Thursday, May 27, 2010

Do Leaders Make History ?

Paul Kennedy , a professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” had this to say about history .

"...was he [ Winston Churchill ]— or, indeed, any of the other Great Men — really all that decisive in altering world affairs? What, after all, changes the course of history? Interestingly, the most important challenge to Carlyle’s great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he offers those famous lines: “Men 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.”

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

And so it was with Churchill....Churchill’s accomplishments were staggering; but he could not alter the larger tides of history, and he had to make his policies within the limits he had inherited, just as Marx observed..."

"...Does the coming of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition herald a new age in Britain’s long history? One doubts it...Does Putin’s rule in Russia make much of a difference? ...all who watched Obama’s amazing electoral campaign, entered this troubled political and economic field far too deeply influenced by over-large expectations and exaggerated promises. The powers of the president and Congress are huge, and there is much that can sensibly be done to improve national and international affairs. But all those powers are set within limits, and national leaders should be humble about that..."

"...who knows, perhaps the time may be coming when even inward-looking American politicians might read a little of the early Karl Marx, and ponder on his observation that men only “make” history under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. They might then be a bit less glib with their promises to transform the world if only they are elected."

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