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The individual and history

This guy was an important asshole

Questions Raised by 9/11, and Their Answers

[An old grad-school paper]

Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is an illuminating account of Muslim terrorism prior to the attack on the Twin Towers. It describes the origins of such terrorism and specifically the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. At the same time, it traces in great detail the history of the U.S. government’s attempt to destroy terrorism, showing that it was partly because of bureaucratic incompetence and obstructionism in the FBI and CIA that 9/11 happened. The picture that emerges from the book is that bin Laden and his deputy al-Zawahiri have been the driving forces behind Muslim terrorism since the 1990s—that they have coordinated and financed, and/or inspired through their public announcements, a majority of the most destructive terrorist acts. Were it not for these two men, especially bin Laden, 9/11 would not have happened. Through its illustration of this fact, the book raises a philosophical question: exactly what impact can the individual have on history? For instance, if one or two strong people in the FBI or CIA, people like John O’Neill (an FBI specialist on terrorism), had succeeded in rising above the bureaucratic mess and discovered the 9/11 plot—which the book shows was by no means an impossibility—perhaps the Towers would not have been destroyed, which means that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq would have been attacked and the war on terror would not have been declared (at least not when it was)—and the ramifications of the war on terror have been immense and wide-ranging. In this paper I shall discuss the question raised by the book, this very interesting question about the individual’s relation to history. What is more important: “great men” or social structures and impersonal dynamics? We’ll see that structural forces are overwhelmingly more important.

The history of postwar America is replete with examples of individuals seeming to have an inordinate impact on historical evolution. The Cuban Missile Crisis is one such example. The book One Hell of a Gamble demonstrates that Khruschev and Kennedy essentially held the fate of the world in their hands during the relevant two weeks, and that at certain moments the world came remarkably close to nuclear war. In fact, any of the nuclear submarine commanders facing off in the waters around Cuba could have inadvertently set off a nuclear war had he let his nerves get the best of him. One particularly harrowing event is described in the National Security Archives:

…Vadim Orlov recounted the tense and stressful situation on 27 October when U.S. destroyers lobbed PDCs [practice depth charges] at [submarine] B-59. According to Orlov, a “totally exhausted” Captain Valentin Savitsky, unable to establish communications with Moscow, “became furious” and ordered the nuclear torpedo to be assembled for battle readiness. Savitsky roared “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all.” Deputy brigade commander Second Captain Vasili Archipov calmed Savitsky down and they made the decision to surface the submarine…[1]

Archipov may have saved civilization.

What these examples prove, however, is only the obvious point that in the nuclear age society can be virtually destroyed with the push of a button. A single individual cannot thereby guide historical evolution; he cannot have a major creative impact, only a destructive one. Moreover, the reason for this insane state of affairs, and the meaning of it, is that social relations within and between countries are structured in a certain way, a certain hostile, bureaucratic, capitalistic, nationalistic way, such that there is the potential for war. No single individual can be responsible for structuring society in this way; he can but actualize (through the bureaucracy) the destructive potential inherent in current social structures and dynamics.

Consider a different example. Lyndon Johnson is said to have had a huge influence on society in two ways: first, through his Great Society and civil rights programs, and second, through his escalation of the war in Vietnam. The latter in particular had far-reaching consequences. For instance, it led indirectly to Johnson’s withdrawal from the election of 1968 and thus set up the Democratic loss to Richard Nixon, whose presidency eventually led to Watergate, which is thought to have transformed the political landscape and the public’s attitude toward politics. More broadly, Vietnam may have hastened or caused the split between students, or liberals in general, and the white working class, which did much of the fighting in Vietnam and was repelled by the liberals’ hostility to the war and to Vietnam veterans. Combined with LBJ’s civil rights programs on behalf of blacks (as well as the “godlessness” of cultural liberals), Vietnam thus pushed the white lower-classes into the arms of the Republican party, which made possible Reagan’s election and hence the three-decades-long conservative hegemony—which itself arguably led to the current global recession (since conservatives advocated financial deregulation). In this picture, LBJ is a gigantically influential person, and it does begin to look as if the “great man theory of history” has some truth.

Appearances are deceiving, though. First of all, Johnson’s liberal initiatives did not spring solely from his own personality, sheltered in some sort of social vacuum. They were the product of years—decades—of civil rights agitation, grassroots mobilization around the country, the tireless work of hundreds of thousands of people. It started in the 1930s, with the epic struggles of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union on behalf of sharecroppers, as well as the anti-lynching movement across the South. (Congress almost passed legislation in the late ’30s making lynching a federal crime.) Black resistance to oppression continued after World War II, when veterans returning to the South insisted on their right to vote. At the same time, technological and economic changes (radio, television, the decline of the cotton economy, etc.) were ending the brutal isolation of segregated communities where blacks were terrorized, involving them in the social currents of the world and showing blacks that a different life was possible.[2] Change accelerated in the late ’50s and early ’60s, as civil rights workers traveled to the South to challenge Jim Crow. The national media became interested in racial injustice. Demonstrations were organized around the country. By 1964 millions of people were clamoring for change, and Congress finally responded with its Civil Rights Act and other bills. Lyndon Johnson was but a pawn in the hands of progress.

Nor was he alone responsible for Vietnam. H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty shows that Johnson felt trapped in Vietnam, pressured by Congress and the public neither to withdraw from the country nor to escalate the conflict too quickly, with the result that he built up troops very slowly and finally found himself bogged down in a quagmire. It was the political situation, the Cold War, that generated the pressure to do something about Vietnam; Johnson simply tried to respond to political pressure as best he could. He was probably the person most responsible for the war, but it was the social dynamics and resultant political considerations that led him to make the decisions he did.

I could discuss a whole range of examples, from Hitler to bin Laden, systematically showing that the importance of individuals has been overstated or at least stated simplistically, but that seems unnecessary. Logic is just as compelling in this case as empirical evidence. And logic agrees with the Russian Marxist Plekhanov when he states (in “The Role of the Individual in History”) that “individuals often exercise considerable influence upon the fate of society, but this influence is determined by the internal structure of that society and by its relation to other societies.” Or, expressed differently, “influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces.” The trends of society are in a certain direction; a person emerges who embodies or seizes upon these trends, pushing them along, and he becomes influential. But he has been created by these trends, these forces. He can merely serve them and guide them in relatively minor ways; he remains their slave. Compared to the structural forces of history, he is as a sailor navigating his skiff in the wind.

In short, while bin Laden may have provided the spark that set off the war on terror, it is because society was a tinderbox waiting for that spark that bin Laden has been influential. He did not “change history”; no one ever changes history, he merely plays into its hands.

[2] See Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), chapter 1.


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