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Apr 14, 2004 12:37 am

Counter-Factual and Radical History ...

Jonathan Dresner's observations, "Alternate Narratives as Propaganda", about Gregg Easterbrook's alternative narrative about George Bush's pre-emptive strike on Afghanistan and Tristram Hunt's essay,"Pasting Over the Past" in The Guardian, caused me to wonder about counter-factual history. In the poverty of my imagination, I did a Google search for" counter-factual." Its top site, curiously enough, is Cheathouse, a term paper service:"Let's pretend I wrote this paper.""Cheathouse" does tell the little darlings that"Counter-factual history is very crucial to our understanding of the nature of history." Yah, right. Whether I agree with that profundity or not, you still get an"F".

More seriously, there's an assumption in both a comment by Anne Zook at Dresner's post and in Hunt's essay that counter-factual history must needs be a reactionary exercise. Although he argues that about a book by"a ragged bunch of rightwing historians," Hunt seems to believe that counterfactual history is inherently a reactionary gesture. He offers the obligatory comment by E. H. Carr that it is an"idle ‘parlour game'" and E. P. Thompson's more colorful suggestion that it is"Geschichtswissenschlopf " or"unhistorical shit."* Of his"ragged bunch," Hunt says:

The conservatives who contribute to this literature portray themselves as battling against the dominant but flawed ideologies of Marxist and Whig history. Such analyses of the past, they say, never allow for the role of accident and serendipity. Instead, the past is presented as a series of milestones in an advance towards communism or liberal democracy. It is the calling of these modern iconoclasts to reintroduce the crooked timber of humanity back into history.
"Crooked timber of humanity" are of course the words of Sir Isaiah Berlin from which our friends over at Crooked Timber take their name. Neither Berlin nor our friends at Crooked Timber are at the heart of some reactionary conspiracy. Nor, however, do they much indulge in counter-factual history. Its most prominent practitioner, on the other hand, Niall Ferguson, is decidedly conservative, if by that you mean a celebrant of capitalism and imperialism. But that, it seems to me, gets things almost exactly backwards. In my view, capitalism and imperialism -- not the unity of the proletariat or the nation/state nor the democratic wisdom of the enfranchised -- are the most radical forces in the modern world, commonly ruthlessly disruptive of human community.

Hunt concludes his essay with this warning:

..."what if" history poses just as insidious a threat to present politics as it does to a fuller understanding of the past. It is no surprise that progressives rarely involve themselves, since implicit in it is the contention that social structures and economic conditions do not matter. Man is, we are told, a creature free of almost all historical constraints, able to make decisions on his own volition. According to Andrew Roberts, we should understand that"in human affairs anything is possible".
What this means is there is both little to learn from the potentialities of history, and there is no need to address injustices because of their marginal influence on events. And without wishing to be over-determinist, it is not hard to predict the political intention of such a reactionary and historically redundant approach to the past.
Surely, however, the assumptions that we are creatures free to make decisions of our own volition, that"social structures and economic conditions" are not all determinative, and that"it might have been otherwise" are radical ones.

Update: Not that it's a big issue, but I borrowed this translation of the German from a review of Ferguson's book in the AHR. Now that I think about it, though, wouldn't"unhistorical shit" be Ungeschichtswissenschlopf? Geschichtswissenschlopf would be"historical shit," wouldn't it? I'll have to remember not to rely on the AHR for fine points of historical interpretation.
Far more significantly, in a weighty post entitled"Ha, Ha," Chun the Unavoidable and Chris Brooke debate the degrees of my error in attributing the" crooked timber" phrase to Berlin rather than to Immanuel Kant. Berlin used the" crooked timber" phrase after Kant, of course, but in translation and a context more akin to"Crooked Timber"'s and mine.

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Adam Kotsko - 4/13/2004

Perhaps we could define "reactionary" independently of the official school of thought espoused by the counterfactual historian. For instance, there are probably many Marxist/socialist types who harbor wistful fantasies about how much better it would have been had Lenin lived longer or had someone other than Stalin taken over -- but such a stance is "objectively reactionary" in that it takes energy away from preparing for the next revolution.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

Agreed. That's why arguments like">Thomas Fleming's drive me so nuts. Oscar's got the right idea: a small change followed by very careful examination of the context to see if it actually makes a difference, and very cautious projection forward; very revealing.

