Peter Shepherd: Harold Walsby, Independent Thinker
“A draft Introduction for an intended second edition of Harold Walsby’s The Domain of Ideologies. […] It is important that a new edition of the book, if and when it appears, should have benefited from all possible sources of information about its background and a variety of views about its approach and implications.” Peter Shepherd, Department of Sociology, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading.
Our time is not kind to the independent intellectual, attached to no seat or site of learning, carrying no diploma certifying his right to attention. Patronage has long vanished: where sensibility still is combined with great wealth, the result is an art collection or the endowment of a college or a museum, not the support of individual talent. Public meetings of most kinds have nearly faded away. The grandchildren of Edwardian lecture-hall audiences now sit at home before their television screens. Even the voice of the street-corner orator is drowned by the roar of traffic. Young men no longer stand in hot debate on the broad pavement outside the Hyde Park gates by Orators’ Corner, for the pavement was removed by a road improvement scheme years ago and the young men (with the young women who nowadays join them) are all at the universities and Polytechnics.
There radical politics and other kinds of unorthodoxy can still flourish, but the exponents and formulators must hold degrees and the listeners be in process of acquiring them. Even the kind of sinecure which provided Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill with a comfortable living while they got on with their writing would not be tolerated now, outside the established institutions of learning – and inside a good many.
To wish the universities to stay aloof from any major movement of thought, as largely they stayed aloof from science for two or three hundred years after the Renaissance, would be perverse. Yet if no significant arena of serious thought and discussion is maintained outside such established institutions, a real risk exists that academic blight will cause new intellectual blooms to begin to wither while they are still scarcely out of the bud. The requirement that whatever is said must be classified by discipline and affinity with recognized schools or thinkers, and so be assimilated to prevailing habits of scholarship, can serve to distract a truly original thinker from pursuing and extending his insights. The new perspective he tries to offer may soon thus be distorted. Syllabuses and bibliographies and formal teaching arrangements further work to put blinkers on the uncertain young steed, and to reduce its exhilarated pace to a sedate trot, before long.
Until about the middle of this century alternative arenas did exist, sometimes if perhaps briefly eclipsing the universities in brilliance. Probably the most enduring was that provided by the little nonconformist groups of the extreme Left – anarchists, dissident Marxists and others which were energetically active from about 1880 until the rise of the New Left in the late 1950s, a movement which either was or soon became firmly located in the universities. In the 1930s and 1940s, anti-Establishment politics was located in meeting-halls, in and around the outdoor speaking-grounds, and in cafes such as those of the side streets of Soho.
Discussion in cafes is not a British custom – or has not been, since the days of the eighteenth-century coffee-houses. Before and during the Second World War, however, numbers of academic and political refugees from the Continent of Europe managed to recreate, in Central London especially, something of the atmosphere they had known in Berlin and Vienna and elsewhere. A world in which brilliant, down-at-heel intellectuals and Bohemians mingled with prostitutes and petty crooks, and which fostered complex and passionate debate and nurtured polemical powers sprang into being for a short but heady time.
Into it in the early 1930s, from his home town of Tunbridge wells, there came a young artist with a taste for political disputation and a leaning to Marxism. Harold Walsby soon became established in this setting, making his living mainly as a pavement artist in Trafalgar Square, which he enlivened with cartoons offering pithy comment on events and issues of the day. In turn a Labour Party supporter and a Communist, he became eventually in the cafes and elsewhere an able advocate of the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
The SPGB is almost unique to Britain (its companion parties in seven other countries have no more than a few dozen members apiece, and all of them were founded by emigrants or returned exiles who had been in the ‘mother’ party) – and it is certainly unique in British political life . Originating in a group of young dissidents in the old Social Democratic Federation early this century, dubbed “Impossibilists” for their refusal to countenance the advocacy of any reforms whatever or of any programme but complete socialism it adopted at its inception in 1904 an Object and Declaration of Principles to which it has adhered ever since. Apart from fluctuations during the two World Wars (sharply downward in the first and slowly upward in the second, to a peak of about 1000 by the late 1940s) and the effects of internal disputes in the 1950s and early 1960s, its membership for most of its history has stayed between the four hundred or so it had reached by 1914 and about seven hundred. Beyond this at any given time it has probably had several hundred supporters and sympathizers, including ex-members who got behind with their dues and were lapsed from membership.
