The problem with counterfactualism

As interesting as counterfactualism may be, we must be careful with its use. Paul Dukes warns against placing undue reliance on what might happen at the expense of what did.  

Soviets attacking the Czar's police in the early days of the March RevolutionIn 1901, in A Political History of Contemporary Europe Since 1814, the French historian Charles Seignobos asserted:

The war of 1870 ended the crisis of nationalist wars. Germany, supreme in Europe, has obliged the other states to adopt her military system and has put a stop to war by making it horrible ... All warlike action has related to the Orient, and has been practically outside of Europe ... War has ceased ... The perfect police system and the vast military power of the governments have made revolutions impossible.

Seignobos also declared that: ‘A natural tendency to attribute great effects to great causes leads us to explain political evolution, like geological evolution, by deep and continuous forces, more far-reaching than individual actions.’ In his view, however, the 19th century contradicted such ideas, since it was marked by ‘sudden crises caused by sudden events’.

Seignobos was an outstanding historian and the temptation to ridicule him for his overconfident assertion must be avoided. Nevertheless, he himself confessed that ‘the historian is in the position of a physicist who knows facts only according to the report of a laboratory assistant who is ignorant and perhaps a liar’. His inaccurate appraisal of the situation in 1901 was the result of his considering only the short term. Did he have to wait for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand before he could consider a war breaking out and for the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II before he could contemplate the possibility of revolution? Right now, some historians are looking counterfactually at both the First World War and the Russian Revolution that made his assertion a mockery. What if the US had not entered the war in April 1917 or the attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918 had been successful? And so on.

Indeed, counterfactualism has its uses, providing illuminating perspectives while encouraging wit and creativity. But it also has its dangers as, even if contingencies make an impact, history is fundamentally an organic process, rather than a conglomeration of interchangeable parts. Therefore, counterfactualism is largely an illusion, mainly for the reasons that persuaded Seignobos to make his error in 1901: his preference for ‘sudden crises caused by sudden events’ over ‘deep and continuous forces’.

Certainly, today, it is hard to be as optimistic as Seignobos was at the beginning of the 20th century. Wars and revolutions of varying scale and intensity are all around us. Furthermore, we are confronted with an all-enveloping threat: the consequences of the Great Acceleration in industrial development, which, since the 1950s, has seen production increase steeply along with population. Consequently, there has been increasingly serious impact on maritime, terrestrial and atmospheric environments, threatening mass biological extinction. Man-made climate change, far from being intimated by an ignorant and possibly mendacious assistant in a laboratory, has received public recognition from the vast majority of experts. If we ignore this consensus, we are in danger of repeating the error of Seignobos in putting forward counterfactuals as factuals. To put it bluntly, our interference with the planet strongly implies the confluence of two treatments of time, geology with history, justifiably dismissed by Seignobos in 1901 when it was barely apparent, but now requiring our urgent attention. It is historians who are best placed to analyse the origins, remote as well as immediate, of the Great Acceleration and its consequences.

Paul Dukes is the author of Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era since 1763. His Great Men in the Second World War: The Rise and Fall of the Big Three is forthcoming.

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