Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The What Ifs of History

Economic historian Niall Ferguson opens a recent column with a question: could the world have stopped the Bolsheviks before they took over Russia and launched a catastrophe that ended up killing more than 100 million people? What would have happened if our leaders were more capable, had seen the pending danger and had acted accordingly.

The opportunities were there. Those who had power missed them. Politicians did not take the threat seriously. Intellectual elites did not much care. After all, Bolsheviks and Communists were intellectuals. They belonged to the thinking class. As long as that class functions like a cult, it excuses the sins and crimes of its members.

Ferguson explains how Communism could have been stopped:

Could more have been done to halt the Communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? Yes. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket — and more. An estimated $12 million was channeled from the Kaiser’s coffers to Lenin and his associates.

The provisional government thus had every right to arrest Lenin and his 19 associates on arrival. They were German agents. And Alexander Kerensky, who took control of the provisional government in July 1917, had even better grounds to round the Bolsheviks up: By then, they had attempted a coup and failed.

The problem was that people underestimated Lenin & Co. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals. No contemporary Western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. Naive American bankers completely failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire czarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov (to give Lenin his original name) was equally capable of ordering mass murder.

Foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, clueless bankers: That makes three reasons the Bolsheviks weren’t stopped. Let me not forget the fellow travellers. John Reed, with his risible glamorizing of the revolution, would have many, many heirs.

Not many went quite as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But how many intellectuals between 1917 and 1991 turned a blind eye to the crimes of Communism? Too many to count.

Applying the same reasoning to our current war against Islamic terrorism, Ferguson suggests that we are making similar mistakes:

Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shia variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did when the virus spreading around the world was Bolshevism. It is, indeed, the same old story.

Foreign intervention — the millions of dollars that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centres in the West. Incompetent liberals — the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe.” Clueless bankers — the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travelers — the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate the state of Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted — those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of al Qaeda to morph into ISIS.

A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our very existence.

Of course, Ferguson is practicing counterfactual history. It’s less about what happened and more about what might have happened. I have occasionally opined along these lines, asking this question: what would the twentieth century have looked like if Theodore Roosevelt had been elected president in 1912?

Compared to the cowardly Mr. Wilson, TR would have intervened far more quickly and decisively in the Great War. He might have ended it before it became what it became. He wrote countless op-ed columns explaining his plan. If such had been the case, we might not have had Bolshevism or even World War II—the latter having been incited by Wilsonian diplomacy. 

Ferguson is striking a blow against theories of historical inevitability, namely we could have done nothing to stop what was going to happen from happening. The latter theory neatly absolves many people from responsibility for their role in guiding history. It's a good reason to be skeptical about it.

18 comments:

James said...

I am going to argue somewhat against you Stuart. First, I do agree alot with Glick and the exposure of the Obama foreign policy as a failure. I just say that what has happened in the ME would have happened regardless, the argument should be more about timing. Prior Administrations also bear as much blame as the Obama for the events we now see happening. The world itself is going through changes as dramatic as the ones of 1500 and very little can be done to stop it. All that can be done now I believe is steering, mitigation, and hopefully delay of the more dire aspects of the coming change.
What people refuse to understand is that the world will change regardless of people's wants, desires, or hopes.

Jack Fisher said...

That's probably the worst historical analysis I've seen in years. The February Revolution produced a Provisional Government that kept Russia in WW1, that disastrous decision is what paved the way for the October Revolution that put the communists in power. The Allied invasion in support of anti-Soviet White Russian forces in Europe and Siberia was always doomed.

James said...

You're probably right Jack. In my opinion playing what if is always kind of silly.

Jack Fisher said...

James, I wasn't referring to your remarks, just to be sure. I was criticising the writer of the article, who doesn't mention the 1905 Revolution or the February Revolution, seems to be unaware of Kerensky's policy of continuing the war, or the reasons the Imperial German government let Lenin return to Russia (the result being the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which took Russia out of the war.

