The importance of the individual in history

Throughout the ages, oracles, journalists and political scientists have attempted to guess the course fate may take. But should they fail to take the specifics, particularly specific individuals, into account, they are doomed to fail.

Winston Churchill raising his hat to the crowd in Quebec City
Winston Churchill raising his hat to the crowd in Quebec City after the Quadrant Conference in August 1943. Credit: CBW / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay was first published under the title ‘The individual in history’, in Past and Present: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2020. It was published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

Men and women have always tried to achieve certainty about the future. They have always been disappointed. In a pre-scientific age, the ancients consulted the oracles at Delphi. Later it was thought that history might give the answers. The more we knew about the past, the better we could predict the future. But, as the Oxford historian, A.J.P. Taylor once said, we learn from history not to make the old mistakes — and that leaves us free to make new ones instead.

In modern times, it is the academic students of politics, or, as they like to call themselves, political scientists, who have taken over the role once enjoyed by the oracles and then by the historians. They too have often been disappointed. Few, if any, predicted the election of Donald Trump in America in 2016. Few predicted the Brexit vote in the British referendum of that year. Nor have the psephologists been particularly successful in predicting general election outcomes. In 2017, most believed that Theresa May’s Conservatives would win a large majority in the British general election. Instead she lost her majority and was left dangling in a hung parliament. In the previous general election of 2015, by contrast, most commentators thought the outcome would be a hung parliament. But David Cameron’s Conservatives won an overall majority. After the 1959 general election in Britain which also confounded the expectations of the psephologists by returning the Conservatives to power with an increased majority, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, referred to, ‘One of the latest so-called sciences — psephology — the study of how the people voted last time, how they will vote next time; all apparently capable of mathematical calculations, irrespective of the electoral campaign or the issues at stake. This sort of political Calvinism’, Macmillan went on, ‘is only redeemed by the recent discovery that their predetermined anticipations are generally proved wrong. The electors do show, from time to time, a regrettable outbreak of political Free Will.’ So the political scientists know as little about the future as the oracles or the historians.

One reason why both historians and political scientists have failed is that they find it difficult to account for the phenomenon of leadership. In the sciences, we are told, leadership makes little difference. Scientists do not believe in the romantic idea of the individual pioneer. A discovery by one scientist anticipates, so they say, that of another only by a few years. Popular writings often attribute great things to individual scientists, but it is in fact difficult for scientists to be heroes, particularly in modern times when so much of science is a collective enterprise in which it is difficult to isolate the contribution of any one individual. Often, so it appears, those who do not receive Nobel prizes in science are as deserving as those who do.

But that is not true of the arts. If Jane Austen had not lived, it is unlikely that anyone else would have written Pride and Prejudice. If James Joyce had not lived, would Ulysses have been written? Without Wagner, would there have been a Ring cycle; without Stravinsky, would there have been a Rite of Spring? It is much easier to identify individual greatness in the arts than in the sciences.

What about politics and history? Are they more similar to the sciences or to the arts?

There have long been proponents of scientific history — more in the past perhaps than today. Marxists proclaimed that history was a science. But they face problems when trying to explain the course of Russian history in the 20th century. For they are committed to the view that a Communist revolution was bound to happen in Russia and that Lenin did no more than speed it up. Just as, in the absence of Alexander Fleming, it is likely that penicillin would have been discovered sooner or later, so also there would have been a Communist revolution in Russia even if Lenin had never lived. Most historians find this view implausible.

Marxists find themselves in similar difficulties when they come to explain the phenomenon of Stalinism. Was that too inevitable? If so, what does that say about the nature of socialist revolution? So the orthodox Russian Communist line under Khruschev and his successors was to say that the degeneration of the revolution under Stalin was not inevitable, but due to contingent factors, and in particular to the development of a cult of personality. But such an explanation, if explanation it is, can hardly be available to a genuine Marxist. For Marx believed in the union of theory and practice. What that meant was that the test of a doctrine was not its compatibility with some abstract or textbook formula, but its suc cess in practice. From this point of view, Stalin was indeed a genuine Marxist since it was he who ensured the survival of the Communist revolution in Russia by his policy of rapid industrialisation and by winning the Great Patriotic War from 1941 to 1945. These successes prove, according to orthodox Marxist doctrine, that Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism was in fact correct.

