The “Great Man” Theory of History and New Labour

A worker reads "Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain" by Liam Byrne MP, emblem of the New Labour tradition

“The history of the world,” according to the nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle, “is but the biography of great men.” This approach to the past – the so-called “great man” theory of history – is one that exercised a powerful influence over professional historiography until well into the twentieth century, and which continues to frame popular understandings of political history today.

In his 1935 poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads – also known as A Worker Reads History – the Marxist poet Berthold Brecht elegantly exposes the fetishism at the heart of this mode of historiography:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

When seen from the perspective of the worker, Brecht suggests, the “great man” theory of history immediately disintegrates. What is left out in such accounts, the poem intimates, is the mass of ordinary men and women – workers and slaves, servants and soldiers, housewives and caregivers – on whom Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons depend, and the deep foundations of exploitation, coercion and violence on which the fortunes of such men are built.

This is, on the face of it, a basic enough critique of an essentially nineteenth-century mode of historiography, and one which you would expect most first-year undergraduates to recognise, yet it is one that seems to have passed by the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne. In fact, the title of Byrne’s 2016 book, Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain is tailored precisely to invite the questions with which Brecht opens his poem.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury for the final eleven months of the Brown administration, Byrne is probably best known today as the author of one of the finest pieces of Conservative propaganda of recent years: a note for his ministerial successor reading, “I’m afraid there is no money.” A graduate of Harvard Business School and a former banker and management consultant, Byrne is representative of a New Labour tradition which venerated the ideals of private sector as a model for efficient government. Byrne’s career in government – from his first cabinet post as Minister for Borders and Immigration – was also notable for his role in the resurgence of petty nationalist sentiment, and the intensification of anti-migrant rhetoric and policy – the normalisation of a racist “legitimate concerns” discourse – which undercut the easy cosmopolitanism which Blair and Brown sought to project.

In more ways than one then, Byrne can be seen as an avatar for those tendencies which saw many on the left disenchanted with Labour by the early years of the new millennium. It is fair to say also – without underestimating the vast amount of work still to be done within the party – that they are tendencies which have been increasingly marginalised, at least across the wider membership, since September 2015. In this context, reading Byrne’s book, published in opposition less than year after Corbyn’s accession to the leadership – and interrogating its conceptions of economic history – is perhaps instructive in accounting for the failures of New Labour’s approach to economics and the changes which have taken place over the past two-and-a-half years.

In Dragons, the nineteenth century’s “great man” theory of history is alive and well, though Byrne’s focus (he tells us) is not on “kings”, “queens” or “politicians”, but on the nebulous figure of the “entrepreneur”. The book’s opening sentences (after an epigraph clumsily plucked from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations) boldly assert that “Entrepreneurs change history,” before going on to claim that capital-H History (presumably that which is taught in schools and universities) “rarely does them justice”. Readers can judge for themselves whether or not the list of figures around whom the book is structured – many of whom can claim multiple biographers – have been cruelly written out of the historical record, though Byrne’s cast of characters – stretching from the thirteenth century to the twentieth – is in any case revealing.

The “great man” school of history is, in the case of Dragons, appropriately so called. “The obvious omission here”, Byrne casually notes in his Preface, “is women.” All of the entrepreneurs lionised here are men. In addition, all are white, and none could be called working-class. There are two aristocrats, and at least one slaveholder. In this context, Byrne’s tone of intrepid heterodoxy (recently echoed by the reactionary Niall Ferguson) is particularly grating. While so much of the genuine, important recovery work done by historians since the mid-twentieth century has been dedicated to telling the stories of women, of workers, and of minorities so often denied a place in canonical historical narratives, Byrne clothes an entirely conventional – and conventionally exclusionary – framing of history in the language of revisionism.

If representational concerns are not at the forefront of Byrne’s mind, perhaps even more telling – and alarming – is his cavalier approach to the imperial plunder and racialised violence so central to the stories of many of his protagonists. Four of his ten heroes were directly involved in the expansion and exploitation of Britain’s colonial empire, including the seventeenth-century American coloniser Robert Rich (whose interest in the Caribbean, we are reassured, “was not confined to slaves and tobacco”), Thomas Pitt (most famous for his “purchase” of the “Regent” diamond in India in 1701), and the opium trader William Jardine, chief cheerleader for Britain’s wars of economic conquest in nineteenth-century China. While the “dragon” metaphor of Byrne’s title is not extended – or actually mentioned – in the body of the book, it is worth reflecting, incidentally, that while in some quarters a byword for economic success, the dragon is also a creature of wanton destruction, extreme violence and mythical evil.

Perhaps most startling, given the international campaigns already underway to decolonise university curricula at the time of publication, is the inclusion of the nineteenth-century imperialist and strident white supremacist Cecil Rhodes. Despite a couple of token moments of moral equivocation from Byrne, it is difficult to read his account of Rhodes’ “ruthless deployment” of “genius, charm and Maxim machine guns” in the service of a gloriously expanded empire as anything other than a grimly chauvinistic celebration.

Byrne’s lack of attention to class, gender and racial politics in Dragons is more than just an issue of representation (though his failures in these respects are not insignificant). His easy disregard of the structural factors at work in the lives of his “entrepreneurial titans” – focusing instead on supposedly exceptional individual characteristics – is indicative of a broader failure to adequately conceptualise economic or social history, grounded in an essentially liberal politics.

Byrne would have us believe that his “commercial adventurers” are self-made men, living or dying by their individual genius, their ability to spot opportunities, and their willingness to take risks. Their comfortable class origins, pre-existing fortunes, or advantageous positions within deeply unjust networks of colonial power relations are, unsurprisingly, glossed over. That two of his “dragons” (George Cadbury and John Spedan Lewis) in fact inherited family businesses does little to dent Byrne’s celebration of entrepreneurship. (The inclusion of Nathan Myer Rothschild, we can assume, has nothing to do with Byrne’s own investment banking background at N. M. Rothschild & Sons, as he feels no need to mention the association.)

In his 1924 essay, “The Entrepreneur Myth”, the Marxist economic historian Maurice Dobb criticised the liberal political economists of his day for identifying the abstract economic figure of “the entrepreneur” with the concrete historical personage of, in Dobb’s terminology, the “capitalist undertaker”. In this “individualist” view of economic history, Dobb argues, the risk-taking capitalist, imposing order on the complex division of labour, is seen as a primary determinant of economic development. While capitalist investment has been a motor for innovation under specific historical circumstances, Dobb argues, the bourgeois economist mistakenly attributes such developments to individual genius, rather than to the structure of capitalism itself – and the historically specific balance of wages and prices – which in reality produce the incentive for technological and economic advancement.

Moreover, Dobb argues, a focus on individual cases of “entrepreneurship”, obscures the broader social factors – such as pre-existing class divisions, accumulated capital and private property in land – which provide the basis for capitalist investment. While individual entrepreneurs are often celebrated as exemplary cases of social mobility within a system of free enterprise, broader structures of privilege and dependence are carefully elided. In simple terms, as Dobb puts it, “The possession of money and privileges makes easier the acquisition of more money and further privileges, whereas the converse is true of those in a position of dependence.”1

Taking the perspective of Brecht’s eponymous worker, what is most staggeringly absent from Byrne’s account of the ten men who “built” Britain, is any discussion of those who actually did the building. While the book carries praise from the historian (and, at the time, Labour MP) Tristram Hunt as “a great history of Britain’s … wealth creators”, there is little discussion of the workers on whose backs this wealth was in fact amassed. To take one example, railway financiers like George Hudson are credited with having “built the world’s first railway system” in the 1830s and 1840s, while the half a million workers responsible for laying three thousand miles of track across Britain in the period are curiously passed over. The legendarily miserable conditions of this transient workforce are likewise left out of the story. “The year Hudson left for York”, Byrne mentions in passing, “was the year in which the Duke of Wellington secured his glorious victory at Waterloo against Napoleon”. The chapter fails to discuss the construction of the three-mile long railway tunnel at Woodhead in the 1840s, where a navvy’s chance of survival was slimmer than a soldier at the same battle, or railway magnates like Hudson’s fierce resistance to acting on the findings of a Parliamentary enquiry into the tragedy.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, while “enlightened” employers like Cadbury, Lewis and William Lever, are celebrated for their paternalistic capitalism – introducing forms of profit-sharing, sick pay, pensions, and education services – the decades of struggle by the labour movement on which such gains were won for the majority are not deemed worthy of a mention. Trade unions appear in Dragons only fleetingly, as passive beneficiaries of Cadbury’s philanthropy during the engineering dispute of 1897-98. The Labour Party itself crops up only once in more than 500 pages.

This is a bad book, and Liam Byrne – in himself – is an unimportant figure, currently occupying a fairly minor role in the shadow cabinet. Taken as a representative of a tendency – and a way of thinking – within the Labour Party, however, Dragons provides a useful point of comparison against which to view the changes in economic approach which were already underway by the time of its publication. Despite Byrne’s predictions of a comfortable win for Yvette Cooper, in September 2015 (nine months before Dragons hit the shelves) Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, immediately installing John McDonnell as his Shadow Chancellor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lack of attention to social structure in his philosophy of history, Byrne had little time for what he saw as Corbyn and McDonnell’s “class war” policies in the first year of their tenure. Since then (despite a quiet return to the shadow cabinet last year), Byrne, along with the Blairite economic outlook which he represents, has been increasingly marginalised.

Under Corbyn and McDonnell, Labour’s view of the economy has moved sharply away from the model presented in Dragons. In a policy paper produced during the 2015 campaign, Corbyn directly attacked “the Conservative myth [that] wealth creation is solely due to the dynamic risk-taking of private equity funds, entrepreneurs or billionaires.” The 2017 manifesto’s section on “creating an economy that works for all” made it clear that “Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government.”

In an interview given to the Financial Times earlier this year, McDonnell illustrated the gulf between himself and the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury even more explicitly. Asked to name his “business heroes,” McDonnell refuses to be drawn. Rather than reel off a top ten list, as Byrne could so readily have done, the Shadow Chancellor pauses, before finally challenging the entrepreneur myth on which the question is premised:

“There’ll be creative business leaders but actually, when it comes down to it, they can’t do anything unless part of a collective,” says McDonnell. “Unless they’ve got that wealth creator, that engineer and that work person, that skilled person at the bench to fulfil that idea … they’re nothing.”

The radical plans for democratic public ownership set out in Labour’s report on “Alternative Models of Ownership” – commissioned by McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey earlier this year – promise to place “those who create the real wealth in charge”, putting the control of key industries – in the words of the Shadow Chancellor – “irreversibly in the hands of workers.”

Just as any historical account of capitalism must avoid the glorification of “great men”, a robust critique of capitalism must start from a structural perspective. Calls for an “ethical” or “responsible capitalism”, whether from “one-nation” Tories or the soft left of Labour, rely on the liberal fallacy that the inbuilt injustices of the present economic system can be corrected through the careful cultivation of civic virtue in the hearts of its chief beneficiaries. At the same time, the dangers of an individualising analysis on the far left are all too apparent in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorising which has plagued the crank fringes of the Labour Party for far too long.

In the economic policy outlined by the current Labour leadership, there are signs that these outdated models are at last being discarded, with McDonnell’s view of wealth-creation seemingly a world away from Dragons’ fetishisation of the world-conquering entrepreneur. But there is a final cautionary lesson to be taken from the moribund “great man” theory of history peddled by Byrne. It should always be borne in mind that the leftward turn in the Labour Party is not embodied in Corbyn (or McDonnell) but in the mass movement which has enabled and sustained their leadership, and in a larger reaction against the material conditions of austerity. If perhaps understandable in the face of relentless personalised attacks from the right, the frustrating tendency among some on the left to treat Corbyn and the movement as synonymous – the “absolute boy” theory of history – both fails to properly understand where this left shift has come from, and does a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of members and supporters who have done so much to facilitate it over the past two and a half years.

Theories of history which invest great leaders alone with the power to change the world are in their essence reactionary and should be avoided at all costs. Likewise, if the leftward turn in the Labour Party is to begin and end with Jeremy Corbyn, then it will be an opportunity catastrophically wasted for a genuine and lasting challenge to the UK’s neoliberal hegemony. Notwithstanding the attitudes of some on the “euphoro-Corbynist” left since last summer, this is a project which is far from complete or irreversible. It will require work in and beyond Westminster, patient organisation and, crucially, planning beyond the current Labour leadership for a history that is in our own hands.

  1. Maurice Dobb, On Economic Theory and Socialism: Collected Papers (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), 3-15.