“Masters of Men”

“Masters of Men”

The Forum, January 1936

“I’m damned sorry,” said Byron when he heard the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Multitudes of people, of all lands and classes, less well known than Byron delivered themselves of the same sentiment. It will be echoed by many who read by General de Coulaincourt, Duke of Vincenza, Napoleon’s Ambassador Extraordinary to the Czar and his constant companion during the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, for the Napoleon revealed in this book is not only a great general with a passion for that for which he has most talent—war—but a man of wisdom, a marvelous human being with a richness and depth, which accounts for the fact that he was beloved by his soldiers and explains why he exercises fascination not only by his genius but by his character.

What benefit, one might ask historians, did Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo give to Europe or the world? What would have accrued from a complete domination of Europe by Napoleon?

The Bonapartists—and they are still very numerous on the Continent of Europe—will answer: There would have come into being a United States of Europe or a federated Europe west of Russia; there would not have been this modern growth of virulent political nationalism, of virulent national jealousies, of wars of rival empires; there would not have been this trade in colonial empire by a gang of rival predatory imperialists; though the cultural interests of each European state might be national, the political interests would have to be European.

In his , when the Emperor summed up his aims, they all amounted to this: he waged war to create a federated Europe. Was that what he was really aiming at doing, and was the project to vast for him?

These questions cannot be answered easily. The motives of a man of such dimensions as Napoleon are to complex for easy unravelment by himself or others: there is a mixture of personal ambition with an intuitive sense of what was for the eventual good of the people, a mixture of the headlongness of a passionate personality with one of the calmest good sense – the sound administrator, the psychologist of men as individuals and in the mass. But one is led to feel that almost anything that accrued from his domination would have been better than what resulted from his defeat: the mess that Europe finds herself in today through the development of nationalist ambitions.


Some subtle intellect among his enemies, maybe among those who were the most powerful and persistent of his enemies, the English, understood that the diligent spreading of nationalist propaganda would be one of the forces that would bring about his defeat. The notion was effective: it caused serious difficulties and defections within his Grand Army of many nationalities – French, Prussian, Saxon, Dutch, Belgian, Polish, Italian. In the end, the nationalist idea and the nationalist ambition were the most powerful of the forces that made for his overthrow. Napoleon came a little too late in history to master this imponderable force, as he came too early for any general comprehension of his idea of a federated Europe.

The account of the ominous Russian campaign in With Napoleon in Russia has about it an air of greatness and vastness; it deals with great spirits, great idea, great aspirations; the world was then, one hundred and twenty-three years ago, still a wide place, not narrowed by railways, steamships, or airplanes. In the last war, troops could be bought to any front in a period varying from an hour to a few days. But Napoleon’s march into Russia took months and months, even though at what was then an enormous speed, by men on foot or horseback. The horses died by thousands from cold and hunger; the men died by tens of thousands on the way home.

The strangeness of the campaign makes it resemble those primeval conflicts that men have dreamed of between men and angels, between gods and demons. The Russians could not be tempted to give battle; they retreated and retreated, drawing Napoleon and his army on and on, until he finally entered a dead city, Moscow, from which all the inhabitants had vanished. He had dreamed of dictating peace terms from this place, but there were left in it only a few miserable wretches and a small horde of incendiaries engaged in setting fire to their ancient and sacred city. It was one of the most terrible ways of defeating a great conqueror that history can show us. Memorably as this campaign is described by Tolstoy in , it is far below what must have been the actuality, for Tolstoy refused to recognize the dimensions of the men and forces engaged. Dante or Shakespeare would have been able to show us something of the actuality, but Dante’s and Shakespeare’s are as rare or even rarer than Napoleon’s.


Here was a man of colossal genius, truly, as the jacket of his book says, “ one of the greatest men of all time,” of far-flung imagination, with the strange energy that is a quality of genius of any kind, with a vision into the future – a man who believed that he was fighting for an “immortal cause.” He had men around him who believed in him and his cause; later, in Saint Helena, when he had leisure to look into his own motives, he could say, “We are martyrs to an immortal cause.” Now what were they like, the men who surrounded him?

Coulaincourt tells us:

The detractors of this great epoch may say what they like, never was sovereign surrounded by more capable men – men who were honest before all else. . .  in spite of the varying shades of character and habits of each. . . . The Emperor was sure to find a sterling and even disagreeable truth rather than mere flattery.

How did it come that he had men of such quality at his call? Partly it was due to his own character, to

his impartiality, the staunchness of his confidence which kept the spirit of intrigue at arm’s length. . . . His well-known dislike of any charge gave everyone a sense of security.

