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New Left Review I/157, May-June 1986

Ernest Mandel

The Role of the Individual in History: The Case of World War Two

The primacy of the relationships and conflicts between social forces in determining the course of history is one of the fundamental assumptions of historical materialism. In societies divided into different social classes, such relationships are perforce class relations. History is thus explained, in the final analysis, as a history of struggles between different social classes and their essential fractions, [1] This was indeed Engels’s formula: if one reduces history to only the struggle between antagonistic classes, such major events as World War One, which was obviously not a war between capital and labour but a war between different fractions of the world bourgeoisie, becomes incomprehensible. largely overdetermined by the internal logic of each specific mode of production. Such a view of history is not based on the ‘denial’ of human individuality nor on an ‘underestimation’ of individual autonomy, character structure, or ‘values’. On the contrary, the view that history is basically shaped by social forces results precisely from a full understanding of the fact that an infinite number of individual pressures will tend to create random movements which largely cancel each other out to the extent that they are purely individual. In order for a definitive movement of history to appear—that is, for history to possess a pattern that is intelligible and not merely a meaningless succession of unconnected accidents—common aspects have to be discovered in individuals’ behaviour. Only in this case do millions of individual conflicts, choices and possible directions of movement appear to have a determinate logic that allows them to be seen as a real parallelogram of forces, subject to a finite number of possible resolutions or outcomes. This is obviously what happens in real history.

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