In defence of counterfactuals

Counterfactual history is a branch of historiography which deals with what if questions. What would have happened if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War? What if the Persians had defeated the Athenian rowers at Salamis in 480 B.C? Or the Spanish Armada had been successful. Or the French Revolution had failed. It is fair to say that it is not an activity which enjoys universal support among historians – EH Carr’s “an idle parlour game” springs to mind. EP Thomson was even less charitable describing it as ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff’, which translated comes out as unhistorical crap.”

            I though am going to defend these counterfactuals. First I think they are entertaining and can help bring history to life. There are some fine examples in fiction and in movies. Authors such as Philip Roth, (The Plot against America) Robert Harris (Fatherland) and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle) have all used this device And who can forget such films as What a Wonderful Life, Peggy Sue got Married and Back to the Future?

In fact counterfactuals are part of how we humans think about the world. We have the third conditional to describe these phenomena. If I had worked a bit harder, I would have passed the exam. If only I hadn’t got that girl pregnant. I wish I hadn’t put all my money on that horse. In his poem Maud Muller John Greenleaf Whittier the poet wrote:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

This reflection about the past can sometimes be a useful process. I know they say there’s no use crying over spilt milk but if you can prevent the milk from spilling in the first place, that must be a good thing. Life is not preordained and small events can occasionally have massive consequences.

            The same can be said of history. If we look at the world around us many things appear to be chaotic, unsure. From where we stand it’s hard to see how things will turn out in the future. But then magically when a certain period of time has elapsed all these people, places and events blend into a pattern that we know as history. With the advantage pf hindsight everything appears to be inevitable but as the great British historian AJP Taylor stated: Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

            Looking at counterfactuals is important because it can help you focus on what was really significant in a historical situation.  I am not a historical determinist and I feel chance can play a big part in history. I see parallels with chaos theory, where there are so many factors in play that it becomes impossible to predict the outcome. History comprises the decisions of hundreds, thousands, millions of people, or maybe just one person. It is interesting to think of the role that individuals play in history and how they interact with social and other forces. If Adolf Hitler had been killed in a car accident in 1930 (apparently he nearly was) I find it hard to believe it would not have had a massive impact on history. What about Gorbachev? Would the USSR have collapsed without him? Obviously it had severe structural problems but maybe another leader would have reacted in a different way.

The question of Josef Stalin is another fascinating one to consider when analysing the role of individuals and systemic factors. Some on the left see Stalin as aberration and think the outcome may have been different had Lenin lived longer and a different successor emerged. In this case I see his rise as something systemic. I might not go quite as far as Solzhenitsyn who described Stalin as “the blind executioner of Lenin’s political will” but I do see him as a product of the system. Maybe someone a little better could have emerged but the fact that somebody like Stalin did triumph, should not be considered surprising. Interestingly, here the law of unintended consequences comes into play here and Stalin played a fundamental role in saving Western capitalism when it was challenged by Adolf Hitler. The complexity of history was well captured in a remark by a Chinese politician.  When asked about the impact of the French Revolution Zhou Enlai ,the first premier of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, supposedly replied,: “It’s too early to tell”.

I feel therefore when analysing history it is useful to look at alternative scenarios provided that they have some credibility. Obviously it would not be sensible to ask what would have happened if Attila the Hun had possessed battlefield nuclear weapons. Plausible counterfactuals, on the other hand, can help us understand better what actually happened. The late Steven Jay Gould, the palaeontologist believed that we were products of contingent history. If we were to rewind the tape of life to the early history of multicellular forms and you would get a whole different set of solutions. It is highly unlikely that humans would appear in this new version. Maybe human history is similar.



3 Responses to In defence of counterfactuals

  1. Nick Gomez says:

    One way of analysing why something happened, is to ask if (and how) it could have been avoided. Likewise, one way of analysing the effect of a historical event is analysing the – shall we say – non-impact of the event not happening.

    So if the American demand for independence was brought about by George III’s insistence on BEING a King (as his grandmother is reputed to have told him), rather than a constitutional monarch working within a parliamentary framework, would there have been a difference if the monarch had been a Stuart, careful to keep everybody happy and determined not to lose his head as his great-great-grandfather had done?

    However, from that to the counter-factual (The British Empire’s capital in Washington, George Bush the Empire’s PM) is just a step, as it is from the sublime to the ridiculous – ask Napoleon

  2. Andre Brown says:

    ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff’, which translated comes out as unhistorical crap.”


  3. molivam42 says:

    Point taken, but perhaps EP Thompson was using a bit of poetic license.

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