It is hardly possible, therefore, for Marxists to explain Stalinism as an accident, a mere aberration nor as a deviation from the true path of Communism, rather than a product of the forces and relations of production. A Marxist explanation leaves no room for the notion of the cult of personality. In explaining Stalinism, liberal historians are in a much stronger position than Marxists, since they can point to dictatorial features inherent in Bolshevik doctrine, to Russian backwardness and to a host of other factors.

But some liberals, paradoxically, find themselves in a similar sort of difficulty to that of the Marxists in explaining the course of 20th century Russian history. They argue, no doubt correctly, that the Russian revolution was contingent. It would not have occurred if the Tsarist regime had followed wiser policies, if the Kornilov affair had not occurred or if Lenin had not returned in a sealed train to Petrograd, financed by German money. But the Stalinist repression which followed was, according to some liberal historians, inevitable once the Communist Party had seized power. No alternative path was possible. But is that not also somewhat counter-intuitive?

Perhaps, when an event occurs which confirms our political standpoint, we tend to say that it was inevitable, that it was bound to happen. When an event occurs which seems to conflict with those prejudices, we say that it was contingent, that it could have been avoided. Perhaps we do something similar in our personal lives. We tend to say, when things go well, that it was a result of our own qualities. When they go badly, we put it down to bad luck.

Marxists, however, are not the only thinkers who downgrade the importance of the individual in history. Tolstoy, who was far from being a Marxist, also believed that it was absurd to attribute historical events to the acts of individuals. In the epilogue to War and Peace, he writes, with irony, of the causes of the French revolutionary upheavals.

‘Louis XIV was a very proud and self-confident man. He had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers, and they governed France badly. The heirs of Louis XIV were also weak men, and also governed France badly. They also had such and such favourites and such and such mistresses. Besides which, certain persons were at this time writing books. By the end of the eighteenth century there must have gathered in Paris two dozens or so persons who started saying that all men were free and equal. Because of this in the whole of France people began to slaughter and drown each other. These people killed the king and a good many others. At this time there was a man of genius in France — Napoleon. He conquered everyone everywhere, i.e. killed a great many people because he was a great genius, and, for some reason, he went off to kill Africans, and killed them so well, and was so clever and cunning that, having arrived in France, he ordered everyone to obey him, which they did. Having made himself Emperor he again went to kill masses of people in Italy, Austria and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many.’

And he continues in this vein until he reaches the Restoration and the death of Napoleon. So-called historical figures were, Tolstoy believed merely vehicles for historical processes beyond the reach of any individual, and which we, with our limited knowledge, are quite unable to understand. Napoleon, he insists, knew as little of what was happening in the battle of Borodino as the meanest soldier serving under him.

Yet, history does, so it seems to me, refute Tolstoy’s view. And in this respect it seems more like the arts than the sciences. Let us consider some examples. An obvious example is Britain in 1940. An outside observer might have concluded that her situation in that year was hopeless, and that the best she could expect was a negotiated peace. Continued resistance, let alone victory seemed quite improbable. Churchill, however, made the improbable happen. How did he do it? Oliver Franks, a civil servant in 1940, later Lord Franks, once told me that no one could understand Churchill unless he had actually been in Britain in 1940. Franks, working as he was in the Ministry of Supply, knew better than anyone how desperate Britain’s position was. The country was told that the troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but not that almost all of the equipment, including tanks, had been left behind. Very little was left with which to defend Britain had the Germans been able to invade. Yet, Franks, when he heard Churchill, knew that Britain would win the war. Speaking to me many years after the war had ended, he confessed that he still did not know how it was done. He told Churchill’s doctor, ‘I remember early in the war attending a meeting on the roof of the Ministry of Supply when Winston addressed us. I came away more happy about things. He dispelled our misgivings and set at rest our fears; he spoke of his aim and his purpose, so that we knew that somehow it would be achieved. He gave us faith. There was in him a demonic element, as in Calvin and Luther. He was a spiritual force.’

