Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

History and "Great Men"

Another attack on Marx was that he neglected the impact and influence of "Great Men" in history. The Great Man Theory was first put forward by the conservative, Thomas Carlyle in his 1841 book of lectures ON HEROES, HERO WORSHIP AND THE HEROIC IN HISTORY. For a Tory is odd that two of his heroes were Cromwell and Napoleon.

When Carlyle wrote his book there were no "Great women" for him to draw upon although Mary Shelley had written FRANKENSTEIN, George Eliot had begun the translation of Feuerbach's THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY and Helen Macfarlane was to translate in 1850 Marx and Engels's THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO for the Chartist Magazine, the RED REPUBLICAN. History is presented by Carlyle as a chauvinist morality tale of rugged and masculine individualism. We must learn from "the great and the good"; our betters, much like pious Catholics learn spiritual comfort from reading Butler's Lives of the Saints.

Carlyle stated that "[The] history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here" (Lecture , p. 1), reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. It teaches the oppressed and exploited to see themselves as incapable of exercising any influence on the course of events. They have to be led, whether by a Cromwell or a Cromwell. The masses are quiescent, passive and cannot change anything. They cannot make history; only brilliant leaders can. So Carlyle's theory of Great Men dogmatically asserts.

From a Marxian perspective nothing could be more further from the truth. What shapes and changes history is the development in the forces of production, including co-operative and social labour. In class societies these forces are restrained by class relations. This gives rise to the class struggle: "the motor force of history" (Marx) and social revolution. And in Marx's theory of history the working class can shape and change the world and make history. They are not a passive and inert mass waiting to be led.

In Marx's Preface to the second edition of THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, he critically commented on Victor Hugo singling out Louis Bonaparte for blame for causing the coup and subsequent dictatorship. Marx wrote that Victor Hugo, in his novel, NAPOLEON THE LITTLE:

" sees in it [the coup] only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him personal power of initiative such as would be without parallel in world history...".

Marx showed how the class struggle in France:

"...created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part" (p8).

Marx did not have much time for the Great Man theory of history. Victor Hugo, as a Liberal believing in free will, wanted to morally censure Napoleon rather than to understand the economic and political forces at play in France at the time. History as morality or history as class struggle is the fundamental difference between the Liberal and Marxist conception of history.

Carlyle's view of "great men" was criticised by the Russian, G. V. Plekhanov in his book THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY (1898). However, in criticizing this view of history, Plekhanov did not take the opposite position and argue that the individual is merely a passive cog in the wheel of history. History is not "fate" or "hidden forces" working behind the backs of men and women. Individuals can have an influence on historical events but they are conditional.

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."

And 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" (L&W, 1960 p.41).

We do not, then, dispute the important role that individuals play at certain key moments in history. Lenin's ruthless determination to successfully grasp power in a coup d' etat is a case in point, but then Lenin could no more establish socialism in the conditions of Russia of 1917 than anyone else. If the level of production is still basically feudal and undeveloped and there are little or no socialists on the ground, you are not going to get socialism. Lenin could gain power but do very little with it other than to develop Russia along capitalist lines.

Socialism is not inevitable and neither is the class struggle predictable. We are constrained by circumstances and by the past. We are limited about what we can and cannot do.

Marx does reject the "free will" and moralising found in conservative and liberal history writing. He wrote:

"make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living (THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE p.15)

Nevertheless Marx's theory of history also carries the optimism that a world working class will one day become a democratic and political force in history and in doing so establish a classless, stateless, moneyless and egalitarian society to which socialism aspires.

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