Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals 
edited by Niall Ferguson.
Picador, 548 pp., £20, April 1997, 9780330351324
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Decisions, decisions – when are we free of them? Decide to vote Labour, get excited, get bored. Decide to ride a motorbike, get drunk, get injured. Decide to go to university, get an education, get a good job. Decide to get married, start a family, get a mortgage – no problem with a good job (see above). Decide no more Labour-voting, no more drink-driving, no more risks. Decide on safe family holiday in Florida, get mugged. Decide to fly home, get killed in a plane crash. Some good decisions, some bad decisions; some highly predictable outcomes, some wildly unexpected consequences. With hindsight, it’s obvious which is which. Now and then we may devote a sententious moment to thanking our good judgment or good fortune that we decided to do the right thing – right because it worked out so happily. But we surely spend far more time in rueful contemplation of opportunities missed, or agonised remorse about good advice ignored, or, worse still, numb incomprehension over the best-laid plans that nonetheless went tragically agley.

Nobody seems to be exempt from such humbling demonstrations of the frailties of human endeavour – except, of course, those historians who tell you, rather briskly, that none of it really matters because things would have worked out much the same anyway. There is a sense in which they are probably right. If we are dealing with a range of particular accidents, then it may not matter to a student of their incidence whom they befall so long as, with due regularity, they befall somebody. This is a view of life well understood by the man from the Pru, whose risk tables embody actuarial probabilities. He knows that death is certain in the long run; he may be interested in measuring the length of that run, on average, and even in monitoring the various competing causes of its curtailment. But whether the numbers in a particular year are made up by a couple of holidaymaking policy-holders and their children, who take a last-minute decision to travel on an earlier plane, is a matter which leaves the man from the Pru quite unconcerned. Not so the anxious relatives at the arrivals gate, vainly awaiting the touchdown of that increasingly overdue flight from Orlando.

So who is right? The answer depends partly on the sort of questions we are asking. For instance, economists are concerned with the overall level of unemployment in the economy. They are not usually concerned with exactly who becomes unemployed, except insofar as this, too, may be susceptible of generalisation in ways that generate further hypotheses – about supply and demand for specialised kinds of labour, or about job-search strategies, or about the effect of the experience of unemployment on re-entry to the labour market. Individual examples might thus yield some interest to a social scientist bent on theorising a more general problem. But even one worker’s involuntary unemployment is of acute interest to that particular worker.

There are two sorts of news. One is that someone has won the jackpot in this week’s national lottery: the other that this week’s winner, just as the advertisements promised, could be you. If Niall Ferguson wins the jackpot, he himself is not indifferent to the news; it creates a buzz among his colleagues; the readers of his book vicariously share a warm feeling that there is justice in the world, after all; but among people beyond these concentric ripples of sympathetic affinity and recognition (Niall who?) the reaction is likely to be more muted. This may be another way of saying that the impact of random events on a particular individual may be spectacular for the individual concerned, yet simultaneously a manifestation of a regularity of incidence which is tediously predictable for the whole population. Where you stand, as so often, depends on where you sit. If you sit in the path of Hurricane Annie, howling up through the Bible Belt, you may sympathise with your smalltown preacher who publicly prays that its course be diverted. And when his prayers are answered by the Almighty, and Annie devastates the neighbouring small town instead, you may accordingly give thanks – tinged with some apprehension that when, predictably, Hurricanes Bertha and Connie come along, the supplications from the preacher in the rebuilt town next door might prevail in turn.

What matters, and to whom, is not just a matter of subjective proximity. Millions of people the world over were agog to know what happened at Wimbledon this year. Few of them would accept the answer that a men’s champion duly emerged, his emergence determined by the rules and timetable of the competition, eliminating other competitors, round by round, until only two finalists remained by the last day. Though essential information of a certain kind, in making sense of the structure of the event, this account would not have satisfied the fans who wanted to know if it was Sampras who had won.

If there are floods, that’s bad, as Noah found out a long time ago. When there were floods on the Oder earlier this year, we got out the map to discover the whereabouts of hitherto obscure border towns, unhappily projected into newsworthiness entirely because they, and not someone else, had drawn the short straw. But when there were floods on the Arno several years ago, we already knew where Florence was on the map; and we knew for quite independent reasons, which then enhanced our concern, not only for any randomly unfortunate victims but also for the threat to uniquely significant parts of what we prize as our cultural heritage. A more complicated kind of story, this – not just a routine flight from Orlando but a special flight from Washington DC, as it were, with the President on board. The man from the Pru is still right to think that if it hadn’t been this passenger, in this fatal predicament, it would in all likelihood have been someone else, somewhere else. There is still plenty of scope for research about what this particular example of aircraft design fault, or pilot error, or terrorist sabotage, or Act of God, can teach us in general. But this time some historians, at any rate, will concentrate their attention on a particular event, the significance of which is not captured by regression along a single line of determination. This is, in short, what the early 20th-century historian J.B. Bury happily recognised as a ‘collision of two or more independent chains of causes’.

