The Myth of the All-Powerful Leader

If I remember correctly, one of the major points Leo Tolstoy makes in War and Peace is that enormous changes that sweep a country or continent are rarely the doings of one individual, even if it is tempting to believe it. Obviously Tolstoy was talking about Napolean, and although things may have gone differently in France and Russia had the little Corsican not been heading the Grande Armée, he was simply the person pushed to the front by a combination of powerful forces in play at the time. Were it not him, it would have been someone else. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Julius Caesar Shakespeare Winston Churchill Mark Twain an obscure cricketer once said.

I found this argument persuasive, and I’ve often thought people put the cart before the horse when it comes to highly influential public figures. I’m not denying they are influential insomuch as saying the situation was ripe for someone influential to take charge, and it happened to be the one we now all know. I’ve been saying this for a while about Trump, particularly in response to those who think if they could just get rid of him, the political attitudes that surround him would disappear and everything would go back to normal. Anyone who thinks Trump has created and is now leading a political movement is either dim or hasn’t been paying attention; the political movement was there already, and merely chose him as its head when he wandered onto the stage at the first Republican primary.

But the idea of an all-powerful individual is persistent among a population, especially with those of a left-wing persuasion. Look at the blame heaped on Thatcher, as if her policies were not the result of millions of British people being utterly fed up with the behaviour of the unions over the previous two decades. And yesterday I came across this Tweet:

Leaving aside the actual circumstances of Jo Cox’s murder, the idea that Nigel Farage single-handedly “created an atmosphere” across a country the size of the UK is preposterous. What Farage did was tap into mass popular discontent with the EU which already existed, he didn’t whip it up on his own out of nothing. If this were possible, I’d be in charge and there would be an awful lot more bluegrass on the TV and radio. And supermarkets would still be giving away carrier bags for free. Blaming Farage for Brexit is like blaming traffic jams on Henry Ford.

Of course, this effect runs in the other direction too, with individuals being deified: Obama was portrayed as some sort of Messiah put on Earth to lead the rabble into a new, progressive era. In reality, his election was mostly down to people being fed up with neo-cons, wars, Republicans, and dynastic presidents. They wanted a fresh face and a new direction, and Obama offered that. Regardless of what happened afterwards, he was seen as the right man for the time. This penchant to view leaders as all-powerful individuals shaping events which are taking place anyway leads to personality cults and hubris in the leaders themselves who start to believe their own bullshit. I suspect this phenomenon arises because it is firmly embedded in human nature. It is remarkably persistent, at any rate.

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56 thoughts on “The Myth of the All-Powerful Leader

  1. We celebrate Shakespeare because of his particular and peculiar genius. We don’t celebrate Vaughan Williams like the Austrians do Mozart.

    Ah, but in the absence of Shakespeare we might. Or would we celebrate nobody at all because Williams wasn’t up to it? Unlikely.

    Also dismissing the role of individuals in the relentless swell of history rather than said individuals smacks of goddamn communism.

    Steady on. I’m not dismissing their roles, rather trying to dispel the myth that, for example, Farage caused the atmosphere that resulted in Jo Cox being shot.

  2. Perhaps the point is easier to debate if we change the context?
    Would we have had pop music as we know it today, if not for the Beatles?

    Looking 50-60 years back is easier than going back to antiquity, and popular culture is well documented.

    Now (and love the Beatles I do), I can easily name half a dozen bands who could have been that first international pop act, and who would have followed roughly the same career trajectory. Yep, the Beatles were good, but they could have been substituted.

    One thing I am certain of, after 1960, there’s no way that the majority of the youth would have sat around listening to Mendelsohn.

  3. To say that either the Great Man Theory of history, or the Sweeping Trends Theory is 100% correct, is silly. Tim might be right, generally, in the case of a lot of major historical figures, but there were plenty of others who made a real and unique impact. I can’t accept that in the absence of Napoleon (a truly remarkable person), the course of French and European history would have been essentially the same. Napoleon had abilities and a vision that enabled his nation to do things that it very likely would never have done otherwise. And look at all of the downstream possibilities that a no-Napoleon history would have unleashed: the remarkable people who wouldn’t have died in the Napoleonic wars; the remarkable people who would otherwise have never come to prominence if not for those events; the other great movements or trends that European governments or leaders or peoples might have launched had they not had to contend with the French Empire. When I think of all the random contingencies and possibilities that could have completely changed the course of my own life (and yours, too), I can’t see where “historical forces” can be given credit for everything of note. Sorry, I’m not buying.

  4. If Shakespeare was alive today, do you know what he’d be famous for?

    He’d be famous for living to the ripe old age of 453, that’s what! >};o)

    Joking aside, what makes his plays so relevant down the ages is that the basic plot is based on human weaknesses and behaviour:

    Romeo and Juliette – You are not marrying into THAT family!

    Macbeth – power corrupts and the struggle for power.

    King Lear – responsibility cannot be abdicated and the consequences of doing so are bad.

    Etc. and so forth. Hence Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant adaptation of Macbeth to medieval Japan in Throne of Blood (or in Japanese, Cobweb Castle – Kusomono Ji) which at first glance is weird. How can something quintessentially English be portrayed as a samurai story? But as it is based on power struggles and female manipulation, then of course it translates well. It is well worth watching for the cinematography alone – Kurosawa would have made a brilliant still photographer – and the “woods coming to the walls of the castle” in the final scenes is a brilliant interpretation of the prophecy.

    One of the problems is that modern punctuation had not been invented in his time so to modern eyes, his sentence structure is rambling, too long and seemingly confusing. Oddly enough, reading his plays aloud makes it more understandable as you run out of breath and need to pause.

    His sonnets are miniature gems of the poets art (in my opinion).

    For homework read pages 10 to 27 and summarise them. Class dismissed!. >};o)

  5. @Gene – “Napoleon (a truly remarkable person)”

    Yes absolutely, an incredible person who had far reaching positive consequences to the world, we are all born equal but he truly had the stuff of legends running through his veins.

    Also its interesting to note that there have been no potential legendary female leaders or dictators that have been mentioned in this discussion.

  6. @Bardon
    “Also its interesting to note that there have been no potential legendary female leaders or dictators”
    I’ve left my wife out of it, true…

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