For all its lack of size and obvious influence, the SPGB is a remarkably durable body with an equally durable standpoint. Major disagreements have developed within it not more than three or four times in its three-quarters of a century of existence, and each time they have ended in the reaffirmation of the Declaration of Principles and the departure of the dissidents. Alone among the various small powerless organizations claiming to be socialist, then, it has known neither splits nor decline into moribundity, although perhaps it is more inward-looking and less overtly aggressive in its polemical stance than it was thirty or forty years ago.
Its durability may have something to do with the clarity and uncompromising quality of its position, and the fact that it represents the end of a road which starts from Marx and Engels and travels in the direction of increasing consistency, regardless of what effect this may have on support. The ‘Impossibilists’ parted with the S.D.F., by general reckoning an extreme body, not on account of its Marxism but on account of what they deemed its lack of it – above all in its disregard for internal democracy and its predilection for reform programmes. The SPGB has remained punctiliously open and democratic in its internal procedures and as emphatically opposed to ‘reformism’ in all ways.
Essentially, its case is that there is no solution to any of the problems perennially or periodically besetting mankind – poverty, unemployment, housing shortages, crime, neurosis, war – short of the establishment of socialism, ‘the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community’ (by which is meant the whole of humanity). This cannot be brought about by changing the present system, capitalism; it requires working-class revolutionary action, through the ballot box, based on mass Socialist understanding. Leadership and ‘transition stages’ are not only unnecessary; reliance on them will in fact just perpetuate capitalism.
As the only party standing for nothing but socialism, the SPGB in fact claims to be the only socialist party and so the only party standing for the interests of the working class. The seventh clause in its Declaration of Principles says that ‘the party seeking working-class emancipation must be hostile to every other party’ and the eighth and last clause begins: ‘The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action, determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist…’ In short, it is utterly opposed to the present social order, to all its aspects, and to all other political organizations, acknowledging none of them as offering any solution to social problems and none as standing for socialism, the only solution.
The ‘war’ which it thus set out to ‘wage’ was and is of course a war of polemics. The Party’s focal activity is, and always has been, the presentation of the ‘Socialist case,’ which all comers are challenged to refute. As Walsby observed in one of his writings, it is the most ‘case’ conscious of all parties. Its aggressive stance to a great extent derives from the fact that ‘the case’ is indeed a closely reasoned highly consistent one, so that its champions have commonly been able to defeat their less logical opponents, especially those who try to defend the record of any of the major parties.
Such a stance suited Harold Walsby well. For some time he was able to enjoy the experience of mastering in argument a series of quite formidable opponents – mainly Left-wingers of various affiliations. However, one day he encountered another denizen of the Soho cafes who gave him a different experience. He was a Hegelian named F.S. Johnson – the same to whom The Domain of Ideologies is dedicated – and this time it was Walsby who was mastered.
He was vanquished, not on his usual political or economic grounds, but on the ancillary philosophical ground. Unlike many Marxist bodies the SPGB has seldom laid stress on the philosophical premises of its position, but it does take for granted the materialism which supports classical, and indeed all consistent, Marxism. Johnson convinced Walsby that materialism in general, and dialectical materialism in particular, is self-contradictory. The political implications were not at once obvious (Johnson had no great interest in politics) but as Walsby pursued them they led to an entire transformation of his outlook, and eventually to the elaboration of the approach to the nature of ideas or ideologies which is set out in this book.
Ironically, it is the very consistency of the SPGB ‘case’ which brings out its implicit philosophical dilemma, seen in the first instance as a political dilemma. What the SPGB has done is to take to an extreme a critical, questioning attitude to society found in a great many other political organizations, especially of the Left. As do most of the others, it couches this attitude in the specific shape of Marxist economic and political analysis, but it does so with a relentless consistency which they do not match.
