The myth of “Great Men”

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” The message behind these eloquent words of the 17th Century poet, John Donne — that men are interdependent social animals is now widely accepted — paradoxically, at a time characterised by massive social dislocation, the rapid dissolution of traditional forms of closely knit community life and the stark stereotype of the alienated worker cocooned in a private mobile world of his car, family and job.


But if, pursuing Donne’s metaphor, no man is an island it might be said that some form the soaring peaks of the “continent” of humanity. A.J.P. Taylor once wrote that “the history of modern Europe can be written in terms of three titans: Napoleon. Bismarck and Lenin”. (From Napoleon to Stalin 1950): Others might portray an altogether different historical landscape. Social values such as patriotism influence the way facts are selected and the interpretation placed upon historical events. Thus E.H. Carr shrewdly observed that, “Germans today welcome the denunciation of Hitler’s individual wickedness as a satisfactory alternative to the moral judgement of the historian on the society which produced him”. Modern “euro-communists” treat Stalin as a scapegoat and for similar reasons the present Chinese regime denounce the “Gang of Four”, all of them setting much store by the theory which interprets history as the “biography of great men” (Carlyle).


However, to revert to our metaphor, an understanding of geomorphology or the study of landforms, is not acquired by merely describing a landscape’s configuration: we must delve into the process of landscape formation, into the geological past. The huge mountain ranges of today are the products of forces operating deep within the earth, deforming its crust over millions of years, giving rise to an immense variety of landscapes differing according to the conditions under which they were formed. Likewise, though with the obvious qualification that men unlike rocks are conscious creatures, influencing and influenced by society, social development can be understood as a complex process during the course of which a few individuals are thrust up into social prominence. The materialist or scientific conception of social development delves beneath the surface of historical events, relating men’s ideologies, superstitions, values and so on to the material conditions from which they issue and which sustain them.


A possible reason for the popularity of the “Great Man” theory is that it is the expression of an authoritarian ideology which a coercive society tends to generate. Work, for example, in this coercive capitalist world is organised on hierarchic principles with numerous levels of decision-making involved. Wage slaves are allotted production roles which confine them to a set of rigid expectations concerning their positions within the hierarchic structure of the firm. It is felt only “natural” that someone should run the show, take decisions and initiate action which others are prevented from doing by the limitations of their occupational roles. This conviction, derived from people’s everyday experiences, is carried over into or reinforces their general socio-political outlook. Hence, such an outlook stems from the class nature of capitalism since the existence of complex authority structures rests on the simple but fundamental fact that a small class of people own and control the means of living. The way capitalism organises people in its social affairs is conducive to them embracing the illusion that nothing of significance can be achieved except through the agency of “great men” — a view admirably suited to the interests of the capitalist class.


History books teach us that Cromwell defeated Charles 1, Wren built St Pauls and so on. Although, this is not intended as the literal truth, the sheer repetition of this manner of speech may well obscure important historical factors and lead one to suppose that the individual, is solely responsible for making history. Plekhanov aptly called this an “optical illusion” and gave the example of Napoleon to prove his point


In coming out in the role of the ‘good sword’ to save public order, Napoleon prevented all the other generals from playing this role and some of them might have performed it in the same way as he did. Once the public need for an energetic military ruler was satisfied, the social organisation barred the road to the position of military ruler for all other talented soldiers. Its power became a power that was unfavourable to the appearance of other talents of a similar kind. (The Role of the Individual in History)


Even Napoleon had to remark:


Mohammed’s case was like mine. I found all the elements ready at hand to found an empire. Europe was weary of anarchy, they wanted to make an end of it. If I had not come probably someone else would have done like me . . . I repeat, a man is only a man. His power ‘is nothing if circumstances and public sentiment do not favour him.


Plekhanov however did not go to the other extreme of a fatalistic standpoint which ignores the role of individuals in society, as Tolstoy did in dismissing great men as merely “labels giving names to events”. Society shapes people: however people in a variety of ways with different degrees of significance, shape society, although with the materials society provides.


… by virtue of particular traits of their character, individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organisation of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a “factor” in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such . . .


Thus the significance of Hitler, for example, did not lie in his megalomaniacal “genius” but rather the social position he occupied determined by the “form of organisation of society”, which enabled him to exercise his tyranny, and only because “circumstances and public sentiment” favoured him. Many factors were involved in the growth of the Nazi movement: Germany’s authoritarian political tradition, the discrediting of political democracy by communists, monarchists and nationalists, the Weimar government’s decision to reinstate the reactionary Junker generals (to quell the Spartacist Rising), the failure of Social Democracy to allay workers’ grievances. Interestingly, between 1924 and 1929. a period of relative prosperity, the Nazi movement made little progress receiving 800,000 votes in 1928. However, following the world slump in 1929 which hit Germany particularly badly since its economy was heavily financed by foreign loans, the Nazis received 6,400,000 votes in the 1930 elections which increased to nearly 14 million in 1932 at the height of the slump.


The Nazi movement, and, its leaders, was a product of years of depression. Hitler became its leader because of his connections with military officers like Roehm and Von Epp and his control over Party funds. As for his undoubted gift as an orator (another contributing factor) his book Mein Kampf provides a useful insight into the orators relationship with his audience — “he will always follow the lead of the great mass in such a way that from the living emotion of his hearers, the apt word which needs will be suggested to him and in its turn will go straight to the heart of his hearers”. What could be clearer? Hitler was the creation of those living emotions of a people scarred by economic misfortune, ready to fall for the sheer opportunist policies and jingoism the Nazis offered.


The great man is not an island entire of itself but the product of general social trends which he cannot alter although he can influence events within these trends. Society, as it were, selects its great men. according to prevailing social needs and conditions and furnishes the material out of which they are formed. As Carlyle said: “We can judge people by their heroes”.


Socialism, because of its nature as the “most radical rupture with traditional property forms” (Communist Manifesto) requires for its establishment and operation the conscious and democratic action of a vast majority. As Engels declared in the Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France:


The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of complete transformation of social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act.


Socialism cannot be imposed by a vanguard elite upon an uncomprehending or unwilling majority who will have to participate in its running. At the end of the day, the deciding factor in the establishment of socialism is not some mythical “’Revolutionary Situation” but whether the vast majority understand and want it.


Robin Cox