George Walford: The Origins of Ideologies

Having looked very briefly at the major ideologies and some of their effects on the history and present functioning of society, we now turn to trace out their origins. In doing this we shall need two concepts which Walsby developed beyond their usual significance: assumption (which we have already met) and limitation.

I have been speaking almost entirely of societies, movements, parties and occupational groupings, and in order to understand the behaviour of these we need to study mainly their respective ideologies. The effects of individual personality cannot be entirely ruled out – the personal qualities of Sir Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon, for example, have to be taken into account when studying the history of their respective parties – but they play a minor part, seldom producing more than temporary kinks in a course whose direction is set by ideology. Any group formed of people moved by a common purpose, whether in politics or any other field of activity, is primarily an ideological entity.

Individual people, as well as groups, behave differently according to the assumptions they accept, but we cannot describe people as ideological entities without adding severe qualifications. Ideology affects only purposeful behaviour, and much that individual people do falls under other heads. They get cross, hungry, tired or sleepy, fall in love, lose their tempers, grow old, fall ill, prefer thrillers to romances (or vice versa), tend to like (or dislike) people who resemble their parents, and all without intention. Much personal conduct is governed by physical, physiological and psychological factors; in studying individual people ideologically we study only one influence among others, and one which often plays a minor role. But although people differ from groups no rigid distinction can be drawn; an ideology is a set of assumptions and assumptions are made by people, an ideological group coming into being when the assumptions made by two or more men, women or children overlap.

When acting with purpose, whether in groups or independently, we have to take the circumstances into account but we never know, with complete precision and absolute certainty, what these may be. They commonly include both things and people; we do not know, exactly, the fundamental nature of matter, and people are constantly responding in unexpected ways. If we wait for exhaustive knowledge before moving we shall not act at all; purposeful action becomes possible only when (perhaps after close examination) we assume circumstances to be thus or thus, and different assumptions produce different actions. Of two runners who encounter what seems to be a brick wall one assumes it to be a real wall and alters course to go around it while the other, assuming it to be a paper imitation, goes to break through. When acting with purpose we act in relation to the world as we assume it to be, and we become better able to predict how other people and groups will act as we learn more about their assumptions. A primary function of systematic ideology is to help us understand, for some of the assumptions which most widely and deeply influence behaviour in social affairs, how large groups of people come to make those they do and not others, and what changes in them can reasonably be expected.

To make an assumption is to accept the reality of something, of some object, person, event, thought, principle, condition or whatever, and an important part of being real is the ability to offer resistance. To accept the reality of something other than oneself is to recognise the presence of something capable of offering resistance to one’s efforts, and whatever offers resistance imposes a limitation. To make an assumption, therefore, is to accept a limitation. We never do this with full spontaneity but always under pressure, accepting one limitation only in order to overcome a greater one; this theme was developed by Harold Walsby in his Domain of Ideologies:

Even when we willingly submit or subject ourselves to some limitation or other (as, of course, we are constantly doing) we do so only in so far as we think this subjection enables us to overcome a greater limitation. For instance, we willingly submit to the limitations imposed upon us in the getting of food in order to avoid the greater limitation imposed upon us by the internal stimulus of hunger. In fact, every successful action must be based an the acceptance of certain limitations… which then become the means of overcoming the greater limitations otherwise suffered. [1]

By trying constantly to minimise the limitations suffered we show ourselves to be seeking a condition entirely without limitations, and to seek something implies an assumption of its existence. Implied in all our volitional behaviour is the assumption of a condition of being absolutely unlimited, undetermined, unhindered; in short, a condition of being absolutely free, and Walsby identifies this as the absolute assumption. This is, he says, ‘our fundamental, our most permanent and primitive assumption, that into which all other assumptions must be assimilated, and that which constitutes the basis for the whole ideological structure of assumptions.’ [2]

The absolute assumption becomes established as the base of the ideological structure in the beginning of life. From the moment of conception the new human being lives in conditions that perfectly meet its requirements, not needing to eat or even to breathe, having all its wants met before it can feel a need. At one with its surroundings, free of any distinction between them and itself, it suffers no limitation from them. Being in complete identity with its universe it has no option but to assume itself subject to no restraints whatever, unbounded, omnipresent, omnipotent. In the later stages of intrauterine life this begins to change as the developing affective system allows perception of stimuli from the outer world, and with the trauma of birth new limitations come crashing in.

