Harold Walsby: Forward to The Domain of Ideologies

Dedication: To F. S. JOHNSON

For well over ten years now I have been deeply interested in a field of study which, generally speaking, has so far received comparatively little attention and practically no systematic investigation from men of the scientific frame of mind: the domain of ideologies. This realm – a realm of ascertainable fact and natural phenomena like any other part of existence – is for science, at any rate, a relatively new and unexplored territory. It is the realm of the various, more or less familiar and everyday “mental attitudes-to-life” and “world-outlooks” – including the almost unknown, uncharted region of their psychobiological origins, their structures, relations, mode of development and so on.

The reasons for this scant interest in the subject on the part of science, whatever they are, can hardly be centred in an intrinsic unworthiness of the subject-matter to be accorded serious scientific consideration and treatment. The numerous appeals, hints, pointings, tentative gropings and suggestions – with regard to the vital necessity of such a branch of scientific study – which appear, tucked away in the pages of the last decade’s many books on social and political questions, testify to that. Moreover, since the sudden and disquieting arrival of atomic energy as a source of power, it has become increasingly evident that, to quite a number of people, at least, who think about the future of our present civilisation, the need for the development of a science of human social consciousness is long overdue – even dangerously so.

What follows in this book – breaking, as it does, much that is virgin ground – is a humble endeavour, on the one hand, to stimulate a wider objective interest in the subject and a wider appreciation of the social importance of this field of study, and on the other hand, to make some concrete contribution towards the filling-in of what amounts to a grave and broad lacuna in the general body of systematised knowledge.

Hitherto, the study of the intellectual-emotional attitudes, or ideologies of social groups has been left very largely to philosophy, to historians and to literary speculation. Ethnologists and psychologists have here and there touched upon the subject, but only upon particular aspects and problems which arise in connection with their own subject-matter. The objective study of ideologies in general, as a distinct and legitimate field of study – existing, so to speak, in its own right – has still to be widely recognised.

Yet the beginnings of this recognition take us back over half a century to the time of Marx, Engels and Morgan. We may remind the reader of the important discovery by these three (jointly, to a great extent, by Marx and Engels, and independently by Lewis H. Morgan in America): the discovery of the enormous conditioning influence exercised, throughout history and prehistory, by the changing economic environment of men upon the contents of their thought, and through the medium of these latter, upon their social activities, products and institutions. This discovery was so far-reaching and fruitful in its many applications and was applied so thoroughly and relentlessly – and even, as we shall see, so exclusively – by Marx, Engels and their followers, that it quite overshadowed and thrust into the background the possibility of an independent study of the typical, inherent forms or modes of men’s thought and the influence of these upon society.

The result tended to be one-sided: an over-emphasis and over-estimation of the economic factor – particularly for later students of Marxism and many others who later came under its slowly-spreading intellectual influence. The recognised psychology of the period, we must remember, was hardly more than descriptive and very superficial. However, that this over-emphasis of economic conditioning as final and ultimate was no mere historical accident or oversight, we propose to show in the course of the following pages.

Two years before he died, Engels admitted “the mistake” in a letter to Marx’s biographer, Mehring:

Otherwise there is only one other point lacking, which, however, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in, regard to which we are all equally guilty. We all, that is to say, laid and were bound to lay the main emphasis at first on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of the actions arising through the medium of these notions from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side-the way in which these notions came about – for the sake of the content…Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives…This side of the matter, which I can only indicate here, we have all, I think, neglected more than it deserves. It is the old story: form is always neglected at first for content. As I say, I have done that too, and the mistake has always only struck me later. (p. 510, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence.)

Despite the comparatively early date (1893) of this realisation by Engels of the possibility of an objective study of ideological forms or modes, as distinguished from the study of their content or subject-matter, very little or nothing has been forthcoming since that time to show that any concentrated attack has been made on the problem. Perhaps this is not in itself wholly surprising, since the matter had largely to wait on the development of individual psychology and the discoveries which have been made in that field since Engels’ day.

Engels’ statement that “Ideology is a process accomplished… with a false consciousness… The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all” shows astonishing insight in view of the later psychological discoveries by Freud concerning unconscious motivation, and is entirely in harmony with the contents of the present volume. That this insight into the fundamental nature of the ideological process was in large measure due to Hegel’s great influence upon him we can scarcely doubt. Thus in his Ludwig Feuerbach Engels praises Hegel’s fine work The Phenomenology of Mind as “a parallel of the embryology and palaeontology of the mind, a development of the individual consciousness through its different stages, couched in the form of an abbreviated recapitulation of the stages through which the consciousness of man has passed in the course of history… ”

This latter conception of a continuous development of the ideological process through a series of successive stages, levels or layers, occupies a prominent place in the ensuing pages, as does also the further Hegelian (and psychoanalytic) conception of the coexistence of mental stages or levels of development. We are, in fact, confronted with a structure or system of coexistent ideological layers. When we come to examine their history we shall find that the ideological layers have grown, or evolved, one out of the other. Each layer – which can be regarded as a level of mental organisation – contains within itself a more or less distinctive and basic set of assumptions, or presuppositions, to which those who occupy the layer are largely unconsciously attached by the emotional tie of identification. Again, these differing but related sets of assumptions, which underlie and colour the various political and philosophical interpretations of events, indicate stages in the development of a continuous repressive process beginning with the birth of each individual.

It will thus readily be seen that the concepts of ideological development and layer-structure can be traced back as far as Hegel. The concepts of repression, identification, introjection, projection etc., which enable us to explain much of the layer-structure and the actual ideological process itself – i.e. “the way in which these notions came about” (see Engels above) – such concepts, we have, of course, drawn from psychoanalysis.

Apart from these vigorous and fruitful sources, there is another, equally dynamic and fruitful, namely, Pavlovian reflexology – or Russian behaviourism, as it is sometimes called – upon which we have freely drawn for factual material in connection with the problem of assumption and the derivation of the assumptive process.

These various influences, then, were the main ones under which the whole subject of ideologies was eventually approached, and under which the following chapters came to be written. These influences show themselves more clearly, perhaps, in Part II – which deals with ideological structure and development – than they do in Part I which treats of the characteristics and relations of mass groups and intellectual groups.

In conclusion I must apologise to the reader for the over-large amount of quotations which have been embodied in the text of Part I. I can only plead that, owing to the special nature of the subject, these quotations constitute the direct ideological evidence, and are more or less unavoidable if the main contentions are to be properly established.

H. W.
Hampstead, London, 1946.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index