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Individuals and collectives—can I make a difference?

This article is over 2 years, 6 months old
We often hear the idea that history is made by great acts from great individuals. Simon Basketter explores this idea and the strengths and weaknesses of individual activism
Issue 2773
Wigan hospital workers on strike in 2018
Wigan hospital workers on strike in 2018 (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Can I make a difference? We are often told that we can achieve anything.

But at the same time we are reduced to passively watching the decisions or the performances of our “betters”. We are bombarded with the idea that history is made by great individuals, usually white men.

And so the “failure” to get a job, or be an influencer or a billionaire, is said to be the result of poor individual choices.

Yet material reality shapes all our lives, and limits the space for decision-making.

Economic crisis, oppression, poverty and unemployment are features of capitalist society that no individual on their own can alter.

There are two responses to this harsh corrective to the idea we can do anything.

One is “We cannot make history,” as the 19th century German politician Otto Bismarck wrote. “We must wait while it is being made.”

In contrast Karl Marx said human beings “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

But at the same time, “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth,’ it ‘wages no battles.’ It is man, real, living man who does all that.”

Marx’s great insight, despite the gender-specific language, was to point out that people make history. But they cannot influence society in any direction they choose.

Individuals ­cannot exert their will independently of the conditions in which they find ­themselves. As the playwright Bertolt Brecht put it, “first food then morality.”

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If there is not enough food to go around, then feeding ­everyone is not possible. But if there is enough food to go around—and there is—there must also be subjective conditions to make a world free of hunger possible.

There must be a level of consciousness and organisation among a sufficient number of people to change the way society is organised.

So the extent of influence an individual has is determined by the weight of social forces on them.

As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “Similar (of course, far from identical) irritations in similar conditions call out similar reflexes—the more powerful the irritation, the sooner it overcomes ­personal peculiarities.

“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.”

So under the pressure of class society, we cannot simply move to something else by force of will. Now the anger, exploitation and alienation existing within society results in strife.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways, not all of them positive. But many are—­complaining, meetings, demonstrations, strikes and, even occasionally, revolutions.

There are all sorts of divisions in society that can lead to one group dominating and oppressing another.

But suffering and oppression in themselves aren’t necessarily a source of power.

The key group in this ­context are workers. They make up a powerful class in capitalist societies.

The system relies on their labour so that bosses can make profits. If workers withdraw it, they can stop production and the flow of profit. But most days most workers don’t feel powerful.

They are central to production but they have no control over it. Workers don’t decide what is produced, how it’s ­produced or how much is made. All of these decisions are in the hands of bosses.

Workers aren’t in charge of their labour and feel alienated from the whole process.

This is why some can accept the dominant right wing ideas.

It’s easier to blame a migrant for attacks on jobs when a collective response targeting the boss seems impossible.

And a great deal of ruling class expense and energy is expended on dividing and atomising us on the basis of oppressions based on ­sexuality, gender and race.

The idea that there is no alternative seems to make sense if you don’t feel there’s a force that can change it.

Many people will go along with some right wing ideas while rejecting others.

This is why socialists put so much stress on workers’ ­self-activity. It isn’t just that action can win real reforms—though that would be enough reason to resist.

Action can also shake people’s ideas about how the world works and their position within it.

From thinking that it’s impossible to beat the boss, someone who won something after striking can see things very differently.

Every struggle has the potential to shift ideas.

Even small gains plant the seed of future ones. But this process isn’t automatic, it is contested.

The return of normality can make gains seem distant and the victories coming not from self-activity but from above.

The problem is socialists can expect radical responses to events that may not occur.

In William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Owen Glendower brags, “I can call the sprits from the vasty deep.” To which Hotspur retorts, “Why, so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you call them?”

Repeatedly urging for a mass strike or revolution will be a cry in the wilderness without a strong workers’ movement, in which our class has established the confidence and know-how to fight.

This is not an argument for passivity even in the worst of times.

Sometimes holding a torch in a dark room is better than nothing.

But while people at the top of the labour movement are fond of rhetorically saying it’s better to die fighting than to live on your knees, it is far better to fight and win. The task is to constantly spread and link struggles.

Fighting every attack and taking up every opportunity for resistance can shape a ­workplace or a campaign.

Building solidarity for the fights of others can help confidence in one’s fights and opens the prospect of building united action and breaking down barriers.

Standing up again oppression on principle and encouraging every possible chance of resistance lay the basis for better organised resistance in the future.

And when large forces of people rise, these links and experiences become vital.

History is full of situations in which a point of extreme tension—because the wider social forces are balanced—is broken in one direction or another by the action or inaction of individuals. Do we go forwards or back?

This tension lies within every ­movement of resistance and campaign. Whether to resist and in what way is a constant debate. How individuals respond and how they ­convince others to act is of vital importance.

One aspect of this is ­building up a counterweight to the respect for the establishment, and the status quo.

There is no shortage of people who will argue that it’s in the best interest of all to calm things down.

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But when someone urges caution are they right or conservative?

When another urges charging at the cops are they ­foolhardy or grasping the potential of the moment?

At one level this is simply the lived experience of a ­movement, but it is important not just to re-enact experience.

So when a revolutionary says, “We must occupy this factory”, do they have the respect of their workmates to know that they are not a fool but are to be trusted and are convincing?

One way to make that more likely is through the previous experience of shared struggle and resistance.

Knowing when to fight and what it is possible to achieve at any moment comes through both individual experiences

and those of the class as a whole.

A key mechanism for distilling that experience is for people to organise together as a revolutionary party.

And it makes absolute sense not to wait for a big moment for people to organise together.

Any revolutionary party has to be full of “leaders”—people who can take initiatives, think on their feet and most importantly learn from the battles that they are part of to take the struggle forward.

So can I make difference? Of course you can.

And you’ll make a real difference if you get organised.

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