The “Great Man” Fallacy

In certain circles one becomes so accustomed to hearing Carlyle cited as an infallible authority, especially on matters social and economic, that it requires some temerity to attack his teachings. In those discussion classes and mutual improvement societies connected with the Sunday schools in our towns and cities, the very name of Thomas Carlyle seems to effectually smother one’s opponent in controversy. And it is amazing that in many “Socialist” clubrooms photographs of Carlyle and Ruskin adorn the walls as if these “literary gents’’ were not merely democrats, but even revolutionary Socialists.
What, then, is the gospel according to Carlyle? It is that history with its dynastic and class struggles, progress—mental and moral, great nations, important discoveries; all is the work of a few individual clever men. I quote from “Hero Worship.” “Universal History, the history of what has been accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”
But there is nothing scientific in attributing history to the work of a few great men. History, according to Carlyle, is but the biography of the great men who have lived in the world. The real problem is: why have certain races qualities, virtues, vices, talents and institutions which other races lack? And history is of utility only when it ceases to be graphically descriptive or effusively personal, and attempts to explain the working of those deeper seated economic and physical forces which mould human society. Great men and even mighty empires are of little import when compared with the working of these powerful economic and physical forces.
Buckle, in his “History of Civilisation” has dealt with physical factors. He lucidly proves the great influence of climate, soil, and the general aspect of nature, showing how the huge empires of India, Assyria, Egypt and Peru were created in luxuriantly fertile regions on the banks of large, navigable rivers. The difference between the Laplander and the Hindoo, the Spaniard and the Anglo-Saxon, can to a certain extent be explained by their physical environments. The industrial habits, the religious conceptions, and the mental life of different races of humans can only be accounted for by admitting the potency of varying environments.
Lewis Morgan, in his work on Ancient Society, has shown the importance of the economic factor. Man is the only creature that can manufacture tools and thus create new environments entirely undreamt of by the tool discoverers. We sometimes say that economic amelioration is the direct cause of moral improvement. Take these four factors: the discovery of cereals (wheat, maize, etc.), the domestication of animals, the use of stone and brick in architecture, the discovery of the manifold uses to which iron can be put —take these few discoveries, and it is not too much to say, that once existing, the battle for civilisation, for power over nature, was won. Says Morgan “The discovery of the process of smelting iron ore was the discovery of discoveries in human experience, without a parallel, besides which all other inventions and discoveries are insignificant.” And if one ponders over the place which iron occupies in our every day life we can see that Morgan hardly over-stated the case.
It is probable that humans ceased to eat captives taken in battle not from any moral betterment, but from the fact that it was more lucrative to make them labour for their captors. Slavery thus succeeded cannibalism. This new institution, slavery, radically altered ancient society; it created an aristocratic class living off the labour of the slave, a class with leisure, and by means of that leisure art, science, and literature were cultivated. But I cannot labour this point. Suffice it here to say that as new methods of production were born, as slavery became feudalism and feudalism became capitalism, important social and moral changes also took place.
A favourite subject in debating societies is: what would be the present condition of England if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo, or Europe if William the Norman had lost the battle of Hastings, or of European civilisation if the Greeks had been beaten at Salames? These questions carry us into the heart of the question of genius and its effect upon social and economic conditions. Carlyle, of course, would answer: without the existence of these mighty men the history of the world must have taken different channels, their influence was incalculable. The Socialist, however, will say: it mattered little to the mass of the people, the working class, whether Napoleon won or was soundly thrashed at Waterloo. National boundaries to-day might be slightly or greatly different, but it is probable that the application of steam power to manufacture would have been the same, and this application caused a revolution more radical and permanent than any ever made by a mighty warrior. Napoleon was beaten at Waterloo, and we are surrounded by social and economic inequality and injustice. Had he won we should still be living in a capitalist state—and one need not say more than this. For the working class that great battle did not mean a higher or a lower standard of living, but, as was usual with all such conflicts, it implied: which nation shall be the paramount buccaneer? For is not capitalism making uniform the lives of the working class in all countries? As Hervé has so well put it, “There is at present no country so superior to any other that its working class should get themselves killed in its defence.”
Let us take, for instance, those great improvements in machine production which were the gift of the nineteenth century to progress, and we shall see the fallacies involved in Carlyle’s heroic theory. Modern spinning machinery is said by Hobson to be a combination of about eight hundred inventions. And necessity is the mother of invention. The inventor must live in a suitable age, he must be adapted, in harmony with his environment. Lord Lytton in his historical novel “The Last of the Barons” gives us a living picture of an inventor who was born, as we say, before bis time. This work is based on events which occurred in the fifteenth century. It shows the inevitable failure of the inventor of a machine in such an age, before a population of workers divorced from the land, and before the spirit of “economic rationalism,” the desire to invest money to make money, had been born. As Lytton puts it; “The grim age devours ever those before, as behind, its march; and confounds in one common doom the too guileless and the too wise.”
