George Novack’s Understanding History

From Lenin To Castro

The Importance Of The Individual In History-Making


In the third chapter of The Prophet Outcast, the final volume of his biography of Trotsky, where he treats of “The Revolutionary as Historian”, Isaac Deutscher discusses the role of personality in the determination of social events in a highly instructive context. The problem is raised in connection with Trotsky’s appraisal of Lenin’s place in the Russian Revolution.

Deutscher holds that Trotsky shuttled between two discordant positions. In the History of the Russian Revolution, a letter to Preobrazhensky in 1928, and in his Diary in Exile Trotsky maintained that Lenin was absolutely indispensable to the victory of October. It would not have been achieved without him. Elsewhere, in The Revolution Betrayed, says Deutscher, Trotsky reverted to the orthodox view of historical materialism which subordinates the quality of the leadership to the more objective factors in the making of history. Is this a wavering on Trotsky’s part?

Marxism does teach that no individual, however talented, strong-willed or strategically situated, can alter the main course of historical development, which is shaped by supra-individual circumstances and forces. Therefore, reasons Deutscher, the revolution would have triumphed in 1917 with other leaders even if Lenin had been removed from the arena by some accident. Trotsky himself, or a team of other Bolshevik chiefs, might have filled his place.

Deutscher divines that Trotsky’s lapse into a subjectivism bordering on “the cult of the individual” in regard to Lenin was motivated by a psychological need to exaggerate the role of individual leadership as a counterweight to Stalin’s autocracy in his mortal political combat with him. He seeks to correct Trotsky by reference to the ideas expressed in Plekhanov’s classical essay on The Role of the Individual in History. This was a polemic against the Narodnik school of subjective sociology which exalted the hero as an autonomous creator of history at the expense of the masses and other objective determinants of the class struggle. Arguing against the thesis that the collective demand for leadership could be supplied by only one remarkable individual, Plekhanov pointed out that the person hoisted into supreme authority bars the way of others who might have shouldered and carried through the same tasks, though in a different style. The eclipse of alternate candidates creates the optical illusion of the sole irreplaceable personality. If the objective prerequisites are ripe and the historical demand forceful enough, a range of men can fulfil the indicated functions of command.

The Chinese and Yugoslav examples, writes Deutscher, demonstrate how rising revolutions can utilise men of smaller stature than a Lenin or Trotsky to take power. The class struggle can press into service whatever human material is available to fulfil its objectives.

This theme has an importance surpassing Trotsky’s judgment on Lenin’s significance for the Russian Revolution or Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s alleged inconsistencies on the matter. The reciprocal action of the objective and subjective factors in the historical process is one of the key problems of social science. It is no less a key to revolutionary practice in our own time.

Historical materialism unequivocally gives primacy, as Deutscher emphasises, to such objective factors as the level of the productive forces and the state of class relations in the making of history. But there is more to the matter than this.

In the first place, the social phenomena divided into opposing categories are only relatively objective or subjective. Their status changes according to the relevant connections. If the world environment is objective to the nation which is part of it, the nation in turn is objective to the classes which constitute its social structure. The ruling class is objective to the working class. The party is subjective to the class whose interests it represents and aims it promotes while groups, tendencies, factions and their combinations are subjective to the movement or party which contains them. Finally, the individual has a subjective status relative to all these other factors, although he has an objective existence in relation to other individuals.

In the second place, the multiple factors in any historical process do not, and indeed cannot have, an equal and simultaneous growth. Not only do some mature before others but certain of them may fail to achieve a full and adequate reality at the decisive moment, or indeed at any point. The coming together of all the various factors essential for the occurrence of a particular result in a great historical process is an exceptional or “accidental” event which is necessary only in the long run.

The leadership, collective and individual, embodies the conscious element in history. The influence of an individual in determining a course of events can range from negligibility to totality. The extent of his effectiveness in action depends upon the stage of development of historical conditions, the correlation of social forces, and the person’s precise connection with these at a given conjuncture.

There are long stretches of time when the strongest-willed revolutionist cannot in the least avail against the march of events and practically counts for nothing in redirecting them.

