Looking backward on the claims of the social determinists, whether idealist or materialist, it would appear that all they have validly established as a universal generalization is that a great man cannot influence history until the times are “ripe” for him. This is a far cry from the thesis they set out to defend. For, like ripe fruit that may rot on the vine or be harvested, the times may wither unfulfilled or be plucked by a man of action. So much even Carlyle might have admitted, insisting only that the ripeness of to-day is the consequences of the heroic action of yesterday.

An arrogant claim tamed down to a commonplace truth, the reader may murmur. Yet it is not altogether a commonplace when we realize that it does more than set definite limitations upon heroic action. It suggests why such action can succeed in meeting the challenge of ripe conditions. This may be clearer if we contrast it with other views of Carlyle.

In some of his moods Carlyle seems to agree with the social determinists that the hero is limited by the kind of world into which he is born. But even here there is a difference. For Carlyle is vague about the nature of the limitations set by the world whereas the historical determinists, at least, are quite specific about the nature of the limitations. They are social, political, and economic.

Corresponding to this vagueness on Carlyle’s part is his notion that the capacity of genius is not specific but has, on the contrary, an unlimited power of creative adaptation to whatever world it discovers. “Napoleon,” says Carlyle, “has words in him which are like Austerlitz battles.” And again, “The hero can be prophet, poet, king, or priest or what you will according to the kind of world he finds himself born into. I confess I have no notion of a truly great man who could not be all sorts of men.”[1]

The social determinists usually have a more sober view of the specificity of talent and genius. For them social conditions are not always permissive to genius; they may be crushing. And when they are permissive, there are limits to the range of possibilities of heroic action. These limits can be inferred from the whole complex of social traditions, habits, tools, and techniques, and the clash of group interests. It is this complex of culture traits which, without explaining the existence of genius, throws some light on its historical development and responsiveness to the “ripe” conditions. Carlyle would have held that Newton born into a community of Australian primitives would necessarily have made some major scientific discovery and that a Napoleon would have been a great savage military chieftain. Plechanov and other social determinists, on the other hand, realize that man is an “acculturated organism,” to employ a favourite expression of John Dewey. He is dependent for his intellectual power not only upon his biological capacities but upon the society that sets the framework of interest and attention within which doubt and inquiry arise, and that supplies the very words which both inspire and limit the ideas that germinate within him. There is no good reason to believe that if a man with the biological endowment of Newton or Raphael or Napoleon had been born in early prehistory he would have rediscovered fire or created magnificent ornaments and paintings or achieved renown as a warrior.

The social determinists left a richer bequest to modern thought than an insight into the multiple ways in which genius is tied to culture. They made us sensitive to the interrelatedness of the different expressions of culture although they absurdly overstated the extent of the interrelation. But of greatest importance was their insistence on the notion of determining trends in history which, despite the mystical metaphysics that accompanied it, expressed a certain truth.

Instead of peeling off the metaphysical husks from the doctrine of social determinism in order to discover its kernel of truth, let us restate the truth independently.

All of us are aware that both in nature and history certain events seem more relevantly connected than others. As soon as they got down to concrete cases, the social determinists, too, acknowledged this. Even if we were to grant that in some sense all events are connected with each other, we would still have to recognize that some are more intimately bound up with one another than others. The living organism is often pointed to as an illustration of an organic system of which all parts are interdependent. Yet the loss of a finger will not necessarily affect vision, though a disease of the optic nerve will. Many of the body’s parts and functions may undergo change without noticeably altering the capacity to think. So in the pattern of historical events. We are confident that some of the events antecedent to the present war, like the romantic marriage of Edward VIII., were not causally relevant to its outbreak. No one could plausibly argue that his marriage brought on the Second World War, or that if he had “renounced the woman he loved” and continued as king, it would have been prevented. Endow him with any trait or quality of your favourite hero, and still there would be little ground to believe that he could have forestalled the approaching show-down between Fascist Germany and Democratic England. The latter event, although not literally inevitable, was in the making or “in the cards,” to use a colloquialism. There were certain important conflicts of interest between the two sides which seemed to be pressing these countries into war. These conflicts have been observed in the past to lead to wars between nations in Western society independently of the character of their sovereigns, and no large-scale war has been observed to occur when such conflicts have been altogether absent. It is historical situations of this type which the social determinists validly stress in discounting the influence of outstanding individuals.

