Peter Shepherd: Origins and Limitations of the Walsby Viewpoint

“An adaption of some notes about Walsby and the SSA I wrote in April 1965, when in Ghana […] it was not published […] The 1965 notes were called ‘Thoughts on the African Identity’ and included an account and attempted analysis not only of that question and of ‘Social Rationality’ (the expression I used for Walsby’s concerns) but of ‘World Society.'” – Peter Shepherd, letter to Trevor Blake, 31 August 1998

The Social Science Association was founded in October 1944 by, or under the dominant influence of, Harold Walsby, author subsequently of a fairly short book, The Domain of Ideologies (1947). The core of this body was a group that had originated, in the years just before the Second world War, in a small break­away from the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The S.P.G.B. had been formed in 1904 by just over a hundred dissident members of the old Social Democratic Federation in revolt against the reformist policies and authoritarian leadership of the latter. Explicitly Marxist, it held that poverty, unemployment, crisis, war, etc. resulted from capitalism, i.e. the private ownership of the means of production and the purchase of the energies of the propertyless in order to produce for the owners of capital a profit; but further, that this system could be abolished only by a majority of the working class convinced of the necessity for replacing it by common ownership of the means of production by all mankind. (This abolition of private property was to be accomplished by the delegates sent to Parliament by the socialist working class.) The Party opposed all attempts to enlist support on reform programmes, on the grounds that capitalism could not be fundamentally altered by reform and that no party could institute socialism on the basis of other than consciously socialist votes. Further, it opposed all alliances with reformist parties, whatever they called themselves. It set itself as its sole task the conversion of a majority of the workers of the world to Socialism. It did not accept in 1917 the claim of the Bolsheviks that it was possible to establish socialism in Russia on the basis of votes not for socialism but for “Peace, Land and Bread”; and it regarded the Soviet system and its copies not as socialism but as State capitalism, maintaining the essential social relations of wage-labour and capital in the interests of the power and privilege of State bondholders and Communist Party leaders.

Walsby’s position developed in the first place from a Hegelian critique of materialism, in relation especially to the SPGB assumption that socialist consciousness will necessarily be engendered by the capitalist system. It can be best expressed, however, in terms of the essential contradiction in the SPGB position – viz. that society is both ready and not ready for socialism. On the one hand the Party calls on the workers to establish socialism, claiming that the material conditions ‘are ripe for the change’ and all that remains is for the working class to realise this and act on the knowledge; yet on the other hand it regards the advent of this realisation as an eventual outcome of the ‘ripe’ conditions. That is, as a materialist, the SPGB’er can envisage no other cause of a change in consciousness than a change in material conditions, yet he can advocate socialism (i.e. call for the required change in consciousness) only on the supposition that the material conditions have changed sufficiently for the change in consciousness to be there but that it is not in fact therefor if it were he would not need to advocate socialism. In effect, to affirm as he does every day in his propaganda activity that the material conditions. are ripe is to admit that something other than material conditions is needed ­ but he cannot say what. If on the other hand he were to conclude – as many do, in fact – that the material conditions are not ‘ripe’ after all, he is confronted not only with the implication that his propaganda is a waste of time, but also with the fact that he has no explanation for the existence of his own socialist consciousness and no theory of what further changes are required in material conditions to produce the required mass consciousness.

Walsby held that this contradiction merely makes explicit a contradiction implicit in all materialist-socialist thought – which the SPGB has taken to a logical conclusion that other Marxists are not willing to face. It is the contradiction between voluntarism and determinism implied in the very act of affirming a determinist position and thereby endeavouring to win others to it; for such an act implies that in practice ideas are determined by ideas (propaganda, advocacy), not by material conditions. But to say that ideas determine ideas is to say that ideas determine themselves – i.e. that ideological processes follow laws of their own. From this beginning, following in essence the anatomy of thinking and its forms provided in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, Walsby developed a concept of an independent evolution of thought through a series of stages of increasing rationality, each stage being attainable by a smaller proportion of people than its predecessor, however. He expressed this as the principle of “ideological hierarchy” – the higher (the level of thought) the fewer (the numbers attaining it). In his book he offered a detailed account of this process of development in the individual, using largely psychoanalytic terminology but also equating the formation of assumptions with the formation of conditioned reflexes of increasing complexity, and tracing the whole process to an ‘absolute assumption’ of indeterminacy or freedom which is progressively repressed.

