George Walford: The British Political Series

We turn now to the political scene in Britain, and not only because this is the country I know best. Britain, and particularly England, has enjoyed a greater freedom from disruptive external influences, over a longer period, than any equally advanced state; if there are regularities in the relationships between political parties they are likely to appear more clearly here than in countries where military, political or religious interference from without has played a larger part. (We shall go on to enquire whether regularities perceptible in Britain also appear in the greater world).

The immediate distinction between political parties and movements lies in their ideas, views, beliefs, preferences, values and mental attitudes, in short in ideological features. We begin by studying these, going on later to enquire how they come to hold the ones they do.

It may seem necessary to start by specifying the particular ideas held by the different movements, but this is not the best way to grasp their distinctive features. Particular ideas relate to particular circumstances and tend to change with them; they can provide no explanation for the enduring stability characteristic of major political bodies. Through much of the later nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth, the British Empire bulked large in conservative thinking; now the empire has gone, and many conservative ideas with it, but conservatism remains recognisably what it was, and this because its ideology comprises not only particular ideas about particular issues but also certain broad beliefs. These endure while the particular ideas come and go and the same holds good, with appropriate changes, for the other movements. To be a conservative, a liberal or whatever, is to accept certain general ideas which govern responses to particular issues as they arise, and we shall study mainly ideas of this type.

Enthusiasts of every colour tend to reject any suggestion that systematic relations obtain between political movements. They like to select their own as right and dismiss all others as wrong, and this is like saying that all animals are either elephants or not elephants; true or not, it obscures a lot of useful information. There are good grounds for holding that the principal British political movements form an orderly sequence, and we shall find as we go on that this indicates the presence of a firm ideological structure beneath the ever-changing political surface.

Size and Influence

Each movement exercises upon social life a degree of influence immediately determined mainly by the number of people supporting it. Millions, rich and poor, accept conservative ideas and the movement is correspondingly powerful not only at the polls but also in less formal ways; the economic and political systems of modern Britain operate largely in accordance with conservative beliefs and have continued to do so when the Conservative Party was out of office. Anarchist ideas appeal to far smaller numbers, and this movement exercises so little influence that even a detailed history of modern Britain would be likely not to mention it. When these two movements are taken as the ends of a range and the others inserted between them to produce a series running: conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism then, consistently over the whole range, a movement tends to be large and powerful, or small and ineffective, as it stands closer to one extreme or the other.

Apparent exceptions lose much of their substance when examined. The Labour Party has repeatedly obtained enough electoral support to form a government, while the rule places socialism among the smaller movements; the explanation lies in the distinction between the party and the movement. Most of the numerical and financial strength of the Labour Party comes from its trade union component, and this for the most part is markedly non-socialist; a trade union works to promote the interests of its own paid-up members rather than the welfare of the working class or the community, it equates with the cartels, price-rings and attempted monopolies of management and employers.

During the last two decades of the 19th Century, before the trade unions and the socialists came together in one party, the numerical disproportion between the two groups showed up clearly. The principal socialist organisation of the time, the Democratic (later Social Democratic) Federation had a membership in the hundreds for most of this period, and by 1900 had reached only ten thousand, while already by 1890 the trade unions counted 1,600,000. The difference in ideas between the two groups also showed up; when the Federation issued a manifesto to the trade unions it succeeded only in alienating them. The movement to substitute a new form of society for the existing one gained little strength in later years; in his 1965 history of the Labour Party Brand notes that under nationalisation ‘the professional managers were concerned with efficiency rather than socialism, and the structure of British industry remained essentially capitalist,’ [1] and Neil Kinnock, Leader of the party, told the 1988 Conference that its job was the efficient operation of capitalism [2] Socialism was a minority influence within the Labour Party at its foundation and has remained so; it is a relatively small and weak movement.

