Who makes history – great men or the masses?

Recalling July 1789 – a great anniversary with lessons for people of today

by Ray Nunes

We live today in a world dominated by capital. Enormous blocks of it are concentrated in a relatively small number of giant companies and corporations known as multinationals. They exercise control over the economic life not only of their ‘home’ countries but over the entire world. They are world exploiters. In many issues of The Spark we have carried articles describing their role and power here and elsewhere, nor do we intend to stop.

Of what interest, then, may it be to modern readers to write of a period of history when such things did not exist and, indeed, the rule of capital was only just being born as the consequence of two world-historic events: the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789?

A new system is born

It may surprise many to know that, contrary to what they are taught in schools, colleges and universities, and therefore what is widely believed, capitalism as a ruling system is far from being eternal and only began its dominance in any country with the English revolution of the 1640s which overthrew feudalism and the absolute monarchy of Charles I plus the supporting economic and political power of the English aristocracy.

Although headed by a new and rising class of ‘capitalists’, that was a revolution of the great mass of the British people. So also was the French Revolution of 1789 a nationwide act of the people, even though led by the burgeoning French capitalists, the economic-political class known in France as ‘the bourgeoisie’.(1)

The driving force of history

In every great social revolution great men are thrown up as leaders who stamp their names indelibly on the pages of history. But despite their important role in leading the overturn of the old social order, it is not they who determine either the outbreak or the progress of the revolution. These are determined by the mass of the people whose aims and actions are the driving force of history. If social conditions for a revolution have not yet matured, then no matter how brilliant the individuals or potential leaders may be, any attempt at revolution will inevitably fail; there will be no actual revolution. In the France of 1789 the social conditions had matured, leading to the mass storming of the Bastille on July 14, whose anniversary was celebrated last month in capitalist France – but not in other Western countries.

Class hatred boils over

What actuated the great mass of the French people in 1789 was the enormous build-up of hatred for the ruling classes and their ruthless, centuries-old oppression of the vast majority. There was bound to be a revolutionary outburst. It took place on July 14. What took place that day? Let us quote the words of royalist reactionary Thomas Carlyle whose book The French Revolution,became the handbook of every right-wing element in Britain. It is still, one might say, the classic work on the subject. Here is what he had to say of that momentous day, a defining moment in world history:

But see Camille Desmoulins,(2) from the Cafe de Foy, rushing out, sibylline in face; his hair streaming, in each hand a pistol! He springs to a table: the Police satellites are eyeing him; alive they shall not take him, not they alive him alive. This time he speaks without stammering: “- Friends! shall we die like hunted hares? Like sheep hounded into their pinfold; bleating for mercy; where there is no mercy, but only a whetted knife? The hour is come; the supreme hour of Frenchman and Man; when Oppressors are to try conclusions with Oppressed; and the word is, swift death, or Deliverance forever: let such hour be well-come! Us, meseems, one cry only befits: To Arms! let universal Paris, universal France, as with the throat of the whirlwind, sound only: To Arms!” yell responsive the innumerable voices; like one great voice, as of a Demon yelling from the air: for all faces wax fire-eyed, all hearts burn up into madness. In such, or fitter words, does Camille evoke the Elemental Powers, in this great moment.

The Bastille

Thus Camille Desmoulins hurled his burning brand into the barrel of gunpowder that was France.

But why storm the Bastille? Because it not only symbolised the vast prison of the French people, but also was a grim stone fortress lowering over Paris, ready to intimidate and crush any uprising of the restive Parisians. The monarchical Government was moving to this end, moving loyal regiments – many of them foreign, Swiss, German, and even Irish – to surround Paris; its intentions plain. News of these plans had been circulating. The word was: ‘They are preparing a St. Bartholomew of patriots!’ That day was notorious. On it, in the reign of Louis XIV, at a given signal 300,000 Protestant Huguenots were massacred.

Desmoulin’s fiery speech was an alarm call to which the infuriated masses immediately responded. They scoured Paris, seizing any and every sort of arms. Tens of thousands marched to the Bastille, some armed, many not. That day they stormed and took the Bastille, later to raze it to the ground stone by stone. Thus July 14 became known and justly celebrated as the day of the Revolution.

Earlier events

That was not, of course, the only day of moment in that period, but it was the culmination. What had happened earlier to cause the cup of mass bitterness to overflow? We can look at events only briefly.

