Power  /  Book Review

What Is the Relationship Between Democracy and Authoritarianism?

The Age of Revolution inaugurated a new era in modern history defined not only by new democratic institutions but also by despots and charismatic leaders.

These questions are at the center of David A. Bell’s impressive and thought-provoking Men on Horseback. A study of the great national leaders of the Age of Revolution, Bell’s book closely examines the complex relationship between leaders and their devoted followers. It also highlights a central paradox in the era’s history. Posterity has largely viewed the late 18th century as the era in which modern democracy was born, yet as Bell shows, its dominant figures had decidedly authoritarian tendencies. Consistently, the people loved the leaders who took power in their name but who didn’t permit them to share in or exercise it. To illustrate this apparent contradiction, Bell focuses on four world-famous individuals who exemplify these competing tendencies: George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simon Bolívar. Exploring both their personal lives and their relationships to the great movements they led, he centers his analysis around Max Weber’s notion of charisma: the argument that great leaders are seen by their followers as possessing highly personalized, even godlike powers of political authority and domination. In doing so, Bell essentially argues that charisma—the power and prestige of great men—lies at the heart of modern democracy and at the same time constitutes a threat to it. By underscoring this paradox, Men on Horseback also illustrates limits to democracy that remain potent to this day.

On first impression, Men on Horseback might seem like a standard, even old-fashioned study, the kind many of us were trained to reject in graduate school: a history of great men (and white ones, too, with the exception of Toussaint Louverture). With the rise of the “new social history” in the 1960s and ’70s, we were told to question and ultimately disavow the “great man theory of history,” since history is made, after all, not just by great men but by the people too—and so we set out to examine how the people were as essential to the workings of history as the ruling elite. We took inspiration from many sources and traditions, but perhaps nothing better sums up this approach than Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem “A Worker Reads History,” which offers a very different perspective on charismatic rulers:

Young Alexander conquered India. He alone? Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army? Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who triumphed with him?

In Men on Horseback, Bell recognizes the importance of these new social histories and, for the most part, agrees with their analyses. But he argues that in the process of broadening the portrait of the past, the serious historical analysis of great men has been neglected, and as a result few histories interrogate the political and cultural relationships between leaders and followers. They also neglect the subjective history of the Age of Revolution, how it felt to live through an era when so much was turned upside down.