President Barack Obama meets with Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, Sept. 19, 2012 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Public Domain).
When Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” he spoke to a common sentiment. Although the ‘great man theory’ has seemingly gone out of fashion in the academic world, it has not receded from our instinctive understanding of politics, and is certainly not an exclusively conservative tendency.
Yes, the sanctification of a Churchill or a Reagan often arises from a longing for a simpler time when kids didn’t answer back and we knew the difference between Good and Evil. But the obsession with finding and inventing political saints cuts across ideological boundaries.
Individuals play a vital role in shaping our historical and contemporary imaginations. A good example is provided by our obsession with counterfactuals: what if Lincoln had lived beyond 1865? What if Thomas Paine never met Benjamin Franklin, and had stayed in England instead of moving to Philadelphia? What if Bernie Sanders had been the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee?
More significantly, individual stories sometimes tell us more about history than expansive scholarly accounts. Few books illuminate the wounds and contradictions of the US as sharply as The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it’s impossible to understand the New Deal without the story of activist-turned-Labor Secretary Frances Perkins; and the life of Dolores Huerta is a powerful illustration of the modern political struggles facing Latino communities across the country.
Towering individual legacies are rarely forgotten. In life, they are solidified by lifetime achievement awards or Nobel Prizes; in death by statues, poems, songs and biographies.
Is there anything wrong with this tendency?
The short answer is yes, and perhaps particularly for those on the left, for two reasons. First, when a political movement is personalized, the role of collective action is often overlooked.
Reducing the struggle for civil rights to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks rightly acknowledges profound personal courage and intelligence, but says little about the thousands of activists whose daily resistance steadily undermined the Jim Crow regime. Likewise, figures like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn are important to any understanding of the movement against the Vietnam War, but we cannot come near to a full picture of this history without discussing the “Quiet Mutiny” of thousands of conscripts who immobilized the world’s largest military machine from the inside out.
The moment we overemphasize heroic figures is the moment we begin to lose sight of the collective actions we have all shaped—and will continue to shape—in the arc of radical social change. The individuals we praise will be the first ones to remind us of this lesson.
Second, if we are to find the right place for individual stories in our political thinking, we need to see our idols—particularly those who wield power—through a critical lens. This is because politics is deeply complex, and success in politics usually requires an uneasy combination of principle and guile.
Leading a political movement is hard. If the cause is national liberation, your task is to unify millions of people with opposing material interests; if it’s social revolution, you have to uproot an entire class structure.
Any progress in these struggles requires a wide range of political skills—and not just ‘honorable’ ones. Strong principles, courage, and eloquence don’t always get very far without compromise, fudging, and even outright deception. But when an inspiring leader emerges (and succeeds), we often forget this lesson.
Take the recent example of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Formerly printed on the front of ‘Freedom’ t-shirts, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and lauded across the Western political spectrum, she is now profiled on opinion pages as “The Ignoble Laureate” who is “complicit in crimes against humanity.” Her refusal to condemn the Burmese military’s brutal attacks on Rohingya villages—and the smearing of the international organizations that have documented the violence–has extinguished her saintly global reputation.
Ms. Suu Kyi is an extreme but illustrative case. At heart a Burmese nationalist like her father, she became an ideal symbol of solemn opposition to tyranny and the archetypal ‘prisoner of conscience’ during her nearly fifteen years of living under house arrest. After her release and elevation to de facto civilian leader of the country, she has been confronted with the overriding question of building national unity.
As Thomas Abbasi, a friend of mine, recently wrote on Facebook: “She seems to have calculated that throwing the Rohingyas under the bus is worth it to keep the support of the army, the monks and the mob. We all feel upset and let down because we projected more onto her and didn’t know enough about the country’s complexity.”
Amid the betrayal and cynicism that often defines politics in every country, it’s natural to look for people like Aung San Suu Kyi who seem to rise above it, but this can lead us to lose a valuable dose of scepticism. Flaws are ignored, power plays are excused and dirty tricks are rationalized. And when we look at individuals from our own history, our critical instincts are diminished further.
Think, for example, of the ‘man of his time’ defense. Supporters of Confederate statues have been seen using this argument recently for people like Robert E. Lee: sure, he lashed his escaped slaves and had brine poured into their wounds, but everyone else was doing it back then—we just want to honor him for his “gentlemanly surrender” at the end of the Civil War.
Attempts to elide the ugliness of historical figures are not confined to conservative publications like the National Review. In some ways progressives have actually been worse. Above all, we hide from the fact that the 20th Century progressive movement was always accommodating to white supremacists, its leading heroes happy to appease the most racist factions of the Democratic Party.
As C. Vann Woodward points out in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, modern progressivism—based on economic populism and an attack on corporate power—was never incompatible with the Jim Crow South. In fact, some of the New Deal’s most passionate disciples were committed segregationists, including the infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace, who surged in the 1972 Democratic primaries less than a decade after giving an inaugural Governor’s address written by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the Wallaces of recent times are being expunged from the memory of progressive Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt retains his place in the pantheon above almost all others. Mark Lilla concluded his widely read post-election essay on The End of Identity Liberalism with a rousing appeal to the values of F.D.R.—his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech highlighted as a reminder of “what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.” Thomas Frank also criticises the Democratic Party’s departure from the Roosevelt legacy; Bernie Sanders takes a similar view.
But this is the same F.D.R. who sent more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps, refused to support federal anti-lynching legislation because it would damage his electoral prospects, and gave the great black athlete Jesse Owens less recognition than Adolf Hitler did after his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The great social programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal were minutely tailored to suit the racial politics of Southern Democrats: “The segregationists supported the Tennessee Valley Authority, but only so long as the cheap electricity it produced flowed only to white communities… Likewise, African Americans were specifically excluded from New Deal legislation that set minimum wages and secured benefits for farm laborers and domestic servants.”
Honesty matters. It allows us to draw more complex lessons from our past. A true assessment of Roosevelt says something about the dangers of promoting social justice while deferring racial justice; a fuller understanding of Lincoln reveals not a God-like, single-minded “Great Emancipator,” but the value of changing your mind.
If our aim is to learn from individuals who somehow rise above their time, we should treat them more like ordinary human beings. If they hold serious political power, even more so, assuming they will behave or have behaved immorally at some point: they should be judged guilty until proven innocent. This is a sceptical rather than cynical view, rooted in the conviction that the best way to appreciate great political leaders is to humanize them.
This brings us back to the wider point about collective action. No matter how exceptional, an individual is limited in what they can achieve. Historic achievements have come from Labor activists fighting for the right to picket without being arrested; feminists distributing leaflets about birth control in defiance of censorship laws; abolitionists gathering under the threat of mob violence; and pacifists opposing the draft.
Although we owe much to the individuals who have led these struggles or helped to realize their demands, we can’t let them overshadow the millions of people who made so many daily sacrifices, fought so many battles, and won so many victories.
I think the trade unionist and five-time Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs made the point better than anyone else. “I am not a Labor Leader”, he once said. “I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are.” And, even more profoundly: “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.”
Get our weekly email