Avoiding most of the details of Walsby’s analysis, two particular points can be brought out. The first is that the contradiction expressed in the SPGB’s propaganda activity was regarded by Walsby as stemming from the basic philosophical contradiction of materialism – the postulate of a purely objective world, independent of thought, which is nevertheless a subjective product, a concept [1]- and as involving the further contradiction of a development of thought which would do away with its own prior and indispensable stages. That is, for Walsby such doctrines as conservatism, liberalism, labourism and communism were simply the political expression of stages of thought which were a permanent feature of society.

Second, the political conclusion which he drew from all this was that democracy lay in permanent danger from the basic stage of thought, the “mass” mode whose purest political expression was fascism. He held that fascism was always liable to reappear to the extent that the exponents of democratic ideologies failed to provide an outlet for the irrational needs of this lowest layer. Thus the SSA tried for a time to sponsor a political programme whereby a multiple organisation of all the major “democratic” tendencies – conservatism, liberalism, labourism and communism – would systematically combat fascism by using techniques of “senso-propaganda” (a term coined by Chakotin in The Rape of the Masses) to arouse enthusiasm in the unreasoning mass “layer.” At that time there were some signs of a resurgence of Mosley’s movement in Britain, but as they died away so the SSA’s political raison d’etre disappeared. Its scientific pretensions had never been more than rather nominal, and were quite insufficient to prevent moribundity and finally death, early in 1956.

Walsby never clearly explained the necessity for his principle of ideological hierarchy, but it is not difficult to draw it out of what he had to say. He held that the individual’s unreasoning bondage to his group originated in his experience in early life of being saved from pain and, in general, limitation, from his material environment, by his human environment (initially his mother) – so that he identifies with his group and fears its power. Increasing rationality brings greater understanding of the material environment and the laws which govern it, and thus reduces the individual’s need for group support. Hence he finds the group’s rules and restrictions increasingly irksome and becomes progressively estranged therefore from his social environment. Since the social environment consists of the behaviour of other people conforming to established standards, it is not possible for more than a minority to be estranged from it; the expression of this estrangement, in rational criticism of established norms, engenders a reaction of resentment and hostility to such analysis. In other words, the continuance of society depends on the irrational, unquestioning acceptance of its norms by the majority, and rationality is thus parasitic on this irrationality. The more rationalistic the content of a political position, the fewer are those able to accept it. The most highly rational positions, those of the SPGB and the anarchists, are and can be accepted only by a tiny minority.

This position of Walsby’s is not a conservative or anti-rational one – nor, for that matter, is it either left-wing or centrist. It neither condemns rational social thought as arid and unrealistic nor believes in its indefinite validity. Rather, it contends that social reality has an essentially irrational content, but that the nature of this irrationality must be rationally analysed and understood; it postulates a science of anti-science [2]. Indeed, had social facts no irrational core or basis, social problems would not be as difficult as they are; they would present problems merely of rational choice between mutually incompatible alternatives. Some interpretations of the nature of social problems – e.g. by classical economics – make some such presupposition. They suppose, as it were, that all solutions partake of the essential nature of a demonstration that you cannot comb your hair with your hat on. Such a supposition works reasonably well in a situation characterised by firm consensus i.e. where all participants accept the same standards and manifest similar motives, which can then be taken for granted as “natural” or “obvious” human dispositions. This might imply that rationalist-individualist social thought is prevalent where nationality, and thus basic consensus, is firmly established. Where the essentially irrational foundations of society require reconstruction, the “abstract rationality” which evaluates irrationality merely negatively becomes quite inadequate.

While Walsby’s position can thus be seen to imply the necessity and value of social rationality, it does not go beyond this bare implication. It appears that his failure to develop his position in this direction is due to its psycho­logistic bias. That is, his delineation of the stages of intellectual development does not go beyond an account of individual growth quantitatively limited by social factors – which are scarcely even sketched. He neither explains the instigation of such intellectual growth nor considers what social function the several “ideological layers” may fulfil. His concern is with the anatomy and growth of attitudinal systems. Nevertheless, his notion that such systems are differentiated from one another by the nature of what is repressed (a la Freud) or inhibited (a la Pavlov) in each, offers a valuable pointer. (For example, he regards mechanistic materialism as entailing repression, at its most complete, of the principle of indeterminism which represents the individual’s original experience of his own striving against limitation; and the dialectical principle in Marxist philosophy entails a partial “return of repressed material” .

Schematic Diagram of Ideological Development

The diagram is copied, a little inaccurately and with a slight modification, from an article by Walsby, “Atoms and Ideology,” in The New Age of Atomics No. 1 issued by the Social Science Association in October, 1945. It may serve to clarify Walsby’s analysis.

