Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How great men shaped history?
Historians are divided, were always divided, on the role of exceptional great men in the fate of nations since Karl Marx promulgated his theory of Historical Materialism, which holds that material conditions and economic factors shape the structure and development of society. American historian, Arthur Herman, is an unashamed champion of the Great Men in History school of thought. His large fascinating book Gandhi and Churchill is subtitled 'The Epic Rivalry that destroyed an Empire and Forged our Age'. Herman is a great storyteller. His book reads like a grand novel with a vast cast of characters and a tragic narrative. He also asks wide ranging questions about how the sequence of events developed. The British Empire didn't exist as imperialists like Churchill understood it until a small force of British troops imposed law and order on India in the wake of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and they did this to maintain the commercial interests of the British East India Company. India did not exist as a state until the Moghal conquerors unified the disparate communities of the subcontinent. Churchill and Gandhi were both charismatic leader with beliefs rooted in an idealized past. Churchill believed in the role of the British Empire, inspired by parallels with the Roman Empire, of imposing law, order and peace on less sophisticated, inferior people, people with dark skins like Indians and Africans. Gandhi, though entertaining great respect for the British Empire and its institutions, viewed imperialism as materialistic, without spiritual roots. He idealized the simple peasant life, the spinning wheel, the austere diet, and prayer. He was a follower of Tolstoy, Ruskin and the English set whom Orwell described a generation later as 'sandal wearers and fruit juice drinkers'. The peace loving India of pure spiritual values had never existed. There had always been bitter divisions between castes, and religions, with untouchables at the bottom of the heap. The British Empire had never been as benign as Churchill viewed it. Both Gandhi and Churchill lived in an idealized Victorian past, and at the end of their long struggle both ended in tragic failure. By opposing all concessions to British rule Gandhi's India fell apart amidst brutal massacres, with millions of people displaced. Churchill by opposing all concessions to India when there was still some scope for negotiation lived to see the ceding of the Indian subcontinent to ruthless opposing factions and the disintegration of the British Empire that he had held dear. Arthur Herman tells this story in the context of world history, the Boer War, the First World War, appeasement, the fight against Nazism and Japanese imperialism and the decline of Great Britain as a world power. This is historical narrative at its best.