100 years ago, the masses in Russia - led by the Bolsheviks - took power. For Marxists, this is undoubtedly the greatest event in human history; the first time - with the brief exception of the Paris Commune - when the oppressed and exploited rose up and overthrew the old order.
Despite what the slanderous bourgeois historians and defenders of the status quo say about the October Revolution of 1917 being a ‘coup’, the real motor force for these titanic events was none other than the masses themselves: the organised workers, peasants, and soldiers in the soviets.
Nevertheless, whilst the Revolution was ‘made’ by the masses, its success would ultimately not have been possible without the vital leading role of two individuals: Lenin and Trotsky. And even then, Trotsky was humble enough to admit that his was an auxiliary role compared to that of Lenin, whose years of patient work in building and educating the Bolsheviks were key in providing the revolutionary masses with the necessary organisation, direction, and leadership.
“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,” Trotsky remarked in his Diary in Exile.
“If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders...But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway.”
Human agency and free will
What is true for the Russian Revolution is true of all pivotal changes in society. Most textbooks and documentaries would like us to believe that all historical progress is the product of ‘Great Men and Women’ with ‘Great Ideas’, in which the masses are merely the passive recipients of charismatic, determined, and resolute individuals.
The Marxist view of history, by contrast, in the words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto - emphasises that ultimately “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.
Many academic critics attempt to paint Marxism as being rigid and mechanical, accusing the theories of scientific socialism (as Marx and Engels referred to their ideas) of being ‘economically deterministic’. Yet Marx never denied the importance of human agency in determining the course of history. Indeed, ‘history’, Marx stressed, is not some mystical force. There is no ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’.
“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.” (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, emphasis in the original)
As Engels commented in a letter to Bloch, one of his German socialist peers:
“History is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.”
History, then, is made up of individuals following their own individual aims and interests. But, in doing so, as Marx explained, people “inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production.”
Whilst we all have a relative degree of freedom about our choices in life, in other words, we are nevertheless forced by our economic position in society to make very definite decisions that are out of our control. If - like the vast majority of people in society - you are part of the working class, for example, without a wealth of shares and investments to your name that you can live off, then you have no real choice but to work for a wage in order to put food on the table. You might have a certain amount of freedom as to who you work for, depending on your circumstances, but ultimately you have to sell your labour-power (your ability to work) to the capitalist if you are to survive.
The landscape of history
As with individuals in general, so it is with the ‘Great’ individuals of history also.
Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in shaping history. Indeed, in certain cases, this can be a vital and central role. But even history’s ‘Great’ individuals can still only act within the limits set by the conditions of their time, which in turn are created by those who have come before them. As Marx famously commented in his writings on the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
In other words, even the most resolute, intelligent, and charismatic individuals are not completely free agents, but are constrained by the material conditions, social relations, and economic laws of their time.
Like raindrops on a hilly terrain, we each leave our own mark on the surrounding environment, shaping it as we flow through it. The accumulation of all these individual impacts, in turn, creates an historical landscape, the contours of which define the scope of the path travelled by future flows of water.
And whilst a flood of rain or great political earthquakes can inexorably alter the terrain forever, ultimately, in ‘normal’ times, the path we follow is constrained by this social topography that we find ourselves travelling along. Society’s past activities and previous historical events, in other words, constrain and limit the decisions and possibilities available to the individuals that follow - including the ‘Great’ individuals of history.
Accident and necessity
As the great dialectical German philosopher Hegel remarked, accident - ultimately - is a reflection of necessity. In this respect, the emergence of any particular ‘Great’ individual is largely ‘accidental’ in historical terms; ‘accidental’ in the sense that a similar historical role might have been played by another individual.
Even then, however, Engels noted in his own philosophical writings that the relationship between so-called ‘accident’ and ‘necessity’ is a dialectical one. “Common sense,” Engels writes in his Dialectics of Nature, “treats necessity and chance as determinations that exclude each other once for all. A thing, a circumstance, a process is either accidental or necessary, but not both.”
“What can be brought under general laws is regarded as necessary,” Engels continues; “what cannot be so brought as accidental.”
Applied to the study of history, we can therefore say that: whilst the emergence of a particular ‘Great’ individual is ‘accidental’, the emergence of a ‘Great’ leader or visionary in general is (at key moments) ‘necessary’.
In certain historical periods and conditions, in other words, the demands and needs of society will tend to create and call forth individuals with certain qualities and characteristics. In times when the class struggle is at its sharpest, for example, a leader is required who is firm and unwavering in their resolve.
Engels marvellously summarises this question of accident and necessity in relation to the ‘Great’ individuals of history in one of his letters:
“Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will or according to a collective plan or even in a definitely defined, given society. Their efforts clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the forms of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst 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 that particular time in that given country is of course pure accident. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found. That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own war, had rendered necessary, was an accident; but that, if a Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the man has always been found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc.” (Engels to Borgius, London, 25th January 1894)
Extending Engels’ point: it is clear that certain historical conditions will produce more ‘accidents’ than others.
