05 February 2008

Historical Inevitability-Part 2

(Part 1)

In the previous segment I talked about the philosophical dilemmas associated with free will. Now it is necessary to extend this discussion from that to the matter of historical inevitability. As I mentioned in part 1, one of the major controversies in historiography has to do with the question of determinism.

Inevitability in Conflict with Free Will

Isaiah Berlin is the famous apostle of free will as an ethical necessity.1 His defense of the idea of free will is based on the objection to determinism, that it is impossible to think coherently about human actions without an assumption that actors can chose between good acts and bad ones. The argument seems at first like an appeal to consequences: we must believe something because bad things will occur if we don't (people will feel that they are under no moral compulsion to resist temptation). But Berlin's argument is actually somewhat different. He is aware of what Kant wrote about the issue (RNL&A), so he has no noble lie to propagate; rather, he believes the concept of action degenerates to nonsense unless we assume the actor has some degree of choice over it. The state of being conscious requires a belief in one's ability to control one's own actions, even if this belief is erroneous.

Berlin was mindful of the problem of relating this idea to societies. In his lecture, "Historical Inevitability," he mentions a few cranks of the 19th century who equated nations with persons in some "transcendental sense."2 He suggests that this amounts to the same thing as saying that individuals are helpless manifestations of some social force. We can imagine a historian attempting to explain a civil war between A and B (two distinct sections of a nation). We could say that A (understood to have been the instigator of the conflict, perhaps through an attempted coup d'état) was actually compelled to act because of its interests as a class, and classes have no choice but to act on their interests. The failed coup necessitated a violent riposte by B for the same reason. According to Berlin, this implies that humans have no free will since their choices are subordinate to the inevitable historical forces mentioned by the historian.
In this cosmology the world of men (and in some versions, the entire universe) is a single, all-inclusive hierarchy; so that to explain why each ingredient of it is as, and where, and when it is, and does what it does, is eo ipso to say what its goal is, how far it successfully fulfills it, and what are the relations of co-ordination and subordination between the goals of the various goal-pursuing entities in the harmonious pyramid which they collectively form. If this is a true picture of reality, then historical explanation, like every other form of explanation, must consist above all, in the attribution to individuals, groups, nations, species of their proper place in the universal pattern.
"Historical Inevitability"
That may be so, but not necessarily. A member of A could very well possess free will that causes her to refuse to participate in the movements supporting the putsch. As a result, she is a bystander when it happens. Unless A is an extremely small group, we can predict that someone in it will have a life path that leads to dominance of a particular kind, and then uses that dominance to launch an armed uprising. Any individual a may opt out, but such people tend to sort themselves out by ideology anyway.

This is not, or ought not to be, an exotic idea for Berlin: the concept of a self-regulating market is an integral part of his liberal outlook. Classical economics is entirely compatible with the idea of free will; that's the rationale for incentives. Likewise, economists don't consider their theories refuted by the existence of non-economic motives such as love or nationalism. The free will of millions of private individuals translates to semi-random patterns of large groups.

We can argue, indeed, that free will for individuals contradicts "free will" for nations (as Johann von Herder would have imagined it). Berlin objected to determinism for both, but it seems to me that large groups tend to select for leaders who will behave in certain ways, and the very existence of spontaneity ensures that there will be a broad selection to choose from. My influence on my own behavior is very great, therefore, my influence on that of my neighbor is not so much. This is why most people resent being blamed for the decisions taken by their popularly-elected governments. Setting aside randomized fluctuations of mood or certain prominent people like Nelson Mandela, there are certain broad patterns in history. This allows one to identify patterns that are interesting and even qualify as "causes." Beyond this, it seems trivial to point out that historical actors with destructive effects had free will as individuals. As actors with an impact on history, they probably had very little.

Non-trivial Cases

Most of the canonical examples of moral judgment in history use the Third Reich. Here is an explicit case of an ideologically-designated movement with a plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, which nearly completed its object. The perpetrators included the ideologues of the movement and a bureaucracy that executed it. There is not really any more perfect example of moral turpitude available. But historians have inevitably spilled a lot of octopus ink on this moral clarity. There is some uncertainty that the NSDAP actually chose genocide as its Final Solution to anything before it entered the War, and some have argued that it entered the War under some form or another of duress.

(I apologize for the weasel words "some," but I have compelling reasons to not name names here.)