On the other hand, there are “tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune”.

Ordinarily, individual action takes place somewhere between these two extremes. What men do—or do not do—in their personal capacity affects to some limited degree the velocity and specific features of the main line of development.

The case in point is: Where and when can an individual exert the maximum weight and become the decisive force in the outcome of a struggle? This can happen only when his intervention is inserted at the culminating point of a prolonged evolution when all the other factors of a more objective sort have come into being. These set the stage for his decisive role and provide the means for carrying through the purposes and program of the movement he represents.

The great man, who helps start a novel line of development in any field, comes as the last link in the assemblage of conditions and the concatenation of events. We are all familiar with the straw that breaks the camel’s back or the drop that overflows the cup. The individual who makes all the difference serves as the precipitant that transforms quantity into quality in the process whereby the new supersedes the old.

However, he must intervene at the critical turning point of development for his action to have so decisive an influence. Such fortunate timing, which does not always depend upon his own awareness, permits him to become the final cause in the cumulative sequence of conditions which are necessary determinants of the outcome.

The discrepancy noted by Deutscher between Trotsky’s observations that Lenin was indispensable for the October victory and that the objective laws of history are far more powerful than the special traits of the protagonists involved is to be explained by the difference between the short and the long run of history. The calculus of probabilities applies to human history as well as to natural events. Given enough chances in the long run, the forces representing the objective necessities of social progress will break through all obstacles and prove stronger than the defences of the old order. But that is not necessarily true at any given stage or in any instance along the way. Here the quality of the leadership can decide which of the genuine alternatives growing out of the prevailing conditions will be realised.

The conscious factor has a qualitatively different import over an entire historical epoch than it has in a specific phase or situation within it. When antagonistic social forces vie for supremacy on a world-historical scale, such favourable and unfavourable circumstances as the character of the leadership tend to offset and cancel one another. The underlying historical necessities assert themselves in and through the aggregate struggles and override the more superficial and chance features which can decide the upshot of any particular encounter. Moreover, an ascending class in the long run benefits more than its opponent from the accidents of development, since the receding class has less and less reserve strength to withstand and overcome small variations in the relation of forces. The total assets of the one increase as those of the other diminish.

Time is an all-important element in the conflict of contending social forces. The indeterminate phase when events can be diverted in either direction does not last long. The crisis in social relations must be resolved quickly one way or the other. At that point the activity or passivity of dominant personalities, groups, parties and masses can tip the scales on one side or the other. The individual can enter as the ultimate factor in the total process of historical determination only when all the other forces in play are temporarily equalised. Then his added weight can serve to tip the balance.

Almost everyone can recall occasions where his own intervention or that of others proved decisive in resolving an uncertain situation. What happens in the small incidents of life applies to big events. Just as the single vote of the chairman can decide when the forces on an issue are evenly divided, so the outstanding qualities of great figures are manifested when history arrives at a deadlock. Their decision or decisiveness breaks the tie and propels events along a definitely different line. This holds for counterrevolutionary as well as revolutionary tendencies. Hitler was important because he took Germany into fascism and war. But he did not direct German or world history into a qualitatively new channel. He simply helped write a further horrible chapter in the death agony of capitalism.

Lenin’s imperishable contribution was the push he gave to opening an entirely new path for Russian and world history, redirecting it from the dead end of capitalism onto the new beginning of socialism.

This brings us back to the specific problem Deutscher discusses. He does not question the fact that in the actual unrolling of the 1917 revolution Lenin functioned as the final cause in the October victory. The difference between Deutscher and Trotsky concerns the uncertain realm of historical possibilities. Could another revolutionist such as Trotsky, or a combination of them, have assumed Lenin’s place?

Trotsky somewhat categorically said no. Deutscher objects that if others on hand could not have performed the same job of leadership, then the position of historical materialism on the lawful determination of events must be abandoned. Either the objective or the subjective factors decide; it is necessary to choose between them.

In my opinion, Deutscher here takes a too constricted and one-sided stand on historical determinism whereas Trotsky employed a more flexible and multi-sided interpretation based upon the interrelation of mutually opposing categories. He tested his conception, first in practice, then in theory, in the successive stages of the Russian Revolution where the importance of the conscious factors stood out with remarkable clarity.

