Vol. 5-No. 2



Are Personalities Passé?


Sreeram S Chaulia


This essay traces the evolution of personality depictions in South Asian, English and Russian 
historiography. It traverses the whole field of biography/autobiography writing and proposes that 
there is great merit in pursuing life histories of hitherto unknown personalities. It defends the 
Subaltern School of thought. The pitfalls of hagiography are laid out in juxtaposition to the 
benefits of researching lives of hidden or obfuscated figures. Usage of individualism and 
mythmaking in history for political ends is examined comparatively. After a wide-ranging 
literature survey, the role of individuals in causation of history is upheld with caveats.

One of the quandaries nagging our globalising world, where identities are in churning, is that of the missing heroine and hero. As is the wont of every generation that suffers the inadequacies of its time and yearns for those ‘good old days’ when ancestors strode the planet like colossuses, we too have felt an acute vacuum in public life due to the passage of charismatic individuals. Nostalgia for bygone personalities is at once damnatory of our present wretchedness and celebratory of people who probably did less to deserve all the accolades. Death beatifies even the mediocre, forgiving the shenanigans and spotlighting the virtues. Some unfortunates have suffered the reverse fate after being interred- slandered and misinterpreted for partisan ends. Controversy never left Diana, Princess of Wales, alone, not even in the dust into which she returned.

Among the possible approaches to historical analysis, it is assumed easier to become acquainted with a period if seen through the lives of individuals, i.e. through the biographic mode. Indeed, a commonly agreed experience reveals that the rudiments of history can be imbibed effortlessly and enjoyably by focussing on persons who were prominent at a given time by virtue of their qualities, an exercise highly recommended for character building and role-modeling. A culture of ‘influences in life’ has existed for aeons in a curiously self-reproductive way, wherein one achiever has claimed to be inspired by a favourite historical character well aware that she herself is already being looked up to by a succeeding generation. Charisma drawing on charisma is an adage that is evergreen. “From Napoleon I imbibed the politics of power”, said one of South Asia’s most magnetic personalities.1 The psychology of growing up on paragons will always ensure the continued popularity of the biographical form of historiography, whether academics find it distasteful or desirable. Adoration for an individualistic interpretation of history has been chosen as a starting point to demonstrate the authorial pressure a historian is under to devote print to a famous ‘personality clash’ or comparison even in the midst of a documentary or statistical account so as to make it ‘lively’. Some historians have even made life histories their trademarks, especially in the last two decades when controversial biographies have done whopping business. Our task is to investigate how Clio’s (history’s muse) script has been influenced by such inclinations.


Biography’s Biography


To begin with, preoccupation with biography and with individualism need not be confused as one and the same. The role of individual personality in causation has been one of the most fundamentally relevant discussions to all genres of historians, who like varying streams merging into the ocean, hold different outlooks but are uppermost concerned with the driving force behind all that happens.  Whether one is a biographer, Marxist or structuralist, the quest for a fountainhead is tangential. Burdened with the onerous obligation of affixing responsibility on someone or something for every event and trend, they all strive to answer the seminal ‘why’ of history by examining the role of the individual. A biographer may be assumed to strongly believe in individualism, but the exceptions are also attracted to the individual, Ian Kershaw to cite a thriving example. A structuralist historian such as him taking to writing on personality is a reflection of the importance attached by all schools to the personality factor2. More will be dwelt on the utility value of personality study while examining the pros and cons of prosopography.

Simply stated, individualism is the proclivity of singling people out from the course of history as both the prime directors and the lead actors of every unfolding act, “an intense interest and a conviction of the worth of individual life in the grand scheme of things”3. This presentation attempts to neither overplay nor entirely negate personality’s importance and to highlight the problematic issues of who should be the subject of biography, if it is agreed upon as a useful and contributive approach. An exaggerated emphasis on ‘Great Persons’ will be diagnosed as a malady that is detrimental to a richer and fuller social picture and contributive to other inanities implicit in the phrase ‘pre-occupation with individualism’. The sine qua non of the exposition will be to posit that historiography is enriched by individualistic exegesis if it redirects itself towards personalities lying on the fringes.


“History”, to Carlyle, “is the biography of great persons”[1]. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the tag of greatness, human being beings have forever comprised the core of history. It is ‘his-story’, one whose subject matter is concerned with generations of mortals who have inhabited the earth since evolution. Literally speaking, economics and politics, structures and patterns, rises and falls of even modes of production, are all peopled and engage our attention only because they had an impact on animate creatures. If individualism had been a benign doctrine vindicating the centrality of the human being a la the humanism of the Renaissance, no polemic would have been warranted. But the fact that it has been understood as a philosophy denoting individual role as a creative force in history has generated a fierce argument without end. Supposing there were historians before Herodotus, when denizens or actors could be counted on fingertips in an isolated habitation, they would not have hesitated in ascribing responsibility for causation on one person. But the modern annalist, accustomed to a world consciousness, has a befuddling treasure of received tradition, documents and hearsay from which to choose motivating factors. This weight of evidence has been battened upon in our times with verbal aids of tape-recording, visual aids of Tele-recording, Xerox and microfilm. The panoramic global coverage of every aspect of life has given historians huge unexplored possibilities of arriving at accuracy (besides entailing the warning of cautious selection of data). With the scope of investigation having bloated to mammoth proportions, a simplistic explanation for every new occurrence has been progressively unacceptable and contentious. Certainly, the Balkanisation of the erstwhile USSR had more than just to do with Gorbachev’s liberalism or ineptitude. Macaulay echoes by observing that “in proportion as persons know more, and think more, they look less at individuals and more at classes”5. It is in the light of such an ever-expanding societal context, a wider angle both in absolute numbers and in mutual sophistication, that we take up proceedings on the biographic approach. A brief chronological survey of biography over the ages may serve as a good elucidation of the ‘march of the mind’ (no Whig puns intended!).


