I gave up on ideological belief years ago and not out of any sense of disillusionment or abandoning of core ideals. It was simply the result of my realising that the world is a far more complicated place than ideologues or ideologies would have us believe. Moreover as a student of history, I became acutely aware of the hypocrisies exhibited by ideological movements especially on the Left and Right.
To me, humanism is the best way to approach the world. I don’t consider myself to be a radical. If anything my politics fall to the left of centre on the political spectrum. I favour universal single payer healthcare, strong labour laws and sensible regulation over the market-place. When it comes to markets I am, to paraphrase the late James Goldsmith, in favour or free markets but not at the expense of society.
Though I don’t believe that we should have heroes, there are political and social leaders that I admire and most fall on different aspects of the political spectrum.
First on the list is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th century Italian nationalist leader and activist. Garibaldi was a complex figure and he had his fair share of contradictions. Nevertheless he was a champion of many human rights causes and was willing, when necessary to employ violence in defense of those causes.
During the 1840’s he was active in Latin America helping guerilla armies take on tyrannical dictatorships. During the 1850’s and 1860’s he campaigned in Italy, unifying the peninsula with widespread local support.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 he led the Army of the Vosges in defense of France’s Third Republic who were resisting the occupying German army. His brigade was one of the last to surrender to the Germans at the war’s end.
Not all of his methods employed violence. He lent his support to the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, appearing and speaking at rallies in support of granting women the right to vote.
After each campaign he returned to his farm on the island of Caprera and lived a quiet life. Garibaldi’s critics might point to his many contradictions: despite his support for women’s rights he was himself a womaniser and a poor husband. Yet, such criticism ignores the basic humanity of the man and the wider reality that nobody – man or woman – can ever serve as a perfect life model.
Next on the list is the Norwegian politician Haakon Lie, secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party from 1945 to 1969.
Lie was both a realist and an idealist. His political career began as a union activist. During World War II he was a leading voice of Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation. Though his principles were leftist, he was a staunch anti-Communist seeing Soviet-style communism as a threat to peace and democracy. His vision for Norway was of a “Third Way” between the tyrannies of unchecked capitalism and Stalinism. A market economy could benefit society Lie argued so long as the needs of everyone in the society were met.
That meant that each citizen should have universal healthcare, public education and affordable housing. Norway has benefited enormously from these policies and has the highest GDP per capita in the Western world as well as one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.
Lie’s critics might argue that despite his determination to save Norwegian democracy, he himself was a dictatorial figure and a bully. Yet in the context of the post-War Period, strong, sensible leadership was required to alleviate human misery and to restore order to a shattered Europe – and Lie and his Party succeeded brilliantly in achieving those goals in Norway.
Finally, though readers of the Intellectual Plane may be shocked by this author’s admission of Charles De Gaulle to the list.
True, De Gaulle had many faults. His treatment of Vietnam and his handling of the Algeria Crisis were often amoral and inhumane. In the case of the latter he connived with unsavoury figures such as Jacques Massu to ensure a favourable French settlement in Algeria.
He was also a dictatorial figure, contemptuous of politicians and of parliamentary politics. De Gaulle hailed from a family of French royalists and his views were socially conservative. Despite these attitudes he employed common sense and idealism in his politics. His policies therefore were almost in contradiction to his background.
Yet he also lived at a time when social conservatism in France was a force that transcended both the Left and Right. Regarding women’s rights and suffrage both France’s Leftist and Rightist political parties proved equally misogynist and opposed granting equality and voting rights to women: the Left due to the fear that women were pro-clerical and the Right out of religious convictions.
Flying in the face of those attitudes De Gaulle’s provisional government granted women the right to vote in 1944, a measure that strengthened overall French democracy.
De Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic further strengthened that democracy, ironically through centralising the powers of the French President. From a constitutional perspective the French President is the most powerful democratically elected figure in the world, next to the Mayor of London.
Thus De Gaulle was able to break through the parliamentary deadlock that wracked the Third and Fourth Republics and institute meaningful reforms. Through a mix of common sense and idealism, De Gaulle implemented economic and social reforms that benefitted the whole of French society and restored prosperity before he left office in 1969.
Like Lie and Garibaldi, De Gaulle wasn’t perfect and there were times when his policies did damage to human life and dignity as was the case in Vietnam. But it must be remembered that like Garibaldi and Lie, De Gaulle was not operating in isolation. At any one time individuals, organisations and nations only have limited resources and knowledge available. De Gaulle was neither omnipotent nor all-knowing.
Nor do we have to be perfect. The goal of the humanist approach is balance and though we may never be completely in harmony at all times, the very effort of striving for balanced perspective is noble in itself.
The problem with heroes is that they never entirely measure up to expectations. Better to approach them and everyone else as human beings and not as divine creations.