The Role Of The Individual In History

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The Role of the Individual in History

The Role of the Individual in History


What impact can the actions of one individual have on the course of history? Historians have come to very different conclusions about this question, and the two opposing positions can be called 'determinism' and 'indeterminism'. Indeterminists believe that individuals can have a dramatic effect on history. This is also known as the 'Great Man' theory of history. The nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle claimed that history was 'but the biography of great men'. This paper discusses the historical influences by great individuals. This study also explores if the course of history can be fundamentally changed by the actions of great individuals, or large-scale, long term factors like geography, environment, or development of the forces of production determine the broad narrative of human history.


Most modern indeterminist historians would accept the importance of underlying structural causes, but argue that at certain turning points the actions of one individual could have very significant consequences. The determinist position (expressed by the Marxist Georgy Plekhanov in his essay On the Question of the Individual's Role in History) is that structural factors primarily dictate events, and that the actions of people are constrained so that they are unable significantly to change the course of history. Many determinists would concede that individuals can have a limited effect: for example that they are able to speed up or slow down events, or that they can have a significant influence in certain fields (for example the arts and sciences) but little effect on wider social and economic change. (Sidney, 2008)

More considered statements of single-factor theories try to provide for a degree of interaction between the chosen factor and others. This leaves the difficult problem of explaining the sense, if any, in which the special factor is the fundamental one. It also leaves the problem—which bedeviled inevitability theories as well—of the relation between large-scale social causes and effects and the actions of participating individuals. "Great man" theories like Thomas Carlyle's are rightly out of fashion, but it is difficult to deny the historical importance of a Vladimir Lenin or a Napoleon Bonaparte. Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov's classical Marxist discussion of this problem, in The Role of the Individual in History, adopts the uneasy compromise that individual causes can make a difference to a historical outcome, but only to its less significant features or to its timing. Such legislation as to the "spheres of influence" of various sorts of conditions, all conceded to be necessary, often seems highly arbitrary; and under pressure, single-factor theories tend to develop into "interpretations" only in the sense of directing attention to one factor in historical change that is deemed especially noteworthy, often for pragmatic reasons. The claim that historical events are determined then ceases to have any special connection with the claims made for the chosen factor. It reverts simply to the assertion that for every event there is a sufficient condition, no matter how disparate the causal ...
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