There is a mystery about how it was done, but the scale of the achievement cannot be doubted.

Churchill also showed qualities of leadership in his peacetime administration from 1951 to 1955, though this is less understood and less discussed than his wartime premiership. His achievement in peacetime is the more remarkable since he was unwell for much of this period, and hardly equipped to carry out normal day to day administrative business. Cabinet meetings sometimes began with long rambling monologues and reminiscences of wartime glories before ministers could get down to business. Churchill was no longer able to offer the detailed interventions based on practical knowledge which had served Britain so well during the war. He was therefore unable to provide executive or administrative leadership. He could act neither as chairman of the board nor micro-manager of the administration. If the premiership were primarily an executive or administrative position, then Churchill was certainly not fit for office.

Political leadership, however, does not consist solely or even mainly in executive or administrative action, but in teaching, in creating an atmosphere that inspires the nation. That was what Churchill had done in the 1940s. Churchill’s deputy during the war and later Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee was once asked what Churchill had done to win the war. He replied laconically, ‘He talked about it.’ In 1940, Churchill had detected the underlying attitude of the British people, that they did not want to give in to Hitler. He gave voice to that attitude in grandiloquent terms, terms which made the British people feel that they were living at a crucial historical moment.

In 1951, too, Churchill succeeded in detecting the underlying attitude of the British people, a very different attitude from that of 1940. The British people now wanted a period of peace and quiet, they yearned for consolidation after the reforms and upheavals of the Attlee years of Labour government. ‘We meet together here’, Churchill told the newly elected House of Commons in 1951, ‘with an apparent gulf between us as great as I have known in fifty years of House of Commons life. What the nation needs is several years of quiet, steady administration, if only to allow socialist legislation to reach its full fruition.’ That was what Churchill offered. In 1955, after his retirement, the Conservatives succeeded in increasing their parliamentary majority and their share of the vote, something only achieved on one other occasion in Britain since the war, by David Cameron in 2015 — though Cameron’s achievement was soon to turn to ashes when the British electorate voted against his wishes for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

Leadership in a democracy involves giving a sense of direction to the government and to the country. When seen in these terms, it is clear that Churchill succeeded both in his wartime and in his peacetime premierships in providing leadership. His peacetime achievement is perhaps surprising, since Churchill knew less about economics than he did about foreign policy and defence, and he was perhaps less interested in domestic matters than in the grand themes of foreign affairs. Yet successful political leaders are not only or even primarily legislators, but teachers, able to alter public opinion. That, for example, was achieved by Margaret Thatcher in Britain during her long premiership from 1979 to 1990, and by the American president, Ronald Reagan, during his two terms from 1981 to 1989. Their achievements lie less in the legislation that they enacted than in altering public opinion on such matters as the market economy, the welfare state and foreign and defence policy. Even if every single one of their enactments were to be repealed, their teaching would remain.

Similar examples of leadership which altered what seemed to be the predetermined course of history can be adduced from the history of France, both in 1940, when de Gaulle rescued French pride after national humiliation, and also in 1958. In 1958, France appeared ungovernable. The Fourth Republic seemed unable to resolve the Algerian problem, and Paris faced the possibility of a military coup by paratroops serving in Algeria. That was averted by the establishment of the Fifth Republic. Even after that, however, it seemed almost impossible to resolve the Algerian problem. A stable constitutional system appeared an unlikely outcome. De Gaulle, however, like Churchill, made the improbable happen. The Fifth Republic is a political system very much in de Gaulle’s image, though perhaps Emmanuel Macron is the first president of France since de Gaulle to understand the nature of the office as an elective monarchy.