From this standpoint, social ills are the effects of the social system, not of individual malevolence or error; and the social system as a whole is based on the economic or property system. Therefore, those ills cannot be remedied while this system endures. Political institutions exist to serve the economic system and perpetuate it, and so cannot be used to change it; the purpose of conquering them by voting Socialist is to enable them to be rendered ineffective for maintaining capitalist domination above all in their coercive aspect. In much the same way, attitudes which foster continuance of capitalism cannot be used to change it; therefore, support for socialism cannot be gained by advocating reforms. Reform programmes are supported only by those who have not yet understood that it is capitalism which causes the evils they wish to see ended. Moreover, it is not possible to ascertain the size of the vote for socialism as long as its advocacy is combined with reform programmes.
Likewise, socialism cannot be established by a ‘vanguard’ or any other controlling minority or elite, whether supported by or relying on the coercion of the non-Socialist majority it rules. The most that can happen is the continuation of capitalism, the exploitation of the working class for profit, in disguise and under State (or ruling Party) control. In short, socialism can be attained only by a majority which understands and desires it. Mass ‘Socialist understanding’ is the unavoidable precondition.
It is just here that the dilemma arises. Marxists hold that no social change can occur unless the material conditions (of production) are ‘ripe’ for it; therefore, to advocate socialism is to imply that the conditions are in fact so ‘ripe.’ The old SPGB pamphlet, ‘Socialism,’ published in the 1930s, declares that ‘there is an “appointed hour” for revolution, in the sense that it must fail if it is attempted before the general conditions are ripe … these general conditions, with the exception of that single factor, working-class knowledge, are ripe for the change.’ Yet Marxists also hold that consciousness is determined by material conditions: men act according to what their economic position forces them to see of their interests. So if the material conditions have not produced ‘Socialist consciousness’ (or ‘understanding,’ or ‘knowledge’) on a mass scale, they cannot be ‘ripe’ after all!
The somewhat vague term ‘Socialist consciousness’ refers simply to the recognition by workers that only socialism is in their true (economic) interests. According to Marx their material conditions, as propertyless and exploited members of the working class will eventually force them to recognize this. To call on the workers to establish socialism is evidently to assume that the material conditions (essentially the development of the productive forces) exist for socialism and all that remains is for workers to realize that only socialism can solve their problems. Yet plainly, the need for Socialists to point this out arises because workers do not realize or recognize this – indeed, from a Socialist point of view are very far from recognizing it – and thus shows that the material conditions have not brought about this recognition. The very act of advocating socialism and only socialism rests, for a Marxist, on two opposing assumptions: that the development of productive forces has now made possible, and that it has not yet made possible, the establishment of socialism.
There is no escape from this dilemma (or self-contradiction) by trying to advocate less than socialism, or by combining such advocacy with the pursuit of reforms or the attempt to acquire power non-electively; for any such activity both serves to continue capitalism and acknowledges that the workers do not yet understand the need for socialism. Logically a choice must be made between two alternatives: either it must be concluded that production under capitalism has not yet reached the point where socialism can be achieved, after all, or it must be assumed that ‘consciousness’ (and especially Socialist consciousness) is not merely determined by material conditions.
While the former of these alternatives indicates a definite, if melancholy, course of action – that is, to give up advocating socialism, and to make do with capitalism until such time as material conditions have reached the necessary state of maturity – it leaves a profound mystery in its wake. If Socialist consciousness, or belief in the need for socialism as the answer to our many woes, is the fruit of workers’ experience of capitalism, and if capitalism has not yet developed to the point where the great majority of workers have had the right kind of experience (whatever it may be), how is it that a minority of them have somehow had the appropriate experience of capitalist conditions nevertheless for the past 75 years, or even for 120 years or more (if one goes back to the date of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy or earlier)? The more the question is considered, the more implausible does it seem that the few who have arrived at the conviction that capitalism must be replaced by socialism have done so merely in consequence of some specific, but so far unspecifiable, experience of capitalist conditions; some manifestly have done so without being workers at all – Friedrich Engels, for one!
Thus, even the first of the two conclusions leads, on further reflection about the existence nevertheless of Socialists, to the further conclusion that it can hardly be material conditions of themselves which bring about Socialist convictions. If this conclusion is reached, whether directly or by the more roundabout route just indicated, the Socialist is released from the anxious necessity to ascertain just what material conditions will eventually engender mass Socialist understanding – but at the cost of losing all effective anchor for his belief that somehow, eventually, the workers will come to see that socialism is the only solution. Whereas before he had an argument, albeit a self-contradictory one, for his contention that they will indeed attain such a recognition, now he has only unsupported faith.
