Wallas, Graham

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Wallas, Graham



Graham Wallas (1858-1932) was a British political scientist, sociologist, and socialist. As Sidney Webb noted at the time of Wallas’ death, “[his] genius was for dealing with persons and their relations.” Webb also mentioned an apt remark by Alfred Zimmern that “Mr. and Mrs. Webb are interested in town councils; Graham Wallas is interested in town councillors.” In an era when others were mainly interested in the operations of laws and institutions, Wallas dealt with the human side of political problems and dealt with it as a socialist and nonconformist who believed fervently in equality. The five books and numerous articles he wrote were immensely influential in his day, and some of them still deservedly enjoy a wide readership.

Wallas’ socialism was joined to a lifelong suspicion of “those in authority,” a suspicion that surely owed something to his early family experience. He was born in the district of Bishopwearmouth South, county of Sunderland, and was the fifth of nine children. His father, Gilbert Innes Wallas, was a clergyman who later served as vicar of Barnstaple, Devon; his mother, Frances Talbot Peacock Wallas, came from a relatively well-to-do family. The family was in comfortable circumstances, but the Reverend Mr. Wallas was puritanical in manner and a strict father in most respects. His son, consequently, became increasingly rebellious when he was still quite young, and he was probably glad to leave home, in 1871, for the Shrewsbury School, where he remained for six years.

When he was 19 years old, Wallas entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Graduating in 1881 with a second-class honors degree in greats, he obtained a position as schoolmaster in classics at The Philberds, a preparatory school for boys. In 1884 he was appointed classics master at High gate School but was dismissed after two terms “on a question of religious conformity”—for refusing to take communion. In the years that followed he taught at Sussex House School in Streatham and elsewhere, but his interest in preparatory-school teaching as a career declined sharply after his dismissal from Highgate.

It is possible that his refusal to take communion was motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by a desire to assert his independence from his father. His father, at any rate, was opposed to his son’s action, and relations between them were not close during the remaining five years of Gilbert Wallas’ life. The period between Highgate and his father’s death must have been a difficult one for Wallas. His mother’s death in 1885 was followed, two years later, by the death of his brother, George. These deaths were surely a severe trial, but Wallas, never one to parade his emotions, gave few outward signs of distress.

In 1886 Wallas joined the Fabian Society, founded three years earlier, and in 1888 he was elected to its executive committee, serving with Annie Besant, Hubert Bland, William Clarke, Sydney Olivier, Bernard Shaw, and Sidney Webb. The famous Fabian Essays in Socialism (published in 1889) were written by the members of the executive committee, and much to the surprise of Wallas and the others, the Essays were an immediate success. The first thousand copies were sold within a month, and 25,000 copies were purchased in the first year after publication (Cole 1961, pp. 24-25).

Wallas’ essay, “Property Under Socialism,” was not one of his best efforts and is one of the less successful in the collection. The Fabians never formulated clear ideas about the proper division between public or state-owned enterprise and private property; when pressed, they were inclined to favor expanding the public sector, though they understood only dimly the resulting problems of organization and management. Few among them were skilled in rigorous economic analysis, and Wallas, who was certainly not an expert, shared their characteristic vagueness in discussing technical economic problems. His essay achieved distinction only when he dealt with the humane and aesthetic aspects of socialism. Toward the end of the essay he observed,

If this generation were wise, it would spend on education not only more than any other generation has ever spent before, but more than any generation would ever need to spend again. It would fill the school buildings with the means not only of comfort, but even of the higher luxury; it would serve the associated meals on tables spread with flowers, in halls surrounded with beautiful pictures, or even, as John Milton proposed, filled with the sound of music; it would seriously propose to itself the ideal of Ibsen, that every child should be brought up as a nobleman. Unfortunately, this generation is not wise. ([1889] 1908, pp. 133-134)

Wallas resigned from the executive committee of the Fabian Society in 1895, and in 1904 he resigned from the society itself. He had long been impatient with the interminable discussions of his Fabian colleagues, and he strongly objected to a number of their ideas. Although his separation from the society was precipitated by a pamphlet of Shaw’s that was, on balance, critical of free trade, it is clear that Wallas had been unhappy for some time prior to his resignation. Years later he asserted that Élie Halévy’s Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, the fifth volume of his History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, contains the only accurate account of his resignation from the society, and Halévy’s account makes it apparent that Wallas was dissatisfied with more than the free-trade issue. Halévy described the Fabian Society in the early years of this century as follows:

