Can individuals change history?

September 11, 2009

History is full of situations in which a point of extreme tension is broken in one direction or another by the action or inaction of individuals.

AFTER HE had become a Cold-War anti-communist, the ex-Marxist Sidney Hook claimed that Marxists see individuals as "a chip on the historical wave"--that is, as powerless and incidental to the great forces of history.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.

As Karl Marx wrote in The Holy Family, "History does nothing, it 'possesses no immense wealth,' it 'wages no battles.' It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; 'history' is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims."

However, as I pointed out in my previous column, the pursuit of such aims takes place in conditions inherited from the past, which constrain what historical outcomes are possible.

What implications do these observations hold for the role of individuals in history?

THE "GREAT man" theory of history, as it has come to be known, sees history as the work of charismatic leaders--mostly kings, statesmen and generals--molding the masses to achieve their ends. In his famous essay, The Role of the Individual in History, Georgi Plekhanov offers as an example of this sort of history--the 18th century historian Mably's work on Sparta, which presented the Spartan's spurning of material wealth as the work of a single statesman, Lycurgus.

The "great man" theory of history is not restricted to defenders of the status quo. The anarchist Emma Goldman once wrote, for example: "Always, at every period, the few were the banner bearers of a great idea, of liberating effort. Not so the mass, the leaden weight of which does not let it move."

While most historians don't use this approach, the great man theory is still the common sense of our society, which teaches the oppressed and exploited to see themselves as incapable of exercising any influence on the course of events.

But in criticizing this view of history, Plekhanov did not flip the other way and argue that since history is a "law-governed" process, the individual is merely a cog in history's wheel. Marxists do not at all dispute the important role that individuals play at certain key moments in history.

History is full of situations in which a point of extreme tension--where social forces are balanced on a knife's edge--is broken in one direction or another by the action or inaction of individuals. Think of the famous scene in Norma Rae when the textile worker, played by Sally Field, shuts down her machine and, standing up on it, convinces all her fellow workers to strike.

This influence, however, cannot be reduced to "charisma" or some special quality that an individual possesses--though these things sometimes play a role--but must involve the existence of social conditions which make their intervention at a certain juncture in history capable of exercising an influence over events.

Certain things, like cyclical crisis and unemployment, are features of capitalist social relations that no individual can alter. As Plekhanov puts it, "No matter what the qualities of the given individual may be, they cannot eliminate the given economic relations if the latter conform to the given state of productive forces." As he continued:

It follows, then, that by virtue of particular traits of their character, individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organization of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a "factor" in social development only where, when and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such.

So, for example, no matter how influential and charismatic I am, I will never be able to turn the clock back to feudalism or restore slavery in the United States. To reverse the point, no great leader in the Middle Ages could have built a movement to establish socialism because the material conditions of abundance did not yet exist to make such a world possible.

The point also holds true for the state of politics and the balance of class forces in society. In the absence of a strong labor movement, in which workers have established from some experience the confidence and know-how to conduct effective mass strike action, my insistent urgings that a general strike for national health care be called will be a cry in the wilderness.

AN EXCELLENT example of the crucial role individuals can play in history, under the right circumstances, is that of Lenin and his role in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In his 1935 diary, Leon Trotsky made the following observation about Lenin's role in the 1917 revolution: "Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place--on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution."

The question that might arise is: Isn't Trotsky's adhering here to the "great man" theory of history? No Lenin--no revolution.

But if we admit that individuals can play a key role in catalyzing certain events, doesn't it also follow that their absence might have the opposite effect? Trotsky's views do, in a certain respect, contradict Plekhanov's, who argues in his essay that historical conditions give rise to a situation such that if one "great man" dies, another fills his place. So, for example, if Napoleon had died before coming to power, another person would have been "found" to fill the social demand for a dictator of Napoleon's type.

We must agree with Trotsky that the absence of Lenin could have had a profoundly negative effect on the Russian Revolution--indeed, it might have been delayed or even have failed to materialize, because in a revolutionary situation, timing is essential, and it is easy to let the moment pass when the optimal conditions for success exist.

Before Lenin's arrival in Russian in April 1917, for example, the Bolshevik Party was disoriented and unable to effectively lead. It is possible that without Lenin, the party would have been able to reorient itself. But it is also possible that it would not have been done in time, and the revolutionary moment might have slipped. The same can be said for what happened on the eve of the insurrection, when Lenin's insistent prodding of the party leadership played a key role in bringing the revolution to success.

On the other hand, it is also true that Lenin's role in 1917 is perfectly explained by Plekhanov's attitude to the role of the individual. He was a "factor" in Russian history only insofar as he was the foremost representative of the interests of forces created by a set of social relations he did not create--combined and uneven development of capitalism in Russia, the rapid creation of a working class easily driven from economic to political struggle, a cowardly bourgeoisie, a decrepit but repressive autocracy.

Lenin also could not have played the role he did had he not, with others, built a workers' party with deep roots in the most militant sections of the working class. Lenin was able, through the Bolshevik Party, to influence events only because he had an instrument that did not contradict the general trend of Russian history.

Trotsky explained it this way:

From the extraordinary significance which Lenin's arrival received, it should only be inferred that leaders are not accidentally created, that they are gradually chosen out and trained up in the course of decades, that they cannot be capriciously replaced, that their mechanical exclusion from the struggle gives the party a living wound, and in many cases may paralyze it for a long period.

As Plekhanov wrote:

The more or less slow changes in "economic conditions" periodically confront society with the necessity of more or less rapidly changing its institutions. This change never takes place "by itself"; it always needs the intervention of men, who are thus confronted with great social problems. And it is those men who do more than others to facilitate the solution of these problems who are called great men.

Lenin was in this sense a "great man." Plekhanov's approach, however, helps to explain the impossible position Lenin and the Bolsheviks found themselves in toward the end of Lenin's life. Despite his qualities as a great working-class leader, Lenin found himself incapable of preventing the revolution's slide into a bureaucratic degeneration, because material conditions in Russia after the defeat of world revolution (the breakdown of industry, famine, the disintegration of the working class) would not permit the creation of a new society.

In these conditions, Lenin, despite his great qualities and his intentions, was unable to prevent this degeneration.

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