Tracing the lineages of the modern biography, one gets the impression that there has been an accelerating trend towards recognition of the wider angle. From Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the noble Grecians and Roman human beings’ (1st century B.C), which lacked awareness of being harbinger of a new faculty of historiography, the laudatory Latin chronicles of the Middle Ages were an advance both in form and content. They realised their own significance in upholding status quo and launched the sub-sector of hagiography or ‘official history’, a trend that survives to this day in the garb of government-controlled publications and electronic media. In other post-classical civilisations too, biography came to represent a useful tool of establishments. ‘Harshacharita’, one of the best-known Sanskrit eulogies of royalty, was composed by the court poet Banabhatta in 6th century (AD) India. Propaganda lives reached a crescendo with the first ever English biography, Thomas More’s ‘Richard III’ (1513). The thoroughness of bibliographical attestation in More’s work was a clear demonstration that the great individual’s story had come into its own.


A significant divergence that took biography along slivers owed to the European Renaissance and its absence in Asia. Reflecting an acute tilt, English biography pronounced that life in a human being itself was a worthwhile subject, not whether that individual was a celebrity or dominant. John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ (17th century) was a product of personal interviews of friends of the subjects, a collection of gossip and countless anecdotes which enabled vivid descriptions and character revealing details. Reasonably insignificant individuals sneaked into the work as protagonists, prompting Aubrey’s label of “first biographer of the under-privileged.” Roger North’s biographies of his own three brothers (18th century) displayed an even greater care for the little or potentially underrated. On the Asiatic theatre, however, panegyric was continued and perfected. Abul Fazl’s ‘Akbarnama’ remains unsurpassed to date in the history of world biography at lionisation and floridity of epithets. Following in his suit were myriad poet laureates of the Mughals who sang their masters’ praise almost to deification. Indeed, it is credit to the Renaissance that despite the prevalence of empires and court chroniclers. English and other European biographies turned to the human being shorn of halo. 

This trend found no better exponents in the entire period under survey that Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. ‘Dictionary’ Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage was unique for its time owing to the circumstances of the subject’s unsuccessful and scandalous life. In our own times biographies of controversial nature are treated as unique selling propositions (so that even distinguished historians like Stanley Wolpert allege homosexual tendencies in Jawaharlal Nehru and cash in on all the negative publicity6). But Johnson wrote on Savage when scurrility had not reached an ad nauseaum stage, and set the platform for the sub-genre of ‘intimate biography’. Boswell’s biography of this trend-setting biographer was bound to be a tough assignment, but scientific scholarly research, methodology and artistic usage of words made it a timeless masterpiece. One has to view ‘Life of Dr.Samuel Johnson’ as a culmination of processes begun since the 16th century, for a reaction against research as well as portrayal of common people set in soon after it.

Samuel Johnson

The severe setback to 19th century biography brings home the close relationship between the biographer and his social milieu. When Plutarch wrote ‘Lives’, it was a “good seed-time for biography”7, with Pax Romana in full glory and a happy citizenry. Aubrey has been known to reflect Renaissance virtues. The Victorian age with its peculiar morality, however, proved a hindrance to 19th century biography. The rise of the evangelical movement and its hold on emerging middle classes could have had a major impact8, although it is not apparent how the same rigid Protestantism did not afflict biography in previous centuries. Due to the doctrine of salvation and exclusiveness of those ‘saved’, no amusing, light or trivial reading was permitted. Boswell himself, like Thomas Hardy, did not qualify for the category of ‘serious reading’, an activity that had to have an elevating impact on the mind. An ideal biographer became one whose heroes and heroines could do no wrong. More than narration of the entire truth, selection and ‘direction’ of the reading public were the order of the day. Eulogy returned triumphantly to the centre-stage, so that Carlyle, the arch idoliser himself lamented how “a Damocles’ sword of respectability hangs over the poor English life-writer” of the period with the effect that “there was no biography but some vague ghost of a biography”9. Better placed to describe the ascent of concealment is Virginia Woolf: “Noble, upright, chaste, severe; it is thus that the Victorian worthies are presented to us”10. Tolstoy’s magnum opus, ‘War and Peace’, with its belittling of Napoleon can be viewed in one anagogue as a great response to the tyranny of illustriousness his century witnessed. It is the survival of such a larger than life characterisation in biography that we shall duly condemn.


A violent reaction to the century of moral straitjacketing began with the flamboyant Lytton Strachey, whose ‘Eminent Victorians’ (1918) heralded the modern English biography, a reaction that seems to be still reverberating. Again, for the tide to turn, social moods were determinant. Disillusionment, irreverence and iconoclasm were in the air of the 1920s. Strachey’s insistence on emancipation from “funereal barbarism” of Victorian panegyric fitted well into that spirit. His ‘New Biography’ concept brought back the human being’s real nature and his place in society. The ‘Great Man’ syndrome was broken once again to be followed by a ‘golden age of biography’ when many fine biographies were written. It follows from our chronological survey that good biography has prospered at an inverse proportion to individualism, when our ‘wider angle’ put every character in broad contexts. The initial distinction between preoccupation with individualism and with biography thus stands upheld.      


Owing conceivably to the influence of Marxist thought and the farrago of post-modernism, academic and intellectual circles since the last two decades consider life histories as antediluvian. A new generation immersed in economic, environmental and gender history has questioned the very basis of character profile, in spite of its continued mass appeal. Never before has biography as a form of writing been per se been cross-examined. The ‘boycott biography’ line having won over supremely skilled historians, it is apposite to parrot J.E.Neale’s question: “Is biography facing a crisis or has it become outdated?”11, and does this imply whether majority historians deem the individual achiever less important or that causation ahs changed hands from persons to material conditions, economic undercurrents or atomic components that make up society’s equilibrium? In other words, have certain societies reached a mode of production that precludes individualism?


