Pathfinders: Great Men of Straw

Items in the news last month included a NASA report that April was the seventh month in a row to break global temperature records, that five Solomon Islands have now disappeared underwater, that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, and that the first ever global assessment, from botanists at London’s Kew Gardens, has declared that 21 percent of all plant species are now under threat of extinction.

This litany of climate-related misery was not in the least relieved by news that politicians have completed the business of ratifying the Paris Climate accord, whereby the world’s nations will join arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder to fight climate change with their combined unstoppable forces of piety, chewed lips and crossed fingers.

It surely won’t be just socialists who, on reading the paper every morning, have that familiar Solomon-sinking feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and nobody, especially not the capitalist politicians, has a blind clue what to do about it.

It’s anybody’s guess what effect climate change will have on global politics in the future. Perhaps the world will look over the precipice and experience a dramatic epiphany and adopt world socialism in a process which the German sociologist Ulrich Beck described as ’emancipatory catastrophism’ (New Scientist, 30 April). Somehow though we don’t think so. The best way to make a house habitable is not to burn it down first.

An interesting clue about climatic effects in history was reported recently by a team of volcanologists and historians who looked at events in Roman history from around 250 BC and matched them with evidence (from Antarctic ice cores et al) of volcanic eruptions (New Scientist, 7 May). The team claims a close correlation between eruptions and domestic uprisings in Ptolemaic Egypt, due to poor rainfall in the Ethiopian uplands and corresponding flood failures in the Nile valley, leading to failed harvests. They argue that eight out of ten documented revolts against the Ptolemaic rulers started within two years of an eruption. Ultimately, runs the reasoning, this weakening of Egypt led to the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, which opened the way for the Augustan Empire and the beginnings of the modern western world.

You can argue the pros and cons of this fun idea. Clearly the modern world doesn’t owe its origins to the teleological absurdity of a couple of volcanoes going off pop at crucial moments. For one thing, Egypt was not especially weak, economically speaking, as was shown by the fact that Marc Anthony stopped the supply of Egyptian grain, upon which Rome heavily relied, in order to blackmail the Senate. As for Actium, Octavian’s general Agrippa probably ought to have some credit, and besides it may just be that the Egyptians were never that great at winning sea battles – if you look at a Wikipedia list of ancient naval battles, there are numerous Egyptian naval defeats and the only instance of a victory was c 1190 BC against an unidentified opponent (the ‘Sea Peoples’), making the event more legend than fact.

Quibbles aside, the thing to note in all this is that you never hear anybody, scientist or historian or for that matter the bloke down the pub, nowadays saying things like ‘That Augustus (or maybe Julius Caesar) was a genius, you know, we wouldn’t be anywhere today without him.’ It’s worth noting this because in Victorian times the dominant view was somewhat different, as summed up by Thomas Carlyle: ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’ (and he meant men). This ‘heroic’ view, set out in his 1841 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, gave scant consideration to social conditions, economic affairs or other environmental circumstances and instead saw history rather like a mute and passive baton passed from one hero to the next, to do with as they saw fit. The only reason to study history, as Carlyle saw it, was to understand heroes like Muhammad, Pericles or Napoleon in order to behave more like them.

The obvious fact that most people are not in a position to behave like these ‘heroes’ (and would be locked up in a psyche ward if they did) means that they don’t count for anything at all and are written out of history as irrelevant. Small wonder then that the heroic view flattered the conceits of the bourgeoisie and was also popular with intellectual academicians like Nietzsche.

Not everyone was persuaded. Herbert Spencer considered the heroic view as bordering on infantile and responded furiously that ‘before he (the great man) can remake his society, his society must make him’, an argument that socialists more generally associate with Karl Marx and the materialist conception of history.

In the materialist view, change can occur due to many non-material factors, whether social, psychological (or heroic), cultural or historical, but economic conditions tend usually to be the crucial and generally decisive factor. Marx used the terms base and superstructure, and we can envisage this as a piece of land with buildings on it. Thus, a fire in an upper storey of one cultural building (say paedophile scandals in the Catholic Church) might have some small effect on other structures but none at all on the material foundations of society. In contrast, an earthquake in the economic base, the land itself, would certainly upset all the cultural structures built on top of it.

O tempora, o mores. Nowadays the materialist perspective has achieved orthodoxy among academic historians (Carlyle would be flunked out of college), while workers in general are conspicuously divided between materialists on the one hand and hero-worshippers on the other. This is a big problem because how you look at history deeply influences what you intend to do and can expect to achieve in the future.

Materialists ought to be socialists because they instinctively grasp that real change can only occur through a shaking up of the economic base of society, or what we call revolution. The hero-worshippers continue to hope in the face of all the evidence for a hero to emerge and save them, in the form of some politician or demagogue, and are thus grasping at nothing at all except straws and straw men.


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