Who makes history? Certainly, its results are written by historians and they, in a sense, "make" history; or rather, historiography. But who actually makes the thing itself, in the sense of acting in a way which creates a cogent human or national story? Despite the myth of the "great man" who heroically triumphs over all adversity to realize his vision, mankind - much less individual people - cannot be said to actually "make" history in the same way that an individual drop of water does not "make" the flow of a great river. Forces unknown and unpredictable to it, much more complex than our most powerful computers can model, guide its course; and this is infinitely truer of the consequences of human living-together.
The most basic factor of human life is that it must share a finite space with a multitude of other unique and ultimately unpredictable people. History consists of the changing relations between these unique individuals and what they do and say to each other. In such a situation, no one person can be said to be the master of his own destiny for he cannot predict the reactions of others to his actions – the consequences of what he does are beyond his power to control. This is what makes politics in a free society so unpredictable and potentially dangerous; it is the aspect of liberty which those advocating more “security” always fear.
The futility of action is ultimately one of the great tragedies of human life for the individual, and especially for the historical actor. Understood in this way, history becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. It is why historians have to simplify and compound, and why histories often seem much more teleological and full of intent than reality can possibly have been. Real human beings usually know not what they do. For thousands of years, thinkers and doers have faced up to the inherent futility of action – the impossibility of realizing one’s desires, and the fact that whilst he is subject to it, history is so obviously not “made” by man - and tried to devise solutions and comforts.
During the time that Christianity ruled the realm of the mind, it was of course thought that God made history - and this was not a wholly incorrect way of looking at things, insofar as the idea of God indicates a being which cannot be fathomed or understood by human faculties. In the Christian view, human history was not there to be understood, it was merely there to be suffered - for God moved in mysterious ways. This explains why for much of the period after the fall of the Roman Empire before the Renaissance, history as such was not written, and all we know of certain periods comes from the chronicles of events written by monks. To analyze and understand was not their vocation, but merely to describe God's whim.
Yet as modern natural science advanced and the claim of religion to have exclusive property over the intellectual realm was rebuffed, distinctly new opinions on the making of history developed. Whilst it is of course true that many rulers acted according to his prescriptions before he wrote them down, Niccolo Machiavelli was at the forefront of developing the intellectual framework for a new way of looking at politics and history. In The Prince, he advised not Christian meekness and seeking approbation in the eyes of God, but brave daring against the Goddess Fortune and the seeking of glory in the eyes of one's contemporaries and successors. Machiavelli's writings were the first works by a serious thinker for some time to presuppose the human influence over history, not the centrality of an unfathomable God. The daring and cruel could achieve their intent, Machiavelli said – for a time, at least.
These writings were not the first to assert the potential power of humanity over its own destiny. Anyone familiar with Plato's Republic, which became the inspiration for all future utopian writing, can attest to that. The prime concern of Plato's political philosophy was the creation of a polity in which philosophers could live and dedicate themselves to contemplating truth and beauty. To achieve this end, he resorted to what Hannah Arendt has called “the substitution of making for acting”, taking analogies from the world of craftsmanship, as if a ruler were as in control of his people as a craftsman is of his wood. Plato’s polity aimed at the extinction of human individuality by extinguishing unpredictability; it presupposed that the philosopher-king was expert enough in politics to create an everlasting stability, just as a stonemason was expert enough in working stone to create a durable statue. But people are not stone.
The continuing belief that people can be moulded and controlled so easily, which has been so bolstered by the advance of science and psychology (especially the “crowd psychology” so popular in the late nineteenth century), lies behind many of the perverse political experiments of our time. The continuing popularity of these ideas surely stems from the fact they hold out the prospect of actually being able to control human affairs and “make” history. Yet the intentions of anyone who claims the ability to make history in such a fashion must be questioned; they almost always resort to extreme violence, for once they have defined their end-point and begun to think teleologically about politics, they will use any means to achieve their goal. This is the reason for the exceptional violence of modern revolutions which have been based on ideas, and of the Nazi and Stalinist states. History becomes a tale told by a murderer, full of self-love and excuses, signifying their own desire for power. Human life – human history – without the inherent unpredictability brought about by free and unique individuals living together is not human at all, but more closely resembles that of a sheep.
Any peddler of ideology who claims to be able to control the human future and remove unpredictability from human affairs is not only a liar, but is to be held in the highest suspicion. Such people will always claim to have discovered the key to the past, and to be able to explain it perfectly; the attempts of modern social and political science to establish explanations in the realm of human affairs which rival those in natural science are fortunately too comic to be regarded as a threat. The truth about making history is closer to that discerned by Marx when he said that people make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing – we can only boldly begin and hope.
Either to claim an exact understanding of the past, or to set forth into the future with anything more than the willingness to suffer the unexpected consequences of one’s actions and the at least partial defeat of your designs – this is folly, and when it is combined with violence, it is crime.