There are other historical situations in which we ran legitimately say that, although an individual’s act has been part of the pattern of events culminating in a great happening, the event would have occurred without him although not at the same time. For example, as far as its influence on the development of Europe is concerned, Columbus was the first to discover America. We are all cognizant of the intrepidity he displayed and the hardships he underwent during the voyage. Nonetheless most historians would be ready to admit that, even if his ships had foundered, the New World would have been discovered, anyhow. And they would maintain this even if it had not intact been rediscovered by Amerigo Vespucci. The expanding technological facilities of nascent capitalism, the desire to exploit more intensively the markets of the East, the quest for a short passage to India—Columbus himself died in the belief that he had discovered eastern Asia—made it only a matter of time before the Western Hemisphere would have been reached by enterprising sailors. The record shows that the whole period was one of enterprise and discovery. Here, then, we can again say that there were “determining” tendencies in the social and economic history of Europe, in contradistinction to the social and economic history of the Indian tribes already living in America, which resulted in the discovery of the new world. The remarkable exploits of a Columbus, a Vespucci, a da Gama, a Magellan were not historically necessary; but what they did was. They themselves were colourful incidents in a course of development whose configuration cannot be explained by the activity of particular individuals no matter how gifted. They were not historical heroes in the sense of eventful or event-making figures because they cannot be considered as having been indispensable to the discoveries with which their names are linked.[2]

These “determining tendencies” are not disembodied forces, spectral or physical, that compel events to happen. They are all reducible to the behaviour patterns of groups of individual men living under determinate historical conditions and traditions. Their responses to the challenges and threats of their environment are sufficiently similar to enable us to predict how they will act in the face of similar challenges and threats. When we rely on determining tendencies to predict the turn of events over a given period or to justify a judgment about the past, our confidence is based upon the assumption that variations in detail may be disregarded in charting what will take place or what would have taken place. What the social determinists assert is that the “heroes” of history are always variations in detail. This, we have seen, is wrong. But it is of tremendous importance to realize that sometimes “heroes” are variations in detail, if only because it may cure us of the illusion that a great man or leader can always save a situation or obviate the accumulated consequences of past folly. One of the tragedies of historical life is that men cannot undo the consequences of an event that could have been left undone. The difficult problem is to discover when the “hero” is historical incident and when he is not.

An American dramatist with genuine philosophical insight once wrote a play called If Booth Had Missed. He develops the play in an imaginatively plausible fashion to conclude that if Booth had missed, someone else would not have missed. The dramatist was saying in his own way, not that Lincoln’s assassination was inevitable, but that it was symbolic of the fact that the Civil War had hardened the attitudes of the North to a point where no further compromises could be made. There is good historical evidence to warrant this judgment. Against a background of four years of bitter civil strife, no president, even one as different as Lincoln was from Andrew Johnson who tried to carry out Lincoln’s policies, could have withstood the desire on the part of the victorious states for harsh, rather than conciliatory, treatment of those whom they regarded as the authors of all their woes. If on the night of the fateful performance Lincoln had taken cold, stayed at home, and survived, it is unlikely that he would have succeeded where Johnson had failed. Had Lincoln died after a fruitless effort to convert the Radical Republicans to the ways of foresight and charity, his stature for posterity would have been cut down to that of Woodrow Wilson. The fate of Wilson indicates that the prestige of leading a war to a successful conclusion is not sufficient to cope with the problems of postwar reconstruction.

