Having abandoned the conception of the ancients as to the divine subjection of the will of a nation to some chosen man and the subjection of that man’s will to the Deity, history cannot without contradictions take a single step till it has chosen one of two things: either a return to the former belief in the direct intervention of the Deity in human affairs or a definite explanation of the meaning of the force producing historical events and termed “power.”
A return to the first is impossible, the belief has been destroyed; and so it is essential to explain what is meant by power.
Napoleon ordered an army to be raised and go to war. We are so accustomed to that idea and have become so used to it that the question: why did six hundred thousand men go to fight when Napoleon uttered certain words, seems to us senseless. He had the power and so what he ordered was done.
This reply is quite satisfactory if we believe that the power was given him by God. But as soon as we do not admit that, it becomes essential to determine what is this power of one man over others.
It cannot be the direct physical power of a strong man over a weak one—a domination based on the application or threat of physical force, like the power of Hercules; nor can it be based on the effect of moral force, as in their simplicity some historians think who say that the leading figures in history are heroes, that is, men gifted with a special strength of soul and mind called genius. This power cannot be based on the predominance of moral strength, for, not to mention heroes such as Napoleon about whose moral qualities opinions differ widely, history shows us that neither a Louis XI nor a Metternich, who ruled over millions of people, had any particular moral qualities, but on the contrary were generally morally weaker than any of the millions they ruled over.
If the source of power lies neither in the physical nor in the moral qualities of him who possesses it, it must evidently be looked for elsewhere—in the relation to the people of the man who wields the power.
And that is how power is understood by the science of jurisprudence, that exchange bank of history which offers to exchange history’s understanding of power for true gold.
Power is the collective will of the people transferred, by expressed or tacit consent, to their chosen rulers.
In the domain of jurisprudence, which consists of discussions of how a state and power might be arranged were it possible for all that to be arranged, it is all very clear; but when applied to history that definition of power needs explanation.
The science of jurisprudence regards the state and power as the ancients regarded fire—namely, as something existing absolutely. But for history, the state and power are merely phenomena, just as for modern physics fire is not an element but a phenomenon.
From this fundamental difference between the view held by history and that held by jurisprudence, it follows that jurisprudence can tell minutely how in its opinion power should be constituted and what power—existing immutably outside time—is, but to history’s questions about the meaning of the mutations of power in time it can answer nothing.
If power be the collective will of the people transferred to their ruler, was Pugachëv a representative of the will of the people? If not, then why was Napoleon I? Why was Napoleon III a criminal when he was taken prisoner at Boulogne, and why, later on, were those criminals whom he arrested?
Do palace revolutions—in which sometimes only two or three people take part—transfer the will of the people to a new ruler? In international relations, is the will of the people also transferred to their conqueror? Was the will of the Confederation of the Rhine transferred to Napoleon in 1806? Was the will of the Russian people transferred to Napoleon in 1809, when our army in alliance with the French went to fight the Austrians?
To these questions three answers are possible:
Either to assume (1) that the will of the people is always unconditionally transferred to the ruler or rulers they have chosen, and that therefore every emergence of a new power, every struggle against the power once appointed, should be absolutely regarded as an infringement of the real power; or (2) that the will of the people is transferred to the rulers conditionally, under definite and known conditions, and to show that all limitations, conflicts, and even destructions of power result from a nonobservance by the rulers of the conditions under which their power was entrusted to them; or (3) that the will of the people is delegated to the rulers conditionally, but that the conditions are unknown and indefinite, and that the appearance of several authorities, their struggles and their falls, result solely from the greater or lesser fulfillment by the rulers of these unknown conditions on which the will of the people is transferred from some people to others.
And these are the three ways in which the historians do explain the relation of the people to their rulers.
Some historians—those biographical and specialist historians already referred to—in their simplicity failing to understand the question of the meaning of power, seem to consider that the collective will of the people is unconditionally transferred to historical persons, and therefore when describing some single state they assume that particular power to be the one absolute and real power, and that any other force opposing this is not a power but a violation of power—mere violence.
Their theory, suitable for primitive and peaceful periods of history, has the inconvenience—in application to complex and stormy periods in the life of nations during which various powers arise simultaneously and struggle with one another—that a Legitimist historian will prove that the National Convention, the Directory, and Bonaparte were mere infringers of the true power, while a Republican and a Bonapartist will prove: the one that the Convention and the other that the Empire was the real power, and that all the others were violations of power. Evidently the explanations furnished by these historians being mutually contradictory can only satisfy young children.
Recognizing the falsity of this view of history, another set of historians say that power rests on a conditional delegation of the will of the people to their rulers, and that historical leaders have power only conditionally on carrying out the program that the will of the people has by tacit agreement prescribed to them. But what this program consists in these historians do not say, or if they do they continually contradict one another.