In nature, any pool of water will consist of a collection of molecules, all with their own ‘random’ kinetic energies. Some of these molecules will contain enough energy to ‘accidentally’ evaporate off, even though the collective temperature of the water is not at boiling point. If you heat up the surrounding environment, however, the rate of evaporation will increase rapidly, until there is no water at all - only steam.
Similarly, in periods of intense class struggle, the masses will be radicalised and typically inert layers will be thrust into political action. And from this heightened stage of agitation will emerge more potential revolutionary leaders.
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events,” remarked Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, “but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes.” (G.V. Plekhanov, On the Role of the Individual in History)
The ‘Men of Destiny’, then, are those who express an idea that has already become necessary in processes taking place behind the backs of men and women. Whilst they see historical outcomes as the product of their own efforts and ideas, the scope for individual action is severely limited by objective reality, which favours one outcome over all others.
History is full of seemingly ‘accidental’ events - in economics, politics, etc.: this-or-that election result or blip in the market, for example. But in a situation of generalised crisis, more of such accidents are produced. The system becomes ever more sensitive to each additional accident, and the scales are weighed heavily in one direction by the accumulation of previous accidental events.
Historical events, then, are not completely predetermined. Nor, however, are they left completely to chance and luck. When history plays games with the fates of men and women, it always plays with a loaded dice.
The ‘necessity’ of history - of society or of a particular social class - in other words, creates the ‘accident’ of the ‘Great’ individual. It is not ‘Great’ men and women who make history, but history that makes certain men and women ‘Great’.
Whom the gods wish to destroy...
When history is behind you, it often seems like you can do no wrong. When history is against you, however, it seems like you can do no right.
The latter case is presumably what it must feel like to be Theresa May right now. The Prime Minister’s future hangs in the balance after a series of shocks, scandals, and setbacks for her government. There was, for example, the Tory leader’s terrible - and largely unfortunate - closing speech at the Conservative Party conference in October, which was hampered from start-to-finish by events outside of her control: a fitful cough; a disruptive prankster; and some collapsing scenery. Now the knives are out for May, and many are predicting that she does not have long left in No.10 Downing Street.
As the Ancient Greek proverb goes, however: whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Leon Trotsky paraphrases this saying in his History of the Russian Revolution when discussing “The Death Agony of the Monarchy”. But it also aptly describes Theresa May’s situation at the present time. In the wake of the humiliating general election result earlier this year, it now seems (at the time of writing) like everything is going wrong for the Tory Party leader .
At root, May’s misfortune and apparent incompetence reflects the impasse of the system that she defends and the lack of any future that it - and her party - has to offer. “The impersonal Jupiter of the historical dialectic,” Trotsky continues, “withdraws ‘reason’ from historic institutions that have outlived themselves and condemns their defenders to failure.”
In these quotes above, Trotsky was describing the personal failings of Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian royal family, whose hopelessness in their final hours before the February Revolution of 1917 - the author notes - mirrored that of previously overthrown monarchies, such as that of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France.
In all these cases, the limits and demise of these once-omnipotent figures were a product of the anachronistic institution of the feudal monarchies that they represented. To paraphrase Joseph de Maistre, the 19th Century philosopher (and, ironically, a devout monarchist): every ruling class gets the leaders it deserves.
“The scripts for the rôles of Romanov and Capet were prescribed by the general development of the historic drama,” Trotsky states; “only the nuances of interpretation fell to the lot of the actors.”
“The ill-luck of Nicholas, as of Louis, had its roots not in his personal horoscope, but in the historical horoscope of the bureaucratic-caste monarchy.”
It is a basic tenet of materialist philosophy that similar conditions produce similar results. We see this in nature with the question of evolution by comparing different species that have similar appearances.
For example, the dolphin is a mammal; the shark a fish; and the ichthyosaurus a now-extinct marine reptile. Each of these creatures is from a completely different branch of the evolutionary tree, and yet they have all been shaped by their shared environment to have almost identical appearances.
Equally, as mentioned above, both Engels and Trotsky noted how similar personalities and individual characters arise out of similar historical conditions - for example, with the ‘strong men’ of Caesar, Napoleon, and Stalin in periods where the class struggle reaches an intense deadlock.
Undoubtedly every individual has their own personality, which is the complex and dynamic product of a whole history of experiences and events. Nevertheless, as Trotsky explains in relation to the Russian monarchy (providing an astounding materialist analysis of psychological traits and personal characteristics in the process), the more intense the contradictions in society and the more powerful the overall forces of history, the more and more individual responses will converge and personal characteristics will end up conforming to fit the shape required.
