The Decisive Role of the Individual in History

There are many bourgeois historians who believe that history is made by “Great Men and Women”, kings and queens, statesmen and politicians. It is this unscientific approach that Marxism is opposed to. However, Marxists do not deny the role of individuals in history. History is made by people. But we need to uncover the dialectical relationship between the individual (the subjective) and the great forces (objective) that govern the movement of society and see this role in its historical context.

Alan Woods in his book on the Venezuelan Revolution recalls a conversation he had with Hugo Chavez, the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. “I read a book by Plekhanov a long time ago”, commented President Chavez, “and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History.” The President pondered the title and said: “Well, I know none of us is really indispensable.” Alan interjected, however, and corrected the Venezuelan President on this point: “There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference.” A case in point is Hugo Chavez himself.

Hugo Chavez has come to personify the Bolivarian Revolution unfolding in Venezuela. He is connected with the forces unleashed by the revolution, namely the oppressed masses. Chavez personifies their hopes and aspirations. He influences them and they influence him. He is totally identified with them. In the eyes of the masses, he has the necessary authority to potentially see the revolution through to the end. It is a graphic example of the role of the revolutionary leader in history, described by Plekhanov.

In the past, the role of the individual in history (the “subjective factor” in Marxist terminology) has been the subject of heated debate. There are many bourgeois historians even today who believe that history is made by “Great Men and Women”, kings and queens, statesmen and politicians. Supposedly through their force of character, they have shaped history while the masses play little or no role. Thus, Hitler started the Second World War and the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand began the First. Little attention is played to economic, political or social forces which operate largely behind the scenes.

There are those who argue that individuals determine nothing, but are thrown about by the greater objective forces of history. This school of thought represents fatalism, where individuals act as mere marionettes, their strings pulled by some invisible hand. This idea is derived from a Calvinist doctrine that all human action is divinely predestined, like some lunar eclipse. It is the frame of mind expressed in Luther’s words, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” The domination of Fate rules out any idea of individual freedom and the independent activity of the masses. We are all reduced to the role of pawns.

This is however not the case. History is made by people. Marxists, unlike the superficial fatalists, do not deny the role of the individual, his initiative or audacity (or lack of it), in the social struggle. It is the task of Marxism to uncover the dialectical relationship between the individual (the subjective) and the great forces (objective) that govern the movement of society. Historical materialism does not dismiss the role of the individual, of personality, in history, but sees this role in its historical context. Marxism explains that no person, no matter how talented, capable or farsighted, can determine the main course of historical development, which is shaped by objective forces. However, under critical circumstances, the role played by individuals can be decisive, the last decisive link in the chain of causality. Under certain circumstances, the “subjective factor” can become the most important fact in history. The role of Lenin in the Russian Revolution is such an example, to which we will return later.

Plekhanov’s brilliant essay on the role of the individual in history constitutes a polemic against the Russian Narodniks, who portrayed the individual hero, usually armed with a bomb, as the creator of history. The Russian masses were regarded as mere on-lookers. These subjectivists, writes Plekhanov, “out to endow the ‘individual’ with the greatest possible role in history have refused to recognise mankind’s historical development as a law-governed process.”

While the individual in history can be seen to have played essential roles, such role could only be undertaken in the given social conditions. Such was the case with the French Revolution of 1789, explained Plekhanov. “It was the alignment of those forces which, in the final analysis, accounted for Louis XV’s nature and the caprices of his mistress exerting so deplorable an influence on France’s fate… Clearly, what lies at the root of the matter is not a particular weakness but the social position of the person affected by it.” In other words, the causes of the French Revolution lay in the nature of the social relations. The personal qualities of the leading individuals play their part, but only within the general context, and are subordinate to the broader historical forces at play.

“It follows, then, that individuals can influence the fate of society by virtue of definite traits of their nature”, continued Plekhanov. “Their influence is sometimes very considerable but the possibility of its being exercised and its extent are determined by society’s organisation and the alignment of its forces. An individual’s character is a ‘factor’ in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.”

In other words, there are definite limits to the role of individuals. “No great man can impose on society relations which no longer conform to the state of these forces or do not yet conform to them. In this sense, indeed, he cannot make history, and in this sense he would be trying in vain to shift the hands of his clock: he would not be accelerating the passage of time or turning it back.”

