Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.
A common and erroneous tendency amongst communists of various kinds is the reduction of historical events to ‘great man history’. Stalinists will often argue things like ‘the USSR stopped being socialist after Stalin died/after Khrushchev came to power’ or ‘if it wasn’t for Gorbachev the USSR would still be around today’. Meanwhile, Trotskyists blame the degeneration of the Russian Revolution on Stalin first and foremost, arguing that if Lenin hadn’t died, or Trotsky had come to power, everything would have turned out alright. This is not to say that people reduce everything solely to ‘great men’ – for example, Trotskyists often see Stalin as a symbol of a bureaucracy (yet still maintain Trotsky or Lenin could have curbed that bureaucracy). Yet nevertheless, this tendency is omnipresent across modern communism.
Here, I will examine what a Marxist view of history is, and why ‘great man’ history runs counter to it. Marxists view history primarily as being the result of economic processes in the base of society, which then in turn affect the superstructure of politics, culture, and even science. The reason for this is fairly simple and is laid out in ‘The German Ideology’ by Marx and Engels: “the first premise of human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” In order to live, a whole set of premises are required – how we organise society, how we eat, drink, sleep and so on. All of this is dictated by the economic base – in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, people will act very differently to people in advanced capitalist societies, because the whole way in which our life is structured is profoundly different – we no longer have to spend most of our time hunting and scavenging for food, for instance. “[the mode of production] is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions of their production.” – The German Ideology. In sum, the choices that individuals make take place within a certain material framework that is not of their own making, that lies outside of their control. Had Lenin been born in medieval Muscovy rather than capitalist Russia, he would not have made the same decisions – and even if by some remarkable foresight he became a Marxist revolutionary, he would not be able to lead a proletarian revolution in the material conditions available to him.
The reason why this is antithetical to ‘great man history’ ought to be immediately clear. It means that the decisions taken by Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Deng or anyone else were products of their own material conditions. Therefore, when Stalin murdered most of the Old Bolsheviks, he was not acting as some Machiavellian supervillain, but rather as the representative of concrete historical processes – in this case, the process of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution, which necessitated the liquidation of people who opposed this degeneration or saw it for what it was. If Trotsky, or Lenin, or Bukharin, or anyone else became leader, they may not have done the exact same things as Stalin (it is unlikely any of those three would have launched the Great Terror, for example, as they were not afflicted by the paranoia of Stalin), yet the historical processes at work still would have continued – the dictatorship of the proletariat would still have degenerated into the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. We can see this from the fact that the process began whilst Lenin and Trotsky were still in power, with the decisive moment of Kronstadt taking place in 1921, with Lenin still leader, and the military action executed by Trotsky himself. This is where the Marx quotation I opened this essay with comes into play: “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. History is made by the cumulative effects of the decisions of millions of people, yet the decisions of most of those people are wholly uncontrollable by the individual, and the effects of the decisions made by the individual are conditioned by both material conditions and the decisions of others. Hence, history rarely ends up the way it was intended. All individuals can do is accelerate or decelerate historical processes that change the material conditions, but they cannot create the process or transcend it in some way. To quote Nietzsche, “that which is falling should also be pushed” – but it has to be falling in the first place before the push can take effect. Once the Russian Revolution began to degenerate, the process could not be stopped. Maybe, Lenin, Trotsky or someone else might have decelerated the process, rather than the acceleration that occurred as Stalin took power. Insofar as men are mere agents of class interests, once Russia had gone over to the bourgeois camp, the actions of Trotsky, Stalin or anyone else were bound to reflect bourgeois interests, whether they meant to or not. Such is the Marxist method.