Socialist Party of Great Britain: Getting Splinters

Reprinted from here with the kind permission of the Socialist Party of Great Britain under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs copyright license.

The group that formed around Harold Walsby and his ideas probably represents the most unusual breakaway from the Socialist Party in its entire history. During the Second World War this group developed a fascination with perceived impediments to mass socialist consciousness among the working class. The theory they developed was expressed by Walsby himself in his 1947 book The Domain of Ideologies and those involved in the group set up an organisation to propagate their views called the Social Science Association, which existed from 1944 until 1956, attracting a number of new recruits during the ‘Turner controversy’ (see below). It was later succeeded by the Walsby Society and the journal which emerged from it called Ideological Commentary. This survived until the death of its editor (and the former secretary of the SSA), George Walford, in 1994. Today, barely a handful of its exponents still survive.

The theory of the group developed over time and was re-christened ‘systematic ideology’ by Walford in 1976. Its basic premise was that people’s assumptions and identifications (the factors making up their ‘ideology’) are not explicable in terms of material conditions in general and their relationship to the means of production in particular – and are never likely to be. Instead, there are persistent and distinct ideological groups in society, cutting across social classes and forming a series, with the largest groups being most typically guided in their thoughts and actions by a preference for family, authority, familiarity and tradition. Politically, these preferences find predominant expression in the ideas of the large number of so-called ‘non-politicals’ in society, and in Conservatism and then Liberalism (the strength of these preferences gradually weakening through the series).

As the series progresses further, the next, progressively smaller, ideological groups seek to repress these identifications and preferences in favour of dynamism, social change, logical thought and the pursuit of theory as a guide to decision-making, these being expressed politically in Labourism, more overtly still in Communism and then, in an ultimate and extreme form, in Anarchism (or ‘Anarchosocialism’, the purist variety of it allegedly expounded by the SPGB). The more an ideology represses the preferences for family, tradition, etc in favour of social change, dynamism and the pursuit of theory as a guide to action, the fewer in number its adherents are likely to be, with anarchists (or ‘anarcho-socialists’) being the smallest of all. Those seeking radical social change, so the theory contends, will always be hampered and restrained by the enduring preferences of the largest ideological groups.

Systematic ideology itself was rather hampered by the fact that even if the ideological series it posits is a historically accurate one (which is highly contentious in itself), it has always been unable to adequately explain why this should be so. More precisely, what it is that influences some people and not others to gravitate through the series towards an ideology such as that supposedly represented by the Socialist Party? If some can do it but not others, systematic ideology has yet to coherently articulate why.

Walsby’s early version of the theory was clearly hierarchical (with those understanding the theory being the smallest group of all, metaphorically positioned at the apex of a pyramid, just above the Socialist Party) and it lent itself to criticism on the grounds that it was merely a particularly convoluted type of ‘human nature’ argument. This was essentially the response outlined in the Socialist Standard’s April 1949 review of Walsby’s book, called ‘The Domain of Sterilities.’ From the 1980s onwards, George Walford, an inveterate attender at Socialist Party meetings and a logic chopper extraordinaire, watered down some of thetheory’s more obviously elitist elements and even left the SPGB money at the time of his death. He did this on the grounds that although in his view the Party would never help achieve socialism it did perform a valuable function by demonstrating through its application of critical analysis, logical thought and theory the limitations of other political groups that valued these less highly (a perspective which had informed Harold Walsby’s decision in 1950 to surreptitiously rejoin the Party through its postal branch and write articles for the Standard under the pseudonym H.W.S.Bee).

Walsby, Walford and their group produced a large number of leaflets, pamphlets and other literature over time, a fair chunk of it dealing with the SPGB, even if a lot of it was highly abstract and sometimes downright silly. The most readable expressions of systematic ideology are probably Walford’s book Beyond Politics, published in 1990, and the pamphlet Socialist Understanding, published ten years earlier.

June 2004