“Similar (of course, far from identical) irritations in similar conditions call out similar reflexes; the more powerful the irritation, the sooner it overcomes personal peculiarities. To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red-hot iron, alike. As a steam-hammer converts a sphere and a cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of ‘individuality’ lost.”
Just as Thatcher declared that “there’s no such thing as society”, we might therefore retort that there is no such thing as the individual. We are all products of our environment, whilst also shaping the world around us. And in certain historical periods, the needs and aims of many individuals combine to create the conditions for revolutionary change - and, in turn, to thrust to the fore revolutionary leaders who can take society forwards.
Hitler and the rise of Fascism
Bourgeois historians too often use personal characteristics to explain away those abominations of history that they do not and cannot understand. Hence the rise of Fascism, World War Two and the atrocities of the Holocaust are put down to the individual monstrosity of Adolf Hitler.
Marxists, by contrast, explain these figures not in terms of their personality, but in terms of historical conditions and processes.
Hitler’s actions, for example, certainly shaped the course of history. But he himself was also a product of the period that he lived through: a period that saw the emasculation and humiliation of Germany after WWI, epitomised by the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles. Above all, Hitler and the mass Fascist movement that he represented arose out of an age of revolution and counter-revolution - a chaotic and turbulent time that saw the German masses (and, in particular, the middle classes) crushed by the impact of Weimar-era hyperinflation and the Great Depression.
The result was the creation of a large layer of impoverished petit-bourgeois, caught between monopoly capitalism on the one side and the radicalised working class - who were looking towards Communism - on the other. It was this ruined and frenzied middle-class mass that provided the social basis for the rise of Fascism and, in turn, Hitler, who promised to restore this layer to their former economic glory. The backing of the German bourgeoisie and the criminal split in the working class - as a result of the actions of Social Democratic leaders and Stalinists - prepared the way for his victory.
It is clear, therefore, that the rise of an upstart such as Hitler was not accidental, but was the result of an entire historical period. This is further demonstrated by the fact that similar figures and movements - such as Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain - were seen around the same time as a result of similar conditions across Europe.
This is not to suggest, however, that the conquest of power by any one of these Fascist movements or leaders was inevitable. The objective conditions of crisis and the formation of a destitute, desperate middle class most certainly provided the material basis for the rise of Fascism in Italy, Germany, and Spain. But, in the final analysis, their victory was only made possible as a result of the missing subjective factor - that is, a real revolutionary leadership - on the side of the working class.
This period of German history, for example, was a long, tumultuous process in which many parties, ideas, and leaders were put to the test and found-wanting: from the failure of the German Communist Party to make the call for workers’ power in 1923; to the ultra-left sectarianism of the Third Period Stalinists, who refused to form a united front with the Social Democrats that could have stopped Hitler and the burgeoning Fascist movement in its tracks. (And this is not to even mention the bourgeois Chancellors of Brüning, Papen, and Schleicher during the decline of the Weimar Republic, whose impotence paved the way for Hitler's ascent to power.)
Upon taking power, Hitler boasted that he had done so “without breaking so much as a single pane of glass”. But the sad reality is that this was only possible as a result of the crimes of the leadership of the working class. In this sense, we again see the vital role of the individual in history, only this time in the negative: the barbarism that can occur in the absence of the revolutionary subjective factor.
‘Strongmen’ and the ‘Cult of Personality’
Just as the horrors of the Second World War are often presented as being simply the result of Hitler’s personal malevolence, so too are the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism frequently reduced to the ‘Cult of Personality’ surrounding the respective leaders in the Soviet Union and China.
Again, the appeal of such a superficial analysis to bourgeois historians is all too clear. It is easy to reduce complex historical process to semi-mystical personal attributes such as charisma and charm. It is far harder to examine these processes in a rigorous and scientific - that is, a materialist - way, in order to understand the underlying forces at play.
‘Strongmen’ such as Stalin and Mao were ultimately the representatives of a bureaucratic caste, which in turn arose out of the attempts to build a socialist planned economy within conditions of economic backwardness and isolation.
The ‘Cult of Personality’ surrounding Stalin flowed from this reality, reflecting the need of the Soviet bureaucracy for a supreme leader who could personify and defend their interests; as Trotsky explains in his Marxist masterpiece, the Revolution Betrayed, which analyses the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into bureaucratic totalitarianism:
“The increasingly insistent deification of Stalin is, with all its elements of caricature, a necessary element of the regime. The bureaucracy has need of an inviolable superarbiter, a first consul if not an emperor, and it raises upon its shoulders him who best responds to its claim for lordship. That ‘strength of character’ of the leader which so enraptures the literary dilettantes of the West, is in reality the sum total of the collective pressure of a caste which will stop at nothing in defense of its position. Each one of them at his post is thinking: l’etat c’est moi. In Stalin each one easily finds himself. But Stalin also finds in each one a small part of his own spirit. Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy. That is the substance of his political personality.” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, chapter XI)
As Trotsky further explained in his uncompleted biography of Stalin, the blandness of this brute - ‘the grey blur’ - reflected the stultifying and narrow-minded mentality of the Soviet bureaucracy, whose interests he ultimately represented.