At first those looking after the newborn try to maintain it in the condition of the foetus, keeping it warm and clean and fed without effort on its part, but as the child grows this supportiveness diminishes and it comes to experience the helpless dependence that adults regard as the truth of its condition. It finds itself in an intolerable position, convinced of its absolute freedom yet subject to limitations, and the only means of escape is to accept other limitations in place of those being suffered. In order to overcome those imposed by being stationary, for example, it has to take on, to assume, those entailed in motion.

As the infant grows it sometimes gets left to indicate its needs, and by crying for what it wants it shows itself to be accepting the assumption that the outside world is capable of affecting it. In doing this it accepts a massive limitation upon its assumed freedom and thereby becomes able, to some extent, to manipulate the external world in order to overcome the limitations experienced; by crying it gets fed – and assumes the limitations that come with that condition.

Through its earliest and most impressionable period the child finds warmth, food and comfort, partial confirmations of the absolute assumption, within the group of which it forms part (I shall call this the home group) while as it becomes aware of stimulations and provocations – the nasty things that impose the greater limitations – it finds them coming mainly from outside. This results in the growth of friendly feelings towards its home group and of hostile tendencies towards the world – human, social, natural and material – outside. (Walsby terms the world external to the home group the cosmos, and defines the condition which develops as one of positive group identification and negative cosmic identification). The behaviour of children shows them accepting the familiar as a secure base from which they venture into surroundings seen as at least potentially hostile; the ‘lost’ child, one detached from its home group, has long been a classic figure of woe. The connotations of ‘group’ and ‘cosmos’ change with experience, but nobody ever quite abandons the distinction between ‘us’ (good) and ‘them’ (bad).

In early childhood there is of course no grasp of abstractions like ‘society’ or ‘nature,’ and no firm or clear distinction between people and things. The supportive mother becomes a nasty thing when she has to correct the child and consolation may be sought in cuddling a doll or even a blanket. Stories of talking animals and walking tables occasion no sharp surprise. The differing identifications with group and cosmos influence behaviour, but the two categories are defined expediently rather than rationally, things which produce pleasant sensations tending to be included in the home group and their contraries to be excluded from it.

Children use the material world almost wholly for their personal satisfaction, acting towards it as individualists. When handling ideas they follow the opposite path, tending to comply with the group in which they find themselves, seldom taking any independent stand. They can hardly be said to theorise. Add to these tendencies the absence of any recognition by children of change as a universal process and we have the main features of the ideology of Expediency. The ethos displayed by children confirms this; they tend strongly to follow the impulse of the moment and to do things in the easiest way they know (which is not always what adult experience shows to be the least effortful way). The primal ideology superimposes itself upon the absolute assumption. Originating in early childhood it is none the less not a childish ideology; we also learn to walk and speak in childhood, and nobody regards these as childish activities. It arises from modification of the absolute assumption in response to conditions encountered by all children, and accordingly all children come to exhibit it. On emerging from the family into independent life the scope for further development varies according to the features of the particular society, one of the most important being its ideological structure.

The Expedient ideology imposes the minimum of command and prohibition. This does not, however, constitute effective freedom of action, for the impulse of the moment can be followed only so far as circumstances permit, the impulse towards eating, for example, only when food can be had. When tempted to envy the irresponsible life of the expedient communities we do well to remember that it sometimes has to be paid for by letting children die in order to adjust population to food supply. [3]

Any considerable freedom from natural limitations can be achieved only by suppressing spontaneity and accepting ideological limitations, and in the history of society the great advance came with acceptance of those belonging to the ideology of Principle, the ones that make reliance upon agriculture possible. The communities taking this step became able, in principle if not always in fact, to produce cattle and crops in the locations and the quantities they wished. Formerly limited to seldom much over fifty members, they were able to increase in size by a factor which one investigator sets at up to a thousand, [4] and with size came power. Adjacent Expedient communities may sometimes impose reciprocal limitations upon each other, for example in the use of territory, but they can do little to restrain, or even to resist, the societies of Domination. The farming Bantu override their foraging neighbours and the Amazonian Indians are being decimated.