Marxist loathing of biography stems from the assumption that individualism is an integral part and parcel of exploitative modes of production like Capitalism. Just as feudal ideologies stressed the worth of tradition, order and religion, “new bourgeois ideology” stresses individual freedom and progress. James Russell is emphatic that “in no previous form of society has the value of individualism been so exalted”12. Since market-economies thrive on mobility of all units of production, including labour, the individual has fewer ties to family, community and other groups that are normally binding. Two negative repercussions follow therefrom: individualism becomes capital’s most powerful weapon of ideological domination of labour, another opium of the masses; and by embedding a culture of individualism in social life, abetment is given to unfettered freedom and the rise of monsters capable of wreaking havoc.


On a more theoretical plane about individual role, Plekhanov has argued that free individual will and determinist inevitability are not incompatible but symbiotic13. The consciousness of inexorable occurrences and historical necessity is essential for persons to display their indomitable energy and perform the most astonishing feats. Only when humans realise that they are “one of the forces” that will lead to a preordained denouement can they be of any significance in pushing time towards it. Absolute certitude in the fatality and irrevocability of the unification of Germany were what made Bismarck an energetic statesman as he himself claimed in 1869: “we cannot make history; we must wait while it is being made”14. Immutable laws carry a “hidden necessity” and would crystallise no matter one given individual comprehends their power or not, for another would. Even if an individual receives the consciousness and joins the bandwagon of what ‘will be’, accident and personal qualities have a limited role in affecting the final outcome since they merely fulfil the desired role which is determined less by psyche and more by the internal structure of society and the “character of social and economic relations”. This position is summed up by declaring that “there is no gulf between the subject and the object”, but the scope of action for the subject is delimited by the material social circumstances “which are stronger than the strongest individuals”15 and which will choose another subject if the first is not falling into line with the order of things.


While rejecting the dualism between subject and object, however, the most apparent loophole in the Marxist rendering is to interpolate a new dualism, one E.H.Carr calls “false antithesis between society and the individual”16. In answering the question, which to accord first preference - society or the individual-, it sides with the former and is apprehensive of the latter breaking away from it under the influence of capitalist individualism. Group identities are feared drowned in the euphoria of self-seeking and the summum bonum lost. But just as we stated that a biographer or historian judges his characters according to the pulse of his time, individuals are engaged as social beings in a social process called history. Being born into society and reared by it from his earliest years, speaking the language it bequeaths and developing habits it localises, no individual, be it in capitalism or any other mode, can escape the imprints of his social ambience. If the rise of the modern world was accompanied by heightened accent on individual initiative, it had to nonetheless operate within new social orders. From the Renaissance down to the 19th century philosophy of Utilitarianism, there were specific stages in historical development represented by specific social processes, and not a blanket revolt of individuals against societal confines. Indeed, the foundation of both Marxist thought as well as intellectual individualists like Huxley, Sartre and Adorno lies in this imagined antipathy, albeit from opposite ends. 

Coming to the imputation that Capitalism breeds Leviathans, Communism in practice spawned no less than what insiders themselves derided as “cult of the personality”. Political expediency and the egotistic impulse are better explanations for the rise of dictators and veneration movements. For instance, the Lenin cult of the late 1920s, more about it later, was clearly Stalin’s ploy for arrogating the mantle of the vozhd vis-à-vis Trotsky (and of raising personally devoted armed followers through the ‘Lenin Enrolment’). After consolidation of power, amidst the gory party purges, Stalin implanted his own image as an icon for a society ironically supposed to exist in no individual's name but that of the Russian peasants and workers. One cannot attach specific ideologies to autocracies and megalomaniacs. Fidel Castro of Cuba may be Communist but Mahathir Muhammad of Malaysia was a strong believer in market economics. Individualism does not appear to be ideology-specific.


The Mighty Individual


Having amicably resolved the fancied duel between individual and society, we face the problem of Legends, Myths and heroes, great persons imposing themselves on history and society by virtue of uniqueness or, to John Stuart Mill, “rebelliousness”. If an individual is part of generic units, a “herd animal” (Marx), then how are exemplars who allegedly ‘make history’ and ‘mould society’ to be accounted for? Hero-worship in English biography, as we have recounted, found its acme in the 19th century. James Clifford argues that Romanticism, as much as Evangelism, induced accentuation on emotions and feelings as opposed to complete factual truth. Sympathy was desired, not frankness, and with complete sympathy came hero-worship, totally lacking any intention of calling projecting reality. Our motive is not to return to biography’s past here, but to suggest that Myth-making applies to particular historical contexts like Europe in the 19th century. One has to see behind the curtain of blind adulation and read the serviceability a society or section derives from erecting gargantuan legends. After all, “Nations have lived spiritually upon myths, legends and ‘vital lies’”17. As a matter transcending literary, biographic and historiographical bounds and as a tool of national consciousness, hero-worship deserves a separate essay of its own, but the point here is that Myths are constructions centred around an individual, constructions with self-purpose or a vested interest which most often do injustice to the protagonist’s actuality. 