“[In order for the ‘Cult of Personality’ around Stalin to emerge], special historical conditions were necessary in which he was not required to display any creativeness. His [lack of] intellect served merely to summarise the work of the collective intellect of the bureaucratic caste as a whole. The bureaucracy's fight for its self-preservation, the entrenchment of its privileged position, called for the personification of an intense will to power. Such an exceptional configuration of historical conditions was necessary before his intellectual attributes, notwithstanding their mediocrity, received extensive general recognition multiplied by the coefficient of this will.” (Leon Trotsky, Stalin, chapter XIII)
Marx, in the 18th Brumaire, made similar remarks about Louis Bonaparte, even coining the term ‘Bonapartism’ to describe such leaders that regularly appear throughout history: those who rule by the sword, leaning on the different classes within society in order to rise up and maintain order (that is, to maintain the status quo of the existing property relations) in a situation where the class struggle has reached a deadlock.
In this sense, there is also a similarity between the original Bonaparte (Napoleon I) and Julius Caesar, who likewise acted as a ‘strongman’, arising amidst the demise of the Roman Republic in order to provide a relative stability and order within society - and, ultimately, to defend the interests of the existing ruling class of slave-owners. For these reasons, the term ‘Caesarism’ is also sometimes used to describe the same types of regimes as might be labelled ‘Bonapartist’.
Trotsky, in turn, described Stalinism as a form of ‘Soviet Bonapartism’: a political dictatorship, sitting atop a planned economy and a workers’ state, arising from a situation in which the revolutionary masses and objective conditions for socialism were too weak within Russia alone, but where the old capitalist class had been swept aside, into the dustbin of history.
Describing the similarities between the historical phenomena of Caesarism, Bonapartism, and Stalinism (and, in turn, between the historical figures of Caesar, Bonaparte, and Stalin), Trotsky wrote the following:
“Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defense of the privileged. The Stalin regime, rising above a politically atomised society, resting upon a police and officers’ corps, and allowing of no control whatever, is obviously a variation of Bonapartism – a Bonapartism of a new type not before seen in history.
“Caesarism arose upon the basis of a slave society shaken by inward strife. Bonapartism is one of the political weapons of the capitalist regime in its critical period. Stalinism is a variety of the same system, but upon the basis of a workers’ state torn by the antagonism between an organized and armed Soviet aristocracy and the unarmed toiling masses.” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, chapter XI)
‘Strongmen’ such as Stalin (and Caesar, Napoleon, etc.) arise historically, therefore, not simply because of their single-minded resolve or unrelenting ambition, but - as Trotsky explains above - because the social contradictions of certain periods demand such authoritarian leadership.
Indeed, the irony is that Stalin rose to power not because of any ‘Cult of Personality’, but precisely because of his lack of charisma and personality. Far from being a broad and confident thinker, the Soviet dictator was marked by his mediocrity, as Trotsky notes in his biography of Stalin, quoting the words of Engels about the Duke of Wellington: “He is great in his own way, as great as one can be without ceasing to be a mediocrity.” (Leon Trotsky, Stalin, chapter XIII)
Marx commented similarly about Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III) in the 18th Brumaire, noting that Bonaparte’s lack of personality or charisma too (as with Stalin) acted as a blank slate, upon which various groups could project their aspirations and interests. Such dull, uninspiring, and lacklustre qualities, therefore, allowed Bonaparte and Stalin to maintain a veneer of being ‘all things to all people’, despite in fact defending the privileges of the existing ruling class.
Trotsky vs Stalin
One can compare and contrast the lives of Trotsky and Stalin to see clearly how different epochs demand different sorts of individuals.
Trotsky, on the one hand, was well known for his charismatic presence and sharp intellect. He had been chairman of the 1905 St Petersburg Soviet at the age of just 26; he was the leader of the Military Revolutionary Committee that organised the 1917 October insurrection; and he single-handedly forged the Red Army from nothing as the People's Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs during the Russian Civil War.
Stalin, by contrast, had played little role in the 1917 Revolution. So how did he come to be the ‘Great Leader’ of the Soviet Union? This simple - yet seemingly paradoxical - question highlights the relationship between the individual and history.
The bland and boring personalities of Stalin (or Louis Bonaparte) stand in stark contrast to the daring, audacity, and genius of those individuals pushed forward by the wave of revolution, which requires and rewards genuine talent.
