Why is the flourishing genre of ‘what if?’ histories the preserve of conservative historians? The introduction to such volumes typically begins with an attack on Marxists, who allegedly believe in historical determinism. Take this latest instalment, edited by Andrew Roberts, who has himself contributed an essay on the bright prospects that would have faced Russia in the 20th century had Lenin been shot on arriving at the Finland Station. One of Roberts’s arguments in favour of this kind of history is that ‘anything that has been condemned by Carr, Thompson and Hobsbawm must have something to recommend it.’ He believes that the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘have time and again been shown to be completely mutually exclusive’. ‘If,’ he continues, ‘we accept that there is no such thing as historical inevitability and that nothing is preordained, political lethargy – one of the scourges of our day – should be banished, since it means that in human affairs anything is possible.’
This is empirically not the case. Roberts ignores the central ideological paradox of modern history, as formulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In contrast to Catholicism, which conceived of human redemption as being dependent on good deeds, Protestantism insisted on predestination: why then did Protestantism function as the ideology of early capitalism? Why did people’s belief that their redemption had been decided in advance not only not lead to lethargy, but sustain the most powerful mobilisation of human resources ever experienced?
The conservative sympathies of the ‘what if?’ volumes become clear as soon as you look at their contents pages. The topics tend to concern how much better history would have been if some revolutionary or ‘radical’ event had been avoided (if Charles I had won the Civil War; if the English had won the war against the American colonies; if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War; if Germany had won the Great War) or, less often, how much worse history would have been if it had taken a more progressive turn. There are two examples of the latter in Roberts’s volume: had Thatcher been killed in the Brighton bombing of 1984; had Gore been president on 9/11 (in this last essay, written by the neo-con David Frum, any pretence to serious history is abandoned in favour of political propaganda masked as satire). No wonder Roberts refers approvingly to Kingsley Amis’s novel Russian Hide-and-Seek, which is set in a Soviet-occupied Britain.
So what should the Marxist’s answer be?
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on August 18th 2005.]