Napoleon at the Borodino Heights, by Vasili Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, 1897
By Duncan Riley
Murder, generally speaking, is frowned upon in polite society. Consequently, if an individual were to detonate a bomb in a crowded street, killing and wounding dozens of people, they would no doubt meet with general reproach and condemnation from all quarters of society. Yet, if said individual were to put on a uniform and begin referring to themselves as a general or a president, they would assuredly meet with an altogether different response. From one portion of society strident proclamations would issue forth, declaring the bombing to be a spectacular victory over a wicked enemy, a feat of martial prowess that had covered the nation in glory, and quickly enough patriotic hymns would drown out the screams of the wounded. Meanwhile, in another quarter of society, less proud if no less guilty, the frenzied hand-wringing and nervous equivocations would begin. These polite and educated people recognize, of course, that the loss of life is always unfortunate and must be avoided at all costs, but still they beg us to understand that from time to time those in power simply must shed human blood in the name of the greater good. Finally, the victims, dazed from the violence of the bombing and confused by the warring interpretations of these two camps, can only marvel at the magic power of the uniform, and its mystical ability to convince a broad swathe of society to accept as good and just an action that they would have otherwise reviled. And it is exactly this, the strange and arcane power of the uniform, that Tolstoy seeks to understand in War and Peace.
Besides being a novel, War and Peace is a sharp critique of how the study of history, and indeed of all contemporary political life, is so often treated as merely the biography of a few “great men.” Of course, the romances of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei are charming, but they only achieve their full beauty intertwined with the course of history and the great disaster of 1812 that will ultimately define their lives. And that disaster, as Tolstoy is quick to point out, was not the will of one man, Napoleon, but the inevitable consequence of all the historical events that had preceded it, of the Coup of Brumaire, of Thermidor, of the storming of the Bastille, and the social, political, and historical conditions that in turn made all of these events inevitable. Further, the decision that began the campaign of 1812 did not belong to Napoleon alone, but to “the millions of men in whose hands the real power lay—the soldiers who fired guns and transported provisions and cannons,” who “should consent to carry out the will of those feeble and isolated persons [monarchs], and that they should have been brought to this acquiescence by an infinite number of varied and complicated causes.” Politicians and generals alone cannot make war, for that they require armies, and armies are not created on the whim of a monarch, but by a world shaped by discipline, hierarchy, and violence.
If the supposed “great men of history” are thus no less powerless than anyone else in the face of the inexorable march of events, the actual role history assigns them is the most ignoble that could fall upon any human. Napoleon, as he sits upon the field of Borodino, observing the corpses of the thousands of men who have died in his name, is forced to reckon with this fact. Though Bonaparte may not have been responsible for the invasion of Russia, though the necessities of power left him with no choice but to give the orders that caused the Battle of Borodino, it is here, confronted by the shattered bodies of the men his orders have killed, that he sees the reality of his place in history.
And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay more heavily than on all the others who took part in it. Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance. He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.
From his exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon, incapable of coming to terms with the reality of his role in history, writes desperately of all the good he would have brought to Europe had he triumphed in Russia, how he would have used his power to bring perpetual peace and prosperity, without ever realizing that the very demands that power imposed upon him for its own maintenance would render such a use impossible. Ultimately, he must console himself with the fact that the majority of the soldiers he led into Russia were not French, but Germans, Italians, and Poles, and find “justification in the fact that among the hundreds of thousands of men who perished, there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians.” Napoleon, though he could not shake his belief that he was the driving force of history, that he alone could have bent its arc towards justice, in reality was nothing more than the saddest and most impotent instrument of history, the “executioner of the peoples.”