During the three transitional years which followed the end of the Boer War [the Society] presented a bizarre spectacle. It published a tract on the tariff question in which the writers …seemed to reserve their bitterest sarcasm for the doctrine of free trade. At the weekly meetings of the Society, Hewins openly defended tariff reform, as advocated by Chamberlain; Hubert Bland spoke about Kipling; Benjamin Kidd developed the principles of his anti-intellectualist psychology and his imperialist philosophy of history; Cecil Chesterton laid ’Gladstonian ghosts.’ Graham Wallas, one of the founders, left the Society … [as] he felt himself compromised by the deliberately anti-Liberal attitudes the heads of the Fabian Society had adopted. (1926, p. 366)

Shortly after the publication of the Fabian Essays Wallas became a university extension lecturer, and in 1895 he was appointed lecturer in the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1894 he became a member of the London School Board. Three years later, when he was almost forty, he married Ada Radford. One year younger than her husband, she was from a respected family in Devonshire, and one of her books, Daguerrotypes, published in 1929, is an affectionate memoir of her girlhood in Victorian England. The Wallas’ only child, May Graham Wallas, was born in 1898.

Wallas became a member of the London County Council in 1904, a position he held until 1907; he also served on its Technical Education Board and Education Committee. In 1912 he was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service, serving until 1915, and in 1914 he became professor of political science at the University of London. He received at least two honorary degrees, from Manchester in 1922 and Oxford in 1931. In 1928 he became honorary president of Morley College for Working Men and Women. Wallas lectured in the United States on several occasions, including a lecture series at Harvard in 1910, the Lowell lectures in Boston just before the outbreak of World War i, lectures at Williams College in 1928, and the Dodge lectures at Yale in 1919. He expressed his distaste for the Palmer raids and general anticommunist hysteria that pervaded the American political scene following World War i in an article in the Atlantic Monthly (1920), in which he deplored especially the current treatment of radical minorities. The price of intolerance, he argued, is to force reliance on existing economic and political expedients to solve problems when, in fact, new solutions must be found for difficulties ranging from noisy factories and streets to the transformation of human relationships as a consequence of technological change.

Contributions to political thought

Wallas’ five books reflect the fact that he was a slow and careful writer whose books first took form in lectures, delivered in and out of the classroom; even after that, he wrote several drafts of a work before submitting it for publication. Thus, The Life of Francis Place, published in 1898, required at least six years of research and writing. The first draft of Human Nature in Politics was written in 1899, but it was not until 1908 that the book was published. The rest of his books appeared at relatively long intervals: The Great Society in 1914, Our Social Heritage in 1921, and The Art of Thought in 1926. When he died at Portloe, Cornwall, in 1932, aged 74, he was at work on a sixth book, but it was never published.

The Life of Francis Place is an important contribution to English social history of the early nineteenth century, especially the history of reform. A friend of James Mill and other notables of the day, Place was for a time a utilitarian, a Malthu-sian to a point, a supporter of trade unions, a devout believer in freedom of speech and discussion, an advocate of parliamentary reform, and an enthusiastic advocate.of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Wallas not only generally accepted Place’s views, but he also identified with Place’s role as an influential figure who remained in the background.

In his second and most important book, Human Nature in Politics, Wallas presented a psychody-namic approach to politics that was unique at this time. The work was not only highly original, but it had also a strong impact on political science. As Harold Laski later commented, Human Nature“wrought something like a revolution in the methodology of political discussion, both in England and America. It was the first time that democracy had been discussed by a man amply acquainted with psychological research; its freshness, its humour, its almost uncanny power of realistic insight, gave a new and profound stimulus to scientific thinking” (see Graham Wallas, 1858-1932, p. 11).

Introducing his book with a plea that students of politics pay more attention to “the facts of human nature,” Wallas warned against too much reliance on “intellectualism,” that is, the tendency to think of politics as based on rational calculation. Such an “intellectualist” assumption, Wallas noted, has led politicians and scholars alike to the erroneous conclusion that electoral choices are based on enlightened self-interest instead of, as frequently happens, on chance, prejudice, a transient emotion, or a dim association, not even fully conscious, from the past. He recalled, as one illustration, that in Philadelphia he was once shown a ballot listing four hundred names, from which the voter was supposed to make an intelligent selection of candidates. Political action, national and international, Wallas cautioned, owes much to “personal affection, fear, ridicule, the desire for property, etc.”

In a summary of his chapter titled “Non-Rational Inference in Politics,” Wallas noted, in language still fresh, that “many of the half-conscious processes by which men form their political opinions are non-rational…. The empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference” (1908, p. 18). These lines, suggestive of the later work of Walter Lippmann, Harold D. Lasswell, and others, were probably written at the turn of the century.

