Richard Tatham: Science and Anarchism

With reference to Harold Walsby’s Domain of Ideologies, a great part of your recent review is unfortunately irrelevant, since it cirticises contentions which the book does not in fact advance.  In the first place, your reviewer – George Woodcock – should note that it deals with ideologies and not – as he seems to think – with economics or political systems.  These have, of course, important connections, but they are by no means to be simply equated.  Thus however much, in the objective sense, fascism may curtail economic individualism, and whatever restrictions the soviet system may impose on political liberty, the conscious expressions of these outlooks (and it is with these that the Domain of Ideologies is particularly concerned) involve a strong affirmation of them.  For example, Mr. Woodcock may feel, as most of us do, that there is a severe denial of political freedom in Russia, but he had doubtless encountered the difficulty of persuading the CP that this is the case.  We shall presently see, in fact, that a comparable disparity between conscious convictions and objective reality is to be found in the anarchist outlook.

To take further examples of Mr. Woodcock’s misreading: Mr. Walsby does not assert that the extreme left believes human motives to be wholly determined by economic factors.  It is not true of dialectial materialism (which declares the economic factor to be merely the major one) and we are quite aware that it is not true of the anarchist philosophy.  Again, though Mr. Walsby refers to the natural urge towards freedom from limitation, he does not – as Mr. Woodcock alleges – take this as proof of de facto self-determinism; he merely points to the subjective sense of self-determinism, which is a rather different matter.

On this latter point, it is noteworthy that Mr. Woodcock, after dismissing Mr. Walsby’s illustration of the unity-of-opposites principle as meaning nothing more that words used “in an odd way,” is then forced in the very next paragraph to accept this self-same principle as inhering in the relation between free-will and determinism.  Mr. Woodcock states: “the limitation might be held to be the cause of resistance” – and this is indeed the position.

Mr. Woodcock, in common with others of his outlook, makes much of this human urge towards freedom, but he is doubtless aware that besides the anarchist conception of freedom, there also happen to be the fascist, conservative, liberal, socialist communist and many other conceptions of freedom, and no matter how much Mr. Woodcock may deny their objective justification, they nevertheless have managed to retain their subjective existence with a tenacity not greatly diminished by anarchist opposition.  This is probably a matter of regret to Mr. Woodcock; if he only knew it, it is a matter of regret also to many of us who accept Mr. Walsby’s main thesis; but it is of little avail to allow desires to obscure the hard facts of the situation.

It is this inability to overcome the inhibitions and emotional prejudices of the ideological field which results in the gross divorce between the conscious ideas and the objective reality of all non-scientific political and social philosophies, whether of the intellectually primitive and naive types – such as fascism and conservatism – or of a comparatively mature level such as anarchism.  This latter, while appearing to its adherents as the one real solution to the vast problem of society, is in objective fact doomed by the laws of the ideological domain to remain a minority creed.

Mr. Woodcock declares that the domain of ideologies still lacks “adequate research;” he admits that the revolutionary (that is, one assumes, the anarchist conception of what is revolutionary, as opposed to many other conceptions) has still to solve the problem of giving the libertarian urge a proper rational basis, and preventing it from falling back into “reactionary forms.”  It is significant that in the face of this admitted ignorance, he asserts his anarchist belief so confidently and pugnaciously.  It is significant, but not of course surprising, since a study of ideologies shows that he unscientific outlooks habitually cling to belief as distinct from factual, self-critical method, and it is consequently small wonder that the social problems they wish to solve become all the more formitable and unresolvable to their efforts, however sincere they may be.

[See also George Woodcock: A Domain Still Unexplained.]

Science & Ideology 2, April 1948.