Another discrepancy, between our rule and the results of observation, shows up when we recall that since the early 1920s liberalism has consistently held a smaller number of parliamentary seats than its position in the range would lead one to expect; this results largely from Britain’s electoral system. I am using ‘liberalism’ to include what is known in British politics as social democracy, and if seats won in the 1987 General Election had been in proportion to votes cast the Alliance (of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties) would have won 146 seats instead of the 22 actually held. [3]

Provided the distinction between socialism and the Labour Party be maintained, and we look at votes cast rather than seats won, electoral results tend to support our proposition: the farther along the range towards anarchism each movement stands, the smaller its size and influence. (When we come to look beyond Britain we shall find the striking apparent exceptions in Russia, China and elsewhere also falling into place upon closer examination. As I write, early in 1990, these discrepancies are weakening, but they remain marked enough to need accounting for).

From Stability to Revolution

Next we ask whether this diminution in numerical support along the range can be shown to correspond with differences in ideas or beliefs, and I take first the degrees of enthusiasm which the parties respectively show for far-reaching changes in the deep structures of society. Conservatives tend to value the established, priding themselves on being responsible people, too sensible to abandon what has been proven viable in a chase after perfection. Liberals, while working for radical changes, yet seek to perfect existing society rather than replace it by something fundamentally different. Socialism, communism and anarchism, on the other hand, all advocate transition to a society operating on different principles. When we enquire more closely, taking each movement by itself, we find that here also our series holds good; the nearer to anarchism a movement or party stands, the deeper and more extensive the changes sought.

To say that conservatism seeks to preserve things as they are would be going much too far; conservative governments pass laws and conservative ministers issue regulations, and every one of these constitutes a change. Conservatism does, however, maintain a distinctive attitude towards changes, promoting only those which (it believes) will tend to avert greater ones. Placing high value on stability, conservatism conceives it to be threatened and is prepared to put up with much, even with extensive changes, in order to secure it.

In liberalism this alters; change comes to be valued as a means towards positive benefits. Nostalgia no longer tempts, the ideal has yet to be achieved. Still holding firmly to the main features of existing society, such as its authoritarian government and competitive economy, liberalism differs from conservatism in seeking rather to perfect than to preserve them, aiming at progress rather than stability. The recommendations of J. M. Keynes for manipulation of the economy to avoid the recurrence of booms and slumps, and the work of Sir William Beveridge in softening the harsher edges of capitalism, provide large-scale examples of the approach. Where conservatism sometimes holds back from the correction of abuses or malfunctions, fearing that interference may produce a condition worse than before, liberalism seeks out opportunities for improvement. It prefers to confine itself, however, to the improvement of what already exists, Bentley noting that Hobson agreed with all liberals of all periods in seeing nothing amiss in principle with capitalism, believing that it was for government to ensure that it worked in a wholesome way. [4]

With the next step along the range, to socialism, attention shifts from separate improvements to the reformation (re-formation) of society from the roots up. Here common ownership and co-operation are to replace private ownership and competition, and a government more responsive to the people is to displace the present system of authority tempered by occasional elections. These objectives of socialism are often summarised, in a phrase significant for our enquiry into the degrees of change favoured by the different movements, as the alternative society.

Moving on past socialism, communism comes to value radical change highly enough to undertake revolution in order to effect it, and anarchism believes it not enough even to revolutionise existing society, proclaiming the only way of overcoming its defects to be its abolition, leaving people free to follow their inherent leanings towards peaceful cooperation

When arranged according to the depth and extent of the changes they favour the movements fall into the same order as when listed by size. This suggests that the arrangement expresses real relationships between them and as we go on to look at other features we shall find this impression strengthening into a virtually unavoidable conclusion. I shall take their ideas about control versus freedom, first in economic and then in political affairs, and go on to look at the differing valuations they respectively place upon theory as a guide to action.

Economics: from Freedom to Control

Each of our movements declares itself in favour of freedom, and each of them is found on examination to understand by the term a particular set of restraints (which we are about to specify). In addition to these specialised meanings, each of them confined to a certain group, the term is used in two senses which come close to being opposed. They are often distinguished as ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from,’ and I shall use the word in the first sense, meaning freedom to act, not freedom from the consequences of action. The difference will become clearer as we go on.

