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,footnote1 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.

Paradoxically, those who deny the primacy of social forces in shaping human destiny also most diminish the role of the majority of individuals in society. For only under circumstances in which the vast majority have been excluded from history-making, can a few ‘great men’ be endowed with the power to shape events. When historical materialism posits the primacy of social forces over individual actions in determining the course of history, it does not deny that certain individuals play exceptional roles. If men and women make history, it is always with a certain consciousness, which of course may be a ‘false’ consciousness to the extent that it misinterprets their real interests or fails to foresee the objective consequences of their actions. It follows in this context that certain individuals in the leadership of social currents can have unusual influence in history, not as supermen but precisely through their relationship to their constituencies.

Such personalities cannot change the ‘secular’ trend of events. Even the most powerful tyrant in the world cannot escape the implacable demands of capital accumulation resulting from the structure of private property and competition in the capitalist world. Any attempt, for example, to substitute the logic of slave production (as Hitler tried to do) must fall afoul as long as present technology and private ownership continue to prevail. Likewise, neither individual genius nor ‘will to power’ can overthrow the constraints of the material (socio-economic) correlation of forces. Thus given the respective productive forces of capitalist Europe and the United States in 1941, Nazi Germany, even after subjugating all of Europe, had no chance of winning a war against the vast economic power of North America, except through the successful integration of all the ussr’s industrial plant and natural resources (a process that would have taken years).

But given these global social and material constraints, certain personalities can influence history either by possessing a clearer perception than others of the historical needs of their class, or by retarding the recognition of these objective needs. By their influence they can impose decisions which, in the short run, either further or thwart the interests of the social forces that they are supposed to represent. This is largely independent of their will or of their declared intentions. Hitler, for example, did not intend to destroy the German ruling class’s power over half of the Reich as it existed on 31 August 1939, but such a loss of power and territory was precisely the outcome of the chain of events unleashed by his invasion of Poland the next day. These events, moreover, included a series of actions which did not represent the only possible choice for the Nazi social bloc, and for which Hitler as an individual bore an immediate responsibility.

This distinction between the great secular movements of history and shorter-term variations in historical development, of course, is only an elementary approximation of the relationship between social forces and individuals in shaping the course of events. A further, essential category encompasses the conjunctural needs of social groups. To return to the example of the invasion of Poland, it is undoubtedly true that the decision was primarily Hitler’s. It expressed, in a striking way, the contradictory facets of his personality: recklessness, monomania, skilful opportunism as well as cyclothymic alternation between paralysed indecision and hyper-voluntarism. But it is also true that as early as 1932 leading circles of the German capitalist class had decided (in consideration of their conjunctural interests) that Germany’s only way out of the economic crisis was to establish hegemony over Central and Eastern Europe.