Peter Shepherd: The Walsby Society

When Harold Walsby died suddenly at his home in the Lake District early in May 1973, he had not lived in London for some twenty years and no organized group concerned with promulgating or pursuing his views had existed for at least seventeen years. Only a few of his friends and former associates in London (where the great majority of them lived) had remained in more than desultory contact with him. A quarter of a century had passed since his only book, The Domain of Ideologies, has appeared, it had never been widely noticed, and only those few people he had directly influenced remembered it at all. Almost all his available time for two decades – after the demands of earning a living and supporting his family had been met, often with difficulty – had been devoted to elaborating the basic principles of a dialectic mathematical logic, but his strenuous efforts in the mid-1960s to attract the attention of logicians, mathematicians and others had brought him little but frustration and keen disappointment. Even the year he had spent very successfully teaching Logic to sociology students at the University of Reading, while it had enabled him to ground his own system more firmly, had in 1971 ended with no further prospect of such congenial and relevant employment.

True, he was in his own eyes very much a lone pioneer, bound to leave to others the task of occupying in strength the territory he had first entered, and of consolidating his theoretical gains. Yet even he perhaps could scarcely have anticipated how soon his departure would prompt just such a sustained attempt to hold and utilize what he had won. Although to all appearances his former adherents had long gone their own ways and occupied themselves with other concerns, barely four weeks after his death some thirty people came together at the Conway Hall to hold a Commemorative Meeting full of testimonies to his influence and vivid evocations of his memory. At the end it was announced that it was proposed to form a Walsby Society with the principal object of promoting the study, discussion and development of his writings and researches. The response was sufficiently immediate and extensive for a series of meetings to start which not merely has become now well established but has stimulated in a few years a range of other activities.

At first a Working Committee was formed and some attempt made to constitute the Society formally; but this attempt met at once with resistance, and the Committee soon ceased to meet. Nevertheless the Society itself flourished, reversing thereby the more familiar situation in which a committee gamely struggles to bring or keep in being an organization which persists however in fading away. A vigorous programme of events, with an associated sequence of writings at first circulated but now beginning to be generally published, has in fact developed and steadily grown over the four years which have passed since the Commemorative Meeting. The Society has thus established itself in a manner consistent with at least two of the dispositions which according to Walsby’s own theories ought to characterize those most attracted to them: taking as little as possible for granted, and intellectual independence. On the one hand conventional assumptions about the proper way for a Society of whatever kind to be constituted and run have been discarded, and on the other hand forms of joint activity have been found which give the maximum scope to individual predilections.

The outcome is a body which is a “Society” in the oldest sense of the word: an associating, a coming together of people sufficiently like-minded to find common interests and to derive stimulus and benefit from one another’s company. Never having been formally set up, it has no constitution, no rules and no officials, and can even be said to be a Society without members – thereby possibly reflecting the attachment which Walsby and his adherents had and have to paradox and self-contradiction. Certainly those who take part in the Society’s activities have no set obligations to one another or to the Society itself, and the extent and manner of their participation and involvement vary from one to another. In short, the society has participants rather than members, and those who are “in” it are so to varying degrees and in different ways.

Thus in strictness nothing is done by the Society, and it has no responsibility for anything done by its participants, however great and frequent or salient their participation. All its activities are initiated and organized by individuals, normally with the support of other individuals, and agreement is reached by informal consensus. Those who do not agree do not take part; there are no means of obliging them to take part, and no means whereby they can prevent those with whom they disagree doing what these latter wish. The Society’s procedures and practices have come into being as do linguistic and other social usages: not by decree or resolution, but by initiative and favourable response. No business meetings are held; financial support is not levied, nor are funds accumulated. All the Society’s activities are therefore inherently interesting to those who take part in them. If not, they soon die out, or else do not occur in the first place.

