Tolstoy's view of history as propounded in his book "War and Peace" is that the forces that shape historical events are infinitely many and unknowable. He posits that a leader is in no ways more special then any other person in having a role in shaping history, and hence the correct historical method is not to focus on leaders, which is usually done. What evidence is there of this theory besides the evidence given by Tolstoy himself in his analysis of the French invasion?


As this question's tag implies, this is more of a philosophy than a theory. Evidence is not always something you can apply to a philosophy. That doesn't make it any less valuable though.

I understand that it was part of Communist (and thus Soviet) dogma that history is a large process that individual people cannot control any more than individual snowflakes can control an avalanche. This can be taken to extremes though. I'll go back to the same country and say that trying to claim Stalin had no real personal effect on history is patently ridiculous.

However, the typical traditional Western view of Big Men can be (and in fact has been) taken to extremes too. We miss a lot of valuable perspective when we just focus on wars and rulers. For example, you can't really understand 19th and early 20th century US history without studying the slavery culture, the Great Awakening, the rise of the union movement, and the spread of populism and socialism. However, USA history textbooks try to avoid all those subjects like The Plague.

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  • Just to clarify would you say that Napolean had a real personal effect on the course of the French invasion of Russia, more so then a common soldier? – user833 Apr 27 '12 at 16:41
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    @Shahab - Yes indeed. That is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'd go so far as to say that under another man, France probably wouldn't have been invading Russia to start with. Another common counter-example is the death of The Great Khan halting the Mongol advance into Europe. – T.E.D. Apr 27 '12 at 18:00
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    @Shahab, I agree with T.E.D. here. A large part of communist/socialist theory on history derives from the doctrine of historical materialism. While I think many modern proponents of HM would disagree with the Soviet assertion that individuals play no roll in shaping events, I think the counter argument would be that individuals are themselves shaped by larger impersonal forces that keep them from being "independent actors". The beliefs and actions of Napoleon are thus reflective less of "Napoleon" and more of the environment that derived Napoleon. – BrotherJack Apr 27 '12 at 18:37
  • "individuals are themselves shaped by larger impersonal forces that keep them from being "independent actors", that is what I am talking about. Tolstoy gave an analysis (and that is all pre-Soviet) that such external (and infinitely many and unknowable in totality) factors caused Napolean to do what he did. My question, is, are there any other such analysis done? – user833 Apr 28 '12 at 7:55
  • I go for a mix of the great man and the impersonal forces. Napoleon, born about 50 years earlier, would likely not have been a world shaker, but a good officer in the French Army, because the "impersonal forces" of the era would then not have discredited the government and allowed a man like him to take over and change the world. On the other hand the French Revolution would have been considerably less revolutionary without the acts of "Great Men" to move them onward. – Oldcat Aug 19 '14 at 21:07

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