It follows from what we have said that heroic action can count decisively only where the historical situation permits of major alternative paths of development. The denial by social determinists of the orthodox Marxist school that heroic action can ever have a decisive influence on history is usually a corollary to the doctrine that the existing mode of economic production uniquely determines the culture on which it is based. According to them, from a given economic system, one and only one other economic system can develop. And on the basis of the economic system thus developed, one and only one culture—where “culture” designates the non-economic social institutions—can flourish. Where significant variations in the politics, art, religion, or philosophy are recognized, these must be explained “in the last analysis” in terms of the developmental changes of the economic system moved by its immanent “contradictions.” Heroes in such a conception can be found only in the interstices and joints, so to speak, of the social economic process. Their presence is irrelevant to the death and birth of new forms of society.

Proof? As far as great men are concerned, not even an attempt at proof except in the writings of Plechanov and Leon Trotsky. Plechanov we have already considered. We turn now to Trotsky whose effort, despite its ultimate failure, is a truly remarkable intellectual feat which makes a permanent contribution to the scientific understanding of history. His explicit treatment of the theme will be found in his History of the Russian Revolution.

Trotsky’s thesis is that the occurrence, development, and climax of the Russian Revolution were inevitable. Since that Revolution was made by men, one of his problems is to investigate the relation between the characters of individuals and the historic process. Naturally it is the character of individuals in strategic situations or positions of leadership and power which is his first concern. He offers to show that the traits of character displayed in crucial historic actions have, so to speak, “been grafted, or more directly imposed, on a person by the mighty force of conditions.”

As evidence he presents a brief case study of the personalities of Nicholas II. and his queen, and of the way they met the rising tide of revolutionary sentiment which broke over them in February, 1917. Relying upon diaries and memoirs of court attendants, he paints a picture of Nicholas II., confirmed by other analysts, as a weak, silent man, completely immersed in the trivial affairs of the day while his world was openly crumbling into ruins, suspicious of his own ministers, vindictive when crossed, and, although absolute autocrat of the largest state in the world, making an impression of complete helplessness on everyone who came into contact with him.

We then have portraits of Louis XVI. and Charles I., likewise absolute monarchs confronted by revolutionary crises. Even allowing for certain elements of exaggeration, Trotsky is able to establish an astonishing similarity in their personality patterns, especially as manifested in their treatment of the events that culminated in the loss of their troubles and lives. There is even a striking similarity between the behaviour, words, and attitudes of Marie Antionette and Alexandra Feodorovna. Here we have important characters with great authority acting historic roles that seem to have been written for them.

“ ‘He did not know how to wish: that was his chief trait of character,’ says a reactionary French historian of Louis. Those words might have been written of Nicholas: neither of them knew how to wish, but both knew how to not wish. But what really could be ‘wished’ by the last representative of a hopelessly lost historic cause? ‘Usually he listened, smiled, and rarely decided upon anything. His first word was usually No.’ Of whom is that written? Again of Capet. But if this is so, the manners of Nicholas were an absolute plagiarism. They both go toward the abyss ‘with the crown pushed down over their eyes.’ But would it after all be easier to go to an abyss, which you cannot escape anyway, with your eyes open?”[3]

More persuasively than Plechanov, Trotsky is calling attention to the fact that a historic personality cannot be explained from the point of view of the individual psychologist alone, that his traits, intellectual and moral, are products of a continuous interaction between his native powers and social conditions. Does that mean that any king or czar in the place of Louis XVI. or Nicholas II. would have had the same personal traits? Trotsky is not so rash as to affirm this. He admits that if the historical accidents of heredity had been different, the Russian Revolution might have run into “a very different make of Czar.” But the historical result would have been the same, because the fall of the autocracy was inevitable. Even a strong czar could not have saved it for long.