Two ‘estates’(3) ruled France within the framework of an absolute [all-powerful] monarchy. The aristocracy paid no taxes, the clergy but a small amount. Who paid the taxes to keep the state solvent? The third estate: the twenty-five million comprising the peasantry, the town artisans and labourers, and the burgeoning capitalist class.

The monarchical government bled them white. But despite all the financial agility of a series of finance ministers the state, with a huge and growing deficit, could not be sustained. It was bankrupt. The third estate was squeezed dry. At their wits’ end the monarch, Louis the 16th, and his advisers, decided on an emergency stalling tactic, it called together the states General, a congress of the three estates not convoked since 1614, hoping to assert state authority to intimidate the masses.

The monarchical Government miscalculated. After a historic political struggle and debate, the Third Estate came out on top and declared itself the National Assembly representing all France.


Against the monarchy’s attempts to dissolve this body – elected by indirect elections throughout France – its members assembled on a tennis court in the royal grounds at Versailles where the Congress was held. Here we come to another defining moment of the Revolution. To the demand that they should quit the royal grounds by order of King Louis, the Assembly swore on oath not to leave except at the point of the bayonet!

Who spoke for the Assembly? Mirabeau (Le Comte de Riquetti) a radical (for his time) nobleman. He answered the King’s ultimatum in these famous words:

Go tell your master that we are here at the command of the People, and we will disperse only at the point of the bayonet.

This act of defiance known as the oath of the Tennis Court prepared the ground for July 14. Mirabeaugradually moved to the right, trying to save the monarchy, while the masses moved to the left.

Events soon showed to the people that the King and the aristocracy were conniving with foreign powers to invade France to crush the Revolution. Its original aim being to frame a Constitution, the Assembly became the Constituent Assembly. The King tried to escape to a royal ally but the masses brought him back to Paris and proclaimed a republic.

Royal arrogance

The crowned heads of Europe sought to restore the monarchy and feudalism in France. On July 25, 1792, the Duke of Brunswick published a manifesto at the request of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. This manifesto, in the names of the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia, contained the following threats:

The said majesties declare, moreover, on their word of Emperor and King, that if the Chateau de Tuileries is forced or insulted, that if the least violence is committed against the King, the Queen and the Royal Family … they will exact an exemplary and ever memorable vengeance by submitting the town of Paris to military execution and total submission.

Danton’s clarion call

The people of Paris were not intimidated. Far from it. In a magnificent outburst of feeling they seized the Tuileries. Their reply to the foreign invasion by Brunswick and Co. was immortalised in the famous words of Georges Danton, who told the Assembly that France was under attack and they were surrounded by enemies. What do we require to defeat them? he asked, and replied in words that have gone down in history:

Audacity, again audacity, and always audacity.’(4)

With such inspiring words ringing in their ears, the French masses rose as one man, formed new armies and threw the Royalist invaders off French soil with heavy losses.

Long after, the greatest revolutionary thinker of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, called Danton ‘the greatest master of revolutionary tactics yet known.’

Makers of history

Both Marx and his lifelong colleague Frederick Engels had the greatest respect for the achievements of the French Revolution which put its stamp on the whole epoch of nineteenth century Europe. They were themselves proletarian revolutionaries, but that did not prevent them from studying and learning from the experience of France and the French people. Their profound studies of history and the role of revolutions found its expression in their scientific dictum: ‘The masses make history!’ Recognition of this truth was something quite new.

This ran counter to all previous thinking, that history was made by great men – kings, generals, politicians, etc., and the other fallacy that ideas or opinions made history, though where these ideas came from could never be properly explained.

It is not possible in this short article to give even a thumbnail sketch of the French Revolution in its entirety. It was an event of gigantic sweep, as was the English Revolution. But whereas the latter ended in a compromise between bourgeoisie and aristocracy, the French Revolution was fought out to a finish. It was one of the great thunderclaps of history. To all except a few contemporaries it seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. The old regime seemed fixed and unshakeable. But below the surface the masses were moving, were coming to revolutionary consciousness. Like every great social revolution (as distinct from a coup d’etat or palace revolution) the Revolution was a struggle of contending classes with opposed material interests. Although it never achieved the sloganised ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it smashed feudalism and prepared similar revolutions in 1848 and the mid-nineteenth century. It was, one may say, the father of modern Europe.


The Revolution was pushed forward by the Paris masses. Its main force was the peasantry, ninety per cent of the population, but it was led by the bourgeoisie, prodded into action by the people of Paris. To Marxists it has always been regarded as a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Paris masses consisted of artisans and town labourers – they had not yet coalesced into a modern factory proletariat. As the Revolution progressed they played more and more of a leading role, providing the backbone of the revolutionary societies which had at their head the Jacobins. The very word roused the reactionary rulers of Europe almost to the point of apoplexy.