The characterization of ideological forms by structures of inhibition, or repression, and de-inhibition suggests that the occupants of a given “ideological level” are enabled by their attitudinal commitment to do certain things which others are unable to do, and also prevented from doing other things that occupants of other ideological levels can do. For example, it can be claimed that the attitudinal system common to all the Bolshevik leaders in 1917 entailed such a freedom from attachment to the symbols and norms of their society as to enable them to cut ruthlessly through all the institutional undergrowth in the way of Russia’s modernization. At the same time, their uncritical acceptance of the “vanguard” principle – the incompatibility of which with the object of socialism cannot be seen at this level, which still entails some commitment to socially accepted principles, especially that of leadership – prevents them from seeing that the pattern of social relations which they have instituted differs from orthodox capitalism only in being more centralised. Hence they are led repeatedly into courses of action which to the outside observer are glaringly incongruous with their professions of principle, and thus into ever more tortuous justifications of them. Thus Bolshevism and its derivatives have made critical breaks with hampering institutions possible, with the ruthlessness made additionally acceptable by confidence in their ultimate vindication by history; but they appear to contain influences strongly inhibiting the wider and more complex distribution of power and decision-making which a developed industrial system necessitates. Without pursuing this point in any further detail, it can be claimed in general that for every distinct set of assumptions about society there is a distinct set of social functions best suited to those to those who hold such assumptions.

The most serious weakness of Walsby’s psychologistic approach is its complete failure to explain how what are explicitly claimed to be ideological minorities have managed to wield social influence. The Social Science Association’s political recommendations did imply that it was possible for holders of the several varieties of “democratic” assumptions to use appropriate psychological techniques deliberately for manipulation and control of “the mass level,” it is true; but they gave no solid reason for believing that the “democrats” could be ipso facto better at this than the fascists, and certainly no reason why they had been able to gain and retain political power in the first place. The whole problem was seen in terms of the actions of individuals, albeit individuals combined in organisations; it was never viewed in sociological terms – i.e. of social structure, institutions and established symbols. I saw this in a dim way soon after my first association with Walsby and the S.S.A. – in the form that what they meant by “ideology” was not what was commonly meant. Whereas they were concerned with assumptions, the common notion is concerned with formal symbols – dogmas, sacred books, heroes, etc. I formulated this difficulty as the need for a distinction between “set” and “creed,” but got on further than speculating on the nature of the connections between the two. In early 1963 I attempted a delineation of the connection, in the form of a depiction ‘of the manner in which a new ideology comes into being’ through ‘a series of characteristic stages’ which I labelled broaching (of a new set of problems), insight (into a new way of organising the data to cast light on the problems), incubation (in particular individuals for whom the new insight has obsessive interest), formulation, credalisation (by a group, which comes to use the “founder’s formulation as a standard means of communication, especially for making the insight known and pursuing its implications) dissemination, entrenchment (of the group or its successors in a position of stable influence), dissension and traditionalisation [3]. A given ideological tradition thus brought into being (e.g. Christianity, Marxism) provides both an idiom for communication about all subsequent related matters and an orientation which selectively directs attention to certain aspects of experience rather than others. Out of the matrix of a given tradition a new ideology may develop, initially using the idiom of the established tradition, but forced by necessity at some stage (sometimes quite a late stage) to coin a new set of terms which will express the new insight more adequately; the new insight is itself a re-orientation, i.e. it can only be achieved by reorganising data of experience in a way contrary to established convention.

The idea that each ideological level has its “ideal function” implies also that it has its own sphere of validity – i.e. that there is always some context within which any established viewpoint (or in strictness any viewpoint) is sound. Thus, although Newtonian mechanics is false for very high speeds and very low masses, it is perfectly satisfactory for the speeds of trains and cars, for example; it could even be argued that for such everyday purposes Einsteinian principles are false, inasmuch as they hamper successful dealing with the environment. By the same token, the view that the sun goes round the earth is by no means entirely false; indeed, from the standpoint of relativity theory, the movement of the earth round the sun is the same thing as the movement of the sun round the earth – it is just vastly more difficult for an astronomer to describe the motions of planets on the latter assumption, that is all. What is entailed ultimately in such an approach to truth and falsehood is a Hegelian epistemology which views all knowledge as uniting subject and object, each of which exist only as logical postulates, never as directly known. In respect of ordinary dealings with everyday objects, such an epistemology is too sophisticated: since the relation of all subjects to a given object (a house, a table, a key, a glass of water) is substantially the same, naive materialism does very well – the subjective component in the situation, being constant, can be neglected. The case of social facts and social action is quite different, however: the subject’s very perception of the social situation is both a product of and an influence on it. To put it another way: whereas an event in nature is nature is a physical fact, O’s perception of it a psychological fact, and my statement that he perceives it a social fact, an event in society and a perception of it and a statement about that perception are all social facts and are all related to one another – the perception may modify the repetition of the event, and the statement may modify the perception. The pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim recommended in his The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) that the social scientist should eradicate popular preconceptions of social phenomena from his mind and view them afresh; this recommendation is useful for a preliminary stage of scientific thought, as a means of attaining clarity; but the social scientist at a later stage must return to the preconceptions and strive to understand both their relation to – their participation in – the phenomena, and the relation of his own scientific concepts to the popular ones [4]. He needs a comprehension, then, of that social phenomenon which he exemplifies: social science.