This shifts the position to the familiar view that the significance of personality in history is limited to comparatively unimportant variations, and that every major development in the historical process is determined by social and economic forces in which heroes and great men are a negligible factor. The greater the historic event, the more intense the discharge of accumulated social tensions—the more completely does it wipe out the personal peculiarities of the actors. In powerful and gripping metaphors, Trotsky sums up:

“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.”[4]

What Trotsky makes us see is that there are certain historical situations in which the forces unloosed will sweep away anybody who seeks to stop them. Whether these forces are exclusively social and economic, or whether they are compounded with national ambitions and frustrations, religious beliefs and political ambitions, is not important as long as it is recognized that the force of individual personality is no vital part of them.

Reflection will make manifest, however, that, genuine as Trotsky’s insight is, it is limited to periods when outbursts of fear or hope sweep over large masses of people, carrying them into action against what until yesterday were the accepted symbols of authority. Where the vital needs of submerged classes are unfulfilled, where conflicts of interest are so deep that they cannot be negotiated without cutting into the vested powers of men who are firmly convinced of their divine or social right to those powers, where customary political rule becomes increasingly inept or oppressive, where the moral professions of those in the saddle sound hollow in the light of actualities—we can already feel the vibrations of discontent that may suddenly erupt into a cataclysmic flood. We can tell that it is coming, we can predict its approach though not what particular event will set it off. We can predict, in other words, the advent of a revolution or war but we cannot always tell what its outcome will be. That outcome may sometimes depend upon the characters of the leading personalities.

This Trotsky does not see, and where he catches a glimpse of the possibility he falters, not knowing whether to abandon his monistic determinism or to force the facts. What his method can explain is at best the death of a system, not what will replace it; the collapse of one culture, not the birth of another; the fall of Czarism, but not the fall of Kerensky or the rise of Bolshevism. It is as if Trotsky, after proving that under certain conditions of cumulative strain and wear an old man must die, were to point to the same conditions as proof that a new life must be born. All men are mortal. But this does not mean that there will always be men. The inescapability of the downfall of Czarism, as we shall see subsequently, does not prove by any means the inevitability of the triumph of Bolshevism.

The existence of possible alternatives of development in a historic situation is the presupposition of significant heroic action. The all-important point for our purposes is whether there are such alternatives of development—their nature and duration. The position taken so far commits us to the belief that there have been and are such alternatives in history with mutually incompatible consequences that might have redetermined the course of events in the past, and that might redetermine them in the future. Such a view does not controvert the assumptions of scientific determinism, although it controverts the monistic organic determinism we have previously considered. For it does not assert that all alternatives are possible. It recognizes limitations on possibilities, including limitations on the possible effect of heroic action, grounded on the acceptance of generalized descriptions or laws of social behaviour.

On the basis of given social data we can sometimes predict the alternatives that are open and those which are closed, although we cannot predict what choice will be made between the open alternatives. For example, the situation of pre-Hitler German economy, with the rolls of its unemployed numbered in millions and steadily mounting from 1928 to 1932, restricted the alternatives to a practical extension of femocratic planning for the welfare of the community—a planning which already existed on paper during the Weimar Republic—or to transformation of the national productive plant into an instrument of total war. Whichever alternative was adopted, and they were both historically possible, was bound to have a profound effect upon the future development not only of German but of European economy, and its manifold social consequences. The abstract theoretical possibility of a return to the free market of early capitalism in Germany was historically impossible. The German masses would have starved to death before the free market could have been established.

At the same time it certainly was not a foregone conclusion from what was known of German economy that Hitler’s solution would triumph. If greater export possibilities had been opened to the German economy, and if it had not been struck so severely by the crisis, Hitler probably would have failed. But he was victorious not merely because of the widespread economic misery produced by the crisis. His political skill in unifying the right, ranging from Junker to industrialist to the frightened muddle classes, together with Hindenburg’s support, played an important part. If there had been a great figure in Germany capable of unifying the left and appeasing the centre, Hitler might never have become Chancellor.

