Debate: The laws of history and human agency by Harry Ratner
From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)
Recent issues of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter have carried a discussion between Neil Faulkner and myself. The starting point was an article by me in issue 31 on Britain’s Entry into the First World War in 1914 and the role of the individual in history [not currently online]. In the Spring 2009 Newsletter Neil Faulkner replied; criticising me for ‘uncoupling things that are dialectically linked […] by distinguishing sharply between approaches which stress the ‘determinist element in history’ (‘the unfolding of objective laws’) and those which stress the 'voluntarist’ (‘the importance of the individual’). I replied that in fact my intention was not to separate but to reconcile these two aspects and further exchange of views by email ensued.
Looking again at these discussions I feel that the apparent differences
between Neil and myself may have been due to lack of clarity on my part. In trying to rescue the role of individuals and the possible profound effect of their actions I might have given the impression that I wanted to ignore or play down the importance of the objective situation in which individuals operate. This further contribution is an attempt to correct any misunderstanding and further clarify my own ideas.
Both objective laws and the actions of individuals are part of the network of cause and effect that determine history. Although I am not too fond of the word ‘dialectical’ (which is often overused and misused) I would not disagree with Neil that they are indeed dialectically linked. The question is ‘how’ and how much emphasis is to be put on each in various contexts. It is perhaps here that there is a difference between Neil Faulkner and me.
I wish to put forward the following propositions:
1. Objective laws of human history (not of course of natural physical and chemical events) depend for their actualisation on human actions. So-called impersonal social forces are nothing but the cumulative result of human actions in their interaction. The actions of individuals are a necessary ingredient of objective laws.
Take the most seemingly impersonal laws of economics. It is an objective law that capital flows are determined by the pursuit of profit maximisation. But money in one bank account does not mysteriously transfer itself to another account. Some human(s) somewhere have to decide to move it. The immediate and proximate cause of any movement of money is the conscious decision by one investor or a group of investors. The reason the objective economic law exists is that in given circumstances owners of capital tend to act in a similar fashion; they buy assets when they think they are going up and sell when they are going down. This results over a large number of transactions over a period of time in a general and fairly predictable pattern of capital movements.
But for the patterns to occur and an objective law to arise it is first necessary for actual people to make decisions and be motivated to increase their wealth. It is because in given circumstances human beings and groups of human beings tend to act in similar fashion that objective economic laws – and other historical laws – arise. And these ‘objective laws’ are statistical laws – the average of a multitude of separate decisions. The human decisions - ‘voluntarism’ - are the immediate causes – the prime causes - and the objective laws are the result of the totality of separate decisions.
So-called impersonal factors and laws are nothing but the totality and cumulative result of the decisions and actions of large aggregates of people. Having said ‘nothing but’ I must add that each decision by each individual is constrained and influenced by the overall condition in which these individuals are embedded.
The same applies to all other ‘objective laws’ of history mentioned by Marx and Engels. – for example that the level of development of the productive forces determines the economic relations between people based on the ownership or control of the means of production. This economic base, in turn, determines the political, cultural and ideological super-structure of society – in particular the division of society into conflicting classes. Another objective law, according to Marx, is that as the productive forces develop they come into conflict with the existing superstructure which becomes a fetter on the development of these productive forces. ‘The fetter is burst asunder’ and social revolution occurs etc, etc.
Marxists write as if the productive forces have an inbuilt drive to expand - an automatic and inevitable process independent of human actions. They are imbued, it would seem, by some supernatural urge to develop. But the steam engine and the computer did not invent themselves. At some point they had to be invented and designed by human beings. Again the ‘objective law’ arises postfactum because it is in the nature of human beings that in given circumstances they will be impelled by a multitude of desires and decisions to create more efficient ways of producing objects. And because of the objective circumstances in which they find themselves (including the relations into which they enter between themselves which in turn are influenced by their ownership/ control of land and things) certain regularities and sequences of events develop that are called objective laws.
2. Regularities and ‘laws’ at the ‘macro level’ (the behaviour of large aggregates of things or people) are the outcome of the totality of actions/events at the ‘micro’ individual level. At the same time single actions/ events at this level are determined or constrained by the macro level – the ‘objective situation in which they find themselves. There is a reciprocal reaction.
A good example of this in the natural world is the behaviour of gasses.
According to the kinetic theory of gasses the pressure and temperature of a volume of gas is the result of the movements and collisions of millions of molecules. The heat of the gas at the macro level is the result of the kinetic energy of the molecules. The pressure on the sides of the container is the result of the bombardment by millions of molecules of the sides of the container. If the movements of the molecules are random, in absence of external events, this randomness results in the pressure and temperature being evenly distributed. This results in the well-known ‘laws of gases’ at the macro level – that the pressure of a
constant volume of gas varies in proportion to its temperature and that the volume varies inversely with the pressure at constant temperature. Conversely if external influences are present – for example if the molecules are electrically charged and an electromagnetic field applied the general motion of the molecules will cease to be random and the molecules will go in one direction.
