George Walford: Politics as Ideology

Later on we shall need to look back to the beginnings of humanity, but now we turn to Western Europe in the middle years of the 19th Century. By the mid-1840s Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had begun to use ‘ideology’ in something approaching its modern meaning. They showed themselves aware of having broken through onto a new area of understanding, but a century and more of social development since their time has demonstrated that they did not recognise the full significance of their own perception. Through out their work ideology remains secondary, an effect produced by class interests, although in later years Engels was according it a more active role than they did to begin with. Their original presentation appears in The German Ideology, written in 1845-6, and here they speak without hesitation; ideology consists of reflexes and echoes, it is bound to material processes, has no semblance of independence, no history, no development. Thinking and the products of thinking are not included in real existence. Explicitly, consciousness does not determine life. [1] If these things are so, then in order to understand ideology we need to study not ideology itself but the processes in the real world which it echoes, and continuing adherence to this belief by Marxists today explains why their studies said to be of ideology are seldom much more than accounts of class relations.

Marx and Engels were less rigid in their thinking. In 1890 (Marx had died in 1883) Engels was writing to Joseph Bloch expressing a view substantially different from the earlier one. The material or economic element no longer stands as the only determinant. Ideology is no longer seen as confined to reflexes and echoes, it has acquired history and development and become a part of real life, exercising a determining influence, sometimes even a preponderating one [2]. Three years later he had moved still farther in the same direction, condemning as fatuous the notion that he and Marx denied the ideological sphere any effect upon history. [3]

Even when The German Ideology was written there were grounds for questioning whether ideology could be adequately explained as a secondary effect of class interests, for some of the bourgeoisie, enough to demand mention even in the short Communist Manifesto, supported what Marx called the proletarian movement. Alvin Gouldner (describing himself as a Marxist outlaw), points out that from the viewpoint of Marx’s and Engels’ own theory the origination of that theory by ‘two very advantaged sons of the well-to-do’ was a sociological miracle, [4] and George Woodcock remarks the long line of aristocrats who joined the anarchist movement. [5]

Since Marx’s time the discrepancy between Marxist theory and social event has widened. In the Communist Manifesto he predicted that the proletarians, being a class, would come to form themselves into a party, but with the extension of the franchise those upon whom he bestowed this title have emulated the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy in spreading themselves over the political spectrum.

Down until fairly recent times ‘a party’ did mean for the most part something close to what we would now call an interest-group; the great landlords of early 19th Century Britain for example, became a party when they joined together to promote their common concerns. Parties as we know them today, mass organisations competing under conditions of universal franchise for control of the state, have other roots and serve other purposes, but the earlier meaning of the term still hangs on, bedevilling attempts to understand their behaviour.

Every movement big enough to be politically significant draws its numerical support mainly from the lower levels of the economic pyramid; in this they are all alike. But every one of them has its distinctive ideology. We have good grounds for entertaining the suggestion that in determining political attachment ideology may be the fundamental factor, class interest at most a minor influence.

The main parties and movements fall readily into two groups, one comprising conservatism and liberalism, the other socialism, communism (used here to include Trotskyism and the other revolutionary socialist bodies) and anarchism. The first group, and particularly conservatism, is widely associated with the wealthy and powerful, the second with the ordinary people, the workers and the poor. Belief in these connections is so strong, and so widespread, that it would be surprising if there were no grounds for it, but it does present difficulties. There are only a few wealthy and powerful people; if they alone supported conservatism and liberalism, and everybody else the other movements, the socialist-communist-anarchist group would enjoy a permanent overwhelming majority, and this has not happened. Things fall into place when we accept that although the connection exists it is not a simple identity. Those who support conservatism and liberalism do not, for the most part, possess wealth or power themselves but they respect those who do, while to supporters of the other movements the presence of these things indicates oppression and exploitation.

The immediate distinction, between the members and supporters of one group of parties and movements and those of the other, lies not in possessions, income, status, or relation to the means of production but in ideas, views, beliefs, preferences, values and mental attitudes, in short in ideological features. We shall see later that this holds good also for the differences between individual parties and movements.