I admit to my students that counterfactual arguments underlie nearly all our assertions of causation. But they have to be very carefully used to be valid.

Michael C Tinkler - 4/13/2004

Party games have rules; professions have standards. This way lies the madness of biographical criticism and interpretation of art as an unmediated window into mentalite.

Of course some historians give up and write novels (Henry Turtledove/Turteltaub's *Justinian* is really quite good historical fiction; it's a good novel and he knows his stuff on the 8th century - I don't know if Turtledove ever had an academic job after he finished his Ph.D. or not -- the wikipedia entry suggests not*).


Derek Charles Catsam - 4/13/2004

It seems to me that we can take counterfactual history as interesting, perhaps even as legitimate exercises in the right context, as long as we remember the one cardinal rule: as historians, what might have been is never as significant or important or as worthy of discussion as what was. Now this does not mean we do not lament roads not taken, but we do have to keep in mind that what we wish to be true is not as crucial to our role as what is true. It is a reliance on the counterfactual that could drive a history borne more of ideology than reality.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/13/2004

Yes I disagree.

One would have to have an extremely rigid view of the dominance of large-scale forces to conclude otherwise.

Or one would have to assume that the only job of a historian is to consider large-scale forces over the very long term. That's a legitimate position, but it is not mine.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/13/2004

But, Oscar, do you think that Hunt then is incorrect about counterfactual history being inherently a reactionary exercise? Is a Marxist or a Whig counterfactual impossible or is it just a useless waste of time if you're a Marxist or a Whig? I started to make an argument that all Marxist history is counterfactual, but why kick a school when it's down?

Jonathan Rees - 4/13/2004

I think the only counterfactual guideline you need is whether the analogy tells you something about what actually happened. Oscar's counterfactual about indian removal tells you that Jackson was just a vehicle for anti-Native American sentiment rather than its creator. Robert Fogel's counterfactual classic on railroads and canals suggests that railroad technology wasn't as extraordinary as people like to suggest.

Even Easterbrook's silly counterfactual tries to suggest that Congress would be out to get Bush no matter what happened. Unfortunately, he ignores the fact that the House was controlled by Republicans who would have committed mass suicide before they impeached the President as long as he had the flimsiest of pretexts. After all, there were no WMD in Iraq and they haven't impeached him yet, right?

Jonathan Rees

PS Does anybody remember "What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?" or "What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?"? Did Saturday Night Live do any other skits on this theme?

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/13/2004

There is one conunterfactual assignment I have used regularly in an advanced undergrad course. (If I have mentioned it on a blog before my apologies).

In my Jacksonian class, Indian Removal is a major topic. All too often students view removal as a sad (tragic, evil) inevitabiliity. One unfortunate consequence is that this belief inhibits their ability to think about the possibilities in that time with care.

With that in mind, I ask my students to consider whether Indian removal would have still occurred if Andrew Jackson, through some sort of astonishing conversion, changed his mind and opposed removal.

Most of them conclude, "yes." the timing would have changed, but not the basic outcome.
A few differ. Some see a possibility for a slightly better oucome. A few of them argue that things could have been worse for the Indians.

Of course their conclusion is far less important than the quality of their path to it.

This assignment has no conscious political purpose. Perhaps some students come away feeling that there is nothing you can do against forces like that. Others may conclude that individual actions are crucially important.

Either way, I fail to see how a generalization about the political nature of the exercise can hold water.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/13/2004

We need rules for counterfactuals, much like Tim Burke's rules for historical analogies. Most of them would probably have to do with the plausibility of the initial change or changes:

A. Just because X didn't do it doesn't mean that Y wouldn't have

B. To posit radical changes in social consciousness requires preparation from earlier times; etc.

There have to be rules about the plausibility of projection as well

A. any projection more than one dynastic cycle [in the US, one election] past the point of initial change must be either highly tentative or very carefully supported by comprehensive examination of other influences besides the changed factor.

I'm just thinking out loud here: other suggestions?