Willingness to allow individuals freedom of action in economic affairs, freedom to buy, to sell to accumulate possessions or to fail to obtain what they need (according to their ability, industry, cunning, avarice or good fortune), is strongest in conservatism. This movement does impose restraints upon economic competition, requiring that participants act honestly, legally and decently – in a famous phrase, that they present an acceptable face – but these requirements leave competition free to the point where the victors are able largely to exclude the losers from the field, leading to its domination by the multi-nationals, conglomerates and the like.

Liberalism would not allow competitive individualism this free rein. Liberals often speak and write as if they sought unrestricted competition but in fact government control plays a larger part in their preferred economy than in that of conservatism. The proposals of both Keynes and Beveridge entailed tighter management of the economy than conservatism willingly undertakes, and when Michael Bentley likens a liberal economy to a cricket match [5] his choice of simile is unintentionally revealing, for cricketers perform under an elaborate system of rules imposed by unquestionable authority. Bentley recognises that for the game to take place the pitch has to be kept clear; exploitation, monopoly, unfair advantage, corruption and bigotry must be suppressed. By calling these practices artificial he sets up fair competition as the normal or natural condition and this puts things the wrong way round. A pitch with obstructions displays the normal or natural state of such areas; the clear and level one is the artificial construction. Exploitation, monopoly and the rest have been with us since structured society first appeared, maintaining themselves against all attacks, and to speak as if getting rid of them were no more than a preliminary clearing of the ground reminds one of the plan for a robbery that began: ‘First, you steal a battleship.’ A government capable of ensuring that the individual shall encounter only free and fair competition would be no distant umpire but a pervasive presence, powerful enough to overcome any combination of opponents. In practice liberalism tends to accept this, the freedom it envisages being largely that provided by a powerful state and a government less inclined than are conservative ones to permit an economic free-for-all; in partly dismantling the Welfare State the Thatcher government acted without support from liberalism.

Socialism would regulate industry and commerce more closely still seeking to subordinate competition and private interests to the welfare of the collectivity. Here the economic system which produces all wealth, is held to be operated not by individuals but by society, and people who enjoy plenty while others, equally members of society, suffer poverty, are seen as taking things to which they have no moral right. During periods of labour government the socialist impulse in the party has brought monopolies and near-monopolies under direct government control and extended supervision to privately-owned enterprises. Where conservatism aims at leaving citizens to decide for themselves how to spend what money they have, socialist influence in the Labour Party leads it to seek rather to make these decisions for them, imposing heavy taxation (especially but not exclusively upon the rich) and using the proceeds to provide uniform services for all. In the economic field, in activities connected with material goods and buying and selling, socialism would regulate behaviour more closely than either liberalism or conservatism. The famous Clause Four of the Labour Party’s Constitution (ignored by the non-socialist bulk of its members) shows socialism committed to common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and to the extent that these are instituted individual freedom of action in this sphere diminishes.

With the next step, to communism, the demand for common ownership hardens; the socialist conviction that restraints must be imposed only gently and gradually is rejected, and the degree of economic control envisaged becomes so severe that even its proponents speak of a dictatorship (of the proletariat).

This may sound as though control has reached its limits, but in the society favoured by anarchists it would become even more severe, going indeed beyond control or even suppression of independent economic action towards its elimination. Dictatorship, with its coercive apparatus, implies the presence of substantial resistance; were no considerable body striving to exercise freedom, these powerful means of suppression would not be needed. In an anarchist society they would be superfluous, informal action by the community being sufficient, and this indicates the degree to which impulses towards independent economic action would have to be eliminated for such a society to function.

The picture of an anarchist economy as leaving people free to make and to do whatever irresponsible fancy may suggest, each of them acting independently, is one not held by serious anarchist thinkers. Daniel Guerin quotes Bakunin as advocating workers’ co-operatives which would be organised as one enormous federation, with a single assembly in supreme control. Using precise, detailed and comprehensive world-wide statistics it would maintain correlation between supply and demand, directing, distributing and sharing out the industrial production of the world; in this way losses of capital, stagnation, crises of employment and trade and other economic disasters would almost certainly, Bakunin believed, entirely disappear. [6] The idea of a body which should balance supply and demand, worldwide, in all fields, stands out as a hold conception even in an age of computers. To propose it well before the end of the 19th Century (Guerin does not detail his sources but Bakunin died in 1876) shows an enthusiasm for control in economic affairs fully equal to the ardour with which conservatives demand freedom in this field.