The type of leadership was very different in the two revolutions of 1917. The February Revolution was not planned or directed from above. Trotsky points out in the chapter of his History, “Who Led the February Revolution?” that it was led “by conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”. As educator and organiser of these key workers, Lenin was to that extent necessary to the February overturn, even though he was not on the spot in person.

Between February and October he became more and more decisive because of his resolute and farsighted stands at a series of crucial moments, starting with the reorienting of the Bolshevik cadres in April and culminating in his insistence on insurrection in October. According to Trotsky, Lenin’s role could not have been duplicated. This was not simply because of his personal gifts but even more because of his exceptional standing in the Bolshevik party which was largely his creation.

The question of leadership in the Russian Revolution had a dual aspect. While the Bolsheviks led the workers and peasants to victory, Lenin led the Bolshevik party. His paramount role came from the fact that he led the leaders of the revolution.

Trotsky knew better than anyone else how Lenin could sway the higher echelons as well as the ranks of his party. His authority was a considerable help from April to October in getting his correct proposals adopted over the resistance of other Bolshevik chiefs. This accumulated capital of prestige was not at the disposal of others, including Trotsky, who had a different organisational history and relations. That was the objective basis for his opinion that the October Revolution would most likely not have taken place unless “Lenin was present and in command”.

To be sure, it is not possible, as Deutscher remarks and Trotsky himself recognised, to be utterly categorical on this point. But Trotsky’s conclusion, which is to be found in all his writings after October and before the rise of Stalin, was not based upon a regrettable lapse into excessive subjectivity. It came from applying the Marxist dialectic to the facts as he witnessed and assayed them. If he was wrong, it was not because of any deviation in principle or abandonment of method induced by unconscious political-psychological motives, which Deutscher considers to be the case, but the result of misjudging the facts.


Sidney Hook has entered this controversy from the opposite end. In a review of The Prophet Outcast in the May 11, 1964, New Leader he seizes upon Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s subjectivism for his own purposes. Instead of condemning, he compliments Trotsky for discarding the dogmas of dialectical materialism and attributing “the most important social event in human history’ to the purely personal and contingent circumstance of Lenin’s presence in Russia. In his eyes the October Revolution was the accidental consequence of the work of an individual. Hook repeats the view expressed in his book on The Hero in History, cited by Deutscher, that the October Revolution “was not so much a product of the whole past of Russian history as a product of one of the most event-making figures of all time”.

Whereas Deutscher in the name of Marxist orthodoxy inclines to make the objective factors virtually self-sufficient and thus underrates the crucial importance of Lenin’s leadership, Hook practically nullifies the other and prior determinants by making the October victory wholly dependent upon a single individual. His approach falls below the standards of the most enlightened liberal historians who at least placed objective factors on a par with the ideas and intervention of great men.

Hook has to falsify Trotsky’s standpoint in order to convert him into a pragmatist as superficial as Hook himself. Trotsky’s History is explicitly devoted to demonstrating the necessity of the Russian Revolution and its specific outcome as the result of the whole previous evolution of world capitalism, the backwardness of Russia complemented by its concentrated industrial enterprises and advanced working class, the stresses of the First World War upon a decayed tsarist autocracy, the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the failure of the petty-bourgeois parties and the bold vision of the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin.

Trotsky delineates the operation of this determinism in living reality by narrating and analysing the interconnection of the salient events from the February beginning to the October climax. The successive stages of the revolution did not unfold haphazardly; they issued with inexorable lawfulness one from the other in a causally conditioned sequence. The aim of his theoretical exposition was to find in the verified facts of the actual process the effects of the objective necessities formulated in the laws of the class struggle applied to a backward great power under 20th century conditions. He had already anticipated and articulated these in his celebrated theory of the Permanent Revolution.

