In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Brotherhood subscribes to a view of history that inherently and deliberately disregards the individual personalities and interests of the Narrator and the people of Harlem whom the narrator seeks to inspire to action.
The Brotherhood’s theory of history is that of an impersonal force, in which individuals are mere actors fulfilling purposes far larger than themselves. Upon introducing the Narrator to the Brotherhood, Brother Jack explains this theory to him: “So it isn’t a matter of whether you wish to be the new Booker T. Washington, my friend. Booker Washington was resurrected today… He came out from the anonymity of the crowd and spoke to the people” (307).
According to Jack, the Narrator was speaking not for himself, but as a mouthpiece for Washington’s historical legacy, which “the people” continue to require under the present circumstances. The speech, suggests Jack, was made not with the narrator’s private interests in mind but as a response to “the people’s appeal” (307). Thus, the Brotherhood theory states that history is shaped by an enormous collective agent, “the people.” Somebody has to provide a “scientific” understanding of this determining force, however, and such a role is conveniently fulfilled by the Brotherhood itself.
Jack reveals the true implication of this role when he states of the Brotherhood committee’s purpose, “We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them” (473). The Brotherhood defines history as a force shaped by the people’s will, while the Brotherhood defines “the people’s will” and thereby shapes history. Due to the strict hierarchical organization of the Brotherhood, its central committee, by this theory, is the principal definer and mover of history. Thus, the Brotherhood’s theory of history is doubly layered. On face, it seems to reflect the people’s desires, but, in its underlying essence, it is but a means of asserting the committee’s power over the people.
If history is whatever the committee chooses it to be, all others, be they working for the brotherhood or outside it, are mere instruments to this end. Once the Narrator dares challenge this view by taking initiative to organize Clifton’s funeral, Brother Jack unapologetically reveals the idea’s core: “For all of us, the committee does the thinking. For all of us. And you were hired to talk” (470). Jack and the committee do not permit their subordinates even a marginal degree of autonomy in actually determining the goals and purposes which the people, and thus history, will be animated by. The Narrator is only allowed to shape means, not ends, and only to a highly limited extent.
By inculcating the creed of sacrifice and denouncing “opportunists” and “petty individualists” (400-1), the committee hopes that its subordinates will voluntarily and systematically forego their personal ambitions and ideas, no matter how justified, in favor of the committee’s wishes, simply because the committee wished them. Since others are not allowed to shape history, the committee is thus able to hold firmly onto its reins and convince its Brotherhood minions that the only way to be “within history” is to follow the Brotherhood. The Narrator falls fully into this trap when questioning the motives for Clifton’s departure from the Brotherhood, asking, “Why should a man deliberately plunge outside of history and peddle an obscenity… Why should he choose to disarm himself, give up his voice and leave the only organization offering him a chance to ‘define’ himself?” (438).
The very notion that the only manner in which an individual can define his identity and act efficaciously within the context of history is to serve the Brotherhood can only follow from the Brotherhood’s own idea of history as defined by the Brotherhood. The irony that befalls the Narrator and other loyal Brotherhood subjects is that, in thinking that serving the Brotherhood’s idea is the sole way to preserve their historical agency, they in fact renounce the only true historical agency anyone can have, the agency of autonomous, self-directing individuals.