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.]