Lenin, that great thinker and architect of the Russian Socialist Revolution of 1917, defined the achievements of the Jacobins as follows:

The bourgeois historians see in Jacobinism a downfall. The proletarian historians regard Jacobinism as the greatest expression of an oppressed class in its struggle for liberation. The Jacobins gave France the best models of a democratic revolution; they repelled in an exemplary fashion the coalition of monarchs formed against the Republic. The Jacobins were not destined to win a complete victory, chiefly because eighteenth-century France was surrounded on the Continent by countries that were too backward, and also because France itself was not possessed of the material requisites for socialism, since there were no banks, no capitalist syndicates, no machine industry, no railroads …

It is natural for the bourgeoisie to hate Jacobinism. It is natural for the petty bourgeoisie to dread it. The class-conscious workers and toilers have faith in the transfer of power to the revolutionary oppressed class, for that is the only remedy for economic dislocation and the war. [Written June, 1917] (Vol. 25, Coll. Wks., p.121.)

The plebs settle accounts

That does not mean that Lenin advocated imitating the Jacobins of 1793. His views, programme, slogans and methods of action were new. But the influence of the French Revolution still inspired hatred among the possessing classes – and does so to this day. A great part of the accounts of the French Revolution by English and other Western bourgeois commentators and historians has been centered on the brief period of the ‘Terror’. The object of such writers has always been to inculcate in the masses a horror of revolution. It might, you see, threaten the domination of the ruling classes.

How did that great revolutionary Karl Marx, see that period in retrospect? In 1848 he wrote:

The whole French terrorism was nothing but a plebeian manner of settling accounts with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, with absolutism, feudalism and philistinism.

(Marx-Engels Sel. Wks.,3 vol. edition, Vol. 1 p.139).

Marx realised clearly that it was the masses who forced the revolution on towards becoming more and more left, step by step. Later, writing between December 1851 and March 1852 he said:

In the first French Revolution the rule of the Constitutionalists is followed by the rule of the Girordins(5) and the rule of the Jacobins. Each of these parties relies on the more progressive party for support. As soon as it has brought the Revolution far enough to be unable to follow it further, still less to go ahead of it, it is thrust aside by the bolder ally that stands behind it …

The war situation

It must not be forgotten that the crowned heads of Europe sent armies to invade France to restore the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy. Internally, the reactionary forces were conspiring with Prussia and Austria to defeat the Revolution.

Engels points to the war situation at the time of the Terror. In a letter to Karl Kautsky of February 20, 1889, he writes:

As for the terror, it was essentially a war measure so long as there was any sense to it. The class or the factional group of the class which alone could safeguard the victory of the revolution not only maintained itself in power by this means (that was the least after the victory of the revolts) but ensured itself freedom of motion, elbow-room, the possibility of concentrating forces at the decisive spot, the border. At the end of 1793 that was already fairly secure; 1794 started well. French armies scored progress almost everywhere. The Commune with its extreme course became superfluous. Its propagation of revolution became a hindrance to Robespierre as well as to Danton both of whom, but each in his own way, wanted peace. From this conflict of three elements Robespierre emerged victorious, but now terror became in his hands a means of self-preservation and thus absurd. On June 26 Jourdan(6) at Fleurus laid the whole of Belgium at the feet of the republic. Thereby terror became untenable. On July 27 Robespierre fell and the bourgeois orgy began. (Marx-Engels Correspondence).

Leaders, and tasks performed

Undoubtedly the French Revolution and its leading actors played a major role in creating the modern world. Some of those leaders we have mentioned. Marx summarises their accomplishment:

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society. The first ones knocked the feudal basis to pieces and mowed off the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other [Napoleon] created inside France the conditions under which alone free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders he everywhere swept the feudal institutions away, so far as was necessary to furnish bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European continent. (Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire(7) of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter I, Marx-Engels Sel. Wks., 3-vol. edition).

Of course, as the more enlightened of our readers know, Marx and Engels transcended the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Germany in the 1840s and became proletarian revolutionaries. They announced their creed to the world with the trumpet blast of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, and thereafter carried on their Herculean labour of establishing a powerful communist movement throughout Europe. Although recognised as the greatest danger to the international bourgeoisie, which they proclaimed the class enemy of the developing working class, they had high esteem for the achievements of the French bourgeois-democratic revolution’s achievement in sweeping away feudalism, establishing capitalism, and thereby paving the way for socialism – the lower stage of communism. ‘Unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and battles of peoples to bring it into being’, wrote Marx in Chapter 1 of The Eighteenth Brumaire.