Towards the end of his life, Fredrick Engles provided us with a summery of historical materialism, within which he dealt with the individual in history. “Men make their history themselves”, wrote Engels in January 1894, “but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even a definite, delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for such a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.” Engels goes on to furnish us with examples of this phenomena. “That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own warfare, had rendered necessary, was chance; but that, if a Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the man was always found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc.” (Marx and Engels Correspondence, pp.467-68)

While historical materialism gives primacy to the objective factors in history, such as the level of the productive forces and the existing class relations, the subjective factor can play an important role. However, there is more to this relationship. The division of phenomena in history between “objective” and “subjective” is not absolute and depends upon their relevant relationship. For example, the world market is objective to each nation that composes it. Each nation is subordinate to the world market and inescapably linked to it. Meanwhile, the nation is objective to the classes that constitutes its social structure. In its turn, the ruling class is objective to the working class, and the class is objective to its party. The individual has a subjective position in regard to all these factors.

However, the influence of an individual in the historical process can span from one of insignificance to absolutely decisive. The degree of this influence will depend upon the stage of development of historical conditions, the correlation of social forces, and the role of the individual within these forces. There are often long periods where even the most far-sighted cannot have any effect on the course of history. On the other hand, at certain times, under critical conditions, an individual’s role can be decisive. In other words, what social forces or class interests lie behind the individual, and how well does he or she represent these forces?

Helvetius once said that every epoch calls forth persons of adequate stature, and if it cannot find them, invents them. In regard to Wellington, Engels remarked, “He is great in his own way, as great as one can be without ceasing to be a mediocrity.” Such a description could easily apply to Stalin, whose narrow personality certainly left its stamp on the character of the political counter-revolution in the Soviet Union.

While Trotsky represented the period of revolutionary upsurge, Stalin represented the period of retreat and counter-revolution. He became the figurehead of the bureaucratic reaction within the Soviet Union. As Trotsky described Stalin: “And yet, all in all, he remains mediocre. He is capable neither of generalisation nor of foresight. His intelligence lacks spirit and buoyancy, and is unsuited to thinking logically. Each sentence of his speeches serves a practical end; never does a speech rise to the height of a logical construction. This weakness makes for his strength. There are historical tasks which can be carried out only if one renounces generalisations; there are periods when generalisations and foresight are a bar to immediate success; such are the periods of decline and fall, and reaction.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1936-7, p.69)

In relation to the importance of decisive leadership in the socialist revolution, Lenin’s role in 1917 stands out as decisive. Could another Bolshevik leader, even Trotsky, have substituted Lenin’s role? Trotsky believed not. Given the concrete conditions, where the Bolshevik Party had to be rearmed in April 1917 for the socialist revolution, only Lenin had the necessary authority in the party. The conservative pressures from the other leaders would have had been too great an influence without Lenin. In other words, the importance of the conscious subjective factor stood out with greater force than ever before. Lenin’s role could not have been duplicated. This was due not simply due to his personal qualities, but his exceptional standing within the Bolshevik Party. While the Bolsheviks led the workers and peasants, Lenin led the Bolshevik Party. He was the leader of the leaders.

One of the fundamental reasons for this critical role of leadership or the subjective factor in our epoch, stems from the fact that all the major objective conditions for the overthrow of capitalism are rotten ripe (the integration of the world economy, the inability of capitalism to take society forward, the chronic instability and impasse of the system, the elements of barbarism emerging, the existence of mass unemployment, etc). The defeat of the numerous revolutions since the October Revolution of 1917 has been due to the failure of leadership of the mass organisations, whether they are social democratic or Stalinist. For the successful socialist revolution, a mass party is needed with a far-sighted revolutionary leadership schooled in the ideas of Marxism (“the memory of the working class”). The Bolsheviks under the Leadership of Lenin and Trotsky was able to provide this. They provided the dialectical unity of the objective and subjective factors.

As Hugo Chavez explained: the choice facing mankind is the choice between Socialism or Barbarism. The task today is to develop the cadres, individuals with the necessary knowledge and experience of Marxism, who, on the basis of events, can provide the subjective factor needed to see the historic task through to the end. That is, in the words of Trotsky, to make conscious the unconscious strivings, the organic tendencies, of the working class to overthrow capitalism. In this process, the role of the individual can be decisive.

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