In its ascendancy, the revolutionary movement produces figures with courage and conviction: the Cromwells, Robespierres, and Lenins of this world. The period of degeneration and backsliding, however, favours those without theories or visions. As the revolution ebbs and the masses withdraw from activity, then the dull, grey ‘strongman’ emerges on the back of this demoralisation to maintain order.
Trotsky and Lenin - bold and far-sighted leaders and theoreticians - represented the revolutionary fervour of 1917. But by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, after years of civil war, famine, and devastation, the masses were tired and did not want to listen to calls for ‘permanent revolution’. Instead, the mentality (particularly amongst the vast peasantry) was one of a desire for stability; of an end to the chaos, whilst retaining the gains of the October Revolution.
At the same time, under intense conditions of isolation and economic backwardness, the masses withdrew from political activity. And without the presence of advanced industry, mass literacy, high levels of education, and abundant technical skills, etc., the material conditions for the development of workers’ control and management simply did not exist.
As Trotsky explained in the Revolution Betrayed, it was ultimately these conditions of scarcity and deprivation that formed the material basis for the Stalinist regime:
“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and how has to wait.” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, chapter V)
In turn, this bureaucratic caste, as explained earlier, demanded a figurehead who represented their narrow interests. Trotsky himself even remarked that had he taken power after Lenin’s death - for example, through his leadership of the Red Army - he would have ended up becoming instead a prisoner of the military bureaucracy. Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, meanwhile, noted in 1926 that had Lenin survived, he too would have ended up in one of Stalin’s prisons.
Trotsky, therefore, understood what so many shallow and empirical historians since have failed to recognise: that the cause for the degeneration of the Soviet Union into totalitarian dictatorship lay not with the ideas of Marxism, Leninism, and Bolshevism, nor with the megalomaniacal personality of Stalin, but because of the impossibility of building ‘socialism in one country’ - and especially in an economically undeveloped, mainly peasant-based country such as Russia; that is, because the Revolution did not successfully spread internationally.
The rise of the Soviet bureaucratic machinery and, in turn, of Stalin, flowed from this fact. “Stalin rose to power not thanks to personal qualities, but to an impersonal apparatus,” Trotsky explains in his biography of the tyrannical dictator. “It was not he who created the apparatus, but the apparatus that created him.” (Leon Trotsky, Stalin, chapter XIV)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Similarly to the rise of Hitler and Stalin in the past, the emergence today of reactionary figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen - the ‘not-so-Great’ individuals of history - might also seem to many like a horrific accident. Indeed, there are many superficial mainstream commentators today who frequently ascribe Trump and Le Pen’s success to their demagoguery, rhetorical skills, and forceful personality.
But when similar accidental events are occurring in one country after another, it is clearly a reflection of a wider process of political polarisation and fragmentation going on within society: a collapse of the liberal centre ground and a breaking down of the old status quo.
By contrast, two of the most popular political figures in the world right now are those who represent new mass movements on the Left: Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the USA. In this respect, the rapid - and entirely unexpected - rise of Corbyn and Sanders represents the other side of the coin to the vote for Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as US President.
And yet, ironically, neither of these left-wing leaders could by any means be considered new or fresh. Nor are either of them particularly ‘charismatic’ by any account. So why only now - after decades of tireless campaigning on the Left - are they both suddenly a point of reference for millions of workers and youth in Britain and America respectively?
In both cases, they are clearly riding the wave of history - a wave of mass anger against the crooked Establishment and their rotten system. This fact again demonstrates Engels’ earlier assertion, which is worth repeating again here:
“That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at that particular time in that given country is of course pure accident. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.
This statement, however, does not deny the vital role that Corbyn, for example, now plays on the Left in Britain. At certain points in history, the hopes and dreams of a movement can become embodied and personified in one person. The relationship between Corbyn and the movement around is such an example of this phenomena.
Corbyn’s personal attributes - ‘principled’ and ‘honest’ are among the positive qualities most frequently ascribed to the Labour leader - reflect the craving amongst ordinary people for a leader who (and a party that) breaks with the Blairite mould of superficiality and fickleness so commonly associated with traditional politicians. In this respect, for many, the idea of a Corbyn movement without Corbyn seems impossible to imagine.
The same was true - and even more so - in the case of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who came to embody and represent all the desires and aspirations of the masses. The result was a dialectical relationship between himself and the revolutionary Bolivarian movement: the more the masses pushed Chavez forward, the more confidence it gave him in the movement’s power, and the more this - in turn - inspired and radicalised the masses.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks
Similar was the relationship between Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian workers and peasants. “The ability to think and feel for and with the masses,” Trotsky stated in his Diary in Exile, “was characteristic of him [Lenin] to the highest degree, especially at the great political turning points.