Trotsky viewed the Bolshevik party as one of the components of this historical necessity, and Lenin as the most conscious exponent and skilled practitioner of the political science of Marxism based on these laws. It was not purely fortuitous that Lenin was able to play the role that he did. He was no chance comer. “Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian development.” For years he had prepared himself and his party for the task of steering the expected revolution to victory.

There was no foreordination in the full compass of the preconditions for October extending from the history of Russia in the world to the political foresight and insight of Lenin. Their joint necessity was proved in practice. Nor was the actual course of events realised without the concurrence of many accidental circumstances favourable or unfavourable to both sides.

It was, for example, a lucky chance that the German General Staff for its own reasons permitted Lenin to travel from his Swiss exile back to Russia through Germany in time to redirect the Bolshevik party. It was an historical accident that Lenin remained alive and active throughout the crucial months; it could have been otherwise and indeed Lenin thought his murder quite probable. In that case, if we credit Trotsky, the socialist outcome implicit in the situation could not have been achieved in 1917.

This means that the history of the 20th century, which is now unthinkable apart from the Russian Revolution in all its consequences, would have been quite different. Not in the broadest lines of its development but certainly in the particular course and features of the irrepressible contest between the socialist revolution and its capitalist antagonists.

There is nothing un-Marxist, as Deutscher seems to think, in acknowledging this. To link “the fortunes of mankind in this century” with Lenin’s activity in 1917 is not subjectivist thinking; it is a matter of fact. Conversely, Lenin’s absence could well have subtracted that margin of determinism from the total conditions required for victory which would have made the subsequent sequence of developments in the world revolution quite different.

The great fortune of the Russian people and all mankind is that in 1917 both accident and necessity coincided to carry the struggle of workers and peasants to its proper conclusion. This has not always happened in the decades since.

Deutscher weakens his case considerably by focusing attention on Russia. The role of Lenin and his party stand out more clearly and sharply in the light of the defeats suffered by the working class elsewhere in Europe and Asia during the 1920s and 1930s, in the last analysis because of the lack of a collective and individual leadership of Bolshevik-Leninist calibre. The October victory coupled with the post-October defeats convinced the once dubious Trotsky of the decisive role of leadership in an objectively revolutionary situation. These experiences led him to the generalisation which was the keystone of the founding program of the Fourth International, adopted in 1938, that “the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership”. That is why he dedicated the last years of his life to the task of attempting to assemble such a leadership under the banner of the Fourth International.

Deutscher’s disagreement with Trotsky over Lenin’s part in the Russian Revolution is directly connected with his difference with Trotsky over the latter’s role in the post-Lenin period. Deutscher regards Trotsky’s assertion that the foundation of the Fourth International was “the most important work of my life—more important than 1917, more important than the period of the civil war, or any other —” as an aberration. The energy devoted to the Trotskyist groups was largely wasted, he believes, since the objective conditions were not suitable for constructing a new international. In his opinion, Trotsky would have been better advised to remain an interpreter of events instead of vainly trying to change their course by means of a rival world revolutionary organisation.

J.B. Stuart undertook to answer Deutscher’s criticism of Trotsky’s unrealism in connection with the Fourth International in World Outlook a and there is no point in repeating his arguments. Here we are primarily interested in the real rationale behind Trotsky’s positions.

Deutscher contends that Trotsky misjudged Lenin’s importance in the winning of the Russian Revolution and his own role in the period of world reaction after Lenin’s death for psychological reasons which ran counter to Marxist objectivity. Trotsky actually derived his position in both cases, it seems to us, from his conception of the needs of the revolutionary process in our time. He thought that all the major objective ingredients for the overthrow of capitalism had in general ripened. What was missing for new Octobers was the presence of leadership of the type supplied by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Such cadres had to be created to prevent the incompetent and treacherous bureaucracies heading the different sectors of the workers’ movement from ruining more revolutionary opportunities. Thus world political, rather than individual psychological, necessities accounted for his conclusions.


It is true, as Deutscher points out, that revolutionary power was conquered in Yugoslavia and China with leaderships trained in the Stalinist school which do not match the standards of Lenin’s Bolshevism. The 1963 Reunification Congress of the Fourth International took cognisance of this development in its resolution, The Dynamics of World Revolution Today. “The weakness of the enemy in the backward countries has opened the possibility of coming to power even with a blunted instrument.”

