Thursday, December 14, 2006

What Drives History?

In a newspaper column from 1998 (entitled “Just Suppose,” and only available by paying for it in the Washington Post archives), the columnist George F. Will wondered about the following historical contingency:

Suppose the car had hit the pedestrian slightly harder. What car? The one on Fifth Avenue the evening of Dec. 13, 1931, when an English politician on a lecture tour momentarily forgot the American rules of the road and looked the wrong way when stepping into the street. Winston Churchill could have died. Then, perhaps in 1940 or 1941, a prime minister less resolute and inspiriting than Churchill might have chosen to come to terms with Germany before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Imagine the hegemony of a National Socialist Germany stretching across the Eurasian landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


There are basically two classes of theories about why history happens the way it does. The first is deterministic – it emphasizes sweeping historical trends that carry individuals along with them. In the limit, this framework makes history inevitable. The most famous example is probably Marx, who believed that all societies progressed from pre-capitalist and capitalist and socialist and communist, driven purely by the dynamics of the market and resistance to it. Needless to say, that one didn't work out, but there are many theories of this type. Globalization is supposed to not just inevitably promote prosperity (which economic theory alone would predict), but bring with it a host of historical forces, including better governance and more ethnic harmony. Some people claim that increasing scarcity of natural resources, particularly oil, will drive higher levels of nation-state conflict. And so on. In all of these theories, there is no role for the individual per se. He is simply a passive, mechanistic component of larger historical forces all about him.

In the other theory, which Mr. Will favors, history is made by great individuals. Britain does not win the second world war without Churchill, whose absence also leads the Nazis to triumph over the Soviets and thus to completely change world history. If Stonewall Jackson is not killed in action, the Confederacy wins at Gettysburg and is able ultimately to sue for peace. Perhaps slavery is preserved, not just in the US but in Brazil, which at the time was the other major jurisdiction in the New World where slavery was legal and which could have joined forces with an independent South.

If you’ve ever seen a depiction of Pascal's triangle, you are inclined to favor the deterministic theory rather than the individualistic one. When used to demonstrate permutations, the triangle consists of a series of rows containing cells. Each cell is a specific event – a coin flip that ends up heads or tails, for example. Every event in each row is connected to two cells above it and two below it, with the line joining each cell to its two predecessors and successors representing the movement from one stage of time to the next. Each cell in the bottom row represents a particular sequence of events. For example, if you flip a coin twice, the cells in the last row represent "two heads," "one head and one tail," and "two tails." In the last row, the probability that you will end up at a particular cell in the middle is much higher than that for than in the cells at the ends. This is because the last row is distributed binomially, and the cells in the middle are the ones closest to the middle of that distribution.

And so if Stonewall Jackson had lived on, would the overwhelming industrial and population superiority of the North have ultimately failed to prevail? Would there have been no leader in Britain willing to fight the Nazis to the last had Churchill not survived? This is essentially the Will assertion. I am generally skeptical of it, but Russia is currently providing us with an interesting test case. From the deterministic point of view, Russia should be a nation in serious decline. Its population is collapsing and the life expectancy of young men was falling until very recently. (It is currently lower than in Bangladesh.) Its demographic difficulties mean that non-Russian populations are moving in and essentially remaking Russia around the Russians – with people from the Caucasus surging into the Russian heartland and Chinese pouring over the border to do business in, and ultimately to reclaim Siberia (which many Chinese believe was lost to Russia when Russia was strong and China was weak, and which they mean to take back).

And yet its president, Vladimir Putin, appears to be playing a weak hand extremely well. He is a master of realpolitik, having gotten his nation into what used to be the G-7 and having made Western Europe more and more dependent on his natural-gas exports, all the while putting the screws to his domestic opponents in a way that Europe ordinarily finds unacceptable. He has been able to (mercilessly) reconquer the Chechnya that Boris Yeltsin lost, and appears to be checking the attempts of NATO to set up alliances in the Russian backyard.

If political leaders and other great men drive history, than Russia has a bright future. But if larger trends do, it most decidedly does not. Mark Steyn is building a robust career on the notion that demographics are going to completely remake Europe, as rapidly propagating Muslims shut out old and dying indigenous Europeans. Russia will provide an interesting test case of whether a great man – not in a moral sense, but in the sense of being exceptional – can do anything about that.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, the Washington Post from Feb. 22, 1998, including the column you mention by George Will, is available in some online databases other than the Washington Post archives: Lexis/Nexis Academic, and America's Newspapers are two of them. This is a minor point, but readers affiliated with academic institutions may have access to these resources.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Thank you for that correction. The whole column references a contemporaneous article in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, which lists a number of such events where history seems to hinge on the smallest randomness.

I suspect history is more evolutionary than accidental, but who knows.

11:32 AM  
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9:41 PM  

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