John Reed, the American journalist and socialist, noted in his brilliant first-hand account of the Russian Revolution - Ten Days That Shook the World - that Lenin was a remarkable leader: someone who was enormously admired and respected not because of his charisma, but amazingly in spite of his complete lack of charisma; and ultimately because of the clarity and correctness of the ideas that he put forward.
Lenin, Reed wrote, was:
“Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader - a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies - but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analysing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity."
Without Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917, the Bolsheviks would not have been armed with the necessary political ideas, perspectives, and demands to conquer the minds of the masses. But Lenin’s ‘greatness’ was itself the embodiment of all the historical lessons learnt by the Bolsheviks over decades of building a revolutionary organisation. Lenin was not born Lenin; he made himself.
Just as Lenin helped to forge the Bolshevik Party into the revolutionary weapon needed by the Russian workers and peasants, so too did the Party help to forge Lenin into the leader that was vitally required in the decisive moments of 1917.
Trotsky emphasises this point in a brilliant passage from his biography of Stalin, where he discusses Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917 and the question of his ‘April Theses’, which helped to politically re-orientate and re-arm the Bolsheviks for the revolutionary tasks at hand. In doing so, Trotsky explains the dialectical relationship that existed between Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, comparing the revolutionary guidance and leadership provided by Lenin to the scientific achievements of individual ‘geniuses’ like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton:
“Every time that the Bolshevik leaders had to act without Lenin they fell into error, usually inclining to the Right. Then Lenin would appear like a deus ex machina and indicate the right road. Does it mean then that in the Bolshevik Party Lenin was everything and all the others nothing? Such a conclusion, which is rather widespread in democratic circles, is extremely biased and hence false.
“The same thing might be said about science. Mechanics without Newton and biology without Darwin seemed to amount to nothing for many years. This is both true and false. It took the work of thousands of rank and file scientists to gather the facts, to group them, to pose the problem and to prepare the ground for the comprehensive solutions of a Newton or a Darwin. That solution in turn affected the work of new thousands of rank and file investigators. Geniuses do not create science out of themselves; they merely accelerate the process of collective thinking.
“The Bolshevik Party had a leader of genius. That was no accident. A revolutionist of Lenin’s makeup and breadth could be the leader only of the most fearless party, capable of carrying its thoughts and actions to their logical conclusion. But genius in itself is the rarest of exceptions. A leader of genius orients himself faster, estimates the situation more thoroughly, sees further than others.
“It was unavoidable that a great gap should develop between the leader of genius and his closest collaborators. It may even be conceded that to a certain extent the very power of Lenin’s vision acted as a brake on the development of self-reliance among his collaborators.
“Nevertheless, that does not mean that Lenin was ‘everything’ and that the Party without Lenin was nothing. Without the Party Lenin would have been as helpless as Newton and Darwin without collective scientific work. It is consequently not a question of the special sins of Bolshevism, conditioned presumably by centralisation, discipline and the like, but a question of the problem of genius within the historical process. Writers who attempt to disparage Bolshevism on the grounds that the Bolshevik Party had the good luck to have a leader of genius merely confess their own mental vulgarity.
“The Bolshevik leadership would have found the right line of action without Lenin, but slowly, at the price of friction and internal struggles. The class conflicts would have continued to condemn and reject the meaningless slogans of the Bolshevik Old Guard...
“However, that does not mean that the right path would have been found anyway. The factor of time plays a decisive role in politics—especially, in a revolution. The class struggle will hardly bide its time indefinitely until the political leaders discover the right thing to do. The leader of genius is important because, in shortening the learning period by means of object lessons, he enables the party to influence the development of events at the proper moment.
“Had Lenin failed to come at the beginning of April, no doubt the Party would have groped its way eventually to the course propounded in his ‘Theses’. But could anyone else have prepared the Party in time for the October denouement? That question cannot be answered categorically.
“One thing is certain: in this situation—which called for resolute confrontation of the sluggish Party machine with masses and ideas in motion—Stalin could not have acted with the necessary creative initiative and would have been a brake rather than a propeller. His power began only after it became possible to harness the masses with the aid of the machine.” (Leon Trotsky, Stalin, chapter VII)
The Bolsheviks’ programme and traditions, in turn, however, were themselves the product of not just decades but centuries of lessons - lessons obtained from the entire generalised experiences of the class struggle, as contained within the pages of the wealth of theoretical material written by Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, and other leading proponents and defenders of the ideas of scientific socialism.
This highlights why, for Marxists, the question of theory and education is so vital in the building of a revolutionary organisation. Without such education, the lessons of previous generations will be lost forever to the ether.
Only by steeling ourselves in the ideas of Marxism can we ensure that each and every movement does not have to learn the lessons of history again for itself anew. Instead, we can pass the necessary conclusions on from one generation to the next, applying these important lessons to the concrete conditions of today, and providing an ‘unbroken thread’ to the struggle for socialism.
