What annoys me about the words ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’ is that they explain things away, without actually explaining them.

I have occasionally expressed my doubts about the assumption by some historians and critics that the British public was bamboozled into supporting the War by a huge propaganda operation. It is important to remember that, in Jay Winter’s words:

In terms of domestic – though not imperial – institutions, the British state in 1914 was perhaps the weakest in Europe. Concomitantly, no country boasted a civil society as strong and diverse. It ensued that in wartime Britain propaganda from below would dominate the war of words and images.

There simply was no government propaganda organisation at the start of the War. One was cobbled together at Wellington House to argue the British case to foreign intellectuals, but at home there was nothing except the official recuiting posters – originally letterpress only, and rather plain.

As time went on, there was more official propaganda for home consumption, especially when Northcliffe took over at what became the Ministry of Information. But the ministry’s output was minimal in comparison with what was produced commercially – for paying customers. ‘Propaganda from below’ means the publishing industry responding to popular demand from their paying customers.

This is why we need a big pinch of salt when a writer like Claire Tylee says (in The Great War and Women’s Consciousness):

Almost immediately on the declaration of war in August 1914 the British government resolved on two means of promoting the War which were decisive for British culture – censorship and propaganda.

When she writes about ‘the flannel blindfolds fabricated by the government’s propaganda departments’ I don’t know what she means – except that she seems to be supposing that women were stupid and gullible victims of ‘false consciousness’ and the dominant hegemonic ideology.

The theory raises two big questions:

  • If it was so easy, why hadn’t the government bothered to brainwash the people into ideological uniformity a few years before, during the bitterly divisive Boer War?
  • If the techniques were only invented between 1914 and 1918, why didn’t the authorities use them to subdue the people into acquiescence during the unstable and bitter twenties?

These are terms that have their origin in Marxist theory, and are were invented to explain away the fact that most workers don’t want a revolution. (And they  cause problems for strict Marxist theory. That claims that people’s political stances are masks for their economic self-interest; the ‘false consciousness’ notion says that -er- no, they aren’t, actually.)

The idea of ‘hegemony’ – a prevailing mind-set that people can’t break out of, but which the later commentator can see through easily – assumes an easy superiority to the past. I’ve mentioned before John Bourne’s three fallacies of History, as enunciated at a Birmingham Day School:

1. What he calls the BBC fallacy : People in the past were just like us, except that they wore funny clothes (He cites the TV series Sharpe, where every detail of uniform and equipment is fanatically correct, but the anti-hero is utterly modern. I’d cite the sort of thing that Andrew Davies at his worst sometimes does with Jane Austen and others.)

2. People in the past were less complicated than ourselves.

3. People in the past were stupid.

Attempting to explain way people’s opinions by using ideas like ‘false consciousness’ and ‘hegemony’ shows little respect for the people of the past. These are words to be used with care.



  1. The Shadow
    Posted August 21, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading a piece by G K Chesterton, where he complained that whenever people wrote about the past they did it in the manner of tourists ‘There’s no hot water! I don’t like the food! Everything’s different!’ He said that you couldn’t understand the past unless you could understand how it was viewed by the people that lived there. Shame that so many people still don’t understand this.

  2. Posted August 21, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Yes,Chesterton had a knack for getting that sort of thing right, didn’t he?

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