We may never establish precisely what molded Nazi policies, but it is conceivable that, were we supplied with sufficient information about Nazi decisionmaking, we would find a chain of errors and anticipations that made the events of '33-'45 impossible to avoid for a regime such as the NSDAP. One reason for supposing this is that, were the facts and pseudofacts available to the regime any different, then we could reasonably assume strategy would be different (say, an invasion of Poland before Anschluss with Austria), or even that policy goals would be different. At the very least, something must explain the state of mind of Germans and Austrians who embraced Nazi ideology, and if this explanation were absolutely correct, it would leave no room for free action (by definition).

To illustrate: about the same time that Nazi Germany began full-fledged extermination of the Jewish population in the lands it controlled, the US government rounded up 110,000 residents/citizens and sent them to concentration camps. We might speculate on what would have happened if the suspect population of ethnic Japanese was much greater, say 11 million; if the USA began to lose the war and face its destruction as a unified political entity; if it faced massive aerial bombardment and the destruction of its major cities; and if gigantic numbers of US nationals died on the front. I could add more and more hypothetical circumstances, until it seemed plausible that another such Holocaust would have occurred here also.3 In such a case, insisting that somehow Usonians would never attempt to murder 11 million humans for any reason is not only unconvincing, it smacks of racial chauvinism.4

In other words, we can safely assume that, if Usonians have free will and moral judgment, then so do Germans and Austrians; and while some are comfortable with the idea that Usonians living in 1941-1945 were drastically different from contemporary Germans, this seems to intrude on the principle of free will: large groups of people with free will, under identical circumstances, will tend to behave the same way (on average); if one of the groups is "brainwashed" to accept violence, or to participate in it, then we cannot admit that it has free will; not, that is, in any sense of "free will" that is worth discussing.


At last we directly speak of the question of whether or not historical events are inevitable. There seems to be a notion that inevitability of events, such the aforementioned Holocaust, or the Usonian Civil War, implies the impossibility of resistance and the subordination of individual agency to external forces (which are themselves impersonal). As I have argued, this is not a reasonable surmise; individuals are free, in the sense that they can be conscious of their volition (per Hobbes) and guided by internal reason (per Kant); but they are not free in the sense of possessing absolute spontaneity. Whether blinded by custom, caste, or ignorance; or driven by dire necessity, humans as individuals have some pre-existing force that guides their actions. As agents of historical change, there is an additional layer of constraint on human action, viz., the need to be effectual. A politician in the USA cannot (in 2008) run on a platform of Shari'a and qualify as effectual. Those who are morally bound to the promulgation of Islamic law in the USA retain free will as individuals, but are ineffectual as historical actors; their "free will" as historical actors works only in a few directions, and excludes what they wish to do. This, obviously, is a direct result of other people having free will as individuals (and therefore having no interest in living under Shari'a).

Another point is the uneven distribution of human agency. The ability of the Third Reich to massacre literally millions of civilians without significant opposition has tormented thinkers like Raoul Hilberg, Hannah Arendt, inter alia. Some historians have tried to make the case that (a) German civilians overwhelmingly embraced Hitler's exterminationist aims (Lucy Dawidowicz, Daniel Goldhagen), thereby making resistance almost impossible, or else (b) argued that the targeted communities perversely colluded in their own extermination (Arendt cites the example of Josef Löwenherz, p.63 of Eichman in Jerusalem). A third possible explanation, compatible with the observed fact that genocide is actually an historical commonplace, is that certain institutions can easily suppress resistance. Domestic opposition to the US intervention in the Vietnamese Civil War was widespread and intense, but probably had no impact at all on the conduct of the war.5 Managers in the theater had little difficulty or disruption from opponents; their methods of coercion seem to have been highly effective, even when they were notoriously incompetent at everything else. Domestic opposition to other conflicts has likewise played a minor role.6

The question of whether of not such events were inevitable seems to be provoked by counterfactual history: can we imagine with any clarity what might have happened if Germany c.1933 had followed a different path? One argument has it that, no, if events turned out differently then the things precipitating those events would necessarily have been different, and so on backward to the Big Bang. This is perhaps not a terribly interesting question to historians; there are a large number of events in the history of the Weimar Republic that had a more or less random outcome. Also, there is a lively debate (in Tooze and Dallas, to name two) over the role of foreign powers in the rise of Hitler. Supposing Kurt Schleicher had remained Reichskanzler long after January 1933; would Germany merely imploded ignominiously? Or could it have muddled through, rather like an enormous Finland or Sweden, and emerging in the 1950's as a respectable, economically and politically liberal bridge between East and West? If the answer is "Germany would have imploded," then foreign powers bear the primary responsibility for setting Weimar democracy up to fail, and fail to a racist totalitarian ideology. Or, supposing Naziism had been outflanked in April 1936, with French, Belgian, British, and Usonian forces pouring across the Ardennes into the Third Reich to enforce the Versailles Treaty? Usonian forces were not there, and many French officials have blamed the US for the disaster of May '40 on the grounds that it was somehow reasonable to expect them to have been available as a sort of proto-NATO. This does seem unreasonable to me, but it seemed like an obvious explanation to such figures as Charles de Gaulle.7 Instead of a multilateral invasion of the newly remilitarized Rhineland, the Western alliance of 1914 seemed to crumble further, leading to a final confrontation that was needlessly bloody.