One need not say that this book throws a new light upon Napoleon. But the reader is brought to close quarters to him by a man who, with all his devotion, was honest-minded and critical, who, moreover, coming to him straight from Russia, had a fresh view of him with a sensible estimate of the difficulties in the way of a conquest of the Czar’s empire. We have Napoleon here as seen by this honest and experienced man and not as he is commonly presented in the history books, all plastered round with the sort of propaganda that was in our time launched against Kaiser Wilhelm and which can best be seen in :

The figure he [Napoleon] makes in history is one of the almost incredible self-conceit, of vanity, greed, and a grandiose aping of Caesar, Alexander, and Charlemagne, which would be purely comic if it were not caked over with human blood.

To write about any dictator, even those of our own day, with such nonsensical prejudice and personal-mindedness as this sentence carries with it shows a naïveté that should have no place in history.

The world has need of some clear-minded historian who can penetrate the phenomena of history which call for dictators and the phenomena in dictators, the qualities, which can make the masses follow them as they never followed anointed kings or elected presidents. It does not advance us one bit to be told that Hitler is a madman, Mussolini a bloodstained villain, Stalin a cross between a robot and a Botticelli angel; nor are half-baked psychoanalyzings by amateur psychologists in the least enlightening.

The fact is that at least half the civilized world is at present governed by dictators or near dictators or near dictators. To be told that we, the governed, are suffering from an infantile father complex, the desire for a protecting parent, doesn’t in the least profit us. If it is true that the whole human race is and always has been afflicted with this father complex, why not accept the fact as part of our humanity and have done with it?


Still, no number of complexes is sufficient to make us accept this distorted portrait of a man who happens to have governed Italy for thirteen years or this portrait of Stalin. The first, George Seldes’ , is naïve in its detestation; Barbusse’s is naïve in its adoration.

Surely even in time of war some other presentation of a powerful personage like Mussolini was due to a print-ridden world than this picture of the cloven-hoofed villain of popular legend – the villain of the village gossips. The reader can pretty well forecast what he is going to hear in Sawdust Caesar. There is a suitable array of those ladies who claim to have figured in the past and youthful life of all prominent men. There is a damsel who carried around in her arms a black-eyed child “unmistakably a Mussolini” and known as Benito Junior. There is a personage  named Angelica Balabanoff whom George Seldes informs us occupied

the unique position of comrade, associate, fellow worker with Lenin and Mussolini.

This lady had very kindly written out in her own hand, for George Seldes, an account of her meeting with Mussolini more than thirty years ago, in a small socialist meeting room in Lausanne. The room was filled with working men and women all very poor but washed and clean.

But in the corner sat a man in filth; his face was unwashed, his clothes had been slept in.

You will have guessed, reader, that this figure was the future dictator of Italy.

Dr Balabanoff went to the unhappy vagabond and took his hand.

Naturally, he hung down his head and said tragically,

“I am condemned to remain a wretched vagabond all my life.”

The reader will now guess that this lady rescued him from filth and ignorance and undertook his education.

For ten years she taught Mussolini the doctrines of Karl Marx.

Why it took ten years for him to assimilate Marxism and why he could not have read Das Kapital himself, unaided, is left a mystery.

All the scenes in the life of the typical villain are made to pass before us in Sawdust Caesar – the delinquent adolescent, the wild-eyed atheist, the seducer, the jailbird, the betrayer, the murderer, the tyrant. As we read we long for illustrations in the manner of the comic strip, like those of the late Sidney Smith or the creator of Orphan Annie – Sawdust Caesar defies God, Sawdust Caesar humbles the King, Sawdust Caesar bullies the Pope, Sawdust Caesar betrays trustful women. A good loud hiss is certainly due at the end of this production of George Seldes against the crawling and white-livered scoundrel who is the center of it all. Of the Mussolini who has ruled Italy for so many years and who has undeniably accomplished marvels in administration and construction there is not a line. Of the administrator who has enthusiastic admirers among different classes of intelligences in many countries there is not one lineament.


No doubt there will be found among the Marxists some who will have a word of praise for Henri Barbusse’s Stalin, for that the author was a sincere communist will be weighed as sufficient reason to have his book praised. But if it is strange that an able journalist like George Seldes should write such a simpleminded work as Sawdust Caesar it is even stranger that the author of should have produced this book.

