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The Individual and Impersonal Historical Forces

27 Nov 2017Essay Samples

The Individual and Impersonal Historical Forces in the Nineteenth Century

This paper examines the romantic movement of the nineteenth century, as opposed to communism, as the key alternative to capitalism. Communism and capitalism both asserted the primacy of economics and of impersonal historical forces. Alternately, the Romantics advocated the primacy of subjective, personal, emotional experiences.

It is commonly held that the debate between capitalism and communism was at the heart of nineteenth century politics and philosophy. This is inaccurate. Both capitalism and communism rely on impersonal historical forces, predominantly economic, to shape human existence. Marx believed that class conflict determined the course of history while the classical economists relied on ‘the invisible hand of the market.’ While they may not be deterministic they are certainly mechanistic. Also, they claim to be scientific, objective and universal. In these senses capitalism and communism are closely related.

Viewed from this perspective the conflict at the core of the nineteenth century was between the believers in impersonal historical forces, both capitalists and communists, and the advocates of individual ideas and experience such as the Romantics at the beginning of the century and Freud, Mahler and the Impressionists at its end.

Marx believed that economic activity is the primary or motivating form of human intercourse and that other aspects of social organization follow from these economic circumstances. In "The Communist Manifesto" Marx provided a brief outline of human history which attempted to apply this hierarchy to human history. Specifically, Marx isolated instances of revolutionary change and linked them to fundamental changes in the economic base. Thus, feudalism arose when land was the primary form of capital, and amounted to a socio-political form of organization which reinforced and legitimated the unequal distribution of land. Individual experience followed from social organization which was determined by economic factors.

When capitalism arose, and wealth (and economic power) came to be linked to control of industrial enterprises not land, this represented a fundamental change in the economic base. This change was reflected in political change: Namely, the Atlantic Revolutions and the emergence of capitalism with its emphasis on democratic institutions and the concurrent decline in authority of the nobility (a social form designed to enhance a now defunct economic base).

Social change, according to Marx, followed and reinforced economic change. Industrial manufacturing emerged as the predominant form of production and economic dominion passed to the capitalist class prior to their assumption of political power and control over art and ideology. Ultimately, according to Marx social organization and individual behaviour were ruled over by the impersonal forces of historical change.

The classical economists also believed that economics were an impersonal force: They referred to it as the invisible hand. Essentially, they argued that if every individual diligently pursued his own selfinterest the laws of the marketplace were such that everyone would benefit from lower priced and better quality goods. They were advocates of industrialization as it increased the quanity of material goods. During the nineteenth century both Marxists and capitalists worshipped in the school of impersonal economic and historical forces. They had diametrically opposed views of how that world should (and did) operate but they were clearly on the same playing field. Both the capitalist and the communist worshipped planning and the division of labour: They only disputed how the proceeds should be distributed.

Consequently, the true opposition to this dominant trend of reliance on impersonal forces for historical change arose from the advocates of individual experience. Whitman, Thoreau, Byron and a host of other advocates of individual experience, emotional richness and subjectivity were the true alternative in the nineteenth century. The romantics criticized the industrial world as being soulless.

Consequently, they turned to the strength and violence of nature and the passions of youth. In the same way that youth protested the Vietnam War during the 1960s they supported the liberal revolutions throughout Europe in 1830 and 1848. In England they hiked through the Lake District and lamented the arrival of the railways. The Romantics advocated the primacy of subjective, personal, emotional experiences.

Their attitude presented an alternative to both capitalism and communism in two significant manners. In the first place they opposed the accoutrements of modernity and industrialization. They objected to the substance of nineteenth-century industrialization. At the same time, however, they also opposed the ethos of capitalism. They were opposed to personal reliance on only objective analysis preferring emotional content and experience. Thus, they offered an alternative worldview not merely an alternative economic system as Marxism did. Need dissertation on History? Buy dissertation from best dissertation help service PhDify.


  • Dwyer, John Business History: Canada in the Global Community 2n d ed. Captus Press Toronto: 2000
  • Marx, Karl and Frederich Engels "The Communist Manifesto". 

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