Yet Wallas was no despairing rationalist, nor was he cynical about the possibilities of applying social intelligence to the solution of pressing problems. If war and inequality are to be abolished, he insisted, man must make every effort to substitute thoughtful choice of ends and calculation of means for blind, ignorant emotion. The best use of reason and instinct, he argued, following Plato as well as Freud, is to achieve a “harmony” of emotions that, no longer warring among themselves, can be concentrated “on an end discovered by the intellect” (1908, p. 204).

In The Great Society, which was dedicated to Lippmann, Wallas built on themes introduced earlier in Human Nature and Politics. By the term “great society” he meant not the modern welfare state (or the vision of America promulgated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s) but the modem industrial society, with its centralization of power, its crowd psychology, the ever-increasing interdependence of different segments of its population (as a consequence of division of labor, specialization, the concentration of population in urban centers, etc.), and its impersonal social life. While Wallas never used the word “alienation,” he felt keenly that the modern state deprives people of intimacy and initiative; that although it provides them with security, paradoxically it makes happiness more difficult to attain. Wallas offered no solution to this problem; he merely expressed his nostalgia for a world that seemed to be fast disappearing everywhere in the West—and that may, indeed, never have existed. “If,” he wrote, “I try to make for myself a visual picture of the social system which I should desire for England and America, there comes before me a recollection of those Norwegian towns and villages where everyone, the shopkeepers and the artisans, the school-master, the boy who drove the post-ponies, and the student daughter of the innkeeper who took round the potatoes, seemed to respect themselves, to be capable of Happiness [sic] …” (1914, p. 368).

It was not Wallas’ intention, in Human Nature and other writings, to imply that because certain patterns of political behavior are based on nonrational processes, they are therefore immutable. Indeed, insofar as he was prepared to state any fixed principle or law of social life, it was the principle or law that human nature not only can change but that it can change for the better. There was, in short, a Rousseauan quality to Wallas’ thought, in the sense that he was inclined to blame institutions rather than men for the evils of this world. The purpose of his last two books, Our Social Heritage (1921) and The Art of Thought (1926), was to prescribe environmental changes that would promote rationality and self-fulfillment. Like his contemporary Freud, Wallas insisted on the possibility of rationality and creativity, but unlike Freud, he insisted that all men could become rational and creative.

While Wallas’ appearances in contemporary social science literature are generally limited to brief footnotes, much of what he wrote has been long since assimilated into the main body of political and social psychology; that is to say, his formulations are less old-fashioned than commonplace, and many of them are reasonably sophisticated even if one takes into account the most recent advances in the study of political behavior. His approach, however, has been superseded by modern experimental techniques of inquiry, almost all of them unknown in his day. Arguing from simple analogy, frequently using homely anecdotes to make his point, relying heavily on newspaper stories and his own observations, Wallas was essentially an inductive thinker. The current vogue of deduction, reification, and reductionism in the social sciences, to say nothing of the fashion of extrapolation from mathematical models and simulation, would have struck him as an unfortunate and possibly reactionary trend.

Wallas was neither a systematic thinker nor a reformer who believed that he had the solution to the world’s problems. But as a teacher, administrator, and civil servant he was committed to a faith in social reconstruction and human improvement. As a lifelong socialist, if at times a despairing one, he could hardly be committed to anything else.

Arnold A. Rogow

[For the historical context of Wallas’ work, seeSocialism; and the biography ofWebb, Sidney andBeatrice; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seePoliticalBehavior; and the biographies ofFollett; Laski; Lippmann.]


(1889) 1908 Property Under Socialism. Pages 119-135 in Fabian Essays in Socialism. Boston: Ball.

(1898) 1951 The Life of Francis Place. 4th ed. London: Allen & Unwin.

(1908) 1948 Human Nature in Politics. 4th ed. London: Constable. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by the University of Nebraska Press.

(1914) 1920 The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis. New York: Macmillan.

1920 The Price of Intolerance. Atlantic Monthly [1920], Jan.: 116-118.

1921 Our Social Heritage. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1926 The Art of Thought. London: Cape.


Cole, Margaret 1961 The Story of Fabian Socialism. Stanford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Wiley.

Fabian Essays. 6th ed. (1889) 1962 London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Fabian Essays in Socialism by G. B. Shaw, Sidney Webb, and others.

Graham Wallas, 1858-1932. 1932 London School of Economics and Political Science. → A collection of addresses given at the London School.

Graham Wallas [obituary]. 1932 The Times (London) Aug. 11: p. 12, col. 2.

HalÉvy, Élie (1926) 1961 A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. Volume 5: Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, 1895-1905. London: Benn. → First published in French.

MacIver, Robert M. 1935 Graham Wallas. Volume 15, pages 326-327 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Graham Wallas

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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

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 Sources

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

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