Quite logically, Carlyle belonged to the 19th century. At no other time would he have found such a spellbound audience and at no other time could he have been such a tremendous intellectual influence. Hagiography existed long before and after Carlyle but to his credit goes the theorisation of individualism as the most profitable means of following history, a notion that strikes the critical mind as primitive for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, the choice of heroes is admittedly conflicting, subjective and emotional. A saintly demigod to the Indian masses, Gandhi, could be a stamp-less beggar (“that half-naked fakir”) to an arch Colonialist like Churchill, who himself is classified among democratic heroes of the last century. Carlyle’s six ‘Representative Persons’ varied from those of Emerson, although they were contemporaries and the latter was clearly swayed by the Briton. The preference for Odin, a central Norse deity, was simply a result of Carlyle’s knowledge of Scandinavian mythology. Though the idea of idea of starting with ‘hero as God’ as the earliest form of hero-worship is a worthy one, however nebulous the distinction between history and mythology it suggests, the example does not seem to have been received unanimously. For that matter, criteria on which one compiles a dossier of Great Persons inflect. The Scottish historian’s ‘Lectures’ of the 1830s and 1840s repeatedly harp on aspects like the subject’s ‘sincerity’, i.e. determination to accomplish his deeds at any cost; ability to command the respect, obedience or belief of ‘lesser persons’; and a rise from humble origins to fabulous achievements, i.e. a noble upstart or parvenu (a quality particularly coincidental with Carlyle’s own life-graph). Even under the unusual circumstance of these attributes being conjointly accepted, paragons would be at odds for different biographers. Ergo, the audience has to contend with subjectively coloured heroes and anti-heroes traded against each other and vying to be the true or agreed image of a particular person.   


It is perhaps this potential for subjectivity and bias that has led to Myth-making and heroism being applied successfully in partisan functional contexts. A.L Guerard succinctly parades the ‘Venguer incident’ of 1794, where a French ship is supposed to have valiantly defied a powerful British fleet and gone down to immortal death, singing the glories of the revolution18. Even after much of the heroism of republican soldiers was later disproved (1838), the Legend struck in the French pantheon and became part of “patriotic truth”. Greatness of persons is often tailored to the ideals of a period, a contention further corroborated by the gross misrepresentation in the 19th century America of Andrew Jackson as a “frontier farmer”19. We now know that the General-President belonged to the rentier class and his relation to nature was concocted to satisfy American psyche violently opposed to industrialised and refined Europe. A symbol oftentimes happens to be reified by society as it deems one ‘ought’ to be rather than what one ‘was’. Since the symbolic Andrew Jackson was a creation of the early 19th century, an a priori tautological conclusion must be that an age does not belong to an individual but rather the vice-versa. Walter Lippmann, America’s greatest journalist-intellectual, was so thrilled by the magnetism of Theodore Roosevelt, de Gaulle and Nehru that he exulted, “It’s as if the country is inside of them, and not they as someone operating within the country.”20



The dangerous liaison between nationalism and saga creation has near contemporary instances too. Immediately after India attained freedom, a flurry of state-encouraged nationalist historiography entered the educational curricula, exalting Congress leaders to a pitch only the ambience could absorb, and painting Jinnah and the Muslim League in a villainous and pathetic frame. Issued in an air of idealism and nation building, it went on to be a psychological weapon for one-party electoral dominance for nearly four decades. If colonialist historiography was an Orientalist fabrication, nationalist writings went about correcting the imbalance with more inaccuracies. History and Myth, bifurcated by facts, intermeshed thanks to scissors-and-paste methods. Rewards were reaped by vested interests in the process-Congress party in India and theocratic politicians in Pakistan, who somersaulted the Congress version and blamed Nehru, courtesy official ‘bards’ like I.H.Qureshi imputing that Nehru’s “mixture of cynicism, wishful thinking and arrogance” caused the Partition of 194721. Historiography is replete with such instances of vested interest groups endowed with or seeking positions of power (Qureshi went on to occupy high governmental office in Pakistan) carrying away the most blatant bluffs without being called. Inasmuch as Myth-making is deplored and demolished by academics on paper, the purposes it serves are thus lucrative enough to make it inevitable. Having projected the impression that our own times are critical of individual glorification, we cannot help noticing that in the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin’s cult of personality  (following those of Mao and Deng) was strikingly evident. The 1999 general election in the world’s largest democracy, India, was fought almost entirely on the basis of a personality factor in what is perceived as a ‘leadership dearth’ era.


Personality Cults


One of the most expedient political personality cults that helped an obscure First Secretary attain monumental power is that of Lenin’s, consciously deployed by Stalin on the way to his rise to dictatorship in the Soviet Union. This case is illustrative not only of the deviousness involved in terms of motives but also limpid demonstration of drifts from fact and validity which are inexcusable in history. 

Even before his death, Lenin was fast becoming a subject of iconography, much to his own infuriation and concern expressed in Politburo meetings that personal lionisation was “anti-Communist”22. After he passed away, the Party realised that he had been its main source of legitimacy and launched a massive cult campaign, their anxiety best reflected in Kalinin: “Literally millions have asked themselves, how will we manage without him tomorrow?”23. Capitalising on the nation’s mood of grief and anxiety, ‘comrade card-index’ and his allies embarked upon the Lenin Enrolment drive of recruiting 100,000 new members to the Party, with the gathering tussle for leadership in mind. Oblost and Volost level Secretaries, personally beholden to Stalin, brought in a “reservoir of patronage”24, often on flimsy testaments affirming Lenin’s greatness. It proved too strong for the Trotsky led ‘Left oppositionists’ in the struggle for power and also served as the backbone of aidance for Stalin’s own ‘Left turn’ of 1928-9. Lenin Enrolment ironically went against the Vozhd’s (great leader’s) own maxim that quality not quantity was crucial for Party membership. 

Lenin with Stalin

Three months after his death, Stalin also made a bid for the role of Leninism’s official interpreter in a lecture series, quoting eclectically from Lenin’s Selected Works. Exhibiting casuistry, Lenin’s favourite theme of dictatorship of the proletariat was claimed to be realisable only by “Soviet power as the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, one that “destroys every kind of national oppression”25. Following from this, the Party which represented Soviet power was “incompatible with the existence of factions” and “precludes all factionalism and division of authority”26. While Lenin used the words “remove” for Reformists, Stalin was nonchalantly laying down rules for “purging” opportunist elements. The irony of the whole exercise is compounded not just in these distortions but that self-professed Marxists (Trotsky also tried to appropriate the Lenin heirdom in ‘On Lenin’, published in June 1924, highlighting inter alia that he knew Lenin since 1902 unlike Stalin who putatively came under the leader’s influence in 1903) who read and agreed with Plekhanov27 were indulging in Myth erection.