Whatever the first farmers may have expected we, looking back, can see that the new freedoms come accompanied by new burdens. As farming societies are relieved of the need to wander in search of food they become tied to their crops and herds; cultivation brought grinding labour of which the hunter-gatherers were happily ignorant. The advantages offered by farming and herding can be obtained only at the cost of adopting an ideology in which principles dominate impulses, an ideology requiring a firmly hierarchical social structure. Relative freedom from a substantial part of the limitations imposed by a raw external environment has been achieved at the cost of accepting ideological constraints.

We do not know the immediate occasion of the first transition and are not now likely to learn it. Material conditions, such as pressure of population or climatic change, are insufficient in themselves since they produce their effect only by way of ideology, contravening assumptions as to what the weather or the density of population ought to be. Whatever the reason, within a few thousand years after the first appearance of principle, domination, agriculture and sedentary society, the population had increased enormously and expediency had been relegated to matters considered trivial, public and social affairs coming to be conducted by the new method of adherence to a set of principles. At least a large minority of people, many not themselves among those dominating society, came to prefer, in public affairs, the combination of freedoms and limitations offered by the new ideology to that of the original one. (The evidence for this is, of course, the spread of societies in which the new ideology overrode its predecessor).

With the organised regularity of the new society came writing and, later, printing. From this point on we have the record to refer to and it shows that, unlike the ideology of Expediency, that of Principle was not adopted by everybody. All societies of the new type maintain powerful and expensive institutions designed to discourage open contravention of established principles, demonstrating the continuing presence of a substantial group which has not internalised the new ideology. These institutions, however, are neither able nor intended to enforce compliance upon great numbers. As the ideology of Principle wins establishment it becomes one of the conditions to which the Expedient people find it convenient to adapt, with the result that coercion is needed only, as it were, to tidy up round the edges, restraining any tendency to backslide on the part of those adopting the new ideology and enforcing a degree of submission upon the few who persist in refusing even external compliance.

We also learn from the record that society moved on beyond the establishment of Principle. So long as any limitations persist the absolute assumption remains unsatisfied and the drive to overcome them continues. Most people confine their attention to the minor limitations constantly encountered in the practice of their current ideology, but some (without, of course, formulating their intentions in these terms) tackle the broader ones imposed by its more basic assumptions. They move on to a different ideology.

The universal rule, that limitations can be overcome only by accepting others, applies both to particular limitations and also to those sets of broad ones, influencing wide areas of behaviour, which seen from another angle appear as the sets of broad assumptions forming the main trunks of the major ideologies. One of these sets can be overcome only by assuming another set in its place, and since on each occasion the former limitations are overcome, not eliminated, the outcome is an increasingly complex dynamic system of sets of internalised limitations – which is to say assumptions – constituting the ideological structure.

The societies of Domination achieved their growing mastery over the natural world largely by shouldering the burden of that organised social activity we call work, something hardly known to the Expedient people, and they soon got themselves into a position where they no longer had much choice in the matter; if the vastly increased populations were to survive work had to continue. The need to work is very much a limitation, and the way to overcome it began to open with the advent of science and the technological advances that science makes possible: at first, machines to take the place of human or animal muscle and to overcome distance; later on, automation and computers. Ability to manipulate the environment and to move freely about in it, in short to overcome the limitations it imposes, took a giant leap forward, and the prospect of a leisurely life for all who wanted it began to open. Unlike the leisure of the first communities the new version rests upon a developed ability to manipulate large parts of the environment, but this requires acceptance of the limitations entailed in careful compliance with precise formulas. Those who would practice science, and endow society with the power that science makes possible, must go beyond getting things right in principle and subject themselves to a careful concern with the most minute of trifles; scientists habitually work to standards of accuracy greatly exceeding the capacity of their unaided senses, accepting limitations formerly unknown.

People not themselves scientists are also able to enjoy the new benefits, but only on condition that science continues to be practised. They come under an obligation to contribute towards its maintenance, and as it develops it grows more expensive; the cost of a particle accelerator is coming to exceed the resources of even the wealthiest nations; the next generation of equipment will require an international effort. [5] Once more, new freedoms come with new limitations.

