It’s said that the greatest trick the Devil performed was to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. This year, Adam Werritty tried the same stunt, with less success. But if we were looking to the great tricks of those who rule over us on Earth, the greatest is to persuade us that we are powerless. The message is drummed into us – there’s no point trying to change things, you won’t succeed. 2011 was significant in many ways, perhaps the most hopeful was the movement in the Arab world known as the ‘Arab Spring’. By themselves, without any ‘Western Intervention’ of the sorts that have left Afghanistan and Iraq happy utopias, the people of Egypt and Tunisia threw off repressive dictatorships.
The process is not complete, and these revolutions continue. But they provided impressive examples of the truth that if enough people realised what power they did potentially have, they would be capable of anything, even in the face of a brutal and ruthless regime. Mass movements change the world. But what of individuals, what can we do? Do we have any role, any influence on the seemingly impersonal processes of history?
If you thought of the caricature of Marxist thought often paraded in the press and even supposedly ‘rigorous’ academic work, you would expect this Marxist to answer, ‘very little.’ But I am not, and Marxists are not, economic or social determinists that believe in an impersonal or depersonalised process of historical change.
Revolutions are not automatically triggered when the prices of certain items reach certain levels, or the levels of inequality reach certain figures. One of the wonderful things about humanity, something that must be infuriating for those trying to reduce the way we think and feel to mechanisms and equations, is that we don’t act in automatic or deterministic ways. Fortunately, we do act collectively with a certain degree of regularity and with noticeable patterns. This makes the general course of historical trends possible. But the individual is unpredictable and capricious. And here is the essence of Marxist historical thought – the individual affects history, but the individual is a product of history.
Take the example of Mohamed Boauzizi. He was the Tunisian stall holder, who set himself alight in December last year, in protest about his treatment by the authorities. This provoked a mass rising which led to the end of the 24-year repressive dictatorship of Ben Ali just ten days after Bouazizi’s death on January 4th this year . There can be no doubt that this desperate man, who tragically was not to know the world-changing consequences of his last acts, sparked the Arab Spring. He is an individual who has affected history in ways the we cannot yet assess.
But he did not self-immolate in a vacuum. His situation was as a result of the conditions in Tunisia, which were linked to a variety of historical processes operating on different time lengths. The impact of his action depended on this context. What might have in other historical circumstances been seen as an isolated sad event with no medium or long-term consequences, instead inspired a liberation movement.
The individual, and their actions, cannot be separated from the wider historical processes, as well as the economic, social, political and cultural context in which he or she lives. To try and assess whether the individual or general historical trends or mass movements are more or less important is an utterly meaningless and pointless task which misses the essence of how history is made.
After Marx, we can say that Mohamed Bouazizi made history, but not in circumstances of his own choosing.