Graham Wallas

Graham Wallas (1858-1932) was a British sociologist, political scientist, antirationalist, and proponent of a psychological approach to the study of politics.

The son of a Sunderland clergyman, Graham Wallas endured a strict puritanical upbringing, and it was not without some relief that he left home to attend Shrewsbury School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Following his studies, he pursued a preparatory school teaching career but was constantly in trouble regarding matters of religious conformity.

In 1886 Wallas joined the Fabian Society and became a member of its executive committee. He resigned from the society in 1895 partly because of political disagreement and partly because of boredom. Although he was primarily concerned with the almost universal lack of concern for psychology on the part of political scientists, he dealt also with general problems of epistemology and methodology.

Assuming an antirationalist posture, Wallas believed it dangerous (especially in a democracy) to assume "that every human action is a result of an intellectual process … [that] man first thinks of some end which he desires, and then calculates the means by which that end can be accomplished." Furthermore, he did not believe that people, in the light of history, any longer relied upon "enlightened self-interest" or some similar concept. Indeed, he seemed especially intent upon refuting the then popular application of Darwinism to social affairs and to individual human behavior.

Wallas observed that, since the discovery of human evolution, psychologists had made new and important dis-discoveries concerning human nature. Sociology had emerged as a new science which took some cognizance of these discoveries. Political science, however, had neither contributed to these discoveries nor been affected by them. This he considered a tragedy.

For the earlier notions of an "unseen hand" and purely a priori assumptions, Wallas would substitute a more scientifically conceived foundation—"a conscious and systematic effort of thought" based upon cognizance of a sound psychology. "Political acts and impulses," he held, "are the result of the contract between human nature and its environment."

Wallas thought that the introduction of psychological aspects into the examination of the basis of politics would reopen many of the traditional discussions, such as that concerning representative government. Representative government, he held, was earlier "inspired by a purely intellectual conception of human nature," and in the real world these assumptions had not produced the predicted results. Later, the old psychology having been discarded, the question remained as to whether this necessitated discarding concepts of representative government. Wallas thought not. A rule by consent of the governed need not be dependent upon the old psychology's assumptions. The problem does not lie in the concept of representative government but in the fact that there is too limited participation, for whatever reason. The need is for more votes with more knowledge. However, he preferred the short ballot, for voters must not have too much strain put upon them and too hard choices.

In many respects Wallas is at once more democratic and more elitist. His elitism, however, is not based upon "natural selection." His elite should be an ever-expanding one which makes choices on the basis of latest scientific discoveries in both the natural and social sciences (especially psychology). Perhaps this elite could become so numerous as to no longer be an elite.

Wallas's apparent ambivalence about rationalism and intellectualism is best reflected in the preface to the 1914 edition of The Great Society. "I may, therefore, say briefly that the earlier book [Human Nature in Politics, 1908] was an analysis of representative government, which turned into an argument against nineteenth-century intellectualism; and that this book is an analysis of the general social organization of a large modern state, which has turned, at times, into an argument against certain forms of twentieth-century anti-intellectualism."


Further Reading on Graham Wallas

For a thorough understanding of Wallas, one should begin with his dissertation, The Life of Francis Place (1898; rev. ed. 1918), and follow up with his contributions in Fabian Essays in Socialism, with an introduction by Asa Briggs (1962). In his Great Society: A Psychological Analysis (1914) Wallas launches his lifelong campaign for the application of psychological analysis to the study of politics. Representative of his mature works in this vein are Human Nature in Politics (1908) and Our Social Heritage (1921). See also Gilbert Murray's "Preface" to Wallas's Men and Ideas (1940) and the remarks by his daughter, May Wallas, in the 1935 edition of Wallas's Social Judgment, which she edited. Wallas figures in works on Fabian socialism: Anne Fremantle, The Little Band of Prophets: The Story of the Gentle Fabians (1960); Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (1961); and A. M. McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884-1918 (1962).


Additional Biography Sources

Qualter, Terence H., Graham Wallas and the great society, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.