This also supports another of our themes. Bakunin is well known as an opponent of Karl Marx; when, in spite of this, his economic proposals turn out so close to the ultimate aim of the communists, it goes to confirm that anarchism is best understood as a step beyond communism rather than as a movement arising from separate roots, even though anarchists themselves often repudiate any suggestion of significant connection between the two.

Politics: from Control to Freedom

Turning to political-intellectual activities, we find the tendencies displayed in the economic-material field reversed; here conservatism and (to a lesser extent) liberalism favour regulation while socialism, communism and anarchism, in that order, favour increasing degrees of individual freedom. The strength of the commitment to economic-material freedom displayed by each movement varies inversely with its commitment to political-intellectual freedom.

Conservatism holds that authority should control education, restrain agitations and demonstrations, impose restrictions on public speech and the press, strengthen the powers of the police and extend the remit of the security services. When in power it tends to follow this course and to make no apology for doing so, for this is how its supporters want it to behave. In its internal organisation it follows the same pattern, the leaders exercising greater authority, and the general body of members a less active influence, than in any of our other movements. Strongly supportive of individual enterprise in economic matters, conservatism discourages it in political and intellectual affairs, stressing instead the value of loyalty and conformity. [7] The Thatcher regime has enthusiastically pursued deregulation of economic life together with the imposition of greater State control over teaching and research.

Liberalism modifies these views, holding the correct attitude in political and intellectual affairs to be not the reduction of differences of opinion but encouragement of them so far as may be consistent with the security of the state, and Liberal Assemblies tend to carry this theory into practice. They are inclined, noticeably more than Conservative Conferences, to pass resolutions going against the policies favoured by their leaders. This tendency, like others, gets carried farther in the next step along the range; Tony Benn tells us that ‘the Labour Party feels free to be critical of everything the leader says and does… ‘ [8] and it is particularly the socialists within that party who take advantage of this freedom.

Among communists mental independence reaches a point where severe party discipline has to be imposed to make it possible to maintain a functioning organisation, and even so the movement exists mainly as a collection of fragments expending much of their energy in fighting each other, while anarchists not uncommonly deny that they constitute a movement at all, claiming to be nothing but a number of fully autonomous individuals.

I have been speaking of individual freedom of action in political matters as it appears in the behaviour of the people making up each movement; it also appears in the behaviour of the movements themselves, and here again it shows the same progression, each movement asserting its independent individuality more strongly as it stands closer to anarchism.

Conservatism deprecates any suggestion that it engages in party- political action, claiming to represent the nation as a whole, and each conservative prime minister since Peel (with the exception of Douglas-Home) has formed, attempted or considered a coalition with other parties. [9] At the other end of the range the purist anarchists of the SPGB declare themselves ‘determined to wage war with all other political parties’ [10] and have in fact never allied themselves with any other political movement (save for companion-parties abroad) since the foundation of their party in 1904.

In moving along the range from conservatism towards anarchism the degree of political-intellectual freedom of action demanded and exercised, both by the successive movements and by the people within them, consistently increases. In respect of this feature, also, the movements fall into the same order as before.

Theory: from Scepticism to Confidence

I will take one more feature in confirmation: the valuations the movements respectively place upon theory as a guide to action. Conservatism sets this low. Sir Ian Gilmour has a chapter entitled ‘Conservative Philosophy,’ but any idea that this may indicate high valuation of theory disappears on reading its opening sentences:

So far, then, as philosophy or doctrine is concerned, the wise Conservative travels light. Conservative principles cannot be precisely tabulated. To ask what is the nature of Conservatism is more to the point than to seek to categorise it.