Remarkably, the political system of the European Union is also coming to be very much in de Gaulle’s image. It is developing into a Éurope des états — de Gaulle apparently never used the phrase Éurope des patries so often attributed to him. This was recognised by Angela Merkel in her 2010 Bruges lecture, less noticed than Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges lecture of 1988 but equally significant. In that lecture, Angela Merkel insisted that Europe was to be constructed by governments working together just as much as by supranational institutions. And indeed the euro crisis of 2011—12 was to be resolved by national governments working together in the Council and the European central bank, not by the Commission or Parliament. Both France and Europe are coming to develop in de Gaulle’s image. Perhaps it is for this reason that the great French novelist, André Malraux, declared that de Gaulle was a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow.

It is perhaps ironic that a Éurope des états also represents the British conception of the future of Europe. This conception is coming to triumph just as Britain is departing. Brexit is occurring just when the EU is in the process of becoming more British.

The development of European integration itself marks a discontinuity in European history, which owes much to individual leadership. In 1945, few would have predicted it. Few, in particular, would have predicted the friendship between those two ancient enemies, France and Germany, let alone the development of an integrated European Union. That these developments occurred was in large part due to a man who never held elective office, yet whose influence was greater than that of governments and politicians — Jean Monnet, who played a major part in creating institutions which have lasted to the present day. Leadership, therefore, does not necessarily depend on power or patronage. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were just as much leaders as Churchill or de Gaulle. A leader is essentially a teacher, not a legislator.

From the United States, we may take the obvious example of Franklin Roosevelt. In February 1933 shortly before his inauguration as President, a bullet aimed for him killed his travelling companion, Chicago Mayor, Anton Cermak, who allegedly told Roosevelt — I’m glad it was me instead of you. Roosevelt’s famous inaugural address in which he said ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ — together with the measures he took to meet the immediate financial panic and later measures to establish a social security state — undoubtedly helped to preserve American democracy. Roosevelt offered a great creative response to the Depression, without which America might well have succumbed to one of the many demagogues who were then stalking the land.

The political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin believed that one of the distinguishing characteristics of a great man is that his active intervention makes what seemed highly improbable in fact happen. ‘At crucial moments — the impulse given freely by an individual — can send things spinning in some unforeseen and unforeseeable direction. If Alexander or Caesar had not lived, history would certainly have taken a different turn.’

Or, as he once put the point to me more pithily, discussing music — genius is discontinuity. In music, Brahms, he said, could be predicted from Beethoven, but Debussy could not have been predicted from any of his predecessors. Debussy, therefore, was a genius while Brahms, on this criterion, though a great composer, was not. Similarly, in politics, there were really no precedents for Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt or Monnet. They abruptly shifted history from its previous track. They altered the course of history. The world in which we live is profoundly different because of what they did.

Even when we consider an area of policy such as economic growth, seemingly slow-moving and determined by fundamental cultural and historical forces, political leadership can make a difference. A paper in 2005 by two economists, Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, analysed whether changes in national leaders were systematically associated with changes in growth. They investigated cases where changes in leadership were essentially random following the end of a leader’s rule through death, other natural causes or an accident. Their conclusion was that ‘leaders matter. Growth patterns change in a sustained fashion across these leadership transitions. The magnitude of these changes is large — a growth change of 1.5 percentage points per year.’ That effect was stronger in autocratic regimes where leaders have greater powers vested in them. But there were also effects in democracies.

There is also a leadership effect with institutional transitions. Mikhail Gorbachev was clearly a driving force in the transition from Communism. Had he been assassinated or died of natural causes in the early 1980s, the history of Russia might have been very different. The process of reconciliation in South Africa would have been very different without Nelson Mandela. In a second paper, Jones and Olken show that assassinations of political leaders, can ‘change the history of individual countries — small elements of randomness — the path of a bullet, the timing of an explosion, small shifts in a leader’s schedule — can result in substantial changes in national outcomes’.

But political leadership is, of course, an amoral quality. It can be used for good or evil ends. Strong leaders can do great harm as well as great good. To quote Isaiah Berlin again, ‘the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot — these are unparalleled’. They were not, Berlin believed, ‘natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted’. It would be difficult to deny that the five dictators mentioned by Berlin were not also in their way men of political genius even if their genius was malign.

