Graham Wallas Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wallas, Graham 1858-1932

English political scientist and biographer.

Wallas is considered a pioneering figure in the field of political psychology. An early member of the socialist Fabian Society, Wallas is credited with the introduction of human psychology into the field of political science, which had hitherto focused primarily on institutions and the rational factors involved in political choice. Believing that the intellectualist approach of Victorian economists, sociologists, and political theorists represented an incorrect view of political relationships, he offered a critique of the traditional view in his Human Nature in Politics. Later, Wallas presented another component of his thought by analyzing modern society and defending liberal democracy from twentieth-century anti-rationalism in his The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis.

Biographical Information

Wallas was born in Sunderland, Durham, England on 31 May 1858 to Gilbert Innes Wallas, a clergyman, and his wife Frances Talbot Peacock. Wallas received his early education at Shrewsbury and later studied classical literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He became a schoolmaster in 1881, but left the Highgate School four years later over "a question of religious conformity." In 1886 Wallas made the first of four lecturing visits to the United States and joined the Fabian Society. He contributed "Property under Socialism" to the 1889 collection Fabian Essays in Socialism. In 1890 he was engaged as a university extension lecturer. Wallas resigned from the Fabian Society in 1895 and was appointed to a lectureship at the London School of Economics and Political Science, an institution he had helped to found. Wallas retained his position at the London School until 1923, acting as chair of the political science department from 1914. It was during this period that he wrote and published his The Life of Francis Place, 1771-1854 and the three works of political science for which he is principally noted, Human Nature in Politics, The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis, and Our Social Heritage. Wallas's wrote The Art of Thought, which appeared in 1926, and visited the United States in 1928 to lecture at the Williamstown Institute. He was granted honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Manchester in 1922 and Oxford University in 1931. Wallas died on 9 August 1931 at Portloe, Cornwall.

Major Works

Wallas's first book The Life of Francis Place is a historical biography of an English labor activist who rose from destitution in a debtor's prison which contains analysis of early nineteenth-century British social reform movements. Like this biography, Wallas's later works also consider sociopolitical issues, though they generally focus on the state of contemporary politics. In Human Nature in Politics Wallas criticized the intellectualist assumptions current among Western political theorists and emphasized the importance of psychology in political science. In that work, Wallas observes that political behavior is largely subject to what he called "non-rational inference" and that these patterns comprise a serious threat to contemporary democracy. In The Great Society Wallas presents an analysis of social organization within the large, modern state. In contrast to Human Nature in Politics, which warns against nineteenth-century intellectualisai, The Great Society includes a critique of various forms of twentieth-century anti-rationalism. Our Social Heritage studies those qualities of human personality acquired through social tradition. In The Art of Thought Wallas probes the subconscious determinants of creative thinking. Uncompleted at the time of his death, Social Judgment was edited by his daughter May Wallas and published in 1934. The work explores the historical and psychological components of the judgment process and the means by which this process may be improved. Also published posthumously, Men and Ideas: Essays contains articles and lectures on political science, social psychology, and education, as well as biographical sketches of several social theorists including Jeremy Bentham and John Ruskin.

Critical Reception

Because Wallas failed to provide a systematic approach in his political thought, critics have tended to view him as an innovative thinker whose valuable critique of modern political theory was not matched by positive contributions to the field. He is frequently remembered for his role with the Fabian Society in the 1890s. Many scholars, however, have since acknowledged that Wallas's early socialist stance did not contradict his support of democracy, but rather reflected his desire to strengthen liberalism through sustained, insightful criticism of the competitive and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. Thus, while Wallas is often associated with anti-intellectualism, most commentators have continued to consider him a proponent of liberal ideals achieved through rational and collective social action. Despite Wallas's somewhat paradoxical approach to social dynamics and the limits of his influence on twentieth-century political science, critics have generally praised his innovative study of nonrational behavior in politics.