Graham Wallas, 1858-1932

Graham Wallas was born in Sunderland on 31 May 1858, the son of an Evangelical clergyman of the Church of England who later became Rector of Shobrooke in Devon, where the young Wallas was brought up. He went to public school at Shrewsbury and thence to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read Greats. Wallas then took a post as a classics teacher at Highgate School in North London. In 1885 came the great crisis in his life: he rejected Christianity on rationalist grounds, resigned accordingly from his teaching post, and threw himself into the study of socialism.

Like his Oxford friend Sydney Olivier, and his new acquaintances Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, Wallas now found in the Fabian Society the sort of intellectual milieu where he felt at home. Subsequently overshadowed by the reputation of Shaw and the Webbs, Graham Wallas remains the forgotten man of the early Fabian Society, which he and Olivier joined in May 1885. With them he elaborated the theory of evolutionary collectivism which Essays in Fabian Socialism (1889), edited by G. B. Shaw, proclaimed to a wider public. Critical of Marxism, Wallas remained a Liberal in party politics, committed to a strategy of permeation rather than an independent socialist or labour party.

Wallas worked for years on The Life of Francis Place (1898), analysing the activities of an early nineteenth century radical who played a notable part in changing the labour legislation of his day. This readiness to take a great deal of trouble to find out how things were really done before we began trying to do them won high praise from Shaw. It was this practical, well-briefed, dispassionate, empirical aspect of Fabianism which really appealed to Wallas.

In 1895 he was strongly in favour of the scheme for using a bequest to the Fabian Society, not for political propaganda, but for academic research and teaching. This was the origin of the London School of Economics, of which Wallas was appointed the first Director. He declined to serve in this post but remained associated with the LSE, notably as Professor of Political Science from 1914 to 1923.

While Wallas’s academic career blossomed, his Fabian commitment waned. One influence upon him was his period of service in local government. He was a member of the London School Board, 1894-1904, and chairman of the School Management Committee, 1897-1904. In parallel, he served on the London County Council’s Technical Education Board, 1897-1904, and, after the LCC took over responsibility for elementary education, he became a councillor, 1904-07. After the Progressives’ defeat in the municipal elections of 1907, Wallas continued as a co-opted member of the LCC Education Committee until 1910. He thus knew local politics from the inside and was thrown into opposition to the Conservatives’ Education Act of 1902, which Webb supported on administrative grounds.

Wallas finally resigned from the Fabian Society in 1904 because of Shaw’s attempt to associate it with protectionism, another Conservative policy. The root cause was a divergence between the manipulative and authoritarian temper which Shaw and the Webbs increasingly displayed and Wallas’s Liberal outlook. In 1898 Wallas had married Ada Radford, a woman of strong literary interests, and a firm Liberal (they had one daughter). The Wallases drifted apart from the Webbs and the Shaws, though remaining on civil terms.

The political thinking of Wallas’s mature years was associated with the New Liberalism, as propagated by his friends and colleagues L. T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson. Like them, he argued for a democratic collectivism in social policy, to be implemented through a progressive alliance between the Liberal and Labour Parties. Yet in Human Nature in Politics (1908) he sought to inject some worldly scepticism into idealistic notions of how a democratic political system actually worked. The critical impact of the book is admittedly more powerful than its constructive suggestions. Wallas sought to remedy this deficiency in later works like The Great Society (1914) and Our Social Heritage (1921) but they lack the cutting edge of his masterpiece.

For all that his insights into irrationalist trends had made him fearful of war, the events of August 1914 came as a shock to Wallas. He worked with Hobson in organising a British Neutrality Committee, but the German invasion of Belgium doomed their efforts. By 1915 he was telling American readers, ‘I intensely desire victory for the Allies’ and, like many other Liberals, his hopes were now pinned upon the prospects of post-war international cooperation.

It was the attempt to rethink democratic theory in the light of modern findings in social psychology which became Wallas’s lifework. He pointed to the strong irrational – or, at any rate non-rational – forces which influenced political attitudes and to the role of party in mediating electoral opinion. Yet he manifested a strong faith in democracy. Wallas’s point was that progressives needed a clear-eyed understanding of the frailities of the democratic process. The influence of his ideas was felt particularly in the United States, which he frequently visited. Retirement from his chair did not diminish his political interests and he remained active until his sudden death in London in August 1932.

There is a useful study of his work by Terence H. Qualter, Graham Wallas and the Great Society (1980) and a good intellectual biography by Martin J. Wiener, Between Two Worlds: the political thought of Graham Wallas (1971).


Peter Clarke is a Professor of Modern British History and a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge. His books include Lancashire and the New Liberalism (1971), Liberals and Social Democrats (1978), The Keynesian Revolution in the Making 1924-36 (1988) and A Question of Leadership: from Gladstone to Thatcher (1991).