So far, we have treated individual hero-worship as distortions of politicians and shortsighted historians. But even idolisers have an excuse for apotheosis- their subjects themselves propagated the idea that they were instruments of providence and god's right-hand persons. Many Legends have, conceited about their innate superiority to others, beaten their own trumpets. Nietzsche's 'Superior Man' and Voltaire’s 'Genius' were, in the practical world, those who successfully projected themselves in that aura to posterity. Guerard's case study Legend of Napoleon, ever familiar to Europeans, comes first in this category. Corsican General, First Consul, Emperor and Prisoner were episodes that constituted the “historical Napoleon”, but the 'man of destiny'- invulnerable, ubiquitous, omniscient and titanic shape- ascending on the European horizon is a Myth that has never been exorcised. Partly responsible for the proliferation of the Bonaparte creed was the man himself, through what psychologists describe as “ego defensive processes”. Individualism as extreme egoism was identified by Saint Simonians in 19th century French political thought and they needed not to look beyond Napoleon for substsantiation.28 There was “an element of conscious artistry in him”29, an unconcealed endeavour to play to the gallery so that his fascination be sealed for future ages. His official press, proclamations, bulletins and memoirs can all be seen as propaganda on an imperial scale. The 'Memorial', rambling cogitation of a wounded pride in St.Helena, “was the first and foremost source of what is called the Napoleonic legend”30. A collection of randomly woven anecdotes and reminiscences, it advances that before everything else Napoleon was the 'son of the revolution'; upholder of equality; and, quixotically, Promachos of national self-determination in conquered territories. The glory of France, evident in his rise and fall, naturally recurs in the work as a leitmotif, a fortiori turning it into a popular classic. Charles de Gaulle was to turn on the same style of patriarchal greatness in his autobiographical works.


In ancient Indian history, emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C) who ostensibly adopted Buddhism after being remorse-ridden by war and bloodshed is a favourite figure for those who tend to stress India's peace-loving and accommodative heritage. They do not think it synchronal that he left a myriad stone, rock and pillar inscriptions by means of which his greatness came home vis-à-vis other illustrious monarchs in an overall evidence-paucity period. In the 19th century, influential English politician Charles James Fox was keen to project an image of life-long devotion to the ideals of Peace, Liberty and Reform, although his interpretation of these concepts was highly coloured.31. They went on to become legacies to the Whig tradition and depicted prominently in the form of motifs associated with Fox sculptures in Bedfordshire and 'Holland House'32, later to greatly impact the 1832 Reform Act. Andrew Jackson was no less guilty of painting himself as a rustic to win public support while he stood for American presidency against a Harvard professor, John Quincy Adams, in 1828. In self-reference, he was found using phrases like “farmer soldier” and “plain cultivator of the soil”, and the already noted symbolisation thereof. Plenty of modern versions of a corrupt undeserving politician claiming to be a “humble farmer” exist in the third world (e.g. H.D.Deve Gowda of India and Alberto Fujimori of Peru). Bismarck's frustration after dismissal from Chancellorship in the 1890s was channelised not only into scheming for his successor Caprivi's downfall but also in allowing himself to be the hero and lodestone of a growing radical-nationalist public. Bismarck’s own memoirs fostered the mystique of the ‘strong man.’33One is also reminded of other supreme stage-managers of the century that has just elapsed- Fascist heroes Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (whose 'table talk'34 can near Napoleon's 'Memorial' in self-vindication), Communist heroes Stalin (the second Vozhd), Tito and Caucescu. Names and deeds of this nature could be taken and recounted ad infinitum to prove that aggrandisement and strutting advertisements are acts of willful artistry.


Freudian Take


If subjective qualities and a doubtful principal presumption that the individual's actions always have a strong impact on events due to a preponderance of his superhuman attributes mar the mass of hero-worshipping biographies, psychoanalytical studies of individuals are relatively more empirical and scientific. They make a thorough attempt to penetrate the subject's mind-process or self and can proffer thought-provoking rationale to his nature and actions. Psychohistorians treat traits that every individual possesses as derivatives of stable universal dispositions that could be gathered under the much used and abused rubric of human nature. Following the Freudian model, a series of identity and integrity crises at various stages of the life span are uttilised to explain the protagonist's traits and personality characteristics. The first crisis is one of early infancy, where according to Erik Erikson, “a historical process is already at work”35 and often neglected by biographers. Depending on maternal and familial care at this stage, “the human being's innermost mood will be determined by basic trust or basic mistrust”36. Martin Luther's mother, by inference, must have provided him a font of basic trust from which he was able to draw his 'Primary Faith'. The second crisis, that of infancy, develops the individual's will and decides whether he is suited to be dominated by a sense of autonomy or by a sense of doubt and shame. Luther, according to Erikson, and Gandhi, by self-acknowledgepersonst36, went opposite ways at this stage, the former violently doubtful of his father's justification for weaning him away from a world of childish trust, and the latter filled with “lingering feelings of shame”37 for precocious sins such as stealing and meat eating. The narrative line of development trespasses two more stages in a bid to perceive “latent or unconscious themes in the individual”38 and to account for previously inexplicable behaviour the average historian is agnostic or negligent about (e.g. “painful, frightening, anxiety inducing, disgusting or shameful feelings”39). Aided by ancillary tools like Graphology, medical post-mortems, forensics, 'value-analysis'40 etc., progressive psychoanalytical histories have tried to maximise objectivity while retaining the underlying emotional dynamics. Indeed, with the exactness of medical science, the aim “to take account of every aspect of a human being’s life, conscious or unconscious, psychic or physical, public or private”41appears nearer to hand.