The Marxist view of ideology as false consciousness is by no means extinct, but the term has also come to be used objectively. When Roy Hattersley, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, speaks in his book Choose Freedom of that party’s ideology (and does so without provoking any fierce protest from its members) he clearly does not intend to suggest that its beliefs should he considered false. Noel O’Sullivan who used ‘Conservative Ideology’ in two chapter headings, and the other writers in the series published by J. M. Dent & Sons, ‘Modern Ideologies,’ intend no disparagement. In 1947 Walsby was ahead of his time in using the term in this neutral way; following his example now we shall also be complying with a trend in current thinking.

One effect of the widespread influence of ideology is the tendency of political movements to talk past each other, using the same word for substantially different concepts. Conservative and liberal thinkers and writers tend to envisage workers as people doing rough or dull work for low pay, doubtless estimable but mostly not very bright, and needing supervision. In communist theory a worker does not suffer these limitations. Engels defined the working class as consisting of those obliged to sell their labour-power because they do not own enough to live without doing so, [6] and used in this sense the term embraces most technicians, managers, professional people and administrators. One consequence of these differing interpretations is that to conservatives and liberals the idea of a society run entirely by workers appears absurd, while to those accepting Engels’ definition it makes perfectly good sense. One group of purist anarcho-socialists (confusingly calling itself the Socialist Party of Great Britain and familiar to supporters and opponents as the SPGB) claim that the workers already run existing society ‘from top to bottom.’ [7]

‘Government,’ ‘profit,’ ‘conservatism,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘anarchy’ (and many other political terms) also carry different meanings according to the movement using them. For anarchists government is the source of oppression, and communists see it as the executive committee of the ruling class, while for conservatives it represents the nation as a whole. Profit appears to conservatives and liberals as the reward due to those who run successful businesses, thereby providing jobs for the workers; reformers and revolutionaries see it as coming from exploitation. Conservatives see their movement as representing all that is truly British, while to their opponents it consists of a deluded mass supporting the interests of the wealthy few. Many anarchists envisage their favoured society as more orderly than any yet known, while to most non-anarchists the name of this movement suggests chaos. Using the same words for different concepts, the movements also use different words for the same thing. From 1917 up to about 1990 the system operating in the USSR was socialism to communists, rabid Bolshevism to conservatives and state capitalism, oppressive and exploitative, to anarchists.

This diversity, exhibited by movements all inhabiting the one society (and all drawing their numerical strength mainly from people not distinguished by wealth or power) shows the meanings allocated to sensitive words to be powerfully influenced by something peculiar to each movement; the only factor capable of producing such an effect, and linked with all and only the members of each movement, is its ideology. Ideology affects political responses much as the nature of a surface affects the angle at which a ball rebounds from it.

In ordinary and academic usage ‘ideology’ usually indicates a relatively superficial feature produced by something deeper (such as class interest, or psychological disposition), much as a surface ripple may be produced by a submerged rock. This approach minimises both the significance of ideology and the importance of ideological study. If an ideology is (intentionally or otherwise) adopted to further an inclination or to serve an interest then in order to understand it we need to study the inclination or the interest rather than the ideology, and those using this approach are right to devote the greater part of their attention to non-ideological factors. Systematic ideology takes the term in a deeper sense. Personality has little connection with ideology; Karl Marx and Mr. Gladstone were both dominant personalities but their respective ideologies differed radically. Rather than interests governing ideologies, ideologies determine interests, communists promoting (what they believe to be) working-class interests because of the beliefs they hold, rather than becoming communists because they are workers. Also, ideologies affect one another. By frustrating the socialists the attachment of the majority to existing society impels some of them towards communism; to a considerable extent, ideology determines ideology.

Evidence that ideology does influence behaviour, that it is not merely a collective term for ideas arising from non-ideological roots, comes from two familiar features of political activity. First, any attempt to achieve a thorough grasp of the beliefs which go to constitute a position tends to come after it has been adopted, committed anarchists studying anarchism committed liberals liberalism, and so on. Commitment to the ideology commonly comes before the accumulation of reason and evidence to justify it and largely decides which reasoning shall be considered sound, which evidence relevant.