In setting out to show the inter-relation between the masses and the leading individuals, we have mentioned only a small number of them. We cannot leave this subject without reference to the greatest bete noir of the royalists and their flunkeys, the most hated of all their opponents – Jean Paul Marat. The royalists have forged a totally distorted picture of this great revolutionary. In 1789 he abandoned a career as a physician to publish and edit his paper, Friend of the People (L’ami du peuple). His was the voice of the dispossessed and oppressed. Constantly on the run from the royal authorities, he was one who sought nothing for himself and fought unremittingly for the interests of the people. The people trusted him and fought for him as he for them. Far from being a warmonger, at critical moments he advised against violence. His end came when he was stabbed to death by the Girondist Charlotte Corday, still commemorated by the bourgeoisie as a heroine. He was mourned as no other by the French people.

The Marxist standpoint

In this article we have sought to explain the role of the masses and of the individual in the making of history. Our standpoint – as should be clear – is that the masses make history, not great men, although they have an important role to play. Marx and Lenin used the expression ‘the masses’ to indicate a wider grouping than the working class; Mao Tse-tung uses the term ‘the people’, having the same class content , in his dictum: ‘The people and the people alone are the makers of history’. Most bourgeois ideologists manage to shut their eyes to the great, in fact, the decisive role of the masses in the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society. Yet it is the masses who, from the beginning of the production of their material means of subsistence, the very thing that marks off mankind from the animals, created and improved the instruments of labour, handed their acquired skills down from generation to generation, and created all material values without which society could not exist.

Different epochs, different modes of production

The masses also make history in the realm of political struggle. When the social order is unable to further the development of the productive forces, a new mode of production becomes necessary. It is the masses who by their political activity bring into being a new social order which gives play to further development of the productive forces. Such is the development of history, as shown – and proved – by the great scientific theory of historical materialism discovered in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx and Engels.

The transformation of one socio-economic formation holding for a given epoch into another is overall a time of revolution. ‘Revolutions’, wrote Lenin, ‘are festivals of the oppressed and exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles.’ (Lenin: Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution). This is because at their core, playing the key role, is the class which is the bearer of the new social relations to be established in place of the old, which have been outmoded.

In such times of social overturn outstanding individuals are thrown up as leaders of the mass struggle. Marxism does not ignore such leaders, but gives due weight to them in relation to the mass movement. Not all individuals become outstanding; those who do can only be great insofar as they represent the emerging new mode of production and the class forces which are its bearer. The French Revolution produced giants, whose names are far less known today than they deserve to be. They are associated with defining moments of the revolution.

The leap character of revolutions

Revolutions’, wrote Marx, ‘are the locomotives of history’. They are that because they move history forward not at a snail’s pace but in a leap from one epoch to another. That was the character not only of the French Revolution but also of the socialist revolution in Russia in November, 1917. Such revolutions will inevitably be repeated until the eventual triumph of socialism worldwide, no matter what setbacks may be encountered.

Our aim in this article has been to utilise the anniversary of the great French Revolution of 1789 in order to illustrate the connection between the role of the masses and that of the individual. We have not set out to do the same for the Russian revolution of 1917 – all we have space for here is to note that the same characteristics marked that revolution as was the case in France. The role of the masses and the role of the individual had the same connection with each other although at a different time, place and under different circumstances. So it was; so it will be. END


1 Bourgeoisie. French word for middle class, i.e., middle because between the aristocratic landowners and the peasantry. Hence, ‘bourgeois’, today a capitalist or middle-class supporter of capitalism.

2 Camille Desmoulins: Revolutionary poet

3 Estates. These were not manorial real estates, but class divisions fo the population as determined by the division of labour in feudal society.

4 Danton: ‘L’audace, encore l’audace, et toujours l’audace!’

5 Girondins: Named after the district of Gironde. Supporters of the Revolution but wavered and were inconsistent. That is why they were opposed by the Jacobins, who upheld the interests of the advanced class of the eighteenth century.

6 Jourdan, Jean Baptiste: French general who became commander of the army of the North and won the victory at Fleurus, driving the Austrians beyond the Rhine in 1794.

7 Brumaire. A month in the newly-named French revolutionary calendar.

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