Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Alternative history

Given my love of speculative fiction and of history, the genre of alternative history should be something that really appeals to me. Sometimes it does (anything by S. M. Stirling for example).

But often it does not. Apart from The Two Georges and The Toxic Spell Dump I generally find Harry Turtledove a bore. Characters I am not interested in and stories which I cannot bother with. At least his history is coherent, however. Sometimes, I find I just cannot get past some historical implausibility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt for example, just does not create reasons I find plausible for an Islamic Scientific Revolution in central Asia. The competitive jurisdictions, institutional stability and relatively easy access to a wide range of places and peoples that the mountainous peninsula-of-peninsulas of Europe possessed (and made them very idea-adaptive long before they became idea-inventive) are not likely to be replicated in an inland region subject to erratic waves off pastoralist conquest. Not to mention the small difficulty of al-Ghazali’s successful intellectual counter-revolution against Aristotelianism.

But, as an intellectual tool, I agree with Geoffrey Blainey. One needs to have a sense of the possible alternatives to have a real sense for history.

Having recently finished Claudia Koonz’s excellent The Nazi Conscience and Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide (which I reviewed here and here), has led me to think about what would have happened if the Whites had won the Russian Civil War.
Part of the question is “which Whites?”—White disunity was one reason the Reds won. But Lenin’s regime did come close to defeat more than once so it is a perfectly reasonable historical question.

Part of the value of Cohn’s book is that it reminds one of what a noxious autocracy late Romanov Russia was. The horrors of the Soviet Union make the previous horrors of Romanov rule pale, but there were good reasons why Tsarism was something of a moral pariah. Reading through Koonz’s careful dissection of the process by which mass murder became entirely thinkable, and able to be at least acquiesced in, in Nazi Germany, it struck me that they applied if anything more strongly in Tsarist Russia.

And not just as a theoretical possibility. Tsarist Russia was notorious for its violent pogroms, after all. During the Civil War, things got worse: perhaps as many as 100,000 Jews were massacred by Whites during the Civil War.

So, the possibility of a triumphant White regime engaging in its own “mini” Holocaust against the Jews is not to be dismissed.

The wider knock-on effects of the overthrow of Lenin’s regime would have been enormous. Leninism would not have been established as a successful mechanism for seizing and maintaining power. Mussolini may well have less inclined to continue with his adaptation of Lenin’s political methods to his national project. The spectre of Leninist revolution would have been a less fearful one, lessening Mussolini’s support. The “March on Rome” might well not have been attempted. If attempted, it might well have not been successful.

Without the Leninist and Fascist models, Hitler would have been less inclined to adopt Lenin’s model of political action to his racial project. Without the Bolshevik spectre, Hitler could well have garnered less support. Fascism and Nazism needed their Leninist enemy, as both spectre to oppose and model of politics to emulate. If Leninism had been “throttled at birth” in Russia, revolutionary socialism would not have had the aura of success to inspire adherents or frighten opponents. The likely consequences of Leninism losing the Russian Civil War are enormous.

But that does not mean that Russia might not have ended up with a quite noxious, even megacidal, regime. That, of course, might have had the same effects for forms of counter-revolutionary politics (likely grounded in religious traditionalism) that the success of the Soviet Union had for revolutionary socialist politics. By its noxious example, and its wider effects, it might well have driven liberal opinion leftwards in reaction.

Thinking through the possibilities rapidly spirals off in all sorts of imponderable counterfactuals. The Russian Civil War was an enormous tragedy. A tragedy made all the more terrible by the possibility that there were no good outcomes on offer.


  1. There's a novel in that, Lorenzo. A kind of despairing novel, in that somebody during the course of the C20th was going to line up an awful lot of innocent people... and kill them.

    (BTW I like Stirling, too).

  2. Yes, as long as Harry Turtledove does not write it :).

    Perhaps Niall Ferguson should try his hand?