I know enough "good" Marxists (basically, ones with anarchist sympathies that take most of their history from opposition to other Communists, including Trotsky, beginning with Luxemburg): they say e.g. that the cult of personality is a bad thing, in the party.

Did Marx write at all on personalities and their role in analysing history?

I felt that maybe asking too many questions about Lenin was just going to end up mystifying.

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    Karl or Groucho?
    – user4894
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 20:39

2 Answers 2


I suppose this could qualify as a philosophy question, Marx being a philosopher as well as a historian, economist, and vehement anti-philosopher.

First, as to the role of personality, Marx was certainly enough of a Hegelian or "structuralist" that he saw historical figures as the instantiations of historical-material forces. He famously said that men make their own history, but never in circumstances of their own making. For him, the technical shifts in the "means of production" and historical "class struggles" were the primary forces of historical change. His great work on historical change, *The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte**, was among first to employ sociological analysis, diminishing the role of figures like Louis Bonaparte to "farcical" entities.

It is very hard to say what Marx might have thought of the Bolsheviks. His main work was a critique of capitalism, and though he was a revolutionary, he never set out a political program or sought to predict the future in any detail. He actually did study the prospect of revolution in Russia (pausing to learn Russian so he could analyze farming records). But he was very doubtful that an agricultural society could transition into socialism without first developing into an industrial commodity economy. And indeed it was the struggle to transform serfdom into "commodity" farming in 30 years, rather than 300, as in England, say, that proved the beginning of the end for Lenin's NEP.

Lenin, Luxemburg, and others, viewing capitalism at a later stage, developed the second-tier of early 20th-century Marxism, including analysis of imperialism, colonialism, and global finance. In this context Lenin developed the theory of the "vanguard party." This was partly a reaction to the failures of the Second Internationale, and the scandal of the European workers parties voting in favor of WWI. He felt strongly that a "vanguard" with a thorough knowledge of history and theory must direct the labor movement. So, the "leaders" return, but presumably as functionaries of the party. And it is true that until Stalin's final purges, the party was never a fully top-down apparatus, through rife with ideological and personality struggles.

It is probably safe to say that the "cult of personality" as well as "national culture" were both abhorrent to and theoretically negligible to all Marxists, even more so after WWI. And it is partly for this reason that they could be so mistaken about fascism and then Stalin. This is not to say that "personality" plays any determining role, but that "radio cult" or "culture" was not as epiphenomenal to the economic base as they imagined. Reviewing this doctrinal "oversight" has been part of most critical Marxist theory since, beginning with the Frankfurt School.

  • the claim that stands out "diminishing the role of figures like Louis Bonaparte to "farcical" entities." is both a little vague as an answer, and could use citations. i appreciate the reply tho
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 22:10
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    From the book's famous quote: "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy (out of the French Revolution, Napoleon crowns himself emperor) the second time as farce..." (out of the Revolutions of 1848 his nephew, a total nonentity rides counterrevolution to create the first bourgeois police state.) Marx seized upon Louis as the very image of a mediocrity swept into devastating power by historical forces of class struggle, chance, name recognition, and political machination...not unlike G.W. Bush. Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 22:35
  • hmm yeah kinda ambiguous as an answer, but cheers
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 22:38
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    Hardly! Yet I can't make up my mind about Lenin. He famously distrusted Stalin and felt the revolution had failed, since it was mired in war and could not succeed unless Germany also went socialist. But at that point all they could do was try to industrialize fast enough to survive all the "capitalist" and then German fascist attacks, which Stalin finally did. Unlike Marx, Lenin was not a jolly "humanist character." Stern. But also never an egotist, always seeing himself as assuming a "duty" in history. Super-capable. Not unlike Cromwell. Wilson described him as a New England Puritan. Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 1:48
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    btw nelson i think that the claim that lenin is some kind of superhero totally disowns the role of the working class, and is kinda counter-revolutionary. clearly a very capable etc. leader, but surely the historical conditions made him appear as he does to you
    – user6917
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 21:00

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot derive its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself, before it has shed all superstitious belief in the past. Earlier revolutions needed to remember previous moments in world history in order to numb themselves with regard to their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury the dead in order to arrive at its own content. There, the phrase exceeded the content. Here the content exceeds the phrase.

From Marx's 18th Brumaire.

Redolent of I think the key irony of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, "what was I to resent?" How can that tension be resolved?

Is the leader of the revolution a tragic revolutionary, or an amoral farce?

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