the author is doubting whether people as a whole increase the number and extent of their generalisations as time passes then he is out of touch with life. The relative vast increase in the number of scientists turned out yearly now as compared with a hundred years ago is an indication of what is possible.

What is the meaning of the extract from Bernal? lf it means anything at all it means that the achievements of mankind up to recently have only been accomplished by the use of “crude commonsense.” If this is so then what is the objection to “crude commonsense “? All the gigantic feats of humanity up to the atom bomb have been achieved by its use. May we add that it would have been useful if Mr. Walsby had explained what the difference is, if any, between his “crude commonsense” and the “new mental attitudes, and what it is that the latter can do that is denied to the former. After all, the ocean liner, the Forth Bridge, the aeroplane, wireless, the great cathedrals and the Empire State Building are not bad work for “crude commonsense.”

Incidentally the distinction between intelligence and intellect is made by McDougall (see his Outline page 379) and, we must confess, in much clearer language; so we are still in the dark as to what there is original in Mr. Walsby’s contribution.

This book is supposed to he an examination of the application of scientific method yet although the layer stratification of intellect is its central theme there is no indication of how to identify exactly a particular level, nor how one of them is marked off from another. Further there is no indication of who will constitute the intellect testers nor who will test the testers.

We have not sufficient space to deal further with this book, but from the foregoing the reader will gather the nature of its contents; there are any amount of statements and arguments in it that are illogical and erroneous. Above all he does not give any evidence whatever that the workers are incapable of understanding and achieving Socialism, and that is all that matters to us.

The Domain of Sterilities by Gilmac
from the Socialist Standard, April 1948
reprinted with the kind permission of the World Socialist Movement / Socialist Party of Great Britain
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs copyright license

See also Mugwump and Moonshine by Harold Walsby (1949)