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  Graham Wallas (1858–1932), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1923 Graham Wallas (1858–1932), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1923
Wallas, Graham (1858–1932), political psychologist and educationist, was born at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, on 31 May 1858, the fifth child and elder son of Gilbert Innes Wallas and his wife, Frances Talbot Peacock. was his sister. Another sister, Mary Talbot Wallas, married the philosopher J. H. Muirhead. His father, an evangelical in religion and a Liberal in politics, was curate at Bishopwearmouth at the time of Graham's birth but became in 1861 vicar of Barnstaple and later rector of Shobrooke, Devon.

Wallas was educated at Shrewsbury School and went as a scholar to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 23 October 1877 and obtained a second class in classical moderations (1879) and in literae humaniores (1881). While at Oxford he lost his religious faith, pronouncing himself a rationalist, but also confirmed a lifelong devotion to Greek civic ideals. On leaving Oxford he became a classical schoolmaster.

Wallas left schoolmastering in 1885, resigning his post at the Highgate School in London rather than take communion with his pupils. For the next five years he lived on money which his father had left him. Through his college friend Sydney Olivier, who had entered the Colonial Office, Wallas had met Sidney Webb, another Colonial Office clerk, and Bernard Shaw, and in early 1886 he followed them into the fledgeling Fabian Society. These four dominated the society through its early years. Wallas lectured around the country for the society. In 1888 he began lecturing on Chartism. He contributed the essay ‘Property under socialism’ to the Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889). Within the Fabian Society, Wallas was perhaps the firmest ‘opportunist’, urging fellow socialists to take part in the existing system of politics. He became chairman of the Fabian Parliamentary League in 1887, and of its successor the political committee of the Fabian Society. Through this position he worked to establish liaison between socialists and advanced Liberals. He remained one of the leaders of the Fabian Society until 1895, coming near or at the top of the poll in the annual elections for the executive committee. However, as the society (increasingly dominated by Webb and Shaw) distanced itself from Liberalism, he came to feel isolated. He strongly objected to the society's support of the Conservative Education Act of 1902, opposed its growing sympathy for imperialism, and finally resigned in 1904 in disapproval of its endorsement of Joseph Chamberlain's tariff policy. A difference in interests between Wallas and the Webbs also became increasingly apparent: as he later remarked, the Webbs were interested in town councils, while he was interested in town councillors. The break was carried out with characteristic goodwill, and he kept his friendships with his former Fabian colleagues. Thereafter, he was a prominent ‘new Liberal’ intellectual, writing frequently for The Nation and supporting a number of Liberal causes. Wallas married on 18 December 1897 Ada Radford (b. 1859/60), daughter of George David Radford, a draper from a Plymouth family well known in the public life of that area. Herself an author, she shared in her husband's work and interests. Her book on early literary women in England, Before the Bluestockings (1929), like his book on Francis Place, helped to rescue a significant part of the past from obscurity. They had one child, a daughter, May, who graduated at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1920, took a London PhD, and taught at Morley College, the London School of Economics, and Cambridge.

By the time he left the Fabian Society, Wallas was deeply involved in two new careers—as an educationist, and as an academic historian and political scientist. In 1894 he had been elected to the London school board on the Progressive slate, and from then until electoral defeat in 1907 he was engrossed in educational administration and London politics, becoming chairman of the board's school management committee in 1897. His chief goal while on the board, apart from the general improvement of state education through day-to-day administrative supervision, was to increase the ‘academic’ education of the mass of working-class pupils, most importantly by expanding the role and the quality of the higher elementary schools. His ideal was always the Athenian polis, and his educational efforts were meant to make his political ideal possible under modern conditions. It was this polis ideal that caused him to oppose the 1902 Education Act, drafted in part by Sidney Webb, with its destruction of the higher elementary schools in favour of a more separate system of elementary schools for the masses and grammar schools for the few (including, of course, working-class scholarship boys). It would be ahistoric to claim Wallas as a forerunner of the comprehensive school movement, but he did argue against the trend toward a two-track state school system.