On such a basis, five main kinds of activities have developed, associated with the Society:

1. A monthly semi-private meeting at Highgate, normally entailing a talk followed by a discussion. Sometimes the talk is on some aspect of Walsby’s theories or approach, sometimes on some subject of general relevance to his work, such as “primitive mentality,” nationalism or the outlooks characteristic of (e.g.) trade union leaders or police officers. Talks of this latter type are usually given by specialists attracted by the prospect of a lively discussion with a varied but intelligent and thoughtful audience.

2. A Memorial Lecture each year on May 2, the anniversary of Harold Walsby’s death, providing both a formal commemoration and an opportunity for a sustained and careful consideration by a competent specialist of a subject related to Walsby’s interests and concerns – while of course requiring no specific agreement with any of his views. In 1974 Steven Lukes spoke on “Power and Ideology,” in 1975 Ronald Fletcher on “The Myth of Right Reason,” in 1976 Leslie Sklair on “Building Socialist Hegemony,” and in 1977 Anthony D. Smith on “Minorities and the Resurgence of Nationalism.” It is hoped that future Lectures will embrace philosophical and psychological, in addition to political and sociological, topics.

3. A residential week-end gathering, once or twice a year, at Braziers Park, Ipsden, Oxfordshire, where Harold Walsby spent part of his life. A formal framework for the week-end is provided by four or five protracted discussions, each usually initiated by a short talk. It has become customary to review in this way in turn Walsby’s basic philosophical position (which pursues the implications of taking Nothing for granted), the psychological and sociological aspects of his work, and his dialectical algebra (based on mathematising the absolute dialectic equation of Nothing and Being, from which he claimed a general symbolic language could be derived). At one such gathering in 1976 what is known as “the Ipsden nomenclature” for the main ideological levels distinguished by Walsby was devised. It was taken up quite rapidly by the Society and is now virtually established in its discussions.

4. A series of duplicated essays (as well as two sets of correspondence), consisting mainly of attempts to develop selected aspects of Walsby’s theory of ideology or to apply it to specific areas of social life. A pamphlet has also been printed, entitled An Outline Sketch of Systematic Ideology, by George Walford, which summarizes the theory itself. A further printed production is a short leaflet, The Power of Ideology. As it is impossible for anything to be published by the Society, which takes no action and no decisions, all publications and papers are presented to the Society by whichever participant or participants claims responsibility for them. No Society can be represented for what it presented to it.

5. Assumptions, a quarterly duplicated journal which first appeared at the end of 1976 is described as “distributed mainly to the Walsby Society.” It contains articles and book reviews by various of the more regular and frequent participants in the Society, and some correspondence and other matter. The Editor is Charles Sprague of [addresss], and the journal is distributed – as are the pamphlet and other publications and papers – by The Bookshop, [address].

Details of the Society’s meetings and other activities are currently circulated to some seventy people so far, and other names can be added to the circulation list on request. The aim at the monthly meetings is to muster a group large enough to sustain a lively discussion but not so large as to lose cohesion and seriously inhibit participation by everyone. This aim has almost always been achieved. The weekend gatherings have enabled several people sympathetic to the Society but unable to attend the monthly meetings to contribute nevertheless to the examination and discussion of Walsby’s work.

In prospect is a conference on Comparative Ideology, to be held in the Autumn of 1977 and so coincide with the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Domain of Ideologies. The aim of the conference will be to provide opportunities for persons interested in ideology but defining and approaching it differently to present their approaches to one another and to ascertain what common ground exists or might be discovered. Thus it will seek to bring together sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, philosophers, systematic ideologists, historians and others making use of the concept of ideology in their studies, to encourage them to compare notes in a fruitful way and generally to explore the multiple utility of the concept.

Altogether, the Society’s activities have expanded steadily in amount and range since its inception, and it has been found by many to provide a stimulating atmosphere and to sustain a vigorous intellectual life. Its immediate future is certainly not in doubt, and its long-term future begins to look equally promising.

May 1977.
from Assumptions Number 4, August 1977.