Arguably, history is what happens only once. Unique events are the product of complex causation, in which interacting human decisions play an important part (though in ways often thwarted by natural causes or resulting in unintended consequences). Certainly it is possible – and desirable – to generalise from particular instances. Replication, which is obviously the premise for such model-building, implies reduction to simple or stylised patterns of causation. Thus generalisation is only possible through a necessary process of abstraction, isolating clear structural regularities from an otherwise overwhelming mass of contingent circumstances. But for the historian the application of general insights, derived from theory, to the understanding of particular circumstances may be an end in itself. The historian’s proper ambition may not be the production of a stylised or elegant account, but instead one which captures a persuasive verisimilitude – messy or rich, according to taste – intractably imbricated with the contingent circumstances of a particular place, a particular time and the particular people who lived through the experience.

A further implication follows. If each historical event or situation or circumstance is the product of multiple causes, it is equally true that each then generates multiple consequences. The uniqueness of history – why it only happens once – lies in this dual condition. Upstream at any point on this river there are many tributaries, each to some extent shaping, feeding or polluting the stream. Downstream there it a fanning delta, likewise formed by what has gone before, and carrying the effluent, but in course that continue to divide. Alter anything upstream and the consequences downstream are bound to be different, perhaps trivially, perhaps substantially; and the further downstream from such an alteration, the more wildly unpredictable the consequences.

That this seems to me an important line of argument may have predisposed me in favour of Virtual History, though I must admit to initial reservations over both the title and the idea of reading, end to end, nine essays each subtitled: ‘what if ... ’ They explore the alternatives and counterfactuals at various junctures in modern history, from Cromwell to Gorbachev. In his Introduction, Niall Ferguson shows himself both erudite and cogent in staking out the ground. He cites Hegel’s declared ambition ‘to eliminate the contingent’ from the philosophy of history and systematically sets out to confute him, with a range of references nicely discriminating between fictionalised fantasies of possible worlds and the philosophical underpinning for a rigorous historical methodology that nonetheless allows contingency a crucial role. While building on the insights of predecessors like Bury, Popper or W.B. Gallie, Ferguson reformulates the essential arguments with a characteristically late 20th-century appeal to chaos theory in reconciling causation and contingency. ‘Chaos – stochastic behaviour in deterministic systems – means unpredictable outcomes even when successive events are causally linked.’

Only in hindsight is the system closed, with branching possibilities narrowed down to a single outcome – which in turn sets up a range of further possibilities, with proliferating further permutations making all the possible futures too complex for unilinear prediction. A germane point is well developed in a later essay by J.C.D. Clark, who seizes on the tension between sound arguments for contingency and a misguided development of far-reaching counterfactul examples of alternative futures: ‘The counterfactual assumes clearly identifiable alternative paths of development, whose distinctiveness and coherence can be relied on as the historian projects them into an unrealised future.’ So while an emphasis on contingency makes room for the consideration of counterfactual alternatives, it simultaneously precludes any attempt to privilege a single alternative among all the branching possibilities. Second-guessing presupposes an arbitrary either/or world, as unilinear in its counter-factual possibilities as the totally determined actual world from which it departed. This is a precept, as will be seen, easier to state than to observe.

Ferguson has enlisted a team of generally like-minded historians to argue by specific and well-supported example against the determinist view that what actually happened had to happen, was bound to happen, could not in any important way have happened differently, and that different contingencies would not have made any essential difference.

John Adamson asks: what if Charles I had avoided the Civil War? In line with revisionist readings of 17th-century history, he uses this question to make a case for the non-inevitability of a clash between the King and his English Parliaments, had he not simultaneously mismanaged his Scottish kingdom (not to mention Ireland). Clark works from some of the same premises about the putative viability of Stuart rule in questioning whether the American Revolution was inevitable. He lays out a version of 18th-century Anglo-American relations that rejects a teleological account of the Founding Fathers’ tryst with destiny. Yet the fact that this analysis is presented in characteristically robust terms, should not obscure the extent to which this work builds on recent scholarship. Moreover, if American historians have already queried the adequacy of an earlier generation of implicitly nationalist histories, which celebrated the inexorable unfolding of a pre-ordained republican assertion of independence from the British oppressor, much the same can be said of the revisionist school of Irish historians, as Alvin Jackson’s judicious essay on the historiography of Home Rule brings out.

