P. J. Rollings: Harold Walsby (1911-1975) A Brief Intellectual Biography

Harold Walsby Commemorative Harold Walsby A Brief Intellectual Biography by P. J. Rollings

Although for some years he was an educational salesman and publisher and also taught Logic for a year to sociology students at the University of Reading (1970-71) Harold Walsby earned his living mainly by painting and drawing and other artistic production. For about the first twenty years of his adult life he lived in London, where before the Second World War he was a quite well-known figure in Trafalgar Square and an active participant in the intellectual society of the Soho cafes. The last twenty years he spent more quietly and obscurely in Oxfordshire, the Pennines and the Lake District, where he died suddenly of a heart attack on May 2, 1973

His most central, steadfast and lifelong interests were formed in the mid-1930s by two decisive influences. The first was the pre-Leninist Marxism of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, of whose position Walsby was at time an able advocate, although he never formally joined it then. The second, and greater, influence on him was that of a philosopher of Hegelian persuasion, named F. S. Johnson, who likewise haunted the Soho cafes and had a formidable reputation as a disputant. Mastered him in argument, Walsby became convinced that the dialetical materialism he had upheld was radically unsound, and accepted Johnson for a time as his mentor. Through all his life thereafter, indeed, it was to him that he acknowledged his greatest intellectual debt.

The conviction that not merely dialectical materialism but materialism in general was inherently self-contradictory (in the sense, for example, that it postulates a completely objective reality independent of or essentially unrelated to the knowledge of it, which however is and can only be a mere abstract concept and thus completely subjective) brought Harold Walsby to a general systematic critique of Marxist political assumptions, especially in far as they turn on the view that men’s consciousness is basically formed by or dependent on their material conditions of existence. Insisting that consciousness, or thought, also had its own independent nature and laws of operation, and thus was in a vital sense self-determined, Walsby eventually arrived at the concept of a hierarchy of forms or modes of thinking such that each level or “layer” of thought is more highly organised, more systematic, more detached and rational, especially in its view of society and social problems, than its predecessor – and also less extensive quantitatively (i.e. held by fewer people). Thus he held that the programme of such a body as the S.P.G.B., resting as it did on the assumption that a majority of people could become imbued with a critical, rational view of the social order, was vitiated by the inherently self-limiting nature of the development of thought. Further, in so far as the overwhelming majority of people, on this argument, is and is bound to be irrational and anti-intellectual in outlook, and in so far as such an outlook is most directly and immediately expressed in Fascist doctrines, Harold Walsby claimed that democracy and liberty would be in recurrent peril unless and until means were found of meeting the emotional political needs of “the mass layer” within a democratic system.

Having attracted to his philosophical and political position a small group of followers, principally recruited from the Socialist Party of Great Britain (and including a few of its hitherto most prominent and active members) Walsby set about translating his views from their abstruse and in many ways arbitrary neo-Hegelian philosophical expression into the more precise and determinate language of empirical science. He found himself drawing most heavily on Freud, especially for his concepts of repression and unconscious motivation; but he also paid much attention to the views of Le Bon, McDougall and others on the nature of crowd and mass psychology, and made extensive use of Pavlov’s work on conditioned reflexes in order to develop a close analysis of the processes of assumption and identification as the elementary components of all ideologies. On such foundations he was able to erect an elaborate but highly coherent theory of the nature of intellectual development from its beginnings in the newborn child’s primal sense of omnipotence, through a series of stages of acceptance of the limitations of the external world and release from the subjective need to conform to social demands, to the repudiation of the whole social order characteristic of the extreme left-wing intellectual. This was set out in summary form by him and other members of his group, which had by October 1944 established a body known as the Social Science Association, in several small popular pamphlets and at the end of 1947 in his modest-sized book The Domain of Ideologies. The formation of the S.S.A. followed a few small and largely premature experiments in “practical politics” endeavouring to make use of the concepts of the crowd psychologists, and it reflected a decision in effect to concentrate on the publicisation of Walsby’s findings and the advocacy of a scientific approach to the problems of politics. Despite some early success in attracting interest and support, in the late 1940s and early 1950s the S.S.A. drifted into moribundity and eventual dissolution at the beginning of 1956, by which time Harold Walsby had in any case left London.