The position of the great man as inventor in the middle ages is thus obvious. He was accused of being a wizard, a sorcerer, or a necromancer. The fate that befel Roger Bacon was probable, perhaps inevitable. We cannot explain the great discoveries of any epoch as due solely to a large number of those “accidental” variations whom we term men of genius. We must account for the development of machine production by the presence of factors favourable to, and the absence of factors unfavourable to, the application of thought to machine invention. And the middle ages, with their intricate guild restrictions, their fantastic chivalry, the extremely local markets and the position of the peasants on the land, all contributed to form an environment unsuitable to the use of power machinery on a large scale. The age thus shapes the work of the “great” men.
If we divide history m the orthodox manner into the Old Stone, the New Stone, and the Bronze Ages, and give to each period its appropriate discoveries, we shall see that not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to “Humanity,” but also that progress is universally due to the combined efforts of millions of unknown individuals, just as the chalk cliffs of England are formed of the residue of countless myriads of minute organisms. Says Clodd, “Not many noble nor mighty are called to the euduriug tasks of nature. It is the minute agents, unresting and wide-spread, that have been the efficient causes of much that is grandest in earth structure.” So in social history. Mallock has recently said that the working class is not underpaid but wantonly overpaid, because, forsooth, the manual labourer as such is no more efficient than he was in Roman times. The growth of productive power, of course, is due to the élite, the mental and moral few, the real aristocracy! But why return to Roman times ? Why not to our quassi-simian forerunners? Surely they, houseless, without tools or the knowledge of fire, were in the position the workers deserve to be in to-day—would be in but for the spontaneous initiative and all-round mentality of our monopolisers of “directive ability.” But Marx’s wonderful chapter on Co-operation dissolves the sophistries of Mallock. “It is not because he is a leader of industry that a man is a capitalist; on the contrary, he is a leader of industry because he is a capitalist” Truly the capitalist is not a great man, he is not a monopolist of ability; he simply has that peculiar mental and moral twist which adapts him to modern economic conditions.
The teaching of Carlyle, that we hold certain ideas of economics and morality because of the influence of individual clever men, is now predominant and taught in our schools. We know how history is written. It is the deification of the Empire builder, the mighty king, the great statesman. It is worship without limit. The old historians could not condescend to discuss social conditions and ordinary events. Minute descriptions of the personal habits of the great king, his likes and dislikes, the contour of his features, the colour of his hair—this makes up our school history. The stage is occupied with gorgeous display, while the mainspring, the common human machinery in the background, the fret and toil of ordinary humans which makes the servile show ignored as too obscure and petty to chronicle. When I read the history of Greece I am not impressed by the oratory of Demosthenes or the statesmanship of Pericles. But I note that Corinth alone contained slaves by the thousand dozen, and I ask: what was the economic condition of this class? what did they know of science or art or literature? Dickens has spoken of men and women who all go in and out at the same hours, to do the same work; people to whom every day is the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next. These are the people history should speak to us about, and not of depraved parvenus and braggart buffoons of royal descent. Then I say to every working man and woman: before you read the life of Cicero or Aristotle or Julius Caesar, before you become immersed in trivial biography, study well the conditions of life and labour of your social ancestors in Greece, in Rome, in the middle ages. The proper study of a working man is working-class conditions.
To Alexander the “Great” the position he obtained meant a development of his faculties and the possibility of exercising his talents which otherwise might have lain dormant. The position of a powerful king or a privileged class might allow the cultivation of intellectual charm or physical beauty by a chosen few. But Lincoln well said that no man is good enough to be another’s master without the other’s consent. There is no such thing as a good despotism. What are dubbed good despots are viler than bad ones, for without making for stable or genuine progress, they create a flabby, servile people, devoid of initiative or activity. No permanent progress can be made except by improving the common human material. Democracy is the only possible method of preventing a single “great” man from becoming, by a union of talent and opportunity and ambition, a good or bad despot, a terrible source of oppression. But even despots can only reign long when they correctly represent the interests of a dominant class. Socialism is the only possible method of preventing a class from monopolising the great machinery of wealth production, and perverting science and the arts to their own ends. And Socialism would not eliminate genius. It would merely prevent humans of genius and those super-privileged men of talent whom we have often mistaken for such, using any class as a milch cow from which to extract “economic rent.”
John A. Dawson

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