For some years, I’ve taught a course on counterfactual history. Unlike many scholarly historians, I find counterfactual history useful for a variety of reasons.
For one, I accept the argument that a number of its proponents have made that all arguments about historical causality are at least implicitly counterfactual, and that those claims can often be made more effectively if the counterfactuals are explored more explicitly. For the same reason, I think all claims about the contingent nature of historical events and about human agency in history require at least some acknowledgement of counterfactual possibilities.
I also think there are some humanists who’ve done an important job of asking about the emotional and philosophical meanings of certainty in history, about why we’re sure that certain key events or long-term narratives are inevitable or necessary. Often our need to see certain things as highly deterministic is less derived from evidence or analysis and more by a sense of our contemporary politics or values, that to acknowledge certain contingencies or uncertainties in the past is to make something in the present more fragile than we wish it to be.
I also just think counterfactuals are interesting and enjoyable and that is sufficient justification for pursuing them. I’m glad to turn E.H. Carr’s famous denunciation of the counterfactual as a “parlour game” on its head and see that as an endorsement. Counterfactuals and historical fiction both challenge the limits of historical scholarship and force historians to recognize that there are other ways of knowing, imagining and making use of the past that may require other practices of imagination and interpretation than the traditional approach favored by historians since the late 19th Century.
That said, the striking thing about actual counterfactual writing is not its imaginative character but instead how cramped and fetishized much of it is. A vast percentage of it, both by fiction writers and by scholars who’ve taken a stab at it, concerns a small handful of famous battles, a small handful of famous white male leaders, and a smattering of familiar and very Eurocentric events. Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the anthology Virtual History, seems to think that this narrowness of focus is one of the things that recommends counterfactuals as a scholarly exercise. (He makes a fairly tortured argument that counterfactual writing is a salutary poke in the eye to Marxist-inflected social history and must concentrate on a small subset of historical actors where we have explicit evidence that they consciously contemplated several courses of action before undertaking one of them.)
One reason I think it’s worth pushing counterfactuals more generally is to ask what counterfactuals written outside of that cramped space might look like, and why we might be reluctant in some cases to undertake them. If I try to write a counterfactual analysis of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, I immediately confront some pretty serious conceptual, political and intellectual challenges. If I confine my counterfactual to Bismarck or Cecil Rhodes or Joseph Chamberlain or David Livingstone, I’m just reproducing the old Eurocentric narratives that claim that the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa was just a kind of epiphenomenal side-effect of European history decided upon by famous male leaders. If I try to write a counterfactual where African agency produces a different substantive overall outcome, I’m in danger of “blaming the victims”, of imagining that Africans could have stopped colonialism if they’d only done something other than what they did. (And if I try to do that, I’m also up against serious limits to plausibility and accuracy, since there really doesn’t seem to have been an overall possibility of a different outcome from collective or sustained action by Africans, just variations in local outcomes.) If I argue that colonialism was completely deterministic and inevitable and no counterfactuals are possible, I put in jeopardy a whole series of nested assumptions about the moral responsibility of imperial leaders and European nations. But these all seem like valuable conversations to have, and if asking about counterfactuals as a possibility helps push them forward, good.
The other way to think about the cramped space that most counterfactuals live in is to ask why they’re so uncreatively confined to a narrow range of conjectures about what-might-have-been. So let’s take one of the two stock counterfactuals, namely, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which the producers of Game of Thrones have announced will be the basis of the next series they will produce. This has not surprisingly and to my mind completely justifiably produced a lot of dismayed chatter on social media.
Partly it’s because Benioff and Weiss don’t by their own admission have much knowledge about this extremely crowded field of counterfactual writing. “I read a book by Shelby Foote” does not inspire confidence. If nothing else, I’d tell them to hire some researchers stat so that they don’t end up being sued by one of about thirty authors for pretty much rehashing an existing might-have-been story. Maybe they should even option one or more of those stories: Bring the Jubilee might work pretty well. (But please god, not that awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book.)
The deeper problem is that for a subject that receives this much attention, the range of counterfactuals is narrowly confined to essentially nostalgic takes on the antebellum South, to the point of being a kind of odd side branch of Lost Cause thinking. There are exceptions, but not many. They’re also generally obsessed with battlefield analysis, Gettsyburg in particular, and Pickett’s Charge even more particularly.
If you really thought about it, here’s some other counterfactuals about the Civil War that are at least as plausible as the more typical, “The South wins and either becomes a racist nightmare dystopia that dominates the North or it becomes a genteel civilization that eventually slowly emancipates the slaves and makes racial peace”.
1. The North imposes a genuinely tough and unforgiving form of military occupation and sees Reconstruction through more thoroughly until it’s finished, resulting in an America with more racial justice and with a South that is fully reintegrated into the Union, more along the lines of post-1950 Germany or Japan. Nobody writes that one up, but it’s not completely without plausibility, nor is it without appeal. (Counterfactual fiction has a somewhat understandable aversion to writing about outcomes that were far better than the real world because of the loss of dramatic potential, but there are good examples of engaging stories that follow that path.)
2. A US where slave revolts became widespread after Harper’s Ferry (or at some earlier moment), leading to an overall collapse of public order in some slave states and subsequent federal intervention, eventually leading to emancipation without a Civil War.
3. A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede but also overthrows Dred Scott, encourages fugitive slaves, and closes the border to the South and prevents westward movement. The South becomes an impoverished shithole banana republic and in the early 20th