Harold Walsby: Science and Utopia

Harold Walsby, founder of the study now known as systematic ideology, began his investigations in 1938-39, first using the title ‘psychopolitics.’ The Social Science Association (October 1944 to 18 January 1956) joined with Messrs. William MacLellan to produce his only book, The Domain of Ideologies. It also issued a number of pamphlets intended for general circulation, among them The New Age of Atomics No.2 (November 1946) from which we reprint the following article by Walsby (omitting the discursive introductory paragraphs). Starting from the general idea of Utopia, this goes on to introduce the conception of development moving through a series of levels, with the earlier ones persisting to provide the base on which the later ones rest.

Glynn Faithfull, Convener of Braziers Park Adult College, interested in Walsby’s work since its early days, provided the copy from which this reprint has been taken.


THE Utopian conceptions of future society can be divided into two main classes. The first, for the sake of simplicity, we will here call the ‘naïve’ or ‘physical’ conception, because its chief interest and emphasis lies in highly developed scientific gadgets and machines by which, it is implied, men will ultimately overcome all, or practically all, physical limitations upon their material bodies and thus come to control, completely and universally, their material physical environment. This naïve conception of a press-button Utopia can be found underlying fantastic ‘science’ fiction, much popular science and popular science journalism, and even a great deal of studious interest in science itself – especially in the physical and mechanical sciences.

It is characteristic of this physical conception of Utopia that it unconsciously leaves out of account any kind of real evolution in the social sphere, and excludes the application of science to men’s social relations, i.e., to their human environment. It is often easy to detect the social setting, implied for this ‘super-scientific’ world of adventure and conflict, as no more than an idealised projection of our present system of social, economic and political relations – what amounts to an idealised version of modern capitalism, or state capitalism.

This brings us to the second class of Utopian conceptions, which stands in a complementary relation to the first or naïve conception: for its main interest and emphasis lies, not in physical machines, instruments and means of controlling our material environment, but in the politico-economic means of controlling our social environment – in what we might term ‘social’ or ‘political’ machinery. Hence, for simplicity, we will call this second class the ‘political’ conception of Utopia. It is to be found underlying the ideologies of many intellectuals and many also of the numerous, though usually small, political groups which adhere closely to some variety of socialist, communist or anarchist theory.

Now while these two opposing classes of conception are representative of two distinct stages in the ideological development of the intellect, it must not be thought that they are simply mutually exclusive, for, in the actual development of ideology, the one tends gradually to merge into the other: that is to say, given certain suitable conditions, the physical conception develops into the political one. The two classes of conception therefore mutually interpenetrate and are, in a sense, not merely opposing but, to an extent, mutually dependent and complementary.

Bearing this in mind, we will now note a few essential differences and likenesses in the two conceptions: and we shall tend, for clearness, to take the most extreme form of each class for comparison.

We have already seen how they differ in their main focal points or centres of attention: the one being concerned primarily with the physical relations between man and the material universe, and the other with the social relations between men in society. This difference implies a common feature. For in both cases, it will be noted, the Utopia is conceived of as a future state or condition of man in which the relations of each respective field (physical or social) are harmonised, regulated or controlled, and in which, therefore, the existing conflicts – as between man and nature, on the one hand, or between man and man, on the other – have been finally or largely eliminated.

Following from this common feature, our attention is now drawn to its corollary – another characteristic difference between the two cases. Whereas in the Utopia of the naïve conception the physical conflicts or contradictions between man and material nature have been removed, the social conflicts as between men still remain. Witness, for example, the physical struggles, battles, revolutions, war and so forth, waged by individual men (often including inhuman, anti-social scientists) and by conflicting social groups, which fill the pages of practically all pseudo-science fiction. While all these conflicts assume a physical form, they are, at bottom, social conflicts; they are but the visible and tangible forms of unseen, invisible – but, nevertheless, quite real – social contradictions.

In the ‘political’ conception of Utopia, on the other hand, it is just these very social contradictions and conflicts which have been removed. Hence the claims made by the various advocates of a political Utopia that its establishment will eliminate wars, revolutions, crime and violence, commercial rivalry and competition, industrial conflicts, class struggles and other manifestations of social contradiction. Hence, too, the fact that the major scientific interest of these advocates lies in the social and economic spheres of science rather than in its physical and mechanical realms. Further important distinctions between these two notions of Utopia include the following: (a) in the case of the political variety there is a more serious concern with and a more rational approach to the conception on the part of its advocates than in the case of those identified with the physical Utopia – in other words, a greater attempt is made to rationalise the political Utopia and give it a coherent, logically consistent character; (b) the number of those who identify themselves with the political conception of Utopia has remained persistently much smaller than the number of those who identify themselves with its physical counterpart.

