Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Role of the Individual in History

nA look at the Chapter – ‘From Lenin to Castro’ in George Novack’s Understanding History.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this topic for a while. The question of how much individuals can alter history is an important one. Why? Well, if an individual can have no influence over the course of history then why be an activist? Or if they have a controlling influence over the course of history, then why bother with collective action?

Novack explains that Marxism gives primacy to objective factors in the development of history, for example, the development of the forces of production. But it also recognises there is also the subjective factor of human interaction with these events. Depending on objective factors, the human interaction can have a huge or no effect, or even somewhere in between those two poles. It is of course at the high point of events where the actions of individuals are of the greatest influence.

If we look at the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution, as Novack does, we see that the actions of one individual, Lenin, was quite decisive. Not because Lenin in himself was especially important, but because of the social position of Lenin as the authorative figure within the Bolshevik party, armed with the theoretical ideas to lead such a party. Novack also discusses the role of Trotsky. In my opinion, although Trotsky was more theoretically accurate in the development of the revolution (ie. his theory of the Permanent Revolution), he could not have fulfilled this role because he’d rejected the need for a centralised revolutionary party until he became convinced during the course of the revolution. This is not to say that we want only one person to be decisive. For myself, the value in belonging to a revolutionary party is studying the lessons of history and leading struggles so that when the time comes we have hundreds and thousands of individuals who could play a decisive role.

This can be seen in the development of political, organisations and campaigns. Any of these things has one or several main activists who play the leading roles in these groups, with many other people following their lead. Hopefully some of these other people will gradually get more and more involved, and new activists become created. (Okay that’s a bit simplified but you get the jist). In any campaign, it doesn’t necessarily need to be that individual at the beginning, but especially as they gain people’s confidence specific individuals become more and more important, indeed to an extent they become identified with certain issues or groups.

Novack also discusses Cuba. Here I disagree with him when he says that Castro and the July 26th Movement created the missing revolutionary conditions in the country. The revolutionary conditions already existed, what was missing was a correct leadership. The leadership that Castro and his comrades gave did influence the direction of the struggle in Cuba dramatically, leading to an overturn of the dominance of capitalism in that country, but a movement led by the workers in that country would have been even more dramatic and fruitful.

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