I remain extremely skeptical of the potential use of counterfactual history. Nevertheless, historians do remain intensely interested in the role played by attitudes and ideology, rather than dire necessity, in molding historical events. The argument that "Germany would not have been Germany" if it had bypassed the Hitler years seems excessively metaphysical and trivial. Likewise, there is the matter of historiography in policy analysis: can a nation or can nations respond successfully to challenges such as anthropogenic climate change (ACC)? The full scale of catastrophic ACC has not yet run its course: this history, so to speak, does not exist yet. Is it inevitable that the big industrial nations will behave as they have in the past? Is it futile to discuss green house gas reductions, and should we instead focus on adaptation to the new climate? This is the open question of historical inevitability.


  1. Joshua Cherniss & Henry Hardy, "Isaiah Berlin: Free Will & Determinism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008); Berlin's lecture, "Historical Inevitability," is included in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press (2002).

  2. One was Johann Gottfried von Herder (d.1803); another was Thomas Carlyle (d.1881).

  3. The Holocaust included the murder of many categories of persons; according to the Wannsee Protocol, the SS planned to murder 11 million Jews in Europe. According to the most rigorous study of the subject, Raoul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, 3nd edition, Yale University Press (2005), a total of 5.1 million Jewish Europeans were killed. Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1975) estimates a total of 5.9 million using comparative population estimates. Adam Tooze, in The Wages of Destruction (Penguin 2008), mentions a range of estimates of the total deaths from Nazi extermination, massacre, and concentration camps to have been between 11 and 17 million. In addition, military tactics used in various theaters were often genocidal in character.

  4. Ethnographically, European Americans and Germans/Austrians are very closely related; Usonian culture is heavily dominated by German sources. However, "race" is a construct of prior colonial events, viz., invasion, enslavement, and ecological redemption. "White" Americans are ethnic Europeans who occupy a political position of dominance in a racialized society; Germany (as a modern society) is not racialized, or if it is, it is under a different historic regime. (A logical corollary is that a race change is a lot easier than a sex change).

  5. The US intervention in Vietnam is a special case for the following reasons:
    1. The war was long; direct involvement by the USG in the Republic of Vietnam resumed in 1955 and continued through April '75 (>240 months). Conscripted US troops served in the theater from March '65 to March '73 (96 months).
    2. Opposition was stimulated by conscription; after the abolition of the draft, antiwar movements in the USA became very difficult to sustain.
    3. Opposition was stimulated by foreign outrage; the public image of the USA was essentially ruined permanently and decisively by the intervention, with huge lasting consequences. Foreign opinion was almost entirely hostile and this jeopardized other USG objectives (as was well known to US bureaucrats).
    4. Opposition was generally treated gently (opponents were not executed or subject to prolonged prison terms); in many cases, opposition was socially approved and essential to public acceptance. Support for the intervention was typically a lonely and distasteful stand.
    This set of four conditions, just off the top of my head, was largely absent in other conflicts. French public opposition to prosecution of the French-Algerian War was, in contrast, almost nil; foreign outrage was minor and sporadic; the main fighting phase of the war was quite short (about 15 months). In Germany during WWII, opposition was treated with the utmost harshness, and was unpopular anyway; foreign outrage was irrelevant; the war was of medium duration (67 months).

    The contention that US domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam had almost no impact on ending it, is a controversial one. Nevertheless, contemporary literature from US military and diplomatic sources suggests that policymakers were largely indifferent to opposition; it was not even considered to be a petty irritation.

  6. A rare exception is the Portuguese Revolution of 25 April 1974. At the time, Portugal had low-intensity colonial wars in several countries, such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor. Public demonstrations eventually drove the new junta to negotiate a withdrawal from the Lusaphonic colonies. However, it must be noted that the junta had overthrown a conservative regime and had burned its bridges with conservative interest groups in Portugal; if it persisted in its colonial war, it would loose the support of everyone else.

  7. I cannot remember which biography it was of de Gaulle where I read this, but I suspect it was Don Cook's. The argument was made by Free French officials such as de Gaulle's friend Michel Debré, that it was the Usonians who had let down France in May 1940, and not vice versa.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home