However successful some psychohistory has been in buttressing the investigation of collective phenomena with proverbial individualism, a glaring discrepancy is noticeable in the conjectural linkages made between early traits and later actions of subjects, as if human nature were static and so easily definable in watertight compartments, if not a 'supreme fiction' as Ranke's historicist school alleged. Freud himself raised his theory on the basis of the highly constricted sphere of Viennese fin de siecle bourgeoisie. His infamous biographical essay on Leonardo da Vinci was proof of the shrunkenness of his territory42. Wolfenstein, a later day psychohistorian, has posited that Gandhi became a revolutionary leader in order to break free from the successive identity crises of manhood, Hinduism and Indian-ness that cast a shroud upon his childhood and adolescence. But his revolutionary leadership was, to majority historians, a continuum from the heroic resistance to racial injustice to Indians in South Africa, i.e. a mission. Wolfenstein claims that the Salt March to Dandi (1930) was Gandhi's expression to overcome the guilt and shame he had accumulated inside him.

Nehru and Gandhi

One wonders why it should not simply be seen as a symbolic (salt affected the common man) strategic political move to catch the British in India napping. To Wofenstein, Truth and non-violence, cornerstones of Gandhi's movement, were victories of the feminism in him (associated with his mother) over the masculinity (from his father). Satyagraha ('passive resistance') is understood much better as a fruit of the Hindu devotional and tolerational cult of the Vaishnavas, as well as what new Gandhian critics consider as the “conservative social base of Congress”43. Wolfenstein found the Mahatma leading a simple Indian peasant's lifestyle due to his failure to imitate “British masculinity” (wine drinking, meat eating and womanising). But it is very likely that by attiring in single loincloth, Gandhi symbolically identified with the poverty of the Indian masses rather than reacted to a failed apery. 

Lastly, after freedom was achieved, he is claimed to have rejected power because it stood for “political fatherhood” and instead he was seen nursing and healing victims of partition riots in Bengal and the Punjab, a preference for feminine traits44. Again, facts state that Gandhi had formally resigned from Congress in 1934 itself and probably held inflexibility in the party responsible for the partition. Under no circumstances could he have taken power into his own hands over such a party and over a 'truncated India' after 1947.


Evidently, Freudian techniques, if not explicitly conceded as speculative, can twist known facts and promulgate biases that can be as fallacious as Myth-making histories. Wolfenstein, aware of this inadequacy, accepts in his conclusion that psychoanalysis does not provide definitive solutions to biography. The social and political ambience which surround an individual as he takes up a self-assigned position in history are entirely obfuscated by an obsession for merely the workings of the subject-mind and heedlessness for external stimuli and contingencies. When heeded, we get appallingly airy hypotheses about continental psychological sways such as this:


“A product of the great Eurasian state, Lenin was a blend of many of the features of his origins: Russian radicalism, European civilisation, Jewish intelligence and Asiatic audacity and cruelty”45


 Even internal impulses and responses are difficult to fathom in the case of lesser candour than Gandhi, say Lenin, Trotsky or Mao. Georges Lefebvre's use of psychology to interpret Napoleon was bereft of the defects we have noted. But when he leaves the question of what lay in the Emperor's mind (“irresistible impulse of the temperament”) on the occasion of the Continental Blockade for the reader to mull over46, the frontier limitation of such a 'delve-deep' method is laid bare.  


Having laid down a critique of individualism in historiography, we return to Neale's question about obituarising biography. His answer in the 1950s had been a firm negative47. He saw more than one merit in a personal story. One cannot fully comprehend the nature and functioning of any group without sketching the individuals who compose it. Biographies must therefore be compiled as individual units of a larger matrix and then concatenated in tabular form as statistics to provide a detailed analysis of the entire matrix's group behaviour. A proforma 'facts table', thus contrived, could have columns such as: social class, occupation, age and education, religious affinities, family relationships, peculiarities and personal traits etc. The mass networking of biographies in this schematic mould would undoubtedly be recognition of the expanded social context, for it is a concern for individuals within a group or class. By this deductive method of synthesis, generalised theories for particular groups could be propounded. In what might be taken as the latest authoritative opinion on biography, Ian Kershaw has propounded a similar 'new approach' to Hitler, “one which attempts to integrate the actions of the Dictator into the political structures and social forces which conditioned his acquisition and exercise of power”48. One might argue that ideologically fragmented movements like the English Levellers of the 17th century cannot yield a synthesis since John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walvyn had conflicting views and lives. But it is a tribute to the biographic approach that we are able to first of all judge the Levellers as a disjointed group.


The Subaltern Personality


By situating the individual in a broader context alone, the imbalanced ills of historiography do not vanish. Where Freud wanes after a point, Foucault might be an apposite reference to historians. One never knows events or issues as they really happened and no absolute truth accompanies the history we have received and internalised. What cynical Napoleon defined as “a pack of lies agreed upon”, history has often been subject to “ideological use”49 by proposing continuities in diverse phenomena when they might not even have existed. Historians discovered patterns of connection and causality on the basis of “revealed or imposed patterns”50, these patterns of knowledge themselves being governed by Power and 'injustice', weapons exercised by elite over the population. Those who never tried self-projection or did not achieve Power to influence the episteme were assumed by historians to lack historicity and import. This was an egregious error, for every human “not only has history all around him, but is himself, in his own historicity”51. Virginia Woolf's protestation echoes the same idea: “Is not anyone who has lived a life and left a record of that life, worthy of biography?”52. The challenge is thus “to revise the way in which we traditionally write the history of History”53, one that Jacques Derrida took one step forward by coining the word 'deconstruction'54.