Wallas's academic career began in 1890, when he was appointed a university extension lecturer. In 1895 he became a lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, newly founded through a bequest from a wealthy follower of the Fabian Society. In 1898, having discovered in the British Museum a large archive of material deposited by the early nineteenth-century utilitarian radical Francis Place, he published a pioneering and very influential biography of that almost forgotten figure. Both these new careers led to his most important work, Human Nature in Politics (1908), one of the founding books of the modern study of political psychology. School board campaigning immersed him in the disillusioning realities of democratic politics, while writing Place's life made him aware of the yawning gap between these realities and the high expectations of the pioneers of democracy. Asked years later by Beatrice Webb why he had launched into psychology when the Webbs had stuck to the study of institutions, he replied that by the later 1890s he had found himself pondering whether he believed in the psychological basis of democracy as set out by the utilitarians. He had found that he did not, and his books were the result.

These books, particularly Human Nature in Politics and its successors The Great Society (1914) and Our Social Heritage (1921), presciently explored the fragile psychological underpinnings of both democracy and modern urban–industrial society more generally, and have had much influence on social and political thinking, particularly in America. Wallas lectured in the United States on five visits between 1897 and 1928, teaching for a semester at Harvard in 1910. The American political commentator Walter Lippmann was a Harvard student of his, and did much thereafter to spread his ideas. Indeed, for two decades Wallas played the role of intellectual godfather to the circle of American liberal intellectuals gathered around the important periodical the New Republic. By the later 1920s, however, the underlying theme of his writings—the tensions between a relatively fixed human nature (seen through Darwinian eyes) and a drastically transformed social environment—was passing out of favour in the reaction against all forms of ‘social Darwinism’. The revival of socio-biological modes of thought means that this sort of evolutionary psychology looks a great deal less antiquated at the turn of the twenty-first century than it did in the decades following his death.

Wallas was also influential in Britain, through decades of inspiring teaching, and particularly among the younger members of the civil service. He served on the 1912–14 royal commission on the civil service, suggesting many reforms that had to wait for implementation until the later twentieth century. Among these was the recommendation that specialist expertise be brought into the civil service by a system of short-term appointments. He was created the first fellow of the Institute of Public Administration in 1922. In 1914 he was appointed to the newly created chair of political science in the University of London, which he held until 1923. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester (1922) and Oxford (1931).

Wallas's last books, The Art of Thought (1926) and the unfinished Social Judgment (1934), turned more completely to psychology, as he came to feel that the key to social change lay not in institutions and movements, but in the cultivation and management of ideas and feelings. To most of his friends and students, they seemed a diversion: his friend and successor at the London School of Economics Harold Laski characterized the former book as ‘elegant trifling’. None the less, after his death Laski hailed him as ‘the supreme teacher of social philosophy in the last forty years’. Wallas died at Portloe, Cornwall, on 9 August 1932. His wife survived him.

Martin J. Wiener


M. J. Wiener, Between two worlds: the political thought of Graham Wallas (1971) · P. Clarke, Liberals and social democrats (1978) · W. Wolfe, From radicalism to socialism (1975) · DNB · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1932)


BLPES, annotated proofs of The Queen v. Frost · BLPES, corresp., diaries, and papers · BLPES, draft paper for tract A ministry of justice |  BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50553 · BLPES, letters to the Fabian Society · BLPES, letters to the Webbs · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Alfred Zimmern · Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, letters to Harold Laski · Keele University Library, LePlay Collection, corresp. and minute book entries as member of Sociological Society committees · Parl. Arch., letters to Herbert Samuel · University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, H. G. Wells collection · Yale U., W. Lippmann MSS


W. Rothenstein, sanguine drawing, 1923, London School of Economics [see illus.] · R. Austin, drawing, London School of Economics

Wealth at death  

£3971 3s. 4d.: probate, 4 Oct 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales