Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Time to Bring Back the "Great Man" Theory of History?

Dec 13, 2013

Time to Bring Back the "Great Man" Theory of History?

I don't know exactly when the "great man" theory went out of fashion among professional historians. I do know that when I started studying American history, a very long time ago, the theory was already so outdated that no respectable historian would think of subscribing to it -- at least not in public. Perhaps some still harbored private suspicions that "great" men and women play a much bigger role in shaping and explaining history than the profession now allows us to admit.

Of course outside the circle of professional historians the "great man" theory never died. It's as alive, vibrant, and probably even dominant as ever. Just browse the history shelves at any big, popular bookstore. Then go over to the biography section and notice that it's almost as big as the history section.

Or, now, browse any big, popular newspaper or magazine, where articles about Nelson Mandela are just barely beginning to fade from the headlines, a full week after his death. It was a week of indulging in (no doubt well deserved) praise of the great man who turned the tide of history -- virtually single-handedly, if you accept the popular version of the story that has dominated the news all week. That story would not have made the front page every day if it didn't sell newspapers, which is one more piece of evidence that for most non-historians the "great man" theory is still the key to understanding why history unfolds as it does.

Is it possible that the masses know something we professional historians have forgotten? I'm certainly not going to make a case for bringing the "great man" theory back to the dominant place it once held in American historiography. Obviously there are a huge number of other modes of explanation that have earned our respect, with good reason. To be a good historian is to have all those explanatory models and mechanisms in your tool bag and know how and when to use each one to best effect.

But I do wonder if we shouldn't give a bit more respect to the "great man" -- we'll now call it the "great man and woman" -- theory. In fact, a lot of historians still use that tool in practice, even if they prove their professional credentials by dissing and dismissing it when the conversation turns to historiographical theory. We still have a constant flow of excellent history books and articles that focus on the role famous individuals played in shaping events.

And we still have the nagging question: Would things have turned out the same if person X had not appeared on the scene, or had disappeared from the scene earlier? Suppose (and it's all too easy to suppose) that the South African apartheid regime had killed Nelson Mandela in 1962 rather than imprisoning him. Yes, there's a good case to be made that structural forces would still have compelled the end of apartheid, eventually. But can we be sure? And even if we are sure, how much longer might "eventually" have taken?

Perhaps I'm somewhat more intrigued by the "great man and woman" theory than a lot of other historians because I have specialized in foreign policy, where it's somewhat easier to make the case that unique individuals have determined the outcome of events. Would the U.S. have sent huge numbers of troops into Vietnam if that bullet had missed John F. Kennedy? Would the U.S. have joined the League of Nations if Woodrow Wilson had been a paragon of health through the end of his second term?

Recently Frank Costigliola has returned to perhaps the most famous and fateful of these "if" questions: Would the U.S. have entered into a Cold War with the Soviet Union if Franklin D. Roosevelt had managed to stay healthy enough to finish his fourth term and keep control of foreign policy through January, 1949? Costigliola offers no theoretical argument for resurrecting the old "great man" theory. But as the subtitle of his latest book, Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, suggests, he had the courage to bring a modernized, much more sophisticated version of that theory back into the academic arena.

And with impressive results. He mounts a strong case that we cannot understand what happened to American (or Soviet or British) foreign policy in the 1940s without understanding the personalities of the great men who were in charge of deciding policy. He mounts an equally impressive (though sure to be debated) case that, had Roosevelt lived and been healthy enough to remain fully in charge, U.S. policy to the Soviets would have followed a rather more conciliatory course; the cold war might well have been at least much less cold if not averted altogether.  

I'm also intrigued by the "great man and woman" theory because of my non-professional experience with local organizations of all kinds, trying to get all sorts of things done. As a product of the counter-cultural '60s, I grew up believing in communal decision-making, with a fierce determination never to let any one person become a strong leader, lest they gain too much power over the rest of us. In the circles I went it as a young person, those were bedrock taken-for-granted principles.

At the same time, though, most of us idolized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We took it for granted that the civil rights movement never could have achieved so much without him. We eagerly followed the well-publicized doings of leaders like Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd, and all the other media stars of the left, assuming that what they did really made a big difference.

I don't recall that we talked or thought much about the contradiction between, on the one hand, our egalitarianism and rigid rejection of strong leaders in our local own groups, and on the other hand our own version of the "great man and woman" theory on the national scale.

Over the decades, I've watched enough of those local groups rise and fall to come to this conclusion: One of the ingredients any group needs if it hopes to make change of any kind is strong leadership. "A few talented fanatics" is the way I often put it now -- a few people who have the time, energy, and skills to make sure everything that needs to be done gets done well. Without such talented fanatics, most groups are doomed to fade away sooner or later, and usually sooner. At least that's what my experience and observation tell me.

We may be watching something similar happening to progressives now on a national scale. The Occupy movement made a powerful mark. It sparked a media interest in economic inequality that hardly anyone would have predicted, or perhaps thought possible, just a few years again.

So why did the Occupy movement fade so quickly from public view? Certainly the main reason was swift, harsh, and widely approved police repression. But Occupy was also hampered by a lack of leaders. Of course each Occupy encampment did have leaders. The sociological theories that explain why every group is bound to create some kind of leadership structure remain pretty convincing.

Yet the Occupy leaders, as well as their followers, were guided by the same kind of egalitarian "no leaders" philosophy that I remember from the '60s. So they consciously downplayed the role and media profile of their leaders. And police repression made sure the movement never had time to generate to the kind of media stars that the '60s left produced.

Now let's play "what if". (The recent rise in "counter-factual" history is a useful reminder that old theories once discarded can in fact rise again.) What if Elizabeth Warren had become a senator, media star, and darling of the progressives before the Occupy movement arose? The two would have been a match made in media heaven.

The results are hard to predict. But the thought of Warren, like Dr. King, being carted off to jail because she was standing up for justice -- and all seen by millions on the evening news -- is enough to make me believe that our history would somehow have become quite different.

As it is, Warren's rise to stardom is at the center of the growing media meme about the rising influence of progressives in the Democratic party and the national political scene. Such media memes are often self-fulfilling prophecies. They are no guarantee of success, but without them a political movement is pretty well guaranteed to have little success.

Without the media spotlight shining so brightly on Elizabeth Warren, progressive politics would still be a matter of small groups working on their specific issues, on the fringes of public awareness, with little hope for making any major change in the nation's political mood. One charismatic person has changed all that.

And perhaps it has changed Barack Obama's political tune. Obama first began talking about inequality when Occupy was making its big, brief media splash. He stuck to the theme in the following months, though less enthusiastically, just enough to make sure he got re-elected. Now, after a bunch of distractions, he's resurrecting it as a way to try to resurrect his own political power. Would he be doing that if it weren't for Elizabeth Warren?

It's like asking whether FDR would have turned to the left in the 1936 campaign if it hadn't been for the growing appeal of progressive populists like Huey Long. No one can say for sure. But most historians of the '30s credit those progressives with making a large impact on FDR's public stance, even if they would never admit to subscribing to any "great man and woman" theory.  

If Obama's return to the issue of economic inequity works for him politically, and genuine policy changes occur as a result, it will give historians more grist for the mill of the "great man and woman" debate a few years from now. If Hillary Clinton takes the challenge of a Warren candidacy seriously and picks up Obama's rhetorical focus as her own, that mill may start turning fast and furious.  

Great political changes need at least two ingredients: Great myths and lots of small, local organizations contributing to the effort. Great myths need compelling, charistmatic characters. Successful small organizations need talented, dedicated leaders. 

We'll never return to the heyday of the "great man" theory. But we may find ourselves paying more attention to the history-making role of great men and women as time goes on. Then again, maybe not. I'm still not totally sure how I feel about it. I offer all these reflections merely as something worth thinking about.




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