Where a genuine alternative exists, the active presence or a great man may be decisive—may be because other elements come into play to decide the issue between the alternatives, and they may weigh more heavily than the element of personality.

Wherever we are in a position to assert, as we shall assert below,[5] that an event-making man has had a decisive influence on a historical period, we are not abandoning the belief in causal connection or embracing a belief in absolute contingency. What we are asserting is that in such situations the great man is a relatively independent historical influence—independent of the conditions that determine the alternatives—and that on these occasions the influence of all other relevant factors is of subordinate weight in enabling us to understand or predict which one of the possible alternatives will be actualized. In such situations we also should be able to say, and to present the grounds for saying, that if the great man had not existed, the course of events in essential respects would in all likelihood have taken a different turn. Those who deny this estimate of the role of the great man in the situation would have to present grounds for the statement that the course of events in essential respects would in all likelihood have taken the same turn. In either case, the fact that we offer grounds for believing what the historical record would be like, if some person had not existed, or if some event had not transpired, indicates that in the realm of history, as in the realm of nature, pure contingency does not hold sway. Contingent events in history are of tremendous importance, but the evidence of their importance is possible only because not all events are contingent.

The whole answer to our inquiry depends upon the legitimacy of our asking and answering—as indeed every competent historian does ask and answer—what would have happened if this event had not happened or that man had not lived or this alternative had not been taken. Strangely enough, however, there seems to be a deep-seated reluctance to taking “if” questions in history seriously.[6] They are often dismissed as “purely hypothetical,” as if it were self-evident that only non-hypothetical questions were meaningful. The attitude behind these words seems to say: what will be, will be, and what has been, has been, and we need know no more. Yet common discourse is shot through with expressions designed to inquire or to indicate what would have happened if an event that actually took place had not occurred. We always have an answer to the person who asks us: “What would you now be doing if I had not interrupted you?” History in this respect is no different from ordinary experience even when it has more exalted themes.

It is reported that President Roosevelt at his Press conferences sometimes evades embarrassing questions by waving them aside as “iffy.” But an “iffy” question, like any other question, may be intelligent or unintelligent, relevant or irrelevant. And as a fool or wise man asks, so should he be answered. But not by denying the validity of this form of question. Were one to ask what the foreign policy of the United States would have been like if Willkie had been elected President in 1940 instead of Roosevelt, we should not have had to be wise only after the event to answer that it would have been the same.

The nature and importance of the problem, and the variety of standpoints adopted toward it, justify our looking more closely at the significance of if in history.

  1. On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History, Everyman edition, p. 312.
  2. For the meaning of eventful and event-making, see Chapter Nine. There is another sense of “hero,” of course, in which it is perfectly legitimate to speak of Columbus as a hero even if we admit that America would have been discovered had Columbus died in his cradle. Jacob Burckhardt, for example, who grants that Columbus was not indispensable to the discovery of America, writes: “Among the discoverers of distant lands only Columbus is great, but very great, because he staked his life and an enormous willpower on a postulate which brings him into the same rank as that of the greatest philosophers.” Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, Gesamtausgabe, Bd. VII., р. 165.
  3. History of the Russian Revolution, translated by Max Eastman, vol. I., p. 92, New York, 1932. Publishers: Simon and Shuster.
  4. Ibid., p. 93.
  5. See Chapter Ten.
  6. Usually rigorous detetminists rule “if” questions out as meaningless while extreme indeterminists admit they are meaningful but futile. For example, the French legal philosopher, Tourtoulon, in his discussion of “Possibilities in History,” writes: “It is absolutely futile to ask oneself what the world would have become if some particular hypothetical event had been realized, or if some particular real event had not been realized.” The reason he offers is that anything might have happened because of the universal sway of chance. Cf. Philosophy in the Development of Law, Eng. trans., New York, 1922, p. 631. For a contrasting view, cf. M. R. Cohen, “Causation and Its Application to History,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 3, pp. 12 ff.