The figure he presents is that of a robot, a party machine, and that the actual Stain is no such thing is very evident from some quotations that are given from the dictator’s letters. Very adroit, very clever indeed, are these letter written to the then dictator, Lenin – very adroit in their undermining of Trotzky, in their flattery of Lenin. If the reader will turn to page 137 and peruse the letter that Stalin wrote in March, 1921, about Lenin’s plan for the electrification of Russia, he will get a very illuminating sidelight on the character of Stalin and his enmity of Trotzky.

Trotzky may be the rancorous and vain man described in this book, or he may be the brilliant, creative, and self-sacrificing intelligence described by his own followers, but you have only to look at the two pictured faces, his and Stalin’s, to perceive that Trotzky could never have a chance in the world against the possessor of that powerful, resourceful, unswerving, cunning face. But not a revelation of the character behind that tremendous countenance comes through in this book; it is all words, words – a eulogy that at times becomes almost satire, and it is not only a eulogy of Stalin but of his adherents, including that sinister personage, the head of the OGPU, . If the page in which Barbusse describes his discourse with this personage were removed from the context, one would really regard it as satirical. The head of the OGPU explains how unjust, how absurd, in fact, it is to tax communism with indifference to human life, since

its ultimate aim is to bring everyone in the world together and work for universal peace.

And, as for the treatment of prisoners,

communists start from the double principle that transgressors of the common lay are people who do not understand their own interests and are ruining their own lives and that the best thing to do is to impress this upon them.

This is exactly what the Grand Inquisitor mournfully said to the heretics he was condemning or Cromwell said to the anti-Puritans; this is what Mussolini said to the anti-Fascists, what Hitler is saying to the anti-Nazis – the heads of these organizations seem of necessity to be convinced that everyone who does not adhere to them is a heretic and for his own good he has to be liquidated. Formulas and objects change, but the human mind and its workings remain as always.


The revelation of Lenin that comes out of Barbusse’s Stalin is that of a man inflexible in defending the gospel he had received from Marx against all heretics and unbelievers. He had a determination to suppress heresy at all costs in a manner that reminds one of the protagonists in the early Christian controversies: he split the Communist Party in Russia in the interest of Marxian orthodoxy and he warred upon the Mensheviks as he warred upon the bourgeoisie.

But let us not delude ourselves: this is the type of man, this has always been the type who wins causes – this thoroughgoing dogmatist, endowed with high executive ability and a genius for leadership. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, but Lenin implemented it. He was but seventeen when his family received the news of the hanging of his brother for conspiracy, yet this youth perceived at once that the vague revolutionary program of the terrorists would lead only to failure, and so he adopted the hard-and-fast program of Karl Marx and in his miserable exile in many countries he worked out the application of the program.


In Barbusse’s book there is a portrait of Stalin seated in his office in the Kremlin. On the wall behind him there is a single picture: it represents the patriarchally bearded face of the author of , the coauthor of the . The gospel of Marx and his collaborator, Engels, is now the basis of a society which includes something like one sixth of the inhabitants of the globe. What are the doctrines of this gospel. For the first time in English we have them all together in one volume, the , extremely well-edited by Emile Burns. We have the doctrine not only as stated by Marx and Engels but as interpreted by Lenin and Stalin.  The whole of Das Kapital, a long and rather tedious book is not given here, but we have all the important chapters, the salient portions, the keys to the whole doctrine.

The Handbook opens with the Communist Manifesto of 1848, which was originally written for the members of the League of the Just, a secret revolutionary society with branches in many countries. We have become in our time so accustomed to the idiom, the vocabulary of Marx and Engels and to references to the two major doctrines, the theory of surplus value and the materialist conception of history, that the Communist Manifesto reads like a production of our time. When we think of the historians and publicists – Macaulay, for instance – who were influential in the days of its composition and contrast their complacency, their limited outlook, their incapacity to initiate ideas with the philosophical conception, the knowledge of social trends, the prophetic outlook of the Manifesto, we realize that Marx and Engels were men of genius, no matter how violently we may disagree with their interpretation of history and their insistence upon class struggle.


The industry, the scholarship evidenced in Das Kapital are tremendous, and that is what impresses us, not only about Marx and Engels but about Lenin and other outstanding figures of this social revolution. There was nothing half-baked about their knowledge of their own material and the methods applicable to dealing with it: they thoroughly knew their job. Marx stands out from the others by his power of divination of which I will give one example here. In the he says that revolutionists

conjure up spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.

He notes that in the French Revolution the costumes and language assumed were Roman, that in the Cromwellian revolution

the speech passions and illusions were borrowed from the Old Testament,

that Luther

donned the mask of the Apostle Paul.