The preceding paragraph is something of a digression from the mainstream of my discussion; but it may serve to indicate the flexibility and complexity of thinking which is required for dealing with ideological problems – whether those of a theoretical kind, or those entailed in designing a relevant social system. The opening sentence, however, has other implications, as I came to realise when I renewed contact with the SPGB in 1963: although Walsby showed the contradictions in the SPGB position which accounted for its impotence – showing that any viewpoint which looked for an indefinite extension of social rationality was doomed to frustration – he had not answered its critique of capitalism.

This critique, after Marx, reduces to three. essentials:

(a) Private ownership of the means of production entails that the owners are able to claim all wealth, or value, surplus to that needed to maintain the non-owners – the producers – in a condition appropriate to their contribution to production. The steady increase in productivity steadily swells the size of this “surplus value” and therefore poses increasingly intractable problems of disposing of it through fresh investment [5]. The system is unable to dispose of it fast enough, in the end, and thus generates crises and unemployment, and ultimately war, in the competitive struggle for markets.

(b) The deprivation from the producer of his product, and the restriction of his claim on wealth to that derived from the use of his productive energies, makes his life meaningless and robs him of security and real freedom. The only remedy is for him to own the means of production himself collectively, for they are collectively operated – and to have a claim on wealth as a human being (“according to his needs”).

(c) State planning solves none of these problems, for the capitalist system Does not operate solely within states but over the world as a whole. State centralisation of control of production does no more than to turn the state into a joint stock company competing with others in the unregulated (world) market as of old. The common ownership which is to solve the problems of capitalism must therefore be world-wide.

As the experience of the SPGB has shown, and as Walsby’s analysis makes clear, true common ownership and the abolition of the wages system can be consistently advocated only at the cost of political impotence. Conversely, “socialists” can be politically effective only to the extent that they abandon socialism – as, in fact, they all have done wherever they have attained power. The fashion for calling state ownership “socialism” acknowledges the professed Ideals of the wielders of state power, but it obscures the fact that, in extracting surplus value from the productive activity of workers paid a wage adequate to preserve their labour-power, the ruling group maintain the essentials of capitalist relations as Marx defined them [6]. Apart from its case that the exercise of “collective ownership” through the state merely translates the competition more completely to the world arena by eliminating it within the state (just as it is eliminated within the firm), the SPGB’s insistence on world socialism can be understood to mean that workers convinced of the need for socialism would find no need to perpetuate the existing divisions between national communities [7]. Strictly speaking, this “common ownership” is tantamount to no ownership, and is perhaps better described by the anarchist expression, “free access to the means of production.” That is, no collective organ for the exercise of world-wide common ownership is necessarily implied by the envisaged scheme of things. But even if it were, the continued applicability of the description “common ownership” would be guaranteed by the assumed precondition for its establishment, viz. “majority understanding.” In brief, the SPGB sees the working class as capable of becoming – destined, indeed, to become – an aggregate of rational individuals each of whom has become logically convinced that “socialism is the only solution.” The society that they set up will thus also be an aggregate of rational individuals; and just as the presence of “socialist understanding” in the majority of the workers which, it is held, will send delegates to Parliament to end capitalism, will guarantee that these delegates will not abuse their power, so the fact that society will continue to consist of rational individuals will guarantee that those responsible for exercising the powers of ownership will not abuse them. In effect, what is assumed here is that the postulated state of consciousness serves to distribute power: everyone would survey what was going on, and object if he saw the wrong things done. But since a society of rational individuals is impossible, the exercise of powers of collective ownership inevitably concentrates power in the hands of those who exercise them, and what is in practice achieved is not common ownership in any sense but ownership by the ruling group. [8]