The point has been laboured at this length in order to bring out as clearly as possible how, in Marx and all approaches derived from his, Socialism and materialism are inextricably linked. To find self-contradictions in the one is, if the implications are logically pursued, to find them in the other. The failure of the advocates of complete and unadulterated socialism to gain more than a minute (if steady) following over 75 years – or even over 30 years, as at the time of Walsby’s encounter with Johnson – demonstrates that Socialist convictions are not engendered by the material conditions of working-class life under capitalism, and, further, that workers with the same experience of capitalism can develop diametrically opposed views of it. In short, the SPGB is itself living proof that consciousness (or, at any rate, Socialist consciousness) is not determined by material conditions, and therefore that materialism is unsound.
In point of fact, while in theory the Party believes that Socialist consciousness results from material conditions, in practice it acts on the assumption that such consciousness is determined by itself. Its members neither change nor seek to change material conditions; they conduct propaganda, the direct expression and manifestation of their own convictions, or Socialist consciousness. To call upon the workers to establish socialism on the grounds that all the conditions for it exist bar ‘working-class knowledge’ is evidently to assume that that call, and all the many words of explanation and argument which accompany it, will of themselves generate the desired mass change of view, unassisted by ‘material conditions,’ or at any rate by further developments in them. Moreover, the patent fact that workers’ consciousness has not changed in response to Socialist propaganda is usually explained by the effectiveness of anti-Socialist propaganda, whether conducted directly by the major political parties or indirectly through educational institutions, the media of mass communication, etc. Here again, it is taken for granted that workers views are formed, not by their material conditions of life, but by the direct and indirect expression of the views of those who control parties, educational institutions, etc. Outlooks are, then formed by the persuasive or other expression of outlooks; viewpoints are spread by expounding them, overtly or covertly.
Marxists in general have claimed that the real problems before the working class are economic problems, and above all the problem of its class position in capitalist society. Yet the most obvious practical problems for Marxists themselves are not economic problems at all but problems of consciousness, above all the problem of how to convert the workers to Socialism (or, in the case of groups other than the SPGB, how to get them to support a Socialist organization). Only for the SPGB does it become fully clear, however, that this is the key problem for Marxism, for only the SPGB is consistent enough to insist on a fundamental change of consciousness as the necessary precondition for the establishment of socialism.
The tortuously polysyllabic varieties of Marxist theory which today stalk the corridors of many university departments (especially of sociology) in Western Europe all can trace their ancestry, in one way or another, to Lenin. It is therefore not surprising that they avoid these sore questions by reducing them, albeit in very ingenious ways, to questions of power. Gramsci’s agonizings about ‘hegemony’ and Althusser’s elaborate distinctions between repressive and ideological state apparatuses, etc., derive from a convoluted faith that the failure of the classic material conditions to come up to scratch is due to the resourceful ability of the ruling class to produce and distribute ‘ideas,’ thereby nullifying the effects of the material conditions of working-class life. From this it follows that the socialist task is to obtain control over the means of producing and distributing ideas. Leninist s, of course, have never been worried by the possibility that, in establishing the requisite domination over a non-Socialist majority of the population, they would automatically be perpetuating the exploitation of that majority and thus need to justify their own ascendancy. For over sixty years the Bolsheviks and their successors have controlled the means for producing and distributing ideas in the Soviet Union, and the result is that Marxism is dead there except as a form of ritual incantation. Clever explanations of this abound, but no adequate ones. Evidently power is not the answer.
Apart from this passing reference, there is no space here to show how Leninist formulas serve in the end to obfuscate the issue, not to provide a way out of the contradictions of materialism. In the end, Marxists of all persuasions are obliged in one way or another, however skilfully they manage to conceal it from themselves, that ideas are formed in the first instance neither by economic circumstances nor by the use of power, but by ideas. In other words, ideas are self-determining. The particular interest of the SPGB interpretation of Marxism is that it leads more directly, and with less confusing distraction, to such a conclusion than does any other. The fact that Walsby’s starting-point – in the sense of the position which, initially he had to criticise in order to embark on his voyage or discovery – was the standpoint of the SPGB was not accidental.