He adds that ‘Conservatives are more concerned with life than with ideas forms a distinct branch of study and that liberal ideas, as well as the workings of the party, will constitute his own subject. He speaks of a ‘thought-world’ inhabited by liberal intellectuals, and of J.S. Mill holding that a properly conceived system of representative government would introduce an intellectual test for electors. [16] This movement shows a marked shift away from the firm practicality of the conservative approach and towards theorisation. Emphasis upon this distinction was a feature of the long struggle of the two parties through the late nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, conservative writers repeatedly accusing liberalism of being so committed to rigid theories as to have lost pragmatic flexibility.

From some of the viewpoints available today this difference between conservatism and liberalism looks like hardly more than a shift of emphasis; the next step brings a more substantial change. Unlike liberalism, socialism accepts only provisionally the private ownership, nationalism and status differences of existing society, and in seeking to move forward to a new earth, if not also a new heaven, it relies upon theory to show the route. At this point in the series theory comes to be valued above experience as a guide to action. Liberal ideas are still closely related to practical problems, retaining something of an ad hoc quality, but socialism tends to relate all the major social problems to the single root of institutionalised inequality, and this endows its thinking with a new coherence.

Communism launches out more boldly. Already in 1848 Marx was crediting the communists with an understanding of social affairs superior to that of the general proletariat, [17] and Lenin follows suit, insisting on the vanguard party’s need of the most advanced theory and driving his point home: ‘without communist theory, no communist movement.’ [18] Here theory is valued so highly that even violent revolution is acceptable to bring practice into agreement with it, and the theorising itself is of a quality not found in the movements spoken of above. Liberalism concerns itself with ideas, but the thinking found in Michael Bentley’s chapter on theory, or even in Mill or Keynes, is eminently down-to-earth and practical when compared with Marx’s Capital, Engels’ Anti-Duehring, or even the comparatively popular Communist Manifesto. While conservative, liberal and (with few exceptions) also socialist writers maintain close contact with their audience Marxist intellectuals, for all their professed concern with those who have not enjoyed advanced education, often ascend into a stratosphere where few can follow them. Michel Pecheux, for example, complains that the material conditions of capitalism disrupt communication between the workers and the control of production. In communicating his own ideas he says:

interdiscourse as transverse discourse crosses and connects together the discursive elements constituted by interdiscourse as preconstrued, which supplies as it were the raw material in which the subject is constituted as speaking-subject, with the discursive formation that… tends to absorb-forget interdiscourse in intra-discourse… [19]

In anarchism the action advocated comes to be guided by theory almost to the exclusion of experience. Every society producing its own food has used authority and coercion; these have varied in form and extent, but no society with a population greater than the few who could live off natural growth has survived without them. Socialism and communism, although intending to impose great restrictions on the use of these methods, and to turn them to purposes to which they have not yet been applied, yet remain free to use them without falling into fatal self-contradiction; there is to be no complete break between existing society and what they advocate, they have achieved some of their minor objectives and it remains to be discovered by experiment how much farther it is possible to move in the direction they wish. Anarchism cannot act in this way. Defining itself as the absence of authority and coercion it can claim no practical successes to demonstrate the validity of its theorising. The apparent success of anarchism in Spain in the 1930s was deceptive (see Appendix A) and the communes, co-operatives and so on sometimes offered as evidence for the practicality of anarchist proposals are nothing to the point since they all functioned within an authoritarian environment. There is no direct empirical evidence at all to support the feasibility of a self-sufficient anarchist society and while this does not, of course, prove such a society impossible, it does mean that those who work to bring it about do so in reliance upon theory, without direct support from exprience. Guerin quotes the observation of Diego Abad de Santillan that anarchism ‘had produced a super-abundance of works, in every language, going over and over an entirely abstract conception of liberty.’ [20]

When arranged according to their conception of the relative values of theory and experience as guides to action, the movements fall into the same order as before.

