Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great Man theory revisited

The Scottish wit and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1891) once
declared, "The history of the world is but the biography of great
men." Paul Kennedy examines this claim in an instructive column in
this morning's International Herald Tribune:

"[T]he most important challenge to Carlyle's great-leader theory came
from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist
philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the
opening paragraphs of his classic 'The Eighteenth Brumaire,' he offers
those famous lines: 'Men make their own History, but they do not make
it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected
circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and
transmitted from the past.'

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency
of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people
are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

And so it was with Churchill. For all the powers he gathered under
himself, he could not prevent the Nazi Blitzkrieg from sweeping across
Europe. He could not prevent the Japanese capture of so much of the
British Empire in the Far East, (only the Americans could turn the
tide there). He could not prevent the Red Army from gobbling up
Eastern Europe. And he could not prevent the decline and fall of his
beloved British Empire.

In sum, Churchill's accomplishments were staggering; but he could not
alter the larger tides of history, and he had to make his policies
within the limits he had inherited, just as Marx observed."

Paul Kennedy's article can be read here:

"Do Leaders Make History, or Is It Beyond Their Control?"