1920s >> 1927 >> no-279-november-1927

Hero worship. A conversation with a visitor from Mars

The first Friday in every month, I receive in my small suburban house a distinguished and eminently intellectual visitor from Mars. Where I met this worthy gentleman, in what contrivance he effects his journey to Earth,. and how he mastered the English tongue, I must not divulge for I am bound to secrecy on all these points. Yet I cannot forbear from recording the conversations which have taken place between us. My friend’s remarkable criticisms of worldly institutions concerning which his mind is free from prejudices and accepted opinions, his sage interpellations and remarks, and, above all, his insatiable curiosity which has prompted me to explore and examine many aspects and phases of human life, have changed me from a meek peruser of a daily paper (the name of which rhymes with “Wail”) to an eager and regular reader of a certain Socialist monthly journal.

However, on Friday, August —, the Martian entered my study, and after inquiring as to the state of my feet (in the usual Martian way), proceeded to make himself comfortable in my best arm-chair, and fixed me with his relentless inquisitive gaze. I groaned inwardly for I realised that I was doomed to the usual merciless inquisition; nevertheless, batting him playfully over the bean, I exclaimed, “Marty, old son, your little top-knot must be full of vague wonderings and misgivings again; pray unload them to your kind uncle.” He did so to the following effect—

“Esteemed and respected friend, in the course of my peregrinations and observations here below, I have noticed with astonishment that there are always various and differing individuals exalted above their fellows, and that these individuals either through accident of birth, ridiculous actions, criminal deeds or (occasionally) illustrious achievements, are regarded with almost divine reverence by their fellow-men. Now I plainly see that the conditions on this wretched planet foster and nourish this primitive “hero-worship”; ignorance, of course, induces men to believe in the superhuman powers of others higher up in the social scale, and the ignorant, aware of their own pitiful mental condition and limitations, behold with awe and amazement the petty achievements of a slightly more developed brain, moreover, ‘hero-worship’ is certainly aroused and nourished by your noxious newspapers. Sir, in a solitary issue of one of your vile dope-sheets I read glowing eulogies of individuals dubbed ‘princes,’ ‘duchesses,’ and ‘ladies,’ sticky journalese accounts of ‘the world’s greatest cricketer,’ ‘the greatest soldier of to-day,’ ‘Hollywood’s daintiest actress,’ and even longer accounts of poor miserable wretches, who, warped by environment and damned by heredity, have committed atrocious crimes.

“But — here the Martian jumped to his feet in his excitement and indignation, “I hear not a word except of detraction or abuse about the great masses of manual and brain workers by whose labour alone the social machinery is kept going, and I laugh aloud when I hear the results of economic conditions attributed to the ‘energy’ or the ‘wisdom’ of great men. Now, sir,” continued the Martian, looking at me dubiously. “I assume you know some thing concerning the origin, development, and effects of this hero-worship cult—pray enlighten me.”

Gracefully placing a lozenge in my mouth and coughing importantly, I spoke as follows : —

“Mankind, Marty, until quite recently, was in the main unaware of the quantitative or qualitative laws of physical causation, and natural phenomena were invariably attributed to supernatural agencies : and, sad to relate, even in the year A.D. 1927, very few mortals can interpret sociological phenomena scientifically. Thus it is not strange that the course of civilisation is considered as little else than a mere story of remarkable individuals and their actions. Last century, a rhetorical wind-bag by the name of Thomas Carlyle, expressed this opinion in the following words :—

” ‘As I take it, universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have lived here.’

“Marty, old boy, pass me Spencer’s ‘ Study of Sociology’.”

The Martian did so, and I read aloud the following :—

“Round the camp-fires assembled savages tell the events of the day’s chase ; and he among them who has done some feat of skill or agility is duly lauded. On a return from the war-path the sagacity of the chief and the strength or courage of this or that warrior, are the all-absorbing themes. When the day or the immediate past affords no remarkable deed, the topic is the achievement of some noted leader recently dead …”

“That is a rather vague idea of the origin of ‘hero-worship,’ ” remarked the Martian;”would you favour me with a more detailed account?”

“In primitive human societies of the ‘totemistic’ or ‘savage’ type,” I began, ” private property, except for small personal belongings, was, in the main, unknown, and land, boats, fishing-nets, tents, etc., were generally the property of the tribe in common. Such societies provided little scope for ‘heroes’; nevertheless, the germ of ‘hero-worship’ was in being, as is shown by the fact that among the aborigines of Australia at certain times, ceremonial dances and songs are indulged in (under the direction of the ‘Biraark’ or witch-doctor), in which great events in the ‘Alcheringa’ or distant past are commemorated, and ancient heroes are extolled. Moreover, the witch doctor in these savage organisations often encourages hero-worship and plays upon the supernatural dreads of the tribesmen.”

At this juncture, I noticed that Marty seemed to be dozing.

“Are you asleep?” I exclaimed peevishly.

“Not at all,” rejoined the Martian, blandly. “I can always think better with my eyes closed.”

I continued :—

“The second stage of social development is called the Patriarchal society, and in this social organisation ‘hero-worship’ was much practised and encouraged. In the Patriarchal stage, paternity is the leading fact, and men are counted relatives because they are descended from the same male ancestor. This fact led to the adoration of, and the glamour of, romance, which gradually enveloped the ancestors of the different tribes; in fact, Marty, even now, in the East, ancestor-worship is the basis of religion. In the Patriarchal stage, hero-worship is essentially the common root of music, of drama, of poetry, and other miscellaneous types of literature. This is evident whether you scan the Bible, the Iliad, or the old Keltic legends. The Old Testament, Marty, is a wonderful galaxy of personalities—many of whom, incidentally, are not the patterns of virtue so regularly assumed. We are told how Abraham (after the necessary precaution of girding up his loins) journeyed to such and such a place according to the Master’s orders, and how Daniel (without the aid of a saucer of milk) showed his prowess as a lion-tamer. Jewish institutions and customs on the whole merely creep in to add colour to the biographies of the ‘great men.’ The old heroes were certainly revered and scoffers at the ‘great men ‘were summarily dealt with. In Homer’s ‘Iliad,’ one Thersites, addicted to the dangerous habit of thinking for himself, foolishly questions the orders and opinions of the chiefs — his answer comes in the form of a lusty swipe from the sceptre of Ulysses.”

“But,” asked the Martian, “were there no writers or thinkers who saw that the ‘worship’ of the heroes was due to the accumulation of false and supernatural tales?”

I pondered for a moment, and then answered—

“Yes, much later in the early 2nd century A.D., Lucian held up to ridicule the gods and the old heroes in witty little burlesques, in which Jupiter, Hercules and the like, become little more than buffoons. But the voice of Lucian was ‘drowned in the hub-bub of the book market,’ where the hero, boosting works of Pausanias, Ovid, Pindar and Euhemerus held undisputed sway encouraged by the ruling class and their literary sycophants.”

“By the way, my friend,” said the Martian, “here’s a little thought about these ‘great men’ of your world. The origin of a ‘great man’ is, I suppose, natural, and thus I submit he should be placed with the other phenomena which brought him forth, as the product of environment and heredity, that is the product of conditions. The off spring of two Chinese is never a Red Indian, and the son of a black reared in darkest Africa is hardly likely to become a great philosopher or dramatist. I mean, my friend, that the ‘great man’ only arrives under conditions favourable to his appearance. But please continue about the development of hero-worship after the Patriarchal stage.”

I did so.

“Sad to say, Marty, the origin of the State or Political Society coincides with the development of the art of warfare. Centuries before the decline of the Roman Empire, the drying-up of the lakes and rivers in Central Asia compelled the inhabitants of N.W. Mongolia and E. Turkestan to press westward into the broad valleys and push forward the original inhabitants of the plains ; thus stems upon stems were thrown into Europe. Later, the increase of population and the desire to plunder the riches of the husbandman and the craftsman led these numerous Germanic tribes to wage war upon the more civilised societies. Thus a society dependent on great war-lords arose, and the fighting units of the society became bound by bonds of loyalty and obedience to their chief. This form of society gave a great impetus to ‘Hero-worship,’ because the examples of former warriors were cited in order to stir the spirits of the youths, the adventurous life itself gave abundant opportunities for mighty deeds of valour, and, moreover, after a time, the causes of the wars seemed in the eyes of the wagers to be romantic and noble rather than economic. Then, when the host-leaders obtained permanent control of a definite territory, states evolved, while the life of the community remained essentially one of military allegiance. This is the age of Chivalric Romance. The alleged deeds of the great warlords in the earlier period were made into songs which were sung at the courts of great nobles by wandering minstrels.”

Then, taking “Romance and Legend of Chivalry,” by Hope Moncrieff, from my book-case, I read aloud the following :—

“Chivalry which found an organisation in the feudal system and a consecration in the wars of the Crusade, had its origin in the robust Teuton stock that mainly overspread the downfall of the Roman Empire. Tales of chivalry abounded everywhere,” I continued, “and in particular the legends connected with Arthur and Charlemagne in creased and spread all over Europe. It was Cervantes in ‘Don Quixote’ who gave the death-blow to the last lingering regard for romances of heroes which had become truly pitiful in their total disregard for worldly possibilities.”

“Surely they were never so ridiculously idealistic and false to worldly life as are the ‘best-sellers’ of to-day?” interposed the Martian.

“More so, Marty, my lad. Our Ethel M. Dell’s could learn much from these later romances ! However, the ‘hero cult’ thus fostered by literature and encouraged at the courts became enveloped in innumerable conventions, and not a few hypocrisies, and thus the Middle Ages became the epoch of chivalry. The ‘ennobling’ hero-worship and theoretical condescending regard for women (‘high-born ‘) which were the two leading features of chivalry, did not prevent the scions of ‘noble ‘ families from dealing with insubordinate peasants in the way Ullyses dealt with Thersites, and in France particularly, the ‘chivalrous’ nobles maintained this attitude towards their providers till the Revolution of 1789. In the ‘epoch of Chivalry,’ also, Marty, occurred what is popularly assumed to be an essentially romantic and ‘heroic’ war—the Hundred Years’ War. But this war was fought primarily not because of the heroic qualities of Edward III, the Black Prince, Henry V or Joan of Arc, but owed its origin to economic reasons. In short, the Hundred Years’ War was the struggle of England to prevent Flanders from falling under French domination, and thus ruining England’s wool trade with the Flemish manufacturing towns; as Thorold Rogers says, “From the 13th to the 16th century, wool was King.” *

“Now in modern times, Marty, a very curious conception of a ‘hero’ has arisen. In the chivalric period, the ‘ hero ‘ was necessarily a man of ‘renowned’ and ‘noble’ stock, with 100 per cen. blue blood in his veins, and a son of the soil, who took it into his head to perform deeds of valour, would never be regarded as more than a ‘good common soldier.’ Traces of the adoration of the ‘high-born hero’ can still be seen in the enthusiasm awakened in childish minds by the movements of ‘aristocratic’ nonentities, whilst in rubbishy literature, the story of the brave penniless youth who turns out to be the heir of a piffling kingdom, of which the geographical locality is not specified, still has a considerable though declining popularity. But, Marty, the rise of the bourgeois state gave birth to a ‘hero’ of a different type. He is the man who is ‘master of his fate’ ; he is the man who sweeps aside all obstacles that stand in his way to success; he scoffs at prejudices and customs ; often he performs his ‘wonders’ by proxy, but in that case his is the ‘organising brain’ ; always he emerges victorious from the fight with circumstances: in short, Marty, the ‘hero’ of our time is the ‘self-made man.’ By far the greatest of this modern type of ‘hero ‘ is Napoleon Bonaparte. H. G. Wells, with his typical bourgeois self-satisfaction, pours wholesale contempt upon the mental and social qualities of Bonaparte. He points out that his notebooks, crammed full with miscellaneous and unconnected observations, show little of a great brain; he states that Napoleon is not known to have had a single genuine friend, and he asserts (with considerable justification) that historical evidence points to the fact that all his actions primarily sprung from egotistical impulses. The very success of Napoleon’s career, however, gives the answer to Wells’ unwritten insinuation that Bonaparte compared with the talented writer of ‘The Outline of History’ would cut a very insignificant intellectual figure. Also we must distrust Wells’ valuations of the abilities of others, when we consider his condescending attitude towards Lenin in an interview generously granted by the Russian in the busy time of the winter of 1920-21. +

* Economic Interpretation of History.
+ See Trotsky’s “Lenin,” chapter 8.

To be continued.


(Socialist Standard¸ November 1927)

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