The Non-Political Group

The range of movements now on the table comprises the main active constituents of British political life but not the whole population or even the whole electorate. At each British general election this century some 20 per cent have refrained from voting (in 1987 the figure was 24.6 per cent), while swings and landslides indicate the presence of a body of voters without firm party commitment, a body large enough, when many of them move in the same direction, to sway the result. Doubtless some of the non-voters are anarchists, or others who have analysed the policies on offer and reached a considered decision that no party deserves their support, but such people are rare. Through any political excitement the great majority, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, carry on as if nothing were happening; even the largest demonstration loses its impressiveness when one thinks of the numbers who have preferred to stay at home or at work. The proportion of ‘Don’t knows’ reported by each survey of political opinion, the complaints, from activists of all parties, of widespread apathy, and the contacts we all make in everyday life indicate that the largest group of all consists of those not identified with any party or movement. For the most part these people ignore elections, and when any of them do cast a vote it is guided by considerations other than adherence to any set of political principles. The indications are that most of the non- voters, and the ‘floating’ voters too, take little or no thoughtful interest in politics; they vote for this or that party, or stay away from the polling-booth, as they think will best serve their interests at the time, and I shall call them the non-politicals.

The movements discussed above all seek to modify society. Conservatism seeks less radical change than any of the others but it, too, works to bring social practice into agreement with its beliefs, seeking to ensure that wealth and status shall be enjoyed and payment, profit and perquisites pursued, within the conventional decencies. Seen from positions closer to anarchism, with their more severe restraints upon individual enterprise, this may not seem very much, but the non-politicals do not limit themselves even to that extent. In economic affairs they are less influenced by a regard for the common welfare, more individualistic, than conservatives. This does not have to mean they will behave rapaciously, and in fact the demands made by most of them even in the wealthiest countries tend to be remarkable for their modesty. It means they are free to follow their personal inclinations unencumbered by any burden of doctrine. Emotional responses may lead them to behave towards people, even in the mass, with generosity and sometimes with self-sacrifice, but there is nothing in their beliefs committing them to act with considered regard for anything so remote as a nation or a class; that comes with the beginnings of intellectualisation and an extension of interest from personal concerns to the political arena.

Turning from the economic field to the political, here again the non-politicals show themselves by their behaviour to be standing farther from anarchism than conservatism does. By being sceptical of theory conservatism shows awareness of it, and the non-politicals have not got as far as that; the possibility that theory might influence action hardly enters their thinking even as a risk to be guarded against. Conservatism deplores efforts to promote any sectional or party viewpoint, stressing the importance of national unity; in doing that it takes up a definite stand, while the non-politicals remain as the politically featureless background from which it distinguishes itself. Conservative principles have repeatedly led their adherents to demand war but the non-politicals rather emulate Auden’s Unknown Citizen, favouring peace in times of peace but obedient when ordered out to fight. Within broad limits they accept society as it is, adapting themselves to it rather than seeking to bring it into line with any more or less coherent set of ideas. Not perceiving politics as an area in which ends are to be pursued they see no need for any freedom of action in the field and accordingly are not brought to protest, as some conservatives are sometimes driven to do, that the political control imposed by government is becoming oppressive. These people constitute the largest group of all and hence the one exercising the greatest influence. Abstainers from voting and uncommitted voters as they are, their numbers none the less have the effect that it lies mainly in their hands to decide which party shall hold office and the main outlines of the course to be followed. What they are willing to accept sets the limits within which the parties work. By their size and influence, as well as by their beliefs, they locate themselves at the end of our series as a sixth term out beyond conservatism.

Each of these six groups exhibits five features, namely size, changes sought, preference for freedom or control in economic and political affairs respectively, and value placed upon theory as a guide to action. When the groups are arranged in the order: non-political, conservative, liberal, socialist, communist, anarchist, then each feature changes consistently right along the range and these systematic relationships do not appear, with features of comparable importance, if they are arranged in any other way. For one feature to change in this way between two groups would mean little, and two features changing over a range of three groups might well be an effect of chance. But when five major features change consistently over the whole range it comes close to being proof that this arrangement of the parties and movements of which we have been speaking expresses real and significant relationships.

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