Each historian, according to his view of what constitutes a nation’s progress, looks for these conditions in the greatness, wealth, freedom, or enlightenment of citizens of France or some other country. But not to mention the historians’ contradictions as to the nature of this program—or even admitting that some one general program of these conditions exists—the facts of history almost always contradict that theory. If the conditions under which power is entrusted consist in the wealth, freedom, and enlightenment of the people, how is it that Louis XIV and Iván the Terrible end their reigns tranquilly, while Louis XVI and Charles I are executed by their people? To this question historians reply that Louis XIV’s activity, contrary to the program, reacted on Louis XVI. But why did it not react on Louis XIV or on Louis XV—why should it react just on Louis XVI? And what is the time limit for such reactions? To these questions there are and can be no answers. Equally little does this view explain why for several centuries the collective will is not withdrawn from certain rulers and their heirs, and then suddenly during a period of fifty years is transferred to the Convention, to the Directory, to Napoleon, to Alexander, to Louis XVIII, to Napoleon again, to Charles X, to Louis Philippe, to a Republican government, and to Napoleon III. When explaining these rapid transfers of the people’s will from one individual to another, especially in view of international relations, conquests, and alliances, the historians are obliged to admit that some of these transfers are not normal delegations of the people’s will but are accidents dependent on cunning, on mistakes, on craft, or on the weakness of a diplomatist, a ruler, or a party leader. So that the greater part of the events of history—civil wars, revolutions, and conquests—are presented by these historians not as the results of free transferences of the people’s will, but as results of the ill-directed will of one or more individuals, that is, once again, as usurpations of power. And so these historians also see and admit historical events which are exceptions to the theory.
These historians resemble a botanist who, having noticed that some plants grow from seeds producing two cotyledons, should insist that all that grows does so by sprouting into two leaves, and that the palm, the mushroom, and even the oak, which blossom into full growth and no longer resemble two leaves, are deviations from the theory.
Historians of the third class assume that the will of the people is transferred to historic personages conditionally, but that the conditions are unknown to us. They say that historical personages have power only because they fulfill the will of the people which has been delegated to them.
But in that case, if the force that moves nations lies not in the historic leaders but in the nations themselves, what significance have those leaders?
The leaders, these historians tell us, express the will of the people: the activity of the leaders represents the activity of the people.
But in that case the question arises whether all the activity of the leaders serves as an expression of the people’s will or only some part of it. If the whole activity of the leaders serves as the expression of the people’s will, as some historians suppose, then all the details of the court scandals contained in the biographies of a Napoleon or a Catherine serve to express the life of the nation, which is evident nonsense; but if it is only some particular side of the activity of an historical leader which serves to express the people’s life, as other so-called “philosophical” historians believe, then to determine which side of the activity of a leader expresses the nation’s life, we have first of all to know in what the nation’s life consists.
Met by this difficulty historians of that class devise some most obscure, impalpable, and general abstraction which can cover all conceivable occurrences, and declare this abstraction to be the aim of humanity’s movement. The most usual generalizations adopted by almost all the historians are: freedom, equality, enlightenment, progress, civilization, and culture. Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But as it is in no way proved that the aim of humanity does consist in freedom, equality, enlightenment, or civilization, and as the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed, it happens that the activity of the millions who migrate, burn houses, abandon agriculture, and destroy one another never is expressed in the account of the activity of some dozen people who did not burn houses, practice agriculture, or slay their fellow creatures.
History proves this at every turn. Is the ferment of the peoples of the west at the end of the eighteenth century and their drive eastward explained by the activity of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, their mistresses and ministers, and by the lives of Napoleon, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarchais, and others?
Is the movement of the Russian people eastward to Kazán and Siberia expressed by details of the morbid character of Iván the Terrible and by his correspondence with Kúrbski?
Is the movement of the peoples at the time of the Crusades explained by the life and activity of the Godfreys and the Louis-es and their ladies? For us that movement of the peoples from west to east, without leaders, with a crowd of vagrants, and with Peter the Hermit, remains incomprehensible. And yet more incomprehensible is the cessation of that movement when a rational and sacred aim for the Crusade—the deliverance of Jerusalem—had been clearly defined by historic leaders. Popes, kings, and knights incited the peoples to free the Holy Land; but the people did not go, for the unknown cause which had previously impelled them to go no longer existed. The history of the Godfreys and the Minnesingers can evidently not cover the life of the peoples. And the history of the Godfreys and the Minnesingers has remained the history of Godfreys and Minnesingers, but the history of the life of the peoples and their impulses has remained unknown.
Still less does the history of authors and reformers explain to us the life of the peoples.
The history of culture explains to us the impulses and conditions of life and thought of a writer or a reformer. We learn that Luther had a hot temper and said such and such things; we learn that Rousseau was suspicious and wrote such and such books; but we do not learn why after the Reformation the peoples massacred one another, nor why during the French Revolution they guillotined one another.
If we unite both these kinds of history, as is done by the newest historians, we shall have the history of monarchs and writers, but not the history of the life of the peoples.
Next page →