Sunday, 11 October 2009

Barack Obama and the History Men

From LSHG Newsletter, Spring 2009

I do my fair share of appearances on the BBC and other media outlets, although I’m afraid I am not quite in the Jonathan Ross class. I was intrigued just after Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008 to be rung up by BBC Radio 4 who were looking for a socialist historian to discuss the role of the individual in history and where President elect Obama fitted in to all that.
Since my view was that Obama would make little difference with out a good kick from below from those who supported him, and that is not really the kind of thing Radio 4 likes to think about they moved on. However you could see why the BBC were interested in the question. Indeed in their Presidential Election night coverage Jeremy Paxman had asked the rapper Dizzee Rascal the same question and to Paxo’s consternation he got much the same answer as I gave. Namely that however great a man Obama was it was the vast majority who changed history not great men.
The printed media were full of it too. It was, said many papers up to and including the Financial Times, a moment when history changed. The media doesn’t often notice when history is at work so when it does it commands attention. An FT columnist was more blunt. Obama might be another Blair he argued, heralding a new dawn but actually changing nothing. That would be OK. The danger was, he opined, that Obama might try to do something before he could be stopped and he had no experience of saying ‘no’ to the Unions and the left.
It would be silly not see to the election of the first black US President as anything but historic, given, in historical terms, the very recent history of discrimination and the civil rights movement in the US. In that sense Obama’s election was worth celebrating. But as they say about financial matters, past performance is no guide to the future. Just because Obama represents change does not mean that he will carry through change. As Marx noted ‘men make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing’.
While I have focused here on the contemporary, and this was the other thing that put Radio 4 off, Marxism has a rich heritage of thought on the role of the individual in history. Plekhanov [1856-1918] often described as the father of Russian Marxism wrote the definitive text on the issue On the Role of the Individual in History [1898] which you can download at for free.
Plekhanov’s text comprises a lengthy survey of the history of ideas on the subject combined with some astute political judgement. He notes ‘a great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time’
The wider point he is making is that just because Marxists are materialists who look at broad historical movements, it does not mean that the subjective factor is overlooked. It may well be that Russia was ripe for revolution in 1917, but without a Bolshevik Party to organise that mood and Lenin to focus it, it would not have happened.
Barack Obama is not about to lead a revolution, but he is without question a remarkable leader who will focus andframe desire for change in the US and across the world. Obama is also a wealthy man representing wealthy interests and social change does not come from that direction. As another great American, Kris Kristofferson noted ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’
Keith Flett

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