Two conclusions follow. First, socialism is valid as a critique and aspiration, but not as a political programme for achieving adequate control of surplus value and equalising claims on wealth – or rather, detaching them from contribution to production or ownership of capital. Insofar as such a programme is advocated consistently it will fail to attract mass support – because of its rationalism and because the masses do not in any case favour economic collectivism. (Walsby describes the majority as economically individualist and politically collectivist, and the intellectual left-wing minorities as economically collectivist and politically individualist.) If, on the other hand, those who favour such a programme obtain power on the strength of some other claims – such as “Peace, Land and Bread,” or any of the sets of reform promises which socialist parties use – then the system they institute, because it lacks the essential condition for distributing power to individuals (i.e. mass individual rationality), will be one that perpetuates old relationships in a new form and perhaps in new language. The claim of Communist parties to represent “the people” or “the workers” has no basis in existential reality. The actual people or workers being “misled by capitalist propaganda” (i.e. attached to capitalist values), they must be educated (or browbeaten) into seeing, or at least acting in accordance with, their “true interests” as known to their leaders, the Communists. That is, the proletariat of which the Communists are “the party” is an ideal proletariat – a proletariat as it would be if it understood things the way Communists do. Hence in the name of this mythical proletariat, these ideal masses, the Communists wield uninhibited powers of coercion over the real people, their subjects. As Djilast puts it in The New Class: ‘Communist regimes are a form of latent civil war between the government and the people.’ The government fights the people as they are on behalf of the people as they ought to be. To the extent that outsiders accept the claims of such regimes to be popular and socialist, they show that they have forgotten Marx’s teaching that we should not accept men’s beliefs about themselves as criteria for defining their social position, but rather explain their beliefs by their position. The Communists’ belief that they are working towards communism and the end of exploitation of man by man simply strengthens their ability to exploit their workers in the interests of state power [9].

The second conclusion is that, since a true system of common ownership cannot be established, and the systems set up by self-styled socialists are either means of “humanizing” capitalism and preserving labor-power more effectively (as in the welfare states) or means of finding new outlets for surplus value by political coercion, it follows that nothing that has been done by socialists has achieved more than to postpone the effects of the workings of capitalism [10]. Surplus value piles up in increasing amounts – diverted into war preparation, space exploration, and the attempt to open up new markets through foreign aid. Workers everywhere continue to be alienated from their products, and are still dependent (despite the welfare state) on selling their energies to live. Thus, if a solution to the classic problems of capitalism, as defined by Marx, is to be found, it cannot be through socialism.

[1] The theoretical contradiction of thinking about independence of thought is connected with the practical contradiction of advocating a determinist outlook.
[2] The first part of Walsby’s book is in fact a critique of the irrational assumption of rationalists that rationality is of universal validity. He claims that the “mass-rationality assumption” is a projection onto society of the intellectual’s own tendencies.
[3] The point about this analysis is that it tries to trace the transformation of a set of concepts (with an intellectual function) into a set of symbols (with a socially integrative function).
[4] This whole process exemplified what Walsby means by repression and the return of repressed material, in the evolution of thinking about the world. Deliberate detachment is artificial repression (suppression). NZ [additional 1999 note based on an earlier (January 1990) note:] The word “eradicate” is a 1938 translation of Durkheim’s écarter; in a later (1982) translation “discarded” is used instead. I believe écarter is much better translated as “to set aside” – which is much more credible as a mental operation, in my view.
[5] On a more sophisticated analysis the problem is not so much that of ownership per se, perhaps, as that of the ratio between consumption and investment. A high growth rate implies little growth in living standards.
[6] The meaning of “common ownership” depends also on what is meant by “ownership.” In so far as it means an abstract right to control use and usufruct, it can be said that universal sufferage itself establishes ownership by the people.
[7] They will have what may be called an “abstract rationalist” concept of membership of mankind, whereby the individual is envisaged as ceasing to think of himself as anything but a human being, and as treating other people simply as such. Yet in fact there is no way of thinking of oneself as a human being except as a particular kind of social being in some explicit or implicit relationship to a self-defined society. He who self-consciously treats a foreigner as indifferently equivalent to a fellow-countryman in all respects stands in a relationship of explicit nonconformity to the values of his polity.
[8] Any scheme for the distribution of power must postulate an appropriate set of attitudes, dispositions and abilities on the part of those to whom power is distributed – who may otherwise surrender it.
[9] It can be claimed that they provide social cohesion by the new set of symbols they institute, as suggested here earlier. The symbols have an intellectual meaning for the elite, an emotive meaning for the masses.
[10] It can also be said that, by making economic levels more equal and also providing integrating symbols, the Communists have (a) made nationalities more equal to one another, and (b) thereby exacerbated the problem of unity.

April 1965