In order to perceive readily certain additional features which the two cases present in common it is necessary, so far as space will permit, to touch upon their origins and evolutionary aspect. Thus far, we have only treated certain of their attributes and mutual relations as they at present exist; we have regarded them in isolation from their broad historical setting and connections.

Firstly, however, let us get a clear idea of what we mean by ‘Utopia’ in this context. We are using the word in a wide sense to include all conceptions of a future state of affairs in which the restraints, frustrations and limitations imposed upon the individual – whether by nature or human society or both – and actually suffered in the real world, no longer exist. The – largely unconscious – mental projection of this ideal or conceptual state of affairs into the outer world (as a real future state or condition) accompanied by a strong personal identification with it, provides comfort and consolation – a form of compensation – for the humiliating restrictions and frustrations actually experienced.

Having clearly grasped this, we must remember that at all times, from the very beginnings of human society right up to the present, the vast mass of mankind has existed under conditions of severe social and natural limitation. None, indeed, is able to escape either class of restriction, but the severity of the totality of these external conditions is obviously much greater for some (the majority, in fact) than for others. Again – and this internal ideological factor is the more important for its being easily and often overlooked – external limitations of the same kind and same degree of severity are more bearable or acceptable to some than to others, according to their level of ideological development. For instance, those concerned with the physical notion of Utopia are less mentally frustrated by, and consequently less concerned with, social limitations and conditions – that is, in the actual world – than are those who are identified with the political Utopia. And conversely, those who are identified with the political Utopia are less mentally frustrated by the physical conditions of the material world than are those who compensate for this frustration by identifying themselves with, and e. g. reading fantasies about, a world in which man is largely freed from the limitations imposed by inanimate nature.

We are now in a position to see that Utopian conceptions have existed, in one form or another, practically since the dawn of human society, and that the primitive savage’s notion of ‘the happy hunting grounds’ is but an early example of Utopian conception. ‘Heaven,’ ‘Paradise,’ ‘the Other World,’ ‘the Millenium’ are among many other examples of the Utopian concept which line the long path of man’s ideological development from its most primitive stages. To put it in brief: it is possible to trace our two relatively modern Utopian conceptions right back, through various religious forms, to the earliest forms of religion and to the primitive cult of magic itself. Utopia, we might say, is as old as magic and probably as old as man.

The fact that our two modern forms of Utopian concept are no longer apparently associated with religion, but rather with science, is largely accounted for by the following: In the first place, it is only in comparatively recent times that science has disentangled itself from formal religion as a separate, independent movement. That is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why science appears to many as exclusively a product of the modern era. The fact remains that the origin of science itself is to be sought in primeval magic and religion. As Professor B. Malinowski shows in his Magic, Science and Religion ‘… even the lowest savage communities have the beginnings of science.’ The earlier prototypes of the modern scientists were the ‘witch-doctors’ and ancient priests. And to-day, the lineal descendants of the magical rites – calculated to produce the desired changes in our environment – are to be found in scientific experiment and laboratory technique and in the technical methods of applied science. Ritual manipulation of sacred objects involved in magical processes has been replaced by ‘ritual’ manipulation of press- buttons, switches, knobs and levers on complex instruments and machines. The vestments of the priests have changed to the white smocks of the research workers and laboratory assistants. Science is, with real truth, ‘modern magic.’ Secondly, while there is no very obvious connection with religion in these scientific Utopias, a detailed analysis reveals there is nevertheless a great deal of religious content, and much of the magical element, still in them.

Are we, then, to dismiss these modern forms of Utopia as mere illusions? The answer is that though much in them is illusory and undoubtedly the result of a wish-fulfilment process, they do actually present us – in proportion as the scientific and logical content is great – with a large measure of truth concerning certain aspects of man’s future development. The illusory or delusive element, which has always been a strong ingredient of the Utopia concept, has grown less in the course of man’s ideological evolution as knowledge and rational understanding increased. This is true, of course, not only of the ideological growth of the whole social organism, but also of the ideological development of the individual which latter recapitulates and sometimes extends that of society.

We have already referred to the development of the physical concept of Utopia into the political one, as correspondingly with a transference of interest to and increasing understanding of human social relations and the science of society. But although the economic aspect of social structure and evolution has been well analysed by Marx, Engels and others, the politico-ideological development of society is still little understood. The science of human social consciousness has, as yet, hardly begun to take shape. Even the need of such a science is not very widely recognised. Given an increasing scientific interest and knowledge in this sphere of man’ s nature on the part of those already interested in social science – and that interest does seem to be growing – we may safely expect further radical modifications of the Utopian concept.