Formerly a diversion for dilettantes, science has matured to become a working part of the social structure, and the new concern with accuracy sets the standards with which the more important social activities are required to comply. The society of Domination and Principle has become the society of self-limitation and Precision, accepting ideological restraints of a rigour its predecessor never knew. The state of its finances and the condition of its people are constantly monitored by the most exact methods that can be devised, its legal, educational and other systems undergo constant examination to keep them strictly in line with changing theories, its electoral systems operate by exact counting of individuals treated as identical units, and it possesses institutions, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, and the many organisations working for various groups of the deprived, whose job it is to draw attention to abuses and malfunctions, striving to ensure that the society operates precisely as it ought. All of these are limitations the society imposes upon itself, and by accepting them it becomes so powerful that to act without self-restraint would be to risk destroying the environment (natural, social or both) and itself therewith. At this point social survival (that is to say freedom from extinction, the most severe of all limitations) comes to be inseparable from the type of political organisation I have termed the self-limiting state.

Disapproval of these developments and attempts to reverse them, both by private people and by governments, remain common, showing that many who accepted the ideology of Principle have held to it, not going on to precision. Precision does not eliminate principle but both completes and represses it, working to substitute for a condition in which things were right only in principle one in which they are precisely correct. Liberalism, the pursuit of precision in politics, does not try to do away with hierarchy but rather to validate it by matching it with human abilities, seeking to reduce the role played by hereditary rank, open privilege to meritocratic competition and make domination dependent upon achievement.

Possession of the new powers does not bring peace and plenty for all and the new freedom turns out to be far from complete. Benefits carry costs and there is no such thing as a free lunch; one set of limitations can be overcome only by accepting another. The states that provide the poorest of their citizens with facilities unimagined by Julius Caesar deprive them of the clean air the nomad takes for granted, wonder drugs produce side-effects and rapid transportation brings a higher body-count than many wars. The economy that delivers goods in profusion also produces unemployment, pollution, exhaustion of resources and destruction of needed food. Police have been known to misuse their powers and social workers sometimes harm the families they are paid to help. Medicine and public health measures extend the length of life that can be expected, perhaps the nearest thing to an absolute good that we can know, but this brings the threat of over-population, together with famine on a scale unknown to previous ages. Abounding wealth and grinding poverty exist side by side, the poor die younger than the rich, and over all hangs the new threat of nuclear extinction.

In their response to these things the adherents of Precision display the particulate mode of thought characteristic of their ideology. They tend strongly to take each difficulty by itself (they are sometimes known as ‘single-issue campaigners’) and apply to it a particular treatment – a rearrangement of taxation, an agreement to forego the use of certain weapons, the substitution of small-for large-scale industry in the less developed countries. By such means as these the dangers are, usually and more or less, kept under control but only at the cost of maintaining the new arrangements, with all the burdens of restraint, expense, supervision, inspection and enforcement they entail.

The more acute of the difficulties suffered by the societies of Precision come for the most part from social rather than natural forces. At this point society largely replaces nature as the effective source of limitation, and accordingly the next development seeks to overcome social limitations. It uses the only method available, the acceptance of still more severe ideological ones. We all begin adult life inclined towards economic individualism and political collectivism; both these tendencies are subjected to increasing restraints through the stages of principle and precision, and with the advent of the next major ideology, that of Reform, restraint comes to be regarded as insufficient. Holding the difficulties encountered to be inevitable consequences of these inclinations it sets out to reverse them, substituting socialism for capitalism, co-operation for competition in economic affairs and freedom for control in political-intellectual matters.

Adherents of the reform ideology appeal for support on the ground that in a society of common ownership everybody will be better off, and not only in material things. The expected response has not been forthcoming; claiming to represent the majority interest, the members of this group remain a protesting minority, often winning minor victories but unable to establish their principles in the operation of society at large. They sometimes seek to escape from this position by allying themselves with a large eidostatic body (in Britain socialists join with the trade unions in the Labour Party) but the dog wags the tail not the tail the dog. A popular response to reformist proposals for a new society is that they may be all right in theory but will never work in practice, and whether the ‘never’ be justified or not, the major ones at least have not yet worked even on a national scale; there has not been an egalitarian society with political freedom and common ownership of the means of production.

