George Walford: New Readers Start Here (38)

Revision of March 1989

IDEOLOGICAL COMMENTARY is devoted to the development and exposition of systematic ideology, a theory originated and largely developed by the late Harold Walsby. We do not claim final or exhaustive understanding of it; the formulation that looked like the ultimate last month needs alteration now, and the partial account given here will be subject to continuous revision.

The usual way into the theory goes by way of politics, but enquirers quickly fmd themselves being led to regard politics as only one form of purposeful behaviour among others, all of them brought within the scope of systematic ideology (s.i.) by the fact that they entail assumptions. Every purposeful act is adapted to the circumstances of the place and time, and these are never known with complete certainty and exactitude. They commonly include both people and material objects; people are constantly doing unexpected things, and the more physical science gets to know about the fundamental constituents of matter the less it is able to say exactly how they will behave. To wait for exact and certain knowledge would be to forego action; in order to act assumptions have to be made. Purposeful action is adapted to circumstances as they are assumed to be.

This explains why different people respond differently to similar stimuli; they are making different assumptions, adapting their behaviour to (what they assume to be) different circumstances. Among individual people these differences commonly result from contingent variations in personal experience, or even from mere idiosyncrasy, and rarely produce significant effects upon society. But when large social groups respond differently to similar stimuli the consequences are often highly significant. They include not merely election results but also choices between caring for the environment and thoughtlessly exploiting it, between urban and rural society, between a growing and a shrinking population, between freedom and control, between hierarchy and equality, and between war and peace. In order to understand how large social groups. come to act as they do, and how far, if at all, their behaviour can be altered, we need to know what assumptions they make, how they come to make these and not others, and what changes, if any, it may be possible to bring about. Systematic ideology is now able to provide answers to many such questions in general terms, and these are gradually being rendered more specific.

Speaking in the broadest outline in these brief introductory notes, assumptions, especially the more general ones which exercise wider influence, tend to come in sets. These sets have come to be termed ideologies, and s.i. distinguishes a small number of them, each composed of very broad assumptions concerning society and the world in general, as the “major” ideologies. Each major ideology provides the basis on which the members and supporters of a main-line political movement are united, but its influence does not end there. Each of them also finds expression in a group of social and occupational activities outside of politics. These major ideologies have evolved successively, the emergence of each one as a significant social influence leading to the appearance of a new group of activities and constituting a new stage in social development. Since each one depends upon its predecessors and cannot function in their absence, proposals for social change which require general adoption of a later ideology to the virtual exclusion of the earlier ones are unlikely to meet with much success. Obviously some social changes can be achieved, they are happening all around us. But others, and among them some of the greatest and most urgently demanded, have been sought for decades, even generations, without success. One object of s.i. is to find out which social changes can most usefully be attempted.

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.