And democracies do not need strong leaders all the time, but only in crisis situations. In Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo, one of the characters declares: ‘Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.’ The reply from Galileo is: ‘No — unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’ In normal times, countries may not need strong leaders. Switzerland, one of the world’s most successful democracies, has managed perfectly well for many years without one. Few even amongst political buffs could name the current President of the Swiss Confederation.

Leadership, then, poses a problem for democracies. How is a system to generate strong leaders when they are needed, but also ensure that these leaders do not use their powers for malign ends. To give someone the power to do good is also to give someone the power to do evil. Liberals in America who lauded the strong presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were taken aback when Lyndon Johnson led America into the Vietnam quagmire and then when Richard Nixon escalated the war. In 1973, Arthur Schlesinger, the court historian of the Kennedy administration and previously a somewhat uncritical admirer of the imperial presidency, recanted in a book of that name which expressed alarm at the growth of presidential power. Liberals were further discomfited when Ronald Reagan used the power of the presidency to row back on the social reform achievements of a previous generation, and when George W. Bush took America into Iraq on what some believed was a false prospectus.

The answer to the conundrum lies surely in the democratic scrutiny of leaders by institutions and people. In the British system, the leader has to operate within a system of collective Cabinet government. That has caused problems for those not accustomed to it. Shortly after he had become Prime Minister in 1828, the Duke of Wellington, who had previously been a military leader, was asked what he thought of his first Cabinet meeting. He confessed that he had found it a strange experience. ‘I gave them their orders’, he complained, ‘and they stayed around to discuss them.’ The Watergate crisis in America in 1973—4 showed that when presidents fail institutions can work. Perhaps the same is true of contemporary America. It is too early to tell. Had there been effective legislative scrutiny of war plans in Germany and in Russia in 1914, it is possible that the First World War would have been avoided. The difficulty, of course, is that in foreign policy, executive powers tend to overwhelm legislative powers.

Beyond institutions the powers of leaders in modern democracies can also be restricted, though also enhanced, by the people. For the power of leaders depends in large part upon their retaining the confidence of the people, upon surmounting the vicissitudes of politics and electoral behaviour. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both enjoyed a full plenitude of power after their landslide electoral victories of 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001. John Major lost much of that power in 1992 when the voters reduced his majority from 102 to 21; and Theresa May lost even more of that power in 2017 when the election converted her small overall majority into a hung parliament. If our leaders are too strong and dictatorial, or too weak and failing to provide leadership, the blame frequently lies with us, and not with them. For it is we, the people, who decide by our votes how powerful our leaders are to be.

All the same, democracies have suffered more from weak than from strong leadership. Had democratic leaders in Italy, Germany and Spain been stronger between the wars, dictatorship could have been avoided. Conversely without the strong leadership of Roosevelt, American democracy might have been subverted in the 1930s by Huey Long, the subject of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, and of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men, or perhaps by Charles Lindbergh, who in Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, becomes President in 1940 and adopts isolationist, anti-semitic and pro-Nazi policies.

What is clear is that the phenomenon of leadership cannot be explained in terms of scientific theories of history or the social sciences. For great men and great women twist history out of what had seemed a predetermined shape. It is for this reason that scientific history and political science have proved such disappointing disciplines. The hallmark of a science is that it yields laws or law-like generalisations and an agreed body of theory. Physics has its laws of thermodynamics and economics the laws of supply and demand, and no one will be taken seriously as a physicist or economist who does not accept these laws. But there is no equivalent in history or in political science to these laws. There are few, if any, universal laws of history or political science. Part of the reason for this is that the phenomenon of leadership disrupts tidy generalisations. There is perhaps a lesson in this for political scientists. For it may be that the study of politics, by contrast with economics, is not a science at all, but a hermeneutic or interpretative study. Perhaps political science is but a particular way of looking at history. If that is so, the discipline needs to seek closer ties with history, rather than emancipating itself from it, as so many of its contemporary practitioners seek to do.

As with history, political science needs to seek not law-like generalisations but a heightened and deepened understanding of the specific. For if we are to understand the modern world we need to understand not only what is common to different societies, but also what is particular, contingent and unique.


Vernon Bogdanor