However, the document hastens to add: “The strength of the enemy in the imperialist countries demands a tool of much greater perfection.” For the taking of power in the capitalist strongholds as well as the administration of power in the degenerated or deformed workers’ states, the building of new mass revolutionary parties and their unification in a new international organisation remains the central strategical task of the present period no less than in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s day.

This dialectical unity of the objective and subjective factors in the making of a revolution has been both exemplified and theorised by Fidel Castro and his close associates. If ever an historic event could be considered the work of one man, that was—and is—the Cuban Revolution. Castro is truly its “lider maximo ” [main leader].

Castro has explained, notably in his December 21, 1961, speech on Marxism-Leninism, how the founders of the July 26 Movement did not wait for all the objective conditions required for revolutionary success to emerge spontaneously. They deliberately set about to create the still missing revolutionary conditions by fighting. Their guerrilla warfare did bring about the moral, psychological, political changes needed to overthrow Batista’s tyranny. The general lesson of their experience for the further struggles against Latin-American dictatorships has been formulated as follows by Che Guevara in his handbook on guerrilla warfare: “It is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions are ripe for the revolution; the insurrectional centre can create them.”

The transformation of the balance of forces in favour of the progressive side by the initiative of a small band of conscious revolutionary fighters dramatically demonstrates how decisive the subjective factor can be in making history. Yet Castro would be the first to caution against an adventurism which ignores objective conditions, to disavow any cult of the individual, and to acknowledge that his intentions would have miscarried and his combatants would have been rendered powerless without the response they received, first from the peasants in the mountains and then from the masses in the rural and urban areas. The sensitivity of the Cuban leaders to the interplay of the subjective and objective factors in the development of the revolution and its regime at all stages has brought them to a deeper understanding of the ideas of Marx and of the need for a party like Lenin’s.

I  I  I

Events 90 miles from Cuba have highlighted the twofold aspects of the individual’s weight in history-making. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 did not seriously interrupt any operations of the US government or shift its course at home or abroad. After assuming executive authority, Johnson pursued essentially the same policies as his predecessor, albeit with a Texas brand rather than a Harvard accent. Thus the abrupt removal of an extremely popular and powerful personality proved to be inconsequential compared to the automatism of capitalist rulership. Pro-capitalist individuals come and go; the system remains.

At the same time, the holder of supreme office in the United States controls more massive military power than any other person in the world or in human history. On June 4, 1964, Johnson boasted that the national strength “is stronger than the combined might of all the nations in the history of the world”.

The president can release enough nuclear missiles to destroy all mankind. Who can question the overwhelming importance of the individual when one man’s decision can terminate human history on this planet? Kennedy was eyeball to eyeball with this possibility during the 1962 Caribbean crisis.

To be sure, the man in the White House does not act as an isolated individual. He is the chief executive of the United States, commander in chief of its armed forces, and more significantly, agent of the profiteers who run the economy and government. His personal role by and large accords with the objective necessities of monopolist domination; and, in the last analysis, the fundamental interests of the ruling class determine his political conduct.

But his representative functions do not nullify the fact that he alone is delegated to make the final decision and can give the command to press the H-button.

Personal decision is the crowning expression of social determinism, the last link in its causal chain. The social determinism operative in the world today is divided into two irreconcilable trends, stemming from opposing class sources. One is directed by the capitalist war-makers whose spokesmen in the United States have stated that they will not refrain from using atomic weapons if necessary. The other is constituted by the masses of the United States and the rest of the world who dread this prospect and have everything to lose if it should occur.

Which of these contending determinisms will prevail? The fate of mankind hangs in the balance of this decision. To dispossess and disarm the atomaniacs headquartered in Washington, a revolutionary movement of tremendous dimensions and determination will have to be built. No single individual will stop them. But victory in the life-and-death struggle for world peace against nuclear annihilation will require the initiative and devotion of individuals who, though they may not possess the outstanding leadership capacities of a Lenin, Trotsky or Castro, can act in their spirit.