The elaboration of his complex, detailed and provocative but potentially highly fruitful theory of the basics of political psychology and intellectual development had not led him to neglect philosophy. He still saw his whole approach as deriving in the first instance from the insights he had obtained from Johnson into the dialectical nature of reality and the place of man, as thinker, in the universe. His own formulation and expression of the underlying principles was almost entirely reserved for private conversation and exposition among his associates, but it was not the less coherent for that. Its starting-point was the recognition of the essential and unavoidable self-contradictoriness of all absolute principles – and of all absolute denials of absolute principles. This was neatly and succinctly summed up in the proposition that Nothing is Absolute, or that the Absolute (hence everything, or the universe) is Nothing – another way, of course, of expressing Hegel’s assertion that Being and Nothing are one and the same, but a way of bringing out its significance more directly. For Nothing is a complete and explicit self-contradiction: it obviously has no existence whatever – by definition! – but we cannot avoid talking about it as if it had some kind of existence. Its existence is its non-existence, its inconceivability the condition of its conceivability; we can say nothing whatever about it – and yet this is just what we can say about it; its complete absence of properties is its most essential property; and so on. Precisely because it is Nothing, it can have any combination of mutually exclusive and contradictory qualities one likes.

For a time the exposition of all this, in which Harold Walsby and his associates acquired considerable skill, had a status somewhere between that of a means of mental liberation from the rigidities of other modes of thought and that of an intellectual game. But from his earliest acquaintance with this standpoint Walsby had been struck by its potential rigorousness – especially as expressed in the “Nothing is Absolute” formulation. Thus he set himself the task of finding for it a much more precise formulation still, in the rigour of mathematics. In short, he set out to mathematise the dialectic. In practice this meant finding a satisfactory interpretation of the formula zero = infinity. By early 1962 he had found that if this were added to the ordinary rules of algebra (which is, of course, basically just generalised arithmatics) as a single overriding general rule or law to which all elementary algebraic rules, conventions, etc. were made subject, there resulted a generalised form of all discourse, i.e. of all language. This “dialectic algebra” enables the operations of ordinary arithmatic to be applied to all propositions and not merely those which are inherantly quantitiative. Of it Harold Walsby subsequently wrote that it is ‘a flexible, universal language of automatic precision, a general instrument of rational thought, a mathematical structure which, as one becomes more acquainted with it, finally convinces one that it reproduces a fundamental structure which is already built-in, or naturally developed, within homo-sapiens.’ If these claims are upheld, there is no doubt that what he achieved was a central breakthrough in the task of establishing the essential relations between language, logic and mathematics – a task of widespread concern and interest today.

The last ten years of his life, with many interruptions occasioned by personal vicissitudes, Harold Walsby devoted to the elaboration and application of this discovery, and to linking it with another of his concerns about which his earlier associates probably knew least: a concern with the nature of design and orientation. It had struck him for many years that ordinary language is permeated with direct and indirect references to height and width, and from this he set out to explore the wealth of associations with vertical and horizontal alignment, etc. His better known intellectual preoccupations were thus not as separate from his means of livelihood as might have been supposed. But on these matters he published and circulated least, and their significance remains to be ascertained from his correspondence and notebook speculations. Even more is this so with the work he had started on what, with sad but unconscious appropriateness, he described in an unfinished and unsent letter to a friend written not long before he died as his ‘last problem’: that of “time” and “continuity” and their relation to the way that limitations upon observation affect physical forces and generalisations about them.

Whatever these and his previous studies may lead to, there is no doubt that Harold Walsby’s range of interests was immense, and that – what is more to the point – he was able to cast fresh and original light on everything he touched. The world has lost one of its least recognised and, until now, most neglected great minds.

31 May 1973