The assertion that ideas determine ideas may at first sight appear to be a denial of all possibility of ascertaining any rational principle governing their formation and development; that is, it may appear to be tantamount to declaring that ideas follow a wayward and unpredictable course. Marx’s historical materialism, above all in its application to socialism, amounted in practice to an insistence that we are not free to determine by mere decision what shall happen, what form of society shall endure or arise, but are bound by objective laws which at bottom are laws of the development of the forces of production. That is, he is concerned to deny arbitrary will and to claim for science the domain of society and above all of political action and aims. To Marxist, as to other, materialists, to adopt a scientific approach to society or to ideas is virtually by definition to attempt to explain them by reference to ‘solid’ material fact economic-cum-technological fact for the Marxist, usually biological fact for ‘vulgar’ materialists. They therefore the querying of materialism as equivalent to querying the possibility of science in the realms of society and of ideas. They do not conceive of such a thing as a non-materialist scientific approach.
Yet it is just this possibility which is asserted when it is argued that the domain of ideas – or, more precisely, of outlooks, viewpoints, general attitudes to life – necessarily is self-determining. What is being claimed is that, just as there are biological processes whereby living creatures function and continue in distinct existence, and which are not merely redutcible to chemical or physical processes (although biological and chemical processes are certainly linked), so there are ideological processes whereby thoughts and conclusions and viewpoints are maintained and spread – or else prevented from spreading – and which are not merely reducible to biological processes or adaptation to economic necessity (although, indeed, they are linked to biology and economic circumstances alike).
To mention all this is to anticipate somewhat, and also to reverse the actual order of events, albeit in order to assist clarity of exposition. Walsby was subsequently to be very much aware of the connections between SPGB materialism and SPGB politics, or Marxist materialism and politics more generally. One of his humorous jibes at materialist opponents was that, if they were to be true to their materialist professions, they ought to be lifting things up, pulling them about, and so forth, not just sitting down occupying themselves with ideas! However, that was later. Initially, he did not reach a recognition of the self-contradictoriness of materialism through seeing the self-contradictoriness of SPGB political activity; rather, Johnson showed him that materialism was self-contradictory, and he came to realize that this entailed similar consequences for the SPGB case.
The point here is that materialism is not simply un-workable in its application to the attempt to persuade, conduct propaganda, etc.; it is also self-contradictory in itself, as a philosophical position, or in terms of its basic assumptions about matter and mind. These are, again, rather vague and question-begging terms, and the argument is better pursued by using the characteristic Hegelian approach to knowledge, as essentially a union of knower and known. In all knowing both a knower and a known are presupposed, but evidently a knower knows only if there is something to know – an object of knowledge – and equally no such object can exist if it is not known. Abstract Idealism postulates knowing without anything known, other than the knower, materialism postulates objects of knowledge independent of knowing. Each is equally self-contradictory. (Hegel’ s ‘Objective Idealism’ is so called not because it denies the necessity of objects of knowledge but because it attributes primacy of significance to thought, inasmuch as a philosophy which denies thought such significance thereby denies its own significance, as a form of thought.)
The contribution which knowing makes to what is known is very familiar in ordinary perception: objects look different in a different light, or to the colour-blind, and they lose their odour if the most is blocked and feel cold or hot according to the preceding temperature of the skin. Kant granted that all knowable qualities are attributed to the known object by the knower (the subject) but held that the object itself, the Ding and ich, also exists, in addition to all such knowable qualities. Hegel however insisted that, since by definition we can know nothing whatever about the thing-in-itself, we have no grounds at all for believing it to exist. It is a mere presupposition, and as such entirely subjective. Each object is the sum of its known qualities – nothing more – for there is nothing more it can be.
Walsby used to convey this point by asking: ‘Before there were eyes to see them, were the leaves on the trees green?’ In one sense the answer is No, since greenness (as distinct from the property of reflecting light of a certain wavelength) exists only in so far as it can be seen. In a more subtle sense the answer is Yes, for we now can attribute to past trees and their leaves the colours we assume they had from our knowledge of present trees and our deductions about their ancestors. The quality of being green depends on there being eyes with colour vision; the quality of having been green depends on reason as well as present perception. More adequately, whatever is in the world is the outcome of its joint action as an object of knowledge on knowers and the action of the knower in perceiving, investigating, drawing conclusions, etc. Neither knowledge nor the nature of the mater1al world is fixed in advance; they unfold together, in a series of stages of mutual revelation.
