George Woodcock: A Domain Still Unexplained

The study of ideologies, those constructions of mingled rational and emotional concepts, of social theory and demagogic appeal, by which political groups seek to persuade the ordinary man into accepting their doctrines, is in an extremely embryonic state, and so far there has been no adequate and systematic study of this subject.  Mr. Walsby’s little book does little more than raise a number of the issues involved, and does not proceed very far towards their solution.  Indeed, as often as not, he merely adds to the already existing confusion.

The first part of The Domain of Ideologies consists of an analysis of political and social tendencies, which is already drawn into the realm of unreality by more or less arbitrary distinction between “mass groups and intellectual groups.”  The author contends that there is a hierarchy of consciousness and intellect among the people, rising in a pyramid structure from the conservative mass to the upper crust of individualist and progressive intellectuals.  Conservatism, fascism, Nazism, even, to an extent, liberalism, are in his eyes doctrines which arise out of the inherent backwardness of the masses; socialism, communism and anarchism are doctrines of the intellectual minority.  He makes a diagram, unsupported by objective evidence, which shows the base of the pyramid occupied by the people supporting “Political Collectivism and Economic Individualism” (or authoritarianism and capitalism) and the narrow apex occupied by the intellectual minority supporting “Political Individualism and Economic Collectivism” (or libertarianism and common ownership of the means of production).

Even a cursory examination of the facts shows this to be a gross over-simplification.  Fascism and Nazism, which he includes in the first group, both contain strong tendencies towards one form of Economic Collectivism (state capitalism as against individual capitalism); Communism, which he places in the second category, is in practice as violently authoritarian as any regime of the right.  While in Spain, far from anarchism being an intellectual grouping it was and may still be the largest movement in the country.

Mr. Walsby bases much of his criticism of the extreme left on their alleged assumptions (a) that the masses can ultimately be won to complete rationality, and (b) that all human motives are subject to economic determination.  He includes the anarchists in this category.  But the anarchists have, in fact, except for Godwin in his early stage, never held that man is wholly to be governed by rational considerations; they have always pointed to the strong emotional and instinctual element in the urge towards freedom, and, from Proudhon and Bakunin onwards, have contended that it was by a mingling of reasoning and these instinctive urges that a mass movement towards liberation was always impelled.

Furthermore, the anarchists have also contended, against the liberal and Marxist philosophers alike, that man is not wholly dominated by economic demands.  For instance, it is possible to conceive a despotism that provides for all man’s material needs, but it is certain that men would still struggle for freedom from the domination to authority.

Mr. Walsby bases his hierarchic theories on the belief that evolution is not towards homogeneity, but towards increased differentiation.  That is a theory with which one cannot reasonably disagree, but the fact that men are becoming heterogeneous in their nature dos not mean that they can be assessed according to levels of consciousness.  They will have different kinds of consciousness, but that does not mean that the intellectual is necessarily any more sound in his social ideas than a worker.  The worker who judges his immediate surroundings and sets about to rectify them by direct action is as realistic, as progressive, as libertarian, as the leftist intellectual.  Mr. Walsby’s assumptions on this point are clearly divorced from any factual knowledge of militant movements of rebellion among the rank-and-file workers.  An admission of the increasing differentiation of evolving man is surely an argument for libertarian society that will be sufficiently elastic to allow for such variations, rather than for a hierartic and therefore authoritarian idea of social development.

The second part of the book, “Ideological Structures and Development” doe slittle more than sketch an attitude.  Mr. Walsby sets out, by a liberal use of Pavlov’s theories of conditioning, to determine the anatomy of ideological formation, but he does little more than suggest the pattern of resistances and identifications by which the individual develops his own ideological attitude, and makes no detailed examination of the functioning of mass ideologies, which one would have thought the most interesting and fruitful aspect of his subject.  Much of his reasoning is suspect, being largely marred by mere sophistry and philosophical juggling.  Here is a typical example of the kind of illogicality into which he lends himself by this means:

Every act of ‘taking’ or separation is also, at the same time, an act of ‘giving’ or association.  For example, the act of giving consent is at once the same thing as taking or accepting a request; my taking possession of an article is precisely the act of my giving it an owner; if I give something away then I take leave of it; taking a person indoors is the same as giving him entrance.

Which, in reality, means nothing more than that the English language sometimes uses words in an odd way.

There is a similarly unfruitful discussion around the question of determinism.  Mr. Walsby rightly points out that resistances to limitations produce a natural urge towards freedom from limitation.  He then takes this to be a proof of self-determinism.  But, so far as I can see, it really takes us no further in the old controversy of free-will and determinism, since the limitation might be held to be the cause of the resistance, and at best, Mr. Walsby’s arguments bring us back to the old logical chestnut of ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’

Nevertheless, it is the instict towards resistance and freedom, which Pavlov found even among his dogs, that provides the motive force for genuine revolutionary movements.  If Mr. Walsby had dealt longer on this subject he might have developed some ideas of real ideological value: he would probably also have had to abandon his hierartic ideas of social consciousness, since all men, underneath their layers of conditioning, have this urge towards freedom, which at times of crisis often comes to the surface and expresses itself in a genuinely libertarian mass movement.  The problem for the revolutionary is ow to give this urge the rational basis that will prevent the movement it initiates from falling back into reactionary forms after the first impulse has passed. It is a problem which has been solved only partially and temporarily, even in Spain.

But of this problem Mr. Walsby’s book gives us no solution, and The Domain of Ideologies remains a series of valid and invalid suggestions on a subject that still waits for adequate research.

[See also Richard Tatham: Science and Anarchism.]

Freedom, 21 February 1948