Harold Walsby: The Great Man Theory

Harold Walsby: The Great Man Theory

This piece by Walsby originally appeared in the SOCIALIST LEADER for March 15 1952; the argument is less simple-minded than the opening paragraphs may suggest. (In 1989 the Da Vinci exhibition is at the Hayward Gallery; Tetra Associates have built a full-scale model of his flying machine. – GW)

Have you been to the da Vinci Exhibition which opened recently at the Royal Academy Diploma Gallery of Burlington House? It is well worth a visit. Reflections on this amazing man – accomplished as painter, sculptor, architect, musician, inventor, natural philosopher, civil engineer, anatomist, author, mechanician, scientist, poet, cartographer – prompt me to recall the role of great men in history.

Born in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci grew up to become probably the most versatile genius the human race has ever produced. He was a great student of nature and wrote learned treatises on optics, botany, anatomy, the flight of birds, the laws of perspective, hydraulics, military matters and others. While chief engineer to Caesar Borgia, he designed and directed the construction of canals. He anticipated the ideas of Watt in attempting to harness the power of steam to do work. He designed a large number of ingenious devices and machines, many of which anticipated, by nearly five hundred years, modern mechanical contrivances in use today. In addition, he was one of the greatest and most famous artist-painters of all time. His Mona Lisa is a by-word, known to millions who, otherwise, know little or nothing about art.

If you have been to the Exhibition – which celebrates the quincentenary of the birth of Leonardo – you will have seen some of the mechanical models constructed from the astonishing designs made by this “universal genius.” In any case, you will have seen photographs of them in the daily press. There is the parachute, the hydraulic pump, a self- propelled carriage, a primitive flying machine, a “helicopter,” transmission gears, the revolving stage and an armoured tank with breechloading guns to mention only a few. Nothing came of most of his inventions; the inventor lived long before his time.

Well, here was a great man, if ever there was one – acclaimed by all and described as without parallel in history. What was his impact on human society? What was his influence on history and the course of human affairs? Considering his colossal accomplishments, his originality, his fame, then the answer must surely be “comparatively little!”

The tacit theory, which we all learn at school, that History is made by Great Men, seems hardly borne out by the case of “the greatest genius of all time.” The vast majority of people never rise above the “Great-Man” conception of history. It is part and parcel of their primitive idealistic and superstitious attitude towards society in general.

When, however, some of us get interested in socialism, and begin to study the development of human society to see what makes it tick, we discover that the role of heroes and great men is not as great as we thought. We begin to see that there are more general tendencies in history than the particular actions or policies pursued by great men, or the particular battles won by this or that particular king. Moreover, we see that these general tendencies are largely brought about by impersonal forces – of which humans, including the great men, are not really conscious – and that the role of the “great man” has to conform to these general tendencies. The “great man” is therefore subject to the limitations of those impersonal forces, of which both he – directly or indirectly – and the general course of history, are largely the expression.

Thus, with the growth of our ideas and conceptions concerning human society, great men become less and less the prime agents of history, and more and more the effects of social and historical processes.

As we develop these ideas, we find them becoming more and more in opposition to the orthodox views, the views of the majority, the views of those who support the capitalist order of things – the ruling views. We have, therefore, to show the absurdity, the falsity, the complete and utter erroneousness of the “great man” theory. We overstate our case.

We analogise: King Canute could no more alter the general course of history than he could command the tide. The “great men” of history, like Mrs. Partington with her mop, can indeed sweep backwards or forwards a wave here and there, but they can have as little effect on the general tide of human affairs as Mrs.Partington had on the oncoming swell of the Atlantic Ocean. This overstatement of our case is almost inevitable. Marx and Engels were also guilty of it, as Engels himself admitted. “We had to emphasise this main principle,” he wrote to Bloch, “in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights.”

Engels wrote in the same vein to Mehring, Marx’s biographer, and in his assessment of Marx – after the latter’s death – he was forced to make some concessions to the “great man” theory. Marx was a genius, he tells us, who “stood higher, saw farther, and took a wider and a quicker view than all the rest of us.” Elsewhere he says: “We all owe what we are to him; and the movement as it is to-day is the creation of his theoretical and practical work. If it had not been for him we should all still be groping in a maze of confusion… His mighty vision will be buried with him. It was something of which we others are not capable… Marx was, and is, the only one who could undertake the work of extracting from the Hegelian logic the kernel which comprised Hegel’s real discoveries… if the greater man dies, the lesser easily gets overrated… ” and so on.

Marx’s tremendous influence in the world today is undeniable. The mark he has left on human affairs is almost certainly greater, and will persist much longer, that made by any king, or any universal genius like Leonardo. Yet Marx, unlike Leonardo, constructed no canals or other great building projects, he invented no new machines, he designed no engines and, in fact, considered himself rather a duffer in practical matters.

Marx was certainly a “great man” and, without him, the world of human affairs would be, if not fundamentally different, nevertheless a very different world from what it is today. But the name of Marx is known to millions of people. let us compare Leonardo to another “great man” – a man who, unlike either Marx or Leonardo, is known to comparatively few. Most people have never heard of him or at least, his name means nothing to them.

Of those who have heard of him or do know something about him, the majority certainly knows little or nothing of his ideas. It is safe to say that only a relative handful has ever studied and understood him. Yet his influence in the world is probably as great, and possibly greater, than Marx himself.

That man was Marx’s own mentor, teacher and “spiritual father.” To Marx, a “mental giant among men,” that man was himself a mental giant His name was G. W. F. Hegel, one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of all time. “I… avowed myself a pupil of that mighty thinker,” says the author of Capital in a preface to that work.

The full story of Hegel’s great influence upon Marx, Engels, Lenin and others, and upon the world to-day, will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that in the realms of “logic” – to quote Engels – “natural philosophy (or science) philosophy of mind, and the latter worked out in its separate historical sub-divisions: philosophy of history, of law, of religion, history of philosophy, aesthetics, etc. – in all these different historical fields Hegel laboured to discover and demonstrate the pervading thread of development. And as he was not only a creative genius but also a man of encyclopaedic erudition, he played an epoch-making role in every sphere.”

from Ideological Commentary 39, May 1989.