One can immediately see how this relationship between individual behaviour of individual units in a large aggregate and behaviour of the large aggregate (considered as a whole) explains the behaviour of crowds, traffic flows etc. All the individuals have their own individual reasons for their motions. But the overall distribution of the locations of their homes relative to their places of work, the hours of work etc, result in predictable flows of traffic, times of congestion, patterns of accidents etc. But this is also the summation of the thousands of individual journeys. Without individuals deciding to get in their cars there would be no traffic patterns. Further conclusions emerge from all the above.
3. All general patterns of events – ‘objective laws’ – in history, economics and politics, traffic flows, population movements are the summation and interaction of millions of decisions and actions by millions of individuals. The fact that these separate decisions result
in predictable patterns of events is due to the fact that individuals are similar to each other and share common needs and desires and therefore tend to act in similar ways in certain situations. Without individual actions/ decisions no patterns at the mass level would emerge. No voluntarism, no objective laws.
4. The fact that general laws are the total cumulative result of ‘voluntarist’ actions; and are the overall result of this voluntarism, means that their actualisation depends on the actions of individuals. And this
introduces an element of indeterminacy; they can be modified by the actions of individuals. The detailed way in which objective laws are actualised depends very much on the actions of individuals.
Applying the above to the First World War and the role of key individuals like Lloyd George and the British cabinet, the Kaiser, the Tsar etc., let us examine the relationship between objective laws and conditions and human decisions.
First, I agree with Neil Faulkner that the actions and choices of all
these individuals were limited and constrained by the objective conditions in which they were embedded. These were the whole of preceding history, the development of capitalism and competing imperialist powers, the whole economic and political world situation. All this limited and determined the range of choices available to all these individuals. (The objective situation in which each of these individuals found himself included the actions and positions of all the other
individuals – the objective situation in which Lloyd George had to operate included the actions of the Kaiser and also of his own cabinet colleagues – and this applied to all the other actors).
So we can agree that the development of capitalism and imperialism made world war extremely probable, if not eventually inevitable. In that sense we can agree that World War I was an imperialist war driven by economic forces. But we then have to immediately admit that all sorts of other factors, geo-political, individuals’ characters, etc, influenced the time and details of its outbreak, duration and consequences.
The objective probability of war could only become a fact through the decisions and activities of the individuals mentioned. As I argued
earlier, the guns did not go off by themselves and the troops only entrained for the front according to railway time tables and mobilisation plans when the orders were given – themselves triggered by conscious decisions.
I argued above that the detailed way in which objective laws are actualised depends very much on the actions of individuals. The fact that the war started as it actually did in 1914 and not 1915 or 1916 and even the line up of alliances and the initial drive through Belgium rather than elsewhere was not determined by the general objective law but by
other factors, such as the railway time tables and rigid mobilisation plans mentioned by Faulkner in his account.
Faulkner argues that only if mass movement against the war had developed ‘the cabinet might have split and the government fallen.’ He continues ‘But this was not the case: the British ruling class was allowed to make its own decision. And it chose war because war was in its class interest.’ He asks ‘Is Harry Ratner really arguing that the radical pacifism of a handful of ruling class politicians might have yielded a different decision?’ My answer is still yes. Faulkner is saying that the cabinet acted as it did because it was in the interests of British capitalism. But the point is that the members of the cabinet had varying and changing views on what they believed was the ‘national interest (which included the interests of British capitalism). The cabinet could have split even in the absence of mass anti-war movement. The majority, at first did believe it was in that interest to keep out of the conflict. It was only after intense disagreement and discussion – and crucially Lloyd George’s change of mind – that a different decision was made. Among the factors influencing the minds of the cabinet were not only rational and pragmatic opinions as to the best way to defend interests but all sorts of extraneous factors – personal ambitions, personal antagonisms, worldviews and ideologies including religious beliefs.
Let me stress that the fact that the immediate and proximate causes of any historical event is a decision made by individuals and that these decisions flow from those persons’ subjective thoughts and emotions (not always rational ones) introduces an element of uncertainty. Elsewhere Faulkner recognises that the nub of my argument is, of
course, that they could have decided otherwise with an immense effect on 20th century history’. He continues ‘Let me say at the outset hat I think individuals can make a huge difference.’ If this was true in 1914 how much truer has it today with the ability to unleash nuclear war in the power of handfuls of individuals including fundamentalist Christian American presidents whose wives consult astrologists as to the best date to take decisions, believers in Armageddon and the Second
Coming, Islamic zealots inspired by the Koran and Israeli leaders who believe God allocated the whole of Palestine to the Jews.
So what are Neil and I arguing about? Neil, in his history mentions all the factors I have also mentioned, railway time tables, personal decisions, geopolitical factors as well as economic ones etc. Is it a question of semantics? Whether we describe the 1914-18 war as purely capitalist or a mix of capitalist and geopolitical?
Let me repeat. Objective laws are large-scale generalisations. They describe tendencies and probabilities and contain within themselves the possibility of large variations. These variations can be directly attributable to the decisions of individuals. Plekhanov admitted that individuals can alter the details of history but not its general trend. He referred to these as “accidents” of history. The shortening of the slaughter by nearly four years, the saving of millions of lives, the possible nonappearance of a Hitler or a Stalin – some accident!!
It is necessary to replace both an over-reductionist Marxist interpretation of history and a purely voluntarist one concentration only on the actions of “great men” with a holistic one combining objective laws and human agency.