The motor force of history
Marxists are not fatalists who deny the role of human agency in events. Indeed, we are actively trying to build the revolutionary organisation that is necessary to transform society. Nor, however, do we agree with the postmodernists in their rejection of any general laws and dynamics within society. History is not “just one damn thing after another”.
Historical processes are, of course, complex. But that is not to say they are completely unpredictable or uncontrollable. Amidst the seemingly chaotic uncertainty of events, there is a degree of order. History has its own laws and dynamics, albeit only at a very general level.
Indeed, as discussed earlier, Trotsky notes in his History of the Russian Revolution how similar characters appear in similar situations throughout history, comparing the decrepit monarchies overthrown in the English, French, and Russian revolutions.
In turn, Trotsky explained, these revolutions themselves contained similar events and displayed similar processes, arising from the way in which mass consciousness changes and the class struggle expresses itself. For example, elsewhere, the same writer drew an analogy between the degeneration of the French Revolution into Bonapartism and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism, as the force of the masses withdrew from the scene of history in both cases.
The most general law asserted by the materialist view of history is that of the development of the productive forces: the fact that there is a tendency - in the long view - for humankind to increase our mastery over nature and our standards of living, as expressed in terms of society’s level of science, industry, technology, and technique. Simply put: today is generally better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.
When a society’s economic system and property relations become a barrier in the way of this development, Marx explained, “then begins the era of social revolution”.
But history does not wait - ordinary people cannot wait - for the revolutionary party or leader to arrive to carry through the social transformation that is required. At certain points, the objective conditions of poverty and destitution felt by the masses demand dramatic change in the here and now, regardless of what party or leadership is currently available.
In the absence of the necessary ‘subjective factor’ of a revolutionary party, however, this process can occur with all manner of distortions. The evidence for this is the emergence of the various ‘deformed workers’ states’ seen throughout history: the Stalinist-style regimes - with a bureaucratic caste presiding over a nationalised, planned economy - that took power in many ex-colonial countries in the post-war period on the back of revolutionary movements against imperialism and landlordism.
From the 1949 Chinese and 1959 Cuban revolutions, to the Baathist and Mengistu regimes in Syria and Ethiopia respectively: all of these examples, and many more, Ted Grant explained in a seminal article on the Colonial Revolutions and the Deformed Workers’ States were a product of the objective necessity for revolution in these countries - a rebellion of the masses against the existing social relations and contradictions left behind from decades and centuries of imperialism and colonialism.
“Under the conditions of the decay of capitalism-landlordism in the colonial countries, all the social contradictions are aggravated to an extreme. Social tensions reach an unbearable level. Hence in one country after another in Asia, Africa and Latin America, bourgeois democracy is replaced by bourgeois Bonapartist dictatorships or proletarian Bonapartist dictatorships. In the above-named ex-colonial countries not one proceeded on the model of the norm of the socialist revolution.”
Elsewhere, in Egypt in the 1950s, military-figure-turned-president Gamal Abdel Nasser ended up nationalising important key sectors of the economy, such as the Suez Canal.
Similarly in all cases, petit-bourgeois leaders left nationalists like Mao and Castro were pushed much further in terms of their economic programme than they had ever originally intended, due to the objective conditions that they faced. Attempting at first just to carry out basic economic reforms and demands for sovereignty, these leaders were forced to shift far to the left as a result of the pressure of the masses from below, and the counter-pressures of imperialism and the local comprador capitalists.
Ultimately, as Ted Grant emphasised, the role of such leaders in the colonial revolutions had little to do with their personal beliefs or individual attributes, and everything to do with the motor force of historical necessity and societal change that they came to embody and represent:
“It is important to see that what all these variegated forces have in common is not the secondary personal differences but the social forces and class forces they represent.
“Mengistu, Castro, [etc.]...broke with their class background and the advantages or disadvantages of their bourgeois and university education and outlook. It is true that they did not put themselves on the standpoint of the proletariat - as Marx and Lenin did - but they accepted the much easier 'socialism' which entailed the individual rule of them and of their elite on the backs of the working class and peasants.
“All individual differences are stamped out by the decisive class and economic changes which they have presided over in their countries and their societies.”
Freedom and necessity
Marxism, therefore, does not place the importance of historical conditions and of the individual in a mutually exclusive manner to one another. Rather, these factors - of the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’; of ‘necessity’ and ‘accident’ - exist as a unity of opposites.
It is clear that we neither possess ‘free will’, in the sense of an unconstrained ability to determine our own future; nor are we subject to the fatalistic forces of ‘destiny’.
Ultimately, as Engels commented, referencing Hegel, real freedom “does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”
“This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves - two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, chapter XI)
Even the greatest individual, for example, cannot conjure up magical powers to defy gravity and fly. But through the development of science we can, over time, learn to understand the laws of gravity and motion in order to invent machines - such as aeroplanes - that can overcome the forces of nature and allow us to fly.