Thought, then, has no merely derivative significance. Materialist thought, indeed, contradicts itself, for by implication it denies its own significance. On its own premises, materialism ought not even to be argued, for if ideas have no independent existence they can have no independent efficacy. Materialism ought to take it for granted that argument cannot of it self bring about any change of view, for all ideas depend on material conditions and so will change only if those conditions change; yet materialists, as already pointed out, do in fact continue to argue.
If the efficacy of ideas is acknowledged, if consciousness is seen to be determined by consciousness and thought to be the outcome of thought (whether it be applied to economic circumstances, to social relations, or to tomorrow’s breakfast), what can be further said about the problem of ‘Socialist consciousness’ now? Plainly, Socialist propaganda and argumentation converts some to Socialism, but most not. It appears, then, to be a highly self-limiting form of consciousness. By contrast, some other kinds of consciousness, other outlooks, appear capable of spreading virtually without limit at certain times and in given countries. A notable example in Walsby’s time was Nazism in Germany, a doctrine with little rational content and not propagated by argument in any case.
Once the attempt to explain arrival at Socialist convictions in terms of material circumstances was abandoned and the (limited) self-determination of Socialist ideas, and others, was recognized, the question arose: what kinds of viewpoints spread widely and rapidly, what kind slowly, gaining only a small following? It became evident to Walsby that it was the viewpoints with a low rational content which rapidly gained or maintained support, while those like that of the SPGB, highly rational and coherent, were confined to little minorities. Thus, the less coherent and consistent versions of Socialism, such as the Labour Party’s, spread more easily than the more coherent and well-argued Marxist versions.
By this time he had gathered around him in the course of numerous arguments with other SPGB adherents a small group of acolytes. From disagreement with the party’s materialism he and they moved to questioning its political standpoint, along the lines just sketched. Public dispute with the Party ensued, followed by some attempt to put into practice the new insights gained. Walsby at this time appears to have been more concerned to elaborate a political programme and framework of activity which would serve to nullify the emotional appeal of movements of the Nazi and Fascist type than to develop a theory of the nature and forms of political consciousness. As he saw it, democracy would be in constant or at least recurrent peril as long as anti-democratic forces were better able to take advantage of the emotional suggestibility of the masses – a theme in fact pursued in Chapters 4 and 8 of this book. That nine pages are there devoted to a discussion of Serge Chakotin’s The Rape of the Masses and the successful use of ‘senso-propaganda’ on a local basis by anti-Nazis in Germany in 1932, in a book containing little more than 200 pages of text, is significant. Walsby was much impressed by Chakotin’s findings.
What Walsby and his little group tried briefly to do was to form a ‘democratic union’ of members of the democratic parties – conservatives, liberals, labour-socialists and communists (considered for these purposes to be attached to democracy) – to combat Nazism and Fascism by the use of an equivalent of ‘senso-propaganda.’ Their adventure failed utterly and, as some of them saw it, disastrously. Part of the reason, no doubt, was that it was not clear to them or anyone else just what their programme (apart from anti-fascism) was to be; more important may have been their gross lack of skills and experience relevant to ‘normal’ politics, the politics of issues and interests, as distinct from the abstract or theoretical politics of cafe disputation and the advocacy of general standpoints.
In these and other ways they were poorly equipped and, to say the least, scarcely ready save in imagination to tackle tasks of the magnitude they put before themselves and those they sought to make their allies. A more fundamental cause of their failure, however, may be surmised. They were groping their way, in the realms of theory and practice alike, from a standpoint characterized by the conviction that a single universal key to all significant frustrations exists and has been found, and expressing itself in an unchanging reiteration of generalized opposition and rejection, varying only in the selection of targets, to a standpoint embodying criteria for determining which among current events and tendencies are to be welcomed, which discouraged or attacked. Attuned to a repudiative style in habits of thought and speech, and not seldom temperamentally too, they would have found it difficult even to realize how far they had to go, let alone have been capable of undergoing the transition with ease.