"What ifs" usually are pointless, since they requires so much hand waving away inconvenient facts, and the "what ifs" can be massaged to come out any way the author wants. Personally, I like Inglorious Basterds, but ... its fantasy.

trigger warning said...

SS: "Ferguson is striking a blow against theories of historical inevitability..."

Historical inevitability is the necessary theoretical consequent of the materialist/behaviorist position that human behavior is fully contingent.

James said...

@Jack,
I knew you weren't.
@TW
"Historical inevitability is the necessary theoretical consequent of the materialist/behaviorist position that human behavior is fully contingent."
I thought I was the only relative of AO here!

Ps. Ferguson's remarks just prove that people I like can very silly.

Sam L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks you... change made.

Jack Fisher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Fisher said...

"TR would have intervened far more quickly and decisively in the Great War."

Because the US needs its own Verdun (500,000 French casualties) or Somme (630,000 Entente casualties).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Both of which, I suggest, would not have happened if TR had been in charge. You are all missing the point here.

dearieme said...

"the writer of the article ... seems to be unaware of Kerensky's policy of continuing the war, or the reasons the Imperial German government let Lenin return to Russia": there is not the slightest chance that Ferguson is unaware of these things. You could always check by having a look at his book on WWI.

Ares Olympus said...

What-ifs are fun with 20/20 hindsight, but we don't know all the other futures this one avoided. Who would have guessed our once strongman Saddam Hussein would have invaded Kuwait leading to us building military bases in Saudi Arabia, and leading to the devout Sunni Muslim Osama bin Laden to lead a terrorist organization that successfully attacked the U.S. with boxcutters? And who could guess we'd react by starting a war to take out Hussein for the actions of mostly Saudi citizens? It's inexplicable.

If I wanted to get revenge against the Islamists, I'd promote weening the global economy off from petroleum fuel sooner than later. But who knows all the consequences of such choices? And besides, it's way too hard, and drones strike against families of terrorists is much more cool.

Jack Fisher said...

Assuming that the US would not commit its troops piecemeal, as was the historical case, it would have taken a year to two years for the US to train and equip a national army in numbers large enough to make a difference on the western front. In other words, about the time of Verdun and the Somme, where US armies and corps would have fallen under French high command and been fed into the meat grinders that all WW1 offenses were until the end of the war. Moreover, this was at a time when German forces were at their height of strength in men and materiel. And with the Germans on the defensive the situation would have been worse. The traditional ratio of 3-1 attackers to defenders considered necessary to force an enemy position was too low by this time (because of the dominance of artillery, defense in depth, and the difficulties of exploiting local successes), and even if the US added weight of numbers that only means that ze Germans would have been driven out of France at a cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives.

The cost in lives would still have to be paid, but the US would shared the butchers bill. Madness.

Jack Fisher said...

@dearieme. I evaluate only what the articles present. And even in a short article, failing to mention the war aims of the Kerensky government as a main cause of the successful October revolution is a sign that someone isn't thinking. If you want to indulge in what if, ask yourself what if Kerensky withdrew from the Entente, let the high command preserve a loyal army and used it to suppress the communists.

Jeff Martin said...

The world always changes but that doesn’t mean that we need to repeat mistakes and ignore history or let go the steering wheel.

dfordoom said...

Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam

Militant Islam was created by the West. The United States played a huge role in creating, funding, promoting and supporting radical Islam. Or has everyone forgotten the enthusiasm with which the US embraced the mujahideen in Afghanistan?

Before the US started to play its disastrous role in the Middle East the British and other European powers did plenty to encourage radical Islam through a combination of bungling and sheer criminal folly. The Americans have simply been even more foolish and even more reckless.

The current problem with militant Islam is what is known as chickens coming home to roost.

Anonymous said...

AO: “What-ifs are fun with 20/20 hindsight“

Your comments here show this every day.