Ken Smith: Review of Beyond Politics

SPANNER 4, so long awaited, includes both Napoleonics of Marxism (for the appearance of that in SPANNER and IC in the same week see the Editorial in IC 57), and a review of Beyond Politics by Ken Smith. In reprinting the review we omit one paragraph on Popper and another on Huxley and Orwell and add the reply which has been sent. – GW

The failure of the proletarian revolution to take place as predicted by the Anarchists and Marxists in the 19th Century has provoked different reactions from commentators. The majority of critics have fastened on to the failure of the prediction, the revolution, to take place, and have wondered why. A group calling themselves the Social Science Association appeared at meetings of the Socialist Party in the 1940s with an explanation. One of them, Harold Walsby, outlined it in a book called The Domain of Ideologies. Societies were composed of a pyramid of groups, each adhering to a particular paradigm or ideology. These groups did not reflect economic interests. What they did reflect was not explained. At any event, the base of the pyramid, the biggest group, tended to support the status quo. As far as the groups above that one were concerned, the smaller they got the more critical they were of the system. A breathtaking platitude you might say and you would be right. Regimes have appeared which rule by the machine-gun and secret police alone, but they tend to be unstable. By and large people get the government they deserve. If there is a substantial shift in public opinion these regimes are prone to collapse, as we have recently witnessed in Eastern Europe, and they didn’t need an armed uprising to bring it about.

George Walford, known to many London socialists as a critic of the Socialist Party, has written this book to publicise the views of Harold Walsby, whose own book was given a rough passage in a review by Gilbert McLatchie (Socialist Standard April 1949). His argument that political groups do not reflect economic interests simply does not bear examination: ‘Rather than interests governing ideologies, ideologies determine interests’ he says (p. 10). He can quote as many rich or aristocratic revolutionaries as he likes; they are swallows that do not make a summer. The rich and powerful in the main support conservative governments which promise higher profits and lower wages, and workers tend to vote for those who promise higher wages and better conditions.

He is not one to let ugly little facts upset a beautiful big theory; ‘present society with its demonstrated ability to maintain the current world population’ (p. 11) Does he mean the millions starving in the Third World as a consequence of multinationals taking over their land? Or struggles between powerful nations being carried on by their proxies through wars in the undeveloped world?

‘Increases in population arise from progress in public health’ (p. 12) ‘population continues to increase… a consequence mainly of improved medicine, sanitation and food production’ (p. 135) Really? But the population explosion is taking place in the Third World. Public health progress in Africa, Asia and Latin America? In the West the population is static where it is not shrinking.

‘No matter how hard the producers work, production does not satisfy demand’ (p. 60). Are we to conclude from this that crises of glutted markets never occur? And how can we reconcile this with the earlier claim about ability to maintain the world’s population?

George Walford argues that Conservatism offers economic freedom and political control whereas Anarchism offers political freedom and economic control (pp. 19, 22). He has insisted for years, incidentally, that the SPGB is an anarchist organisation. We can plead guilty to this soft impeachment as long as he means majority action and not minority insurrection. But economic freedom under Conservatism? For whom? The system was got going only by the violent dispossession of the peasantry.

And economic control under Anarchism? George Walford quotes Daniel Guerin who quotes Bakunin (p. 21) to the effect that we “Anarchists” propose a world-wide system of control. (He contradicts this, foot of page 122). Now, we are not in the business of justifying anything that Bakunin wrote (or Marx, for that matter) but this claim seems improbable, and George Walford doesn’t say where it is made.

He does not bother to go to the source of anything. A lot of his book is a farrago cobbled together from reviews of other books – he is a diligent reader of the Times Literary Supplement. He really should do some homework with original texts. It will make his claims more difficult to sustain, but having falsified them, he will at least be able to claim his procedures were scientific, even if his conclusions were wrong. Then we might be spared such nonsense as: ‘Every society producing its own food has used authority and coercion’ (p. 26). ‘Anarchism produced the State’ (p. 73). ‘A collectivity consists of individuals’ (p. 75). ‘Animals… behave ideologically’ (p. 125) and apparently amoebae also (p. 25).

It gives me no pleasure to pronounce this book mere drivel because every effort to understand and deal with the mess that the world is in should be encouraged. The conclusion is easy to come to because it is clearly written, unlike much academic drivel which is being pumped out of the universities in wilfully obscurantist form.

Why do people believe what they do, and what causes them to change their mind? For the day-to-day struggle, getting in the necessities of life, i.e. material considerations is the spur. For changing the world, it is clearly not enough. A book is needed but George Walford’s is not the one.

REPLY (sent as a letter)

Dear Editors,

Spanner No.4 includes a review of my book Beyond Politics. It is a remarkable effort, and I trust you will allow me to draw attention to some of its outstanding beauties.