The “great man” theory of history, incorrect as it may be, unfortunately still has a strong grip on contemporary political discourse. Today, here in the United States, in the midst of a highly contentious election, it may be useful to apply some of the lessons of War and Peace to our present situation. There are those political commentators who would attribute all the injustices, the concentration camps and immigration raids, the unending wars abroad, and every other act of violence that offends basic human dignity, to the will of one man, Donald Trump. But these commentators, just as Marx observed about Victor Hugo’s belittlement of Napoleon the Third, “[make] this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power such as would be without precedent in world history.” Indeed, for while Trump most certainly is a racist, a misogynist, and an altogether odious individual in every respect, he is not the creator of all the horrors which presently afflict our society. These horrors are, rather, the logical consequence of all the historical trends that have led us up to this point, of the ceaseless violence of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation that has shaped this nation and its institutions. Thus, if Trump can, today, order for families to be separated, for children to be incarcerated, and for bombs to be dropped upon other human beings across the sea, it is only because the whole nature of power in our society, the very essence of the State and its armed appendages, ensure that these orders will be carried out.
Considering this, we must reevaluate the idea that injustice can be fought simply by voting a different, better, “great man” into office. If such an individual could find their way into the position of power, they would still face all the same pressures and constraints that power places upon all those who wield it. Tolstoy’s reflections on Alexander the First are instructive in this regard. Alexander, the great liberal reformer, who, after defeating Napoleon, “seemed to possess the greatest possible power, and consequent possibility of doing good to his people, felt his work was done… and recognizing the nothingness of that semblance of power, turned from it,” giving it up to “despicable men…” Power, while it certainly grants the right to commit violence and abuse others without reproach, in fact renders the individual powerless to decide their own destiny, it absorbs them into its logic and forces them to follow its prescriptions rather than those of justice or progress. Whoever happens to triumph in the coming elections will be compelled to undergo this same process, to subject themselves to the logic of power. Even if the victor is supported by a massive and broad popular movement, as some candidates truly are, this will not be enough to halt this process, as the moment the candidate enters office, the principles that will shape them will not be those of the movement, but those of power. The candidate turned president will face all the same pressures to “secure the border,” “preserve national security” and “facilitate free commerce” that all those in positions of power face. And under such conditions they can only do what all the rest have done, deport immigrants, crush strikes, and, inevitably, drop bombs that kill other human beings as they walk unsuspectingly down a crowded street.
Such a reality disturbs us, so we find comfort in a variety of equivocations. We pretend that such an act could not be considered murder because it was carried out under the veneer of legitimacy that power grants it. We distance ourselves from the victims of the act by hiding their humanity behind that murderous abstraction, “the enemy.” At last, we desperately try to convince ourselves that while the act was regrettable, it simply had to be done to prevent some greater evil, and that it will eventually be outweighed by some greater good soon to come. But human beings have yet to discover any good so great that it can wash out blood stains, and once we abandon this search for chimeras we must eventually come to admit that our different, better “great man,” is nothing more than yet another “executioner of the peoples,” following in the path of Bonaparte.
This does not, however, mean that there is no possibility of social transformation, of real progress towards a better world. Indeed, in the last few pages of War and Peace we get a glimpse of this better world, as Pierre expounds upon the secret society he has joined and its efforts towards the general good and the provision of mutual aid. This society, of course, is a direct allusion to the Decembrists, and the rising tide of resistance to the autocracy that would eventually explode in 1825. Yet more hope can be found in Pierre’s relationship with the Italian officer at Orel. By meeting and befriending “the enemy,” the Italian comes to realize the complete pointlessness of the war, the utter absurdity of having left his home and marched half way across Europe in order to kill and die on behalf of the same empire that oppressed his homeland. This officer, upon his return home, would no doubt find his way into the Carbonari, the secret societies that were already organizing across Italy to free humanity from all the kings and emperors that oppressed it. Imperfect as these societies and movements were, they represent something fundamental to the human condition, that basic yearning for liberty and dignity to which all injustice must eventually yield. And then as now, hope for the future lies not in the hands of the “great men of history,” but upon the shoulders of those innumerable, nameless masses that work and struggle, writing every day a history of human freedom that has yet to be completed.
 Leo Tolstoy and Constance Garnett. War and Peace, (New York: Random House, 2002), 565.
 Ibid., 762.
 Ibid., 762-763.
 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1963), 6.
 Tolstoy and Garnett. War and Peace, 1060.