Instead of treating each difficulty on its merits, socialist reform relates them all to the principles on which society operates; these are held to be the root of all particular troubles, and substitution of their contraries the ultimate objective. The first method tried relies on the cumulative effect of many small and gentle changes to produce a major movement in the desired direction. After a century and more of reformist effort, however, it remains debatable whether any substantial progress towards the great goal has been achieved. In the advanced countries at least, living standards have improved for poor as well as rich but society remains obstinately hierarchical and authoritarian, and some of the worst things in human history have occurred while the reformist movement has been at work. With this ideology as with previous ones, most of its adherents retain their attachment, holding that the consequences of changing their gradualist approach for a fiercer one would be worse than those of holding to it. A minority, however, move on. Finding the limitations from which reformism suffers to be unacceptable they set out to overcome them by accepting a more rigorous ideology, one which restricts approved action to a narrower range but in doing so, they believe, renders that action more effective. They become revolutionaries. Communists work under the ideological restraint that they may not undertake reform for the sake of any benefits it may provide, but only as a contribution towards revolution. But communist revolution remains a mere aspiration so long as the great numbers retain their present ideologies, and they show no sign of substantial change. The revolutionaries remain even less numerous than the reformers and, consequently, even less influential.

The remaining one of the major ideologies introduced earlier sets out, as we will now expect, to overcome the limitations suffered by that of Revolution and to do so by accepting still more severe ideological limitations. All previous ideologies leave their adherents free to use the power of the state if they can. Even the communists, although envisaging a time when the state shall wither away, intend to use its power to reach that condition. The anarchist ideology forbids this, binding its adherents to repudiate authority even for themselves, and leadership too. It holds that the people cannot be dragooned, manoeuvred or even led into the free society but must achieve it for themselves, acting as autonomous individuals, and the purist anarcho-socialists of the Socialist Party of Great Britain carry this to the fine point of insisting that they must do so with conscious understanding of the reasons for their actions. The anarchist movement, in all its varieties, repudiates power, authority and leadership, and in doing so imposes upon itself the most severe ideological limitations of all. Apart from the occasional attempt at using force (negligible beside the violence routinely used by established governments) those who accept this ideology are not able to do more than attempt to spread it by theoretical discussion; any attempt at more directly practical or positive action falls short of, or contradicts, anarchist principles. (See, for example, Appendix A, Anarchism in Spain).

From Expediency onward, progress along the range has meant acceptance of greater ideological restrictions in a dual sense. First, those immediately concerned accept assumptions prohibiting certain forms of behaviour. Second, they increasingly distance themselves from the great body of the people, who remain attached to the less sophisticated ideologies and, by virtue of their numbers, constitute the body and substance of society. Even now, even in the most highly-developed societies, the Expedient group is still larger than any other.

Each successive ideology is adopted by smaller numbers of people than the one before it, and used for a more restricted range of purposes. All who come to accept more sophisticated ideologies still conduct themselves for the most part Expediently, and those identified with precision continue to act, over a wide range, by Principle. With the best of intentions and the greatest of determination only a part of life can be conducted Precisely, and increasingly smaller parts by means of Reform, Revolution and Repudiation. In its fully-developed SPGB form Repudiation is used for practically nothing other than an attempt to spread the ideology of Repudiation.

Ideological development springs from the contradiction between the assumption of omnipotence (equally well seen as the absolute absence of all assumptions) and the limitations experienced as awareness grows of a world outside the self. Given this contradiction, and the intellectual potentialities of the human race, ideology results and moves through a series of stages, each of them repressing its predecessor. This succession cannot be simply pre-determined, for the details are largely arbitrary (almost any assumption can be formulated in a variety of ways) and the more general, less malleable assumptions cannot be sharply separated from the flexible particular ones. Each stage of development enables its successor rather than determining it, and had the world been different the ideological structure would doubtless be other than it is. Such issues verge on the philosophical; I put systematic ideology forward as a theory which extends our understanding of the society we have.

Readers who find that this chapter, more than others, fails to match up to the scope of its subject-matter, are in the right. I have been speaking about the interactions of six major ideologies within communities and societies which have been developing over very long periods, perhaps for millions of years. Each ideology, although capable of being conceptually reduced to a small number of highly general assumptions, functions in endlessly complex ways, and I have not attempted to do much more than trace one connecting thread through their inter-relationships. Physical science, after all, has not yet managed a general formula covering relationships between even three bodies.

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