What If?


All sorts of scholarly skepticism underlie such responses. Academics may feel it is hard enough to establish what did happen in history without indulging in fictional daydreams. Perhaps they fear the bad effect on students, whose regard for documented fact is not always as keen as might be desired. There is also the objection that while short-run theoretical alternatives might just be worth studying, longterm ones are not, because the number and divergence of outcomes increases with every year.

On another tack, historians of various persuasions have reacted against the tendency of their nineteenth-century predecessors to organize their narratives around prominent individuals—monarchs, generals, ambassadors—and their exploits. “Great man” and “great event” history of this type strikes many scholars as old-fashioned, elitist, simplistic, and misleading, where not plain wrong. Marxist historians seek more fundamental, economic explanations. Fernand Braudel, LeRoy Ladurie, and other influential French annalistes have discarded narrative formulas, emphasizing instead basic factors like climate and diet, the condition of the mass of mankind rather than their leaders. In such a perspective, palaces, cathedrals, military encounters, and suchlike are relatively insignificant. Change occurs very slowly, for reasons often not perceived by people involved in the process. The writing of history should itself therefore be spread over centuries instead of decades. Collective attitudes are more important than the rivalries of major personages.


However, there are other tendencies that offset the traditional disdain of professional historians for “iffy” ideas of causation. There is, for instance, the rise of quantifying or “cliometric” history, often practiced by economists. This entails the collection and programming of statistical data. Often it leads to the construction of abstract mathematical models that encourage scholars to posit alternative developments. For example, how important were railroads to the growth of the nineteenth-century national economy? Indispensable, valuable, useful, marginal? Historians do try to answer such questions.

Quantifying historians claim that only their methods can provide significant answers. A mathematical model can incorporate a “counterfactual” picture of an American economy minus railroads. “Yes, but,” comes the impatient reply, “there were railroads, and we cannot know what things would have been like without them.” To which the student of causality may object that, in that case, orthodox historians should abandon the pretence that any of their “causes” has any logical validity. Are they not in effect saying that everything that happened in history was bound to happen? If not, what kinds of evidence can they produce to hint at alternatives?

In implication at any rate, counterfactualism is at least tacitly accepted in a number of works dealing with comparative history—an approach that often involves comparing one institution in two or more environments, perhaps at chronologically different times. For example, Carl Degler’s Neither Black Nor White (1971) compares slavery and race relations in Brazil and in the United States. George M. Fredrickson’s White Supremacy (1981) compares American and South African circumstances. The effect in both is to sharpen our awareness of why thing sturned out differently in two situations—each society providing a kind of counterfactual version of the other.


There is, too, the stubborn persistence of the belief—among specialists as well as general readers—that the course of history can be and is changed by personal or other interventions. We resist the idea that everything is predetermined or comes about impersonally through a series of random global accidents.

The Marxist historical philosopher Plekhanov wrestled with the problem of whether a “scientific” theory of social evolution could accommodate the exceptional individual, the heroic leader. A partial answer is to see the “great man” as the representative of his era, which is how Ralph Waldo Emerson portrayed Napoleon and how John W. Ward treats “Old Hickory” in Andrew Jackson, Symbol for an Age (1962). Plekhanov goes further, fastening upon leaders of a strongly religious temperament, such as Luther, Calvin, and Cromwell. Convinced that their own actions are part of a series of inevitable movements, such zealots feel they are God’s instruments, obliged to carry out his commands—a faith that endows them with exceptional power.