Sunday, May 16, 2010

Grasping the past (2): Counterfactuals

This extends a comment I made here.

I agree with Geoffrey Blainey, Australia's premier historian: a sense of counterfactual possibilities is an aid to historical analysis. Without a sense of possible alternatives, how can you see the importance of causal factors?

Those who argue that even without Lenin one would get Hitler anyway are missing some big factors.
(1) Without Lenin's model of totalist politics, it is very unlikely that Mussolini or Hitler would have had a model of politics to adapt to their nationalist (Mussolini) and racist (Hitler) projects.
(2) Without the fear of Leninism, Mussolini and Hitler would have had far less to work off.
(3) Without Leninism, the socialist movement in Western Europe would very likely not have split into revolutionary and evolutionary wings.

This is not to suggest that democracy would have had smooth sailing across Europe if Lenin had not consolidated power. But Leninism hugely raised the stakes of politics: Leninist victory threatened life, liberty, property, culture, religion. This patently made a difference to political calculations, creating more tolerance for more extreme responses in crisis situations. Just as Lenin’s success and mode of operation created a model for use of modern technology and organisational capacity for very high levels of political mobilization of society.

The issue of the history of anti-Semitism if Lenin had not consolidated Bolshevik rule is much trickier. Anti-Semitism in Russia was violent, murderous and virulent. If the Whites had won the Civil War, I have little doubt that a mini-Holocaust was a distinct possibility. The question is whether Russia could have avoided a Civil War. This was certainly much more likely without a Bolshevik coup.

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