But the proletarian revolution, he asserts, will be void of such effects and will have nothing to do with world historical recollections.

It cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot make a beginning until it has stripped off all superstition of the past.

This is precisely what happened in the revolution due to the teachings of Karl Marx. The Russian Revolution was devoid of poetry, of nobly imaginative and dramatic effects; it was raw, it was unsubtle, with the rawness, the unsubtlety inseparable from the leaders who took no great stock of the mind’s life or the spirit’s longings, who with all their talk of culture never knew what it was. Read, for instance, Stalin’s program for culture in the Handbook of Marxism and then ask yourself if anything more poverty-stricken was ever offered to any people civilized or savage.

These are lopsided men, great men, be it admitted, who have shaken the century, but lopsided in that they do not realize that you can give men everything in the world to live on but that if you do not give them enough to live for they will in the end arise in a revolt in comparison with which the proletarian and all other revolutions will seem Lilliputian. If you choose to ignore that Marx calls historical recollections and the poetry of the past, you are going to handicap yourself too heavily in trying to understand the nature of man. All the dictators of these totalitarian states, whether Fascist, Nazi, or proletarian, have too limited and biased view of what constitute the vital needs of humanity, not matter what may be their ability for understanding materials and tensions and social trends.

It is a long time in history since hatred and malice have had such a foothold in the world as they have had for the last twenty years, and for some of this certainly Marxism is responsible. Few men of the nineteenth century, perhaps none, have equaled Marx in influence, but he put into this work an amount of hatred, resentment, and suspicion that makes it difficult for a society based on his philosophy to be high-minded and generous. But at the same time we must not allow ourselves to be blinded to the fact that the successful implementing of Marx’s ideas in one country in our time is bound to modify the course of events in all the others.


Freud, whose is now published again with some revision, has sometimes been compared with Marx, for they resemble each other in their mental ruthlessness, in their conviction of the power of unconscious forces, in their determinism and their materialism. The truth is a wide field, and even the greatest minds can discover only their own little bits of it, dig their own little trenches, or erect their own little mounds. Freud, like Marx, has discovered his own moiety; and a knowledge of what both have discovered or evolved or unearthed is so necessary to an understanding of the contemporary scene that I do not hesitate to recommend the thoughtful observer of our age to possess himself of both the Handbook of Marxism and of Freud’s Autobiography, while at the same time keeping all his critical faculties on the qui vive while reading one or the other.

Freud’s Autobiography throws the clearest, the most easily followed light on modern discoveries in psychology, on modern additions to what knowledge we have of that unknown creature, man. This results from the fact that he is born writer, that his words, his statements are alive, for he knows what to omit and what to emphasize. He can cram the most significant information into the fewest number of sentences without, at the same time, any of his pages being too tightly knit for the ordinary intelligent reader to follow.

Freud of course was not the first to investigate the subconscious, but he was the pupil of one of the first outstanding investigators, Charcot, of the Salpetriere, and he lived step by step through all the subsequent discoveries – some of the most notable, like the theory of repressions, being made by himself.

For a long time here in America psychoanalysis was regarded as merely a therapeutic method, and people’s interest in it was chiefly in the process of being psychoanalyzed. Now that it has taken its place not so much as a method but as the science of unconscious mental processes, we can see its real value and the manner in which it is changing our whole view of personality. One may have but the scantest interest in the process of being psychoanalyzed or even regard it as of very dubious value and yet realize that the science itself has enabled the most ordinary men, the very policemen on the streets, to have a grasp of human motives and of human psychology that was impossible thirty years ago.

Freud to be sure is not given to devoting much space or giving much credit to the work of other psychologist in the same field, and as one who has followed the courses of Pierre Janet, who was Freud’s fellow pupil under Charcot, I am inclined to an impatience at the manner in which he attacks a man so distinguished and so modest as Janet and one who has made so few claims on recognition and publicity and who has yet made so many valuable discoveries that are seldom associated with his name. But after all it is true that the tools belong most to the one who can use them, and Freud in his ability to use the tools is the master of them all.

With Napoleon in Russia translated by Jean Hanoteau, 1935
Recounted in Memorial de Sainte Helene : journal of the private life and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (1823) Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné, comte de Las Cases, 1823
From A Plain History of Life and Mankind, 1920
Literally a baked or fried fish, but at this time, this was a term for an adolescent or teenage girl.
Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism 1935
Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man Henri Barbusse, 1936
Vyacheslav Menzhinksy, 1874-1934
Karl Marx, 1867, 1885, 1894
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848
Emile Burns, 1935
An Autobiographical Study
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