One such concept certainly arises, I think, from a new application and extension of the theory of evolutionary levels. This idea of ‘levels’ or organisation, or ‘integrative levels’ as it is sometimes called, is not in itself new, but it has recently been gaining much more attention among the scientifically minded.

Here is what one scientist, Joseph Needham – Cambridge biochemist and well-known writer on science – has to say about ‘levels’ in Science and Society (Summer 1946):

In recent books such as Time, the Refreshing River and History is on Our Side, I have tried to outline the characteristics of the various levels of integration which we find in the world around us, and the profound effects which a proper appreciation of them has on one’s world outlook and actions in society. In doing so one’s feelings are rather mixed, for the conception of levels seems so painfully obvious, and yet at the same time so many of the philosophies and world outlooks which intelligent people entertain seem to be based on a complete disregard of the world’s development, past and to come. It need hardly be said that these ideas did not originate with the present author…

However… it is necessary once more, at risk of wearisome repetition, to outline what I mean by integrative levels. The levels occur in the form both of envelopes and successions. Spatially, the smaller organisms are contained in the larger. The physical particles are in the atoms, the atoms are in the molecules, the molecules are in the colloidal aggregates, the latter are in the living cells, the cells are within the organs, and these again within the living bodies, and finally the bodies are within the social aggregates, of which there are aggregates of aggregates, organisms of organisms, up to the highest of which we can conceive. . .But the other aspect of this view is the temporal one. There has been a succession in time of these various levels. There were physical particles before there were atoms, simple atoms before there were large unstable ones, molecules before there were living cells and protoplasm, living particles or cells in isolation before there were metazoa and metaphyta, and primitive plants and animals before there were the most highly complex and active ones.

‘The only obvious guiding thread running through this series of stages of order, is a rise, in spite of all setbacks, in the level of organisation. As a biochemist, the writer has tried to define it especially in the biological field…

Perhaps the most important aspect of this view for the study of man’s ideological evolution is what I have called ‘the co-existence of levels’ or ‘the persistence of levels.’

The relevance of this co-existence of evolutionary levels may not be at first obvious, but it becomes plainer when we realise that:

1) the whole domain of ideologies forms a system of levels of ‘outlook’ or mental organisation – a hierarchical group of ‘ideological layers’ – ranging from the more simple of outlooks to the more complex, co-existing and persisting together – but which in the long course of social evolution, have made their appearance one after another, with the more complex succeeding the more simple;

2) this tendency of evolution to produce an increasing multiformity, heterogeneity and differentiation of levels in the ideological realm – as it does elsewhere – conflicts with the political concept of Utopia in that the latter envisages, as an essential condition of its actual establishment, the more or less gradual elimination of all existing ideological levels except its own; it assumes, in other words, that the product of evolution in the sphere of ideologies is the opposite of what it is everywhere else – it assumes, namely, the growth of ideological uniformity and homogeneity, and the disappearance of ideological differentiation.

The persistence, hitherto, of the lower ideological layers has either to be denied altogether by the political Utopians, or explained away as a mere temporary effect of the present economic system. But science itself develops from one level to another; and the new knowledge and changed attitude it brings with it grows and spreads among people – spreading not indeed after the unlimited fashion assumed by the political Utopian, but in a limited manner, among limited numbers. Thus must grow new ideas and knowledge concerning man’s ideological evolution and the continued persistence of its hierarchy of evolutionary levels.

We end this short essay with the following words on hierarchic levels of knowledge and of phenomena, written by Professor Robert Flint well over forty years ago (from his History of the Classification of the Sciences [1904] quoted by Professor J.A.Thomson’s Introduction to Science):

There is a logical dependence of the sciences. And why? Just because there is a natural dependence of phenomena. The quantitative relations with which mathematics deals are more general than the mechanical laws which physics brings to light; there can be no chemical combinations unconditioned by physical properties; vital functions never appear apart from chemical processes; and there must be life before there can be consciousness. That remarkable hierarchy of phenomena is a fact which a cloud of abstract language or a covering of subtle reasoning may to some extent and for a short while conceal from our view, but which no language or reasoning can efface or even long obscure. And there being such a hierarchy of phenomena, it is scarcely conceivable that there should be no corresponding hierarchy of sciences.

We may perhaps add that, there being such a hierarchy of natural phenomena and a corresponding one of social knowledge, it is scarcely conceivable that the sphere of ideologies, of human social consciousness, should not exhibit the same hierarchic structure, involving co-existence and persistence of its component levels. To say otherwise is surely to call a halt to science when it crosses the threshold of the domain of ideologies.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.