The reviewer, member of a party long known for its hostility to the ideas put forward in Harold Walsby’s Domain of Ideologies (1947), starts as he means to go on, saying that Walsby does not account for the presence of distinct ideological groups. In fact this forms his main theme and already on page 29, immediately after introducing them, he is saying: ‘What we do suggest, however, is that our scale of political outlooks has a direct and close relation with the growth of intellect, or rather, with an aspect of intellectual development.’ Less importantly, the reviewer speaks of the Social Science Association as a group calling themselves by that title; in fact it was a formally constituted body.

He says that as political groups became smaller they grew more critical. He may be right to condemn this as a platitude, but what does it have to do with the subject? What Walsby said was rather that as they grow more critical they tend to become smaller, and this observation is by no means a platitude, as the reviewer’s party know only too well. Among the groups most critical of the system, they are also among the smallest, and have remained so for nearly ninety years. On their own showing this condemns them to impotence, since they declare they need an overwhelming, worldwide majority to achieve their aim.

The Socialist Standard‘s review of The Domain of Ideologies was written by McClatchie, not ‘McLatchie’; our reviewer seems unable to get anything right. It is the only known instance of a member of the (A-)SPGB publicly tackling Walsby’s book, and the effect produced was of a minnow in pursuit of a barracuda. The main theoretical substance of the book comes in Part II, Ideological Structure and Development, and apart from a single reference to the Conclusion McClatchie did not mention this. Neither did he tell his readers what Walsby had to say about the (A-)SPGB. The review was of some 5,000 words, and Walsby produced a reply of similar length. The Socialist Standard demonstrating its concern for freedom of the press by refusing to print this, the SSA issued it as a pamphlet, under the title Mugwump and Moonshine or, McClatchie in Wonderland. (McClatchie had used ‘mugwump’).

Our reviewer does not examine the argument of Beyond Politics at all; he merely tears out a few statements to contradict (offering no support for his counter-assertions), and asks insinuating questions. He says that workers tend not to vote Conservative. Yet conservatism has held office for longer than any other party in this century, and his party tells us the workers provide some 90% of the electorate. No number of rich or aristocratic revolutionaries, he tells us, will dent his belief in class theory, and here he distinguishes himself, for not many even among (anarcho-)socialists will openly proclaim their determination to ignore unwelcome evidence.

Beyond Politics ascribes increases in population mainly to improved medicine, sanitation and food production. Our reviewer points out (and this he gets right) that the population explosion is taking place in the Third World; he then questions whether there has been public health progress in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I think that here he fakes ignorance in a desperate attempt to make a point. If he honestly does not know of the public health progress in these countries then he is not competent to be commenting on public affairs.

He suffers from tunnel vision; his attention fixed on the millions who die prematurely he cannot see the thousands of millions who live; in present society human life flourishes as never before. Through all the ages from the first appearance of humanity down to 1900, our numbers reached only 2 billion; now the UN predicts 8 billion by 2020. Present society does even better than that, going beyond increase of population towards controlling that increase and the dangers it brings.

Beyond Politics links conservatism with support for freedom of economic action, and anarchism with advocacy of economic control. Our reviewer asks: Economic freedom for whom? He claims to have read page 19, but he fails to see that it has forestalled his question, saying that conservatism would: ‘leave competition 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.’ He questions whether anarchism does advocate economic control. If he were to read the literature of his own (Anarcho-) Socialist Party he would find that they seek worldwide economic control carried to the ultimate by vesting private ownership solely in the community and eliminating money. (Any contradiction between that and their repudiation of power, authority and leadership is a problem for them, not for me).

Our reviewer says, falsely, that a lot of Beyond Politics is taken from reviews of other books and, truly, that I am a diligent reader of the TLS. He has a low opinion of reviews, and his own effort tempts one to agree. But when engaged in the study of thinking reviews, also, provide original information. Hard though it is to believe in some cases, reviewers also think. (Incidentally, Beyond Politics offers three pages of Notes and References, nearly all of them to original sources, the TLS appearing twice.) Offered unfamiliar information our reviewer dismisses it as nonsense; this response prevents him learning from what he reads and does much to account for this review. He falsifies by selection; the statement on page 73 in fact reads: ‘If these [the foraging communities] were anarchist then it follows that anarchism produced the state’ (emphasis now added); this stands well apart from the unconditional assertion ‘quoted’ (actually, invented) by our reviewer. If he were to undertake some diligent reading of the TLS himself he might learn how responsible critics go about the job. When he ends by pronouncing the book ‘mere drivel’ it comes as a relief; had this review ended with approval I’d be worried.

Yours etc. George Walford.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.

continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis.