George Walford: Steam Engine Time (54)

Thinking people have mostly discarded the hero theory of history. They agree that Alexander, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and the others appearing as makers and shakers of the world owe their prominence less to personal qualities than to coincidence between their abilities – admittedly exceptional – and the conditions of place and time. But when a movement claiming in its title to derive from one person comes to spread over a large part of the world, and endures for a century and more, sometimes for very much more, does this not indicate a real creation? Do we not have to accept that our lives and our thinking would be substantially different had Christ, Marx and Siddhartha Gautama never been born? The continuing use of their names does suggest this. Despite Marx’ direct insistence that individual efforts play a minor part in social development he still receives, along with Lenin and Mao, sometimes credit sometimes blame, but in any case responsibility, for a movement claiming to have brought off some of the bigger events in modern history. A recent Hungarian poster presents a portrait of Marx over the caption: Proletarians of the World! Forgive me!

On the old radio Brains Trust Professor Joad made his name by starting his answers with ‘It depends what you mean by… ‘ and the remark comes in here. When we speak of Marxism, Buddhism and Christianity, do we mean only the body of thought strictly traceable to the eponymous founder? If so, then clearly he carries responsibility, but will any beyond a few scholars and antiquarians retain interest? If we mean the movement, then again a complication arises, since this as we know it stands at a considerable distance from the intentions of the originator. One can hardly conceive of Gautama setting up a Tibetan Buddhist prayer-wheel or approving the magnificence of some Buddhist temples. Marx declared himself no Marxist, and the Inquisition would have had a question or two for Christ, had he returned at the time. What the founders did, or said, or thought, has not a great deal to do with the later activities of the movements.

The innovators sometimes seem to have got it not quite right. Who would have expected Marx to say that he could name no upper limit to wages under capitalism? Yet he did, in Value, Price and Profit, Chapter XIV. Galbraith has called Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand of the market” the most famous metaphore in economics; clearly Smith should have said this, but he did not in fact do so, speaking only of “the invisible hand” (he did not mean of the market). Darwin did not introduce the phrase so conveniently summarising his work: “survival of the fittest” (Herbert Spencer did). “I disagree with every word you say, but would fight to the death to defend your right to say it,” has inspired many a liberal, but whether Voltaire would have agreed with the sentiment remains an open question; it first appeared in a biography published early this century. Newton’s Law of Gravitation predicts that apples (among other things) will fall to earth. Doesn’t it? Well, not quite. It says that every physical body attracts every other physical body; not only will the earth attract the apple but also the apple the earth. Christ never did get around to appointing Pope or Archbishop or having a cathedral built.

Not the remark made but the remark as generally “known,” not the thinking once put forward by the founder, or his actions, but what receives support from the movement produces the greater social effect. The original provides little more than the initiating spark; without favourable conditions this will die, and for the growth of a social movement the presence of people predisposed towards favouring it forms the prime condition.

Our title comes from Charles Fort; he pointed out that in ancient Greece Hiero had already invented the steam engine. It could have enabled the Greeks, as it later enabled the Europeans, to do things they could not do otherwise, but they did not take it up. Even after its invention, the steam engine remained a mere curiosity until steam engine time came, until people stood ready to make use of a mechanical device that would put greater power at their disposal. When that happened the (re-)invention followed almost as a matter of course, and the same pattern appears in other fields, a device unknown since the beginning of time sometimes getting invented by two or more contemporaries. Others beside the Wright brothers (Henson and Stringfellow for example) worked on heavier-than-air flying machines, and news of Alfred Russell Wallace’s work along the same line as his own frightened Darwin into publication. Marx joined an existing Communist League and had to fight off competitors (most notably Bakunin) for hegemony of the revolutionary movement. After untold millennia without psychoanalysis Freud, Jung, Adler and others developed their own versions of the approach within a decade or two of each other.

Evidently something other than the initial impetus contributes to the public event, largely determining its form and, very often, whether it shall take place at all. Since all these events take place in the realm of purposeful action – they don’t just happen but result from things people meant to do, even if they did not mean to produce quite these effects – the set of ideas, assumptions and identifications, in a word the ideologies, influencing their actions play this part. When by Christianity, Buddhism and Marxism we mean the movements as they appear, we owe these less to Christ, Buddha and Marx than to the efforts of the great numbers holding the relevant ideologies to realise these and work out their implications. In doing this they produce (along with a great deal more) the movements which become know by these names. At a particular (though broad) stage in its ideological development a society comes to exhibit, among its other features, authoritarian monotheistic religion (while retaining a more popular version with multiple deities) and, at later stages, high technology, biological science, individual psychology and movements working for socialism, communism and anarchism. Whether these come by importation or origination makes little difference. The intensely Jewish associations of Jehovah-worship preclude their former ragtag collection of deities, and Christianity conveniently filled the gap. Its recognition by Constantine marked the transition from an enthusiastic cult, eyes fixed on the founder, to a powerful organisation with its features largely determined by the state ideology. Buddhism received similar treatment from Asoka and Marxism from Lenin, with Stalin and Mao after him.

Our interpretation presents the one ideological phase as carrying primary responsibility for both Christianity and Buddhism. This may seem difficult to support, but (bearing in mind that we speak of the movements as they function, rather than of the ideals of their founders) those differences bulk large only so long as we confine the field of view to religion. Widen it to take in also revolutionary ideologies and activities, and one can hardly doubt that these two stand together on one side with Marxism on the other. Both of them advocate the turning of attention away from worldly and material satisfaction towards the ethical or spiritual, while Marxism proclaims a drive in the contrary direction.

The influence exercised by individual people, the founders no less than others, derives largely from psychological characteristics (the sort of thing we mean by phrases like “a powerful personality”), and its effects hardly extend beyond other individual people. Each founder had his limited group of disciples under his personal influence, but societies do not consist directly of individual people but of groups intentionally formed in order to pursue certain purposes; firms, parties, trade unions, professional bodies, religious congregations and so on; ideological groups. The social influence exercised by each of these increases with its size, and the larger the group the more the psychological features, the strengths and weaknesses, the characters, personalities, tastes and so on of the individual people composing it cancel out, leaving only the purpose of the group to motivate behaviour. Large groups commonly depart from the purposes of their founders, and when a society numbers in the millions the size of group required to influence it far exceeds anything a single person can hope to control; here psychological differences decide little more than which individual shall occupy a given position. This applies to the founders no less than to others; they become figureheads carried along by their movements. The body of thought each of them originated, being largely a psychological creation by an individual person (rather than the formulation of a major ideology) produces a diminishing effect as the group formed to promote it grows towards a socially influential size. Retained as a set of ideals, or an ultimate objective, it receives verbal genuflections but little more; the practice of the movement comes to follow a course set mainly by the requirements of the ideological structure.

See also Steam Engine Time from Ideological Commentary 40.

 from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.