It thus becomes apparent as one reads this book that the device of focusing on the contingent nature of events serves to analyse issues already broached in much recent historical writing. The causes of the two World Wars, which have generated such a vast historiography, are approached with profit from this angle. Ferguson himself asks whether Britain could have stood aside in 1914 – a possibility which he seeks to invest with credibility through a close and scrupulous reading of the sources. This is the basis for his challenging long-term assessment that ‘had Britain stood aside – even for a matter of weeks – continental Europe would have been transformed into something not unlike the European Union we know today – but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars.’

The impact of the Second World War on Britain is likewise appraised by Ferguson, this time in collaboration with Andrew Roberts, posing the question: what if Hitler had invaded in 1940? With national survival depending on so narrow a margin, this is a contingency which the authors consider better worthy of contemplation as a real historical possibility than the issue of a negotiated peace. In discounting the latter as a realistic option, they establish the essential point that before any British government (presumably not one led by Churchill) could have decided to accept, the sort of terms that might have secured minimal British interests would first have had to be offered by Hitler. And of a sincere offer on any such lines the historical record yields no trace. A counter-factual which is precluded by the structure of a whole situation has lost its grip on history. Michael Burleigh is surely on firm ground, however, in wondering whether Hitler could have defeated the Soviet Union – a nightmare possibility of a Nazi-dominated Europe, but not one, as he shows, that can be dismissed as fantasy.

Jonathan Haslam, arguing about whether the Cold War was inevitable, writes as a self-confessed sceptic about the value of such questions. ‘One dubious instance,’ he suggests, ‘is where the historian arbitrarily selects a single favourite variable, alters its weight or true composition, but holds all other variables from the same equation constant’. A proper caution, and one which manifestly safeguards his cogent and scholarly essay from any temptation to suppose that American possession of the atomic bomb or Soviet penetration of British and American intelligence networks made a crucial difference. Nor, he argues, was there any likelihood that Western expectations – of a kind voiced by E.H. Carr – about a possible, stable and legitimate ‘sphere of influence’ for Russia in Eastern Europe could have been compatible with an ideologically driven concept of Sovietisation. This essay demonstrates how to argue, from the evidence, that things would probably have worked out much the same; whereas when Diane Kunz returns a generically similar answer on her topic (what if Kennedy had lived?), she adopts a knockdown style that hardly persuades the reader of the open-mindedness of her inquiry. ‘Fairy stories are necessary for children,’ she admonishes us at the outset. ‘Historians ought to know better. In fact, John F. Kennedy was a mediocre president.’

So much for Kennedy, how about Gorbachev? Mark Almond shows himself no fan of a man who exemplified ‘the false intellectual analysis and expectations of the Soviet élite’. But he does not make that a reason for diminishing Gorbachev’s historical importance and influence, still less the apparent star quality which made his period in power so exciting (if so short). ‘After generations of dullard apparatchiks had safely guided the Soviet Union to superpower status, it was the bright-eyed Gorbachev who grabbed the steering-wheel and headed straight for the rocks.’ True, it may have been an economically inefficient system; but its political capacity to secure its own survival, however brutally, only came into question once Gorbachev’s reforms discredited the old methods before effective new ones could take the strain. Perhaps Almond’s most telling argument for refusing to accept so many expert views that the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989 was predictable, is the fact that so few experts made this prediction beforehand.

Had Niall Ferguson brought his volume to a conclusion at this point it would have represented an almost unalloyed triumph. The alloy, bafflingly, is supplied by his own hand in an Afterword, ominously subtitled: ‘A Virtual History, 1646-1996’. In it Ferguson is on one long tease: stitching together some of the counterfactuals proposed by his contributors. Not only does Charles I avert the Civil War, and his grandson Charles Edward go on to quash the Scottish Covenanters at Culloden in 1745, but Wolfe’s defeat at Quebec helps keep the American colonies loyal to Charles III (1766-88). And so it goes on: the Jewish prophet Karl Marx inspires the Russian priest Vladimir Ulyanov, a general called Lee wins at Gettysburg, a prime minister called Gladstone proposes Home Rule for Ulster, Britain stays out of a First World War but is occupied in a Second until – North America still being under Stuart rule – there is an (unsuccessful) Anglo-American invasion of Normandy on D-Day 1951. Cheek never tongueless, Ferguson projects and extends his counterfactuals along a single line of increasingly attenuated plausibility, and increasingly tedious whimsy – exactly like those earlier authors whom he reprimands for cheapening and weakening an intellectually serious exercise.

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