With the objective of deconstructing both mainstream and neo-colonial (Cambridge School) accounts that entirely disregard the historicity of humble folk existing on borderline margins, a Subaltern School of Indian history was formulated in the early eighties. Although Subalterns drew from Marxist notions of chronicling the common masses, they have not been averse to the biographic approach, averring that “the small voices of history”55 may not be directly participatory in a historical process but can still be perceptive enough that their lives or portraits impinge on our understanding of a period. To quote Samuel Johnson in this context, “there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful”56. A few salient Subaltern works need illustration to see this philosophy in practice. Gautam Bhadra defied all existing writings on the great Revolt of 1857 for missing out the ordinary rebel and concentrating only on feudal chiefs or “natural leaders”57. Instead, he focussed on a small landlord, a cultivator belonging to a substantial peasant community, a poor tribal youth and a Muslim cleric, all originating and gathering their information from the grass-roots/locality level. 


Local area mobilisation and identity formation, essential ingredients in a regional revolt but treated as riffraff by seekers of the 'truly great', were also revealed in Tanika Sarkar's exposition on Jitu Santal's tribal movement58, simultaneously shattering the well-guarded myth that only nationalist agitators from outside urban centres could organise peasants to rise. 

To show that history is not even just about ordinary insurgents, but in culture and attitudes of apolitical individuals, a brilliant reconstruction of an obscure lower caste Bengali peasant society has also been undertaken via the incident of a young girl's death59. Similarly, Ajay Skaria dwelt on a few nondescript 'dang' tribals of western India to narrate the travails of interaction between an oral society and a militantly educative British Raj of the late 19th century60. Central to all the adduced examples is a refusal to follow 'Statist discourse', which is a major malaise of individualism. History has to be inveigled out of political and dynastic paradigms to rid itself of the elitist bias and resurrect the multitudinous voices in civil society. But if Machiavelli's dictum- “historical study and the study of statecraft should have been essentially the same”61- were to continue as a mantra of historiography, all the recounted dangers of personalising and institutionalising a social process like history cannot be wished away.


The argument for a wider Subaltern perspective in world history is corroborated by the ‘Action Dispensability’ factor that plagues the ‘Great Persons’ complex. As the social net expands, the capacity of single actors to shape events becomes circumscribed by adventitious factors. Fred Greenstein notes them as viz. the degree to which the environment admits to restructuring; the actor’s strategic location in the environment (Nehru could not have monopolised foreign policy had he not been Prime Minister in a newly independent India bereft of a foreign office); and the personal strengths or weaknesses of the actor, which as already noted are Protean and differing colours to differing eyes62. Personality, writes philosopher novelist Salman Rushdie, is a “half reconstructed affair of memory and voices”63 and an unreliable base for entire historical causation to rest. Ipso facto, Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Ivan Denisovich’ is a better guide to the labour camp experience than numerous biographies harping on the evil schemes of Stalin as prisoner of a linear mind64. The former is representative of the fates of millions, although in fictional biographical form, while the latter is psychological speculation whose side effects have already been discussed. For maintaining reader interest, Neale had revolted against “factual characters” which do not ‘live’65. A good historical biography should combine both and strike a ‘fine balance’. More works like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘A Hdden Lfe: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse’ (1976), preserving both the individual raciness and the spirit of the ‘new social history’ drive in English historiography, have to be produced for Subalternity to catch on in European writing. This is, of course, predicated upon availability of source-material, which is a major vexation for those wishing to research unexplored territory and personalitites on the periphery.


The King is Dead: Long Live the King


In conclusion, note must be taken of recent trends in historiography which appear to be diluting further the agenda of pure individualism. Within political history itself, a former bastion of individual acts of super-persons, attention has now turned to political cultures as an object of central enquiry. The journey from Stalin to Stalinism has been symptomatic of the move from analysis of underlying personality structure to analysis of the political and social structure through a process of ‘aggregation’ and ‘building up’ of inferential chains66. New economic historians, demographic historians, historians of science and gender, diplomatic historians and environmental historians have likewise shifted to process and structure assay. The individual survives the assault of post-modernism riding the nag of beneficial purposes of biography we tallied, albeit in a mellowed and atomised incarnation, in the role of paradigm not paragon, and as a lead to assemble a fuller picture not as an end in himself. If these distinctions are not maintained, the line separating fact from Myth and history from general literature might be blurred.



To conclude on a note of caution and balance, however instructive all the aforementioned trends might be of our ‘wider angle’, the ill effects of extreme ‘reductionism’ must be desisted from. Debunking heroism, as a fashion, has habitually perpetrated a mass-murder of historical characters. As early as in 1942, Sidney Hook was cerebrating thus: “one wonders whether they (new historians) have done as much justice to the activity of the leading personalities during the critical periods of world history whose roots they have uncovered so well”67. Even Plekhanov had warned against declaring the individual a quantite negligeable68. Narrating the individual’s role cannot be an obscurantist concern, revisionist works having appeared with a mission to restore the human being to his rightful place and pedestal in history. The revolt in German historiography against atomistic views of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the late eighties is illustrative69. Ian Kershaw has apropos delivered the caveat that the “Hitler factor” has to be done justice to even in a study of Nazism as a phenomenon70. Belatedly unveiled archival material on the Russian Purges of the 1930s has acknowledged Stalin’s exclusive role in ordering and signing the executions of stalwarts like Bukharin71


A fresh biography sketches Mao Tse-Tung personally micro-managing the goriest persecutions of the Cultural Revolution in China[72]. Pope John Paul II’s act in bringing about the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe is now widely recognised73.


The fallacy of the ‘mass-man’74 (treating individuals as if they were automatons merely filling in the vaguely defined collectivity known as ‘masses’) can do odious harm to the innate historicity in the human being. Borrowing Harold Laski’s famous phrase, ‘eternal vigilance’ is the price of retaining the proposed ‘fine balance’ of historiography. It is hoped that this balance will also trickle down into popular biographical works and sober the ever-in-demand hagiographic genre.




1 Z.A.Bhutto, If I Am Assassinated (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979), p.132

2 Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Allen Lane, 1998)

3 R.Gittings, The Nature of Biography (London: Heineman, 1978), p.19

[1] On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (London: Ward, Lock & co. 1900)  

5 cited in E.H.Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964) p.xxviii

6 Nehru, A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford: OUP, 1996)

7 Gittings op cit.  p.18

8 ibid. p.20

9 Biography as an Art, ed. J.L.Clifford (Oxford: OUP, 1962) p.84

10 ibid. p.126

11 Essays in Elizabethan History (London: Jonathan Cape, 1958) p. 225-237

12 Modes of Production in History (London: Routledge, 1989) p. 109

 13 Fundamental Problems of Marxism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937) p.139-177

14 ibid. p.153

15 ibid. p.145


16 Carr op cit. p. 29

17 A.L Guerard, Reflections on the Napoleonic Legend (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1924) p. 26

18 op cit. p.21-23

19 A.Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York: OUP, 1955)

20 R.Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999)

21 The Struggle for Pakistan (Karachi: University of Karachi, 1969) p. 114

22 cited in N.Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: HUP, 1983) p.106

23 ibid. extract from Izvestia (1924)

24 G.Hosking, History of the Soviet Union 1917-1991 (London: Fontana, 1990) p.143

25 J.Stalin, Foundations of Leninism (New York: International Publishers, 1974) p. 57-60


26 ibid. p.119

27 I.Deutscher, The prophet Outcast. Trotsky:1929-1940 (London: OUP, 1970) p. 242

28 S.Lukes, Individualism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973) p. 6-7

29 Guerard op cit. p. 102

30 P.Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against (London: Cape, 1949) p. 25


31 L.G.Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

32 N.B.Penny, 'The Whig Cult of Fox in Early 19th Century Sculpture', Past and Present (1976) 

33 D.Blackburn, Populists and Patricians: Essays in Modern German History (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

34 Discussed extensively in A.Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) and H.Trevor-Roper, Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-44 (Oxford: OUP, 1953)

35 Young Man Luther- A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (London: Faber, 1959) p. 255

36 ibid. p. 257

36 An Autobiography Or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publications, 1940)

37 E.V.Wolfenstein, The Revolutionary Personality: Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi (Princeton: PUP, 1967) 

38 P.Loewenberg, Decoding the Past: the Psychohistorical Approach (New York: Knopf, 1983) p.3

39 ibid. p.17

40 A technique elucidated in J.A.Garraty, The Nature of Biography (London: Cape, 1958) p.192


41 Gittings op cit. p. 30

42 P.Gay, Freud for Historians (Oxford: OUP, 1985)

43 G.Pandey, Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, 1926-34: A Study in Imperfect Mobilisation  (Delhi: OUP, 1978)

44 All references in this paragraph are to Wolfenstein op cit. 

45 D.A.Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev (London: Harper Collins, 1998) p.

46 cited in Geyl op cit. p.390 

47 op cit. p.

48 op cit. Introduction

49 A.Sheridan, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth (London: Tavistock, 1980) p.92

50 ibid. p. 91

51 M.Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock, 1970)  

52 cited in op cit. ed. Clifford p.133

53 M.Foucault, op cit. p.370

54 J.Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1974) p.24

55 R.Guha, 'The Small Voice of History', in Subaltern Studies IX,  ed. S.Amin (Delhi: OUP, 1996)


56 cited in op cit. ed. J.LClifford, p.41

57 'Four Rebels of 1857`, in Subaltern Studies IV, ed. R.Guha (Delhi: OUP, 1985)

58 ibid. 'Jitu Santal's Movement in Malda, 1924-32: A Study in Tribal Protest'

59 R.Guha, 'Chandra's Death', in Subaltern Studies V, ed. R.Guha (Delhi: OUP, 1987)

60 'Writing, Orality and Power in the Dangs, Western India, 1800s - 1920s', in Subaltern Studies IX, ed. S.Amin (Delhi: OUP, 1996)

61 The Historical, Political and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, ed. C.E.Detmold (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1891) p.136

62 Personality and Politics (New York: Norton, 1981)

63 The Satanic Verses (London: Viking, 1988)

64 For instance, D.Volkogonov, Stalin, Triumph and Tragedy (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1991) 

65 op cit.

66 Greenstein op cit. p. 120

67 The Hero in History, A Study in Limitation and Possibility (London: Secker & Warburg, 1945) pp.19-20

68 op cit. p. 161

69 Blackburn op cit. p.45

70 op cit. Introduction XXIX

71 J.A.Getty & O.V.Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (London: Yale University Press, 1999)

72 J.Chang & J.Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005)

73 A.Applebaum, ‘How the Pope Defeated Communism’, in The Washington Post, April 6, 2005 p.A19

74 D.H.Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (London: Harper & Row, 1970) p.207


[Sreeram Chaulia is a columnist for Asia Times, Hong Kong, currently pursuing a PhD in Humanitarian Policies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, New York. He holds two Bachelors degrees in History from the Universities of Delhi and Oxford, and two Masters degrees in International Relations from the Universities of London and Syracuse. He has authored 130 articles and reviews in numerous journals, magazines and newspapers and is Contributing Editor to the forthcoming book, 'People Who Influenced the World in the Last 100 Years' (Murray Books, Adelaide). He has worked for international humanitarian and peace organisations.]




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