After an inevitable phase of disheartenment, the outcome was a change of direction., Although Walsby always believed that the differentiated view of political and social consciousness which he was developing was of great practical importance, he now shifted his attention from politics as such to science. The shift showed itself both theoretically and in organizational form. On the one hand, with a notable lack of diffidence about his entitlement and ability to embark on the study of specialized matters, he set out to ground his general political and philosophical analysis in what he considered to be the most relevant psychological findings, namely those of Freud and Pavlov – with some reference also to William McDougall and (more or less in passing) Gustave Le Bon. On the other hand, he took steps to abstract the interest and support of established scientists and other people who believed in the value of scientific method.
His lack of academic background was almost certainly an advantage to him in this new quest for theoretical strengthening of his position. His independence as a thinker was not just a matter of lack of formal attachment and affiliations but, more crucially, one of a robust fearlessness in the face of daunting complexities, a readiness to find his way along the intellectual paths relevant to his concerns without regard to whether or not he was respecting the conventional lines of demarcation between supposedly distinct fields of enquiry and thought. At the same time there was always evident in his studies and writing, then and until the end of his life, a high regard for genuine scholarship and a constant striving for intellectual rigour. It is not too much to say that the range and power of his insights derived from a combination of very real originality, immense intellectual energy, disregard for arbitrary academic conventions of specializacion, and profound respect for the achievements and requirements of scholarship.
Before the nature of his new conclusions is considered, it is appropriate to mention the organizational framework within which they were presented, along with his earlier views – or rather, combined with them in an integrated and coherent, if complex, viewpoint. The Social Science Association was established in October 1944, ostensibly as…
a group of people who – irrespective of sex, colour, race, creed or class – have in common the promotion of this object: To support wherever possible the extension, development and application of scientific method to contemporary social and political problems.
The S.S.A. therefore aims at advancing human understanding of human nature as the prerequisite of a rational, peaceful and scientific control of human society.
In practice, although the S.S.A. did hold some meetings at which contemporary social and political problems were discussed – mainly problems connected with the advancement and application of scientific discovery – and did publish a few articles of similarly broad reference, its central purpose was to publicize Walsby’s analysis of the nature and forms of human social and political consciousness – by now [styled a] theory of ideology – and to claim for it a vital connection with the most urgent issues of the day. It produced a few issues of a (duplicated) Bulletin and also some half-dozen printed pamphlets, including what almost certainly was the first publication to appear after and about the implications of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945. Described as a ‘Social Science Special,’ it was entitled The Atom Bomb and came out in the same month. By October it had already reached a third edition.
The theme so promptly taken up was pursued in the title of a printed S.S.A. journal, The New Age of Atomics of which there were just two issues the first October 1945 and the second in November 1946. Also in 1946 appeared the last of the pamphlets, albeit four times the size of any of its predecessors with the title 999 – Emergency! It had been written by Walsby himself using the pseudonym Arthur W. Spencer-Bragg – because, it seems, he felt that such a name had overtones of scientific authenticity. The title and most of the chapter headings (‘The Child with the Loaded Pistol,’ ‘The Rape of Science,’ ‘While Rome Burns,’ ‘The International Volcano,’ ‘The Final Crusade’) indicate of themselves the tone of urgency in which the pamphlet is couched, but a few extracts will better serve to convey how at this time Walsby and the S.S.A. combined in their public statements appeal to scientists, etc. and the insistence that the advent of atomic weapons and the prospective resurgence of fascism together placed mankind in appalling danger:
[Eleven pages of quotations from 999 – Emergency!]
 The only book about the SPGB which has ever appeared is Robert Barltrop’s The Monument, Pluto Press 1976, by a long-time member who defected and then returned, to edit the Party’s monthly journal. It is a largely personal portrait but is not unduly biased.
[Note: Harold Walsby, Independent Thinker by Peter Shepherd appears to be an incomplete manuscript.]
- PSI Circular Number Two (February 1979)
- PSI Circular Number One (January 1979)
- Joshua Feldman: Reconceptualising (systematic) Ideology in the Wake of Political Psychology
- George Walford and Ike Benjamin: The Sad Case of the SPGB
- Linda Sloane: Systematic Ideology and Identity / The Triangle of Society, Ideology and the Individual
- Their “Operation Utopia”
- George Orwell Letters to George Walford
- George Walford: The New Magic
- George Walford: Exploring Ideology
- George Walford: Sciences