So it is too in terms of the relationship between the individual and history. No historical figure can prevail in the face of powerful social forces acting against them. Without the necessary material conditions, even the most intelligent, charismatic, and determined leader can only go so far.
Engels remarked as such in relation to the Utopian Socialists: the political predecessors to himself and Marx, who idealistically believed that all that was needed in order to bring about socialism was “the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth.”
Marx and Engels, by contrast, put forward the view of scientific - materialist - socialism, emphasising that no quantity or quality of Great Men in previous epochs could have led society towards genuine socialism. Hence those communist tendencies that did exist within previous bourgeois revolutions, such as Winstanley’s Diggers in the English Revolution and the extreme left of the Jacobins around Hebert in the French Revolution French Revolution, were doomed to failure from the beginning.
In the final analysis, these movements and leaders represented the demands of a class - the working class - that was only in its nascency; demands that could not be achieved on the basis of the relatively basic productive forces that existed at that time, with little industry, no world market, and a numerically weak working class.
Similar too, as explained above, was the victory of Stalinism and the bureaucracy over Trotskyism and the Left Opposition in the years following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Socialism, as Trotsky explained in the Revolution Betrayed, could not be built in one country - and especially not in a country as economically and culturally undeveloped as Russia.
“Who makes history?”, asks Plekhanov in his pamphlet on the role of the individual in history. “It is made by the social man,” the formative Russian Marxist answers.
“But if in a given period he creates given relationships and not others, there must be some cause for it, of course; it is determined by the state of his productive forces.
“No great man can foist on society relations which no longer conform to the state of these forces, or which do not yet conform to them. In this sense, indeed, he cannot make history.” (Our emphasis in bold)
Thus, Plekhanov explains, even Great Men and Women are not free to make history as they please. But, again, the question of the relationship between freedom and necessity arises. Plekhanov continues:
“Social relationships have their inherent logic: as long as people live in given mutual relationships they will feel, think and act in a given way, and no other. Attempts on the part of public men to combat this logic would also be fruitless; the natural course of things (i.e. this logic of social relationships) would reduce all his efforts to naught.
“But if I know in what direction social relations are changing owing to given changes in the social-economic process of production, I also know in what direction social mentality is changing; consequently, I am able to influence it. Influencing social mentality means influencing historical events. Hence, in a certain sense, I can make history, and there is no need for me to wait while ‘it is being made’.” (Our emphasis in bold)
In other words, by understanding the general laws of motion in society - of the economy, consciousness, and revolution - we can ourselves become a factor in the objective process and help to determine the course of history.
And this is what is meant by theory: the understanding of these general laws, based on a materialist and dialectical analysis of nature, of history, and of capitalism; an understanding that provides a guide to revolutionary organisation and action, allowing us to radically change the world around us. “Theory,” as Marx noted, “becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses”.
A question of leadership
Ultimately, as mentioned at the start, it is the objective conditions of crisis and radicalised consciousness that bring the masses onto the scene of history, making revolution possible. Without these necessary conditions, there can be no talk of revolution.
This is what Plekhanov was polemicising against in his famous pamphlet, quoted above; against the middle class Narodniks who placed too great an emphasis on the role of the individual, substituting the need for mass action and organisation with that of individual terror and ‘propaganda of the deed’. Such futile tactics continue through to today in the form of anarchism and its obsession with ‘direct action’, which more often than not amounts to little more than the performance of political stunts.
Plekhanov, by contrast, was attempting to imbue the early Russian Marxists with a sense of the importance of the masses in making history. And not just ‘the masses’ in the abstract, but the vital role of the organised working class - organised around the revolutionary ideas of Marxism.
Today, it is clear that all the objective conditions necessary for world revolution exist. Indeed, as Trotsky asserted in the opening passages of his Transitional Programme, “the objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.”
“Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”
The problem facing humankind in the current epoch, Trotsky emphasised, lies not with incorrect objective conditions, but with the lack of the subjective factor: the revolutionary party. “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”
Everywhere we look, the old order is breaking down. There is a deep questioning of all the existing certainties in society, previously considered sacrosanct and inviolable; a radicalisation and discontent, reflecting itself in sharp swings to the left and to the right.
But as Trotsky eloquently explained in relation to the October Revolution and the crucial role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks 100 years ago, the prospect of change remains only as potential without the presence of a revolutionary leadership:
“Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” (Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Preface)
This is the role of a revolutionary organisation: to channel and direct the radical energy of the workers, youth, and oppressed masses - which exists today worldwide - towards the revolutionary transformation of society.
Building such an organisation is the task that we in the International Marxist Tendency have set ourselves. And on this centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, we implore you to join us in this vital task.