Second, each political movement drives ahead along its chosen path without clear knowledge of where this may lead. This feature shows up best at the anarchistic extreme, where the SPGB make a point of asserting that the society they seek to establish does not exist and never has existed. It follows that their confidence in its virtues cannot be supported by direct evidence, but this does not trouble them. They require only that a majority should understand and accept what they say; given that, they would abolish present society, with its demonstrated ability to maintain the current world population, and replace it with their favoured system. They insist that for the change to be successful it must be complete, world-wide, and effected without any transition period. The conception allows no preliminary testing, no experiments, no pilot projects. Burning the bridges behind them, they would make the lives of five thousand million people dependent on a system without any direct evidence to show it workable. They claim to be scientific in their approach, but science advances tentatively, testing the ground at every step; the SPGB would advance to total reliance upon an untested social system in one megadeath-defying leap. The strength of their conviction is unquestionable, but it does not derive from experience of the condition advocated.

Communism, socialism and non-purist anarchism do not take this black-or-white approach, envisaging instead a period of transition between the old society and the new, a time of experimental advances, adjustments and, should they prove necessary, retreats. Pursuit of an object whose value has not been demonstrated in practice plays a smaller part in the activity of these movements but it still appears, for each step forward goes beyond what has been previously experienced, evidence of its viability coming (if at all) only after it has been taken. The same holds good, though to a lesser extent, even for conservatism and liberalism, for each of these also works towards an end which remains, in some respects at least, unknown until it has been attained. Experience shows that advances commonly do lead into new difficulties; the dangers we face from nuclear explosion and pollution, increase of population and damage to the environment arise from progress in particle physics, in public health and in technology. Much the same applies to attempts at returning towards traditional practices, for we live in a changing world and it is impossible to foresee just how the old methods, reinstated, would interact with the new conditions. Conservatism seeks to restore the police to the position it believes they once held in public esteem, but the Victorian bobby on his bicycle can find no place in a world of drugs, assault rifles and fast cars, and we have yet to find out what long-term effects the use of riot gear by the police is going to produce. No party has experienced exactly the condition it works to establish and consequently no party can provide empirical evidence that its proposals, put into practice, will not create difficulties worse than the ones they are intended to resolve. But this seldom gives the political movements pause; each of them pushes ahead, striving to bring social practice into accordance with its ideology.

Use of the phrase ‘an ideology’ suggests that what is being spoken of is in some sense a unity, and common experience supports this; given one of the main ideas put forward by a party or movement not previously encountered it is often possible to predict, with a useful degree of reliability, which others will turn out to be associated with it. The broader political beliefs tend strongly to come in determinate sets, and this goes far to account for their notorious stability. Each of them being bonded to a set, trying to change it is like trying to pick up what appears to be a loose stone but is in fact the tip of a buried rock. An ideology possesses not only content but also enduring form and this helps to account for the persistence which shows through the shifting surface of politics. It helps to explain why the British Liberal Party survives (under a different name) although excluded from office for some seventy years and with no very evident prospect of returning and, on a larger scale, why the Russian communists persisted from 1917 to 1989 in the attempt to impose their ideas, and why dissidence survived under their repression.

Examination of the ideas making up an ideology shows them to be linked by something stronger than habitual association. Each political movement holds to a small number of extremely general propositions (we shall encounter some of them in the next chapter) and these change so slowly that when studying society (as distinct from pursuing absolute truth) they can well be treated as stable. Each movement’s thinking consists, for the most part, of working out the implications of these broad beliefs in relation to changing circumstances, and its activity of trying to realise these implications in social practice, bringing the overall behaviour of society into agreement with its general ideas. We shall of course need to consider how these broad beliefs and general ideas arise, but that comes later.

The indications are that ideological behaviour forms a distinct category, closely related to psychology and, less directly, to physiology and anatomy, but not reducible to any or all of these without loss of its distinctive features. If we are to understand ideology it is not sufficient to study the conditions in which it arises; we must also study ideology itself.

Ideology exercises its influence for the most part in a diffused way and largely below the awareness of those affected. Its presence is an inference from observed behaviour and the most immediately relevant behaviour, that most directly linked to ideology, is the expression of ideas and beliefs. In the next chapter we shall look at some of the principal ideas and beliefs of the main political movements, and we shall find that they form a significant series, pointing to the presence, below the shifting political surface, of a stable ideological structure.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis