Great Men and Greater Nonsense

By and large, socialists have little truck with what is sometimes called the “Great Man Theory of History”, much preferring the Materialist Conception of History. Propounded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, this offers a much more satisfactory explanation of the forces that have shaped and changed human societies since the beginning of written history, which Marx pointed out was the history of private property society.

It still remains a fact that there are libraries of literature, and hosts of avid readers, concerned with the biographies of men and women whose lives have captured the public imagination for one reason or another, probably because most of us feel our own lives to be lacking in romance or significance and we like to escape from our own humdrum stories into the larger canvases of supposed “larger” lives.

The largest slice of this literary market is concerned with the enthralling inner secrets of film stars, hitters or kickers of balls, criminals in a variety of fields and the guardians of law and order who have never, “honest, guvnor”, fitted-up anyone in their unblemished careers. Now and again there is a blockbuster about a Cromwell or a president, or some scientist, whose lives or discoveries seemed to leave their mark on a changed world.

Mathematically, it should not be too surprising that, in a species which is as richly and variously talented as humanity and is numbered in multi-millions, there should be the occasional supremely talented individual, just as from week to week there are men and women who win the pools.

Of course the materialist conception of history acknowledges the different qualities and contributions of individual men, women and groups in the development of society throughout the ages, and socialists would far rather pass an evening in the company of Louis Pasteur and his wife, than share a pint with Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Stalin or Alfred Krupps, but they recognise that the society in which these individuals operated were the greater forces in the equation.

Apart from anything else, genius or talent is not inheritable. It is unlikely that the grandchildren of Puccini would qualify for lifetime free tickets to La Scala, Milan, and even the descendants of Pavarotti are not too likely to inherit his magical tonsils. But there is one property that even the completely talentless can inherit, and that is private property and the public use of power this entails. This is why humanity has had to suffer the dynastic rule, in politics and industry, of so many Neros and Caligulas.

Karl Marx and Albert Einstein

However, back to Great Men. Columbus discovered America and Newton discovered the gravitational forces, though both America and gravity had been there for some time before their “discovery”. Nonetheless Columbus and Newton are worthy names in the history books. Karl Marx revealed the nature of the forces that operated to affect the human societies in the political and economic field, and postulated a society where poverty would be abolished along with buying and selling and money. He has been scorned, and ridiculed since for his ideas.

A more recent Great Man was Albert Einstein, who set the world of physics ablaze with his theory of relativity. Few informed people would deny that Einstein was a twenty-four carat genius. Shortly after other Great Men had ended four years of ordering men to butcher and be butchered, an eclipse of the sun enabled Einstein’s postulates to be confirmed. He then became news, as quotable as Garbo or Valentino, and journalists in popular science had a field day. Relativity was a strange concept, but no-one hated Einstein for it. Karl Marx envisaged a society where poverty would be abolished, and a lot of people still hate him for that theory, and we mean hate. Weird.

Einstein did not confine himself to physics. He also had views on politics and world affairs. When he was interviewed by the world press arriving off some liner or aircraft he would tell them to “never forget to mention that I am a pacifist”. He was scathing in his contempt of the military mind, stating that the magnificent human brain was wasted on such who only needed a broomstick for a spine and a place to support their helmets. But genius or no, he had, as we all do, to live in the real world, and that real world had made him a political refugee, as earlier it had Karl Marx.

In time the developments of that real world led Albert Einstein, genius and avowed pacifist, to pen a letter to the President of the United States, who was also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, pleading that he set up research into a super-weapon.

Thus was the Manhattan Project started, Hiroshima devastated and a climate of cold-war fear and fever created that threatened the very survival of all life on planet Earth. Many of the team that built the atomic bomb were, like Einstein, pacifists and some (enough to worry the military mind of Colonel Groves) had “left-wing” views. It is obvious that not only has the Ultimate Weapon which arose as an antidote of the Final Solution failed in its purpose, but that there are still some very nasty political ideas and regimes thriving yet.

Karl Marx did not appeal to men and women of genius, or leaders. He addressed his message to the working class of the world, as his words show—”Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win!”

Marx was not a pacifist. Einstein was. How strange that one led to the possible losing of the world and the other is still hated for pleading for it to be won. Like Einstein, Marx was a man of exceptional talent, but he knew that changing the world would not be the work of exceptional men and women. That is why we emphasise in our Declaration of Principles that “this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself” . We may not be a party of exceptional men and women, but we are a party with an exceptional idea.

We would like ordinary men and women (and geniuses, too) to read our case, then help us spread it, any ordinary way they can.

Ed Blewitt