George Walford: Of Apples and Oranges

Systematic ideology has a lot to say about ideological groups, and the use of this concept sometimes provokes objections. (In what follows we use personal names but these are to be read as referring in each case to the person’s body of published work; we do not claim knowledge of their private behaviour and cannot therefore place them, as people, in one category or another). If one says, for example, that Russell, Ayer, Wittgenstein and Whitehead are all expressing the same major ideology in their philosophising, a listener acquainted with their work but unfamiliar with s.i. is likely to point out important differences between them; may even claim that on some big questions they oppose one another. The objector may well be right, but nonetheless they all show themselves, by their way of thinking, to be attached to the same major ideological group (technically, the parastatic).

If one takes four apples it is easy to show that each of them is different from the others; it is the differences between them that attract attention. But if the field of view he widened to include an orange it is immediately apparent that what one has is a group of four with an odd man out.

Similarly if, to Ayer, Wittgenstein, Whitehead and Russell there be added Karl Marx, it is immediately apparent that what one has is a group of four with an odd man out. And if Althusser then be added, there is evidently the same group of four and another group of two.

This applies to organisations as well as people. There are now at least two parties in Britain calling themselves Communist and at least one calling itself (unofficially) Trotskyist. It cannot sensibly be denied that there are differences, even oppositions, between these; it sometimes seems that their main interest lies in fighting each other. But if the field of view be widened to include the Labour Party (to say nothing of the Conservative Party) it is immediately apparent that the Communists and Trotskyists belong together, forming one group distinct from the Labour Party.

The insistence upon the importance of differences, the direction of attention away from significant similarities, is sometimes an expression of the major ideology particularly concerned with external, mechanistic precision (the parastatic) and sometimes a mere debating trick, used to put down an argument which cannot he defeated by more legitimate means. In the first case it will probably be readily accepted that there are also other valid ways of looking at the position. In the second case the counter is to accept the validity. of the distinction within a limited field and go on to show that although there always are differences between the members of any ideological group, when that group is set beside another one these differences sink into relative insignificance. (This assumes, of course, that the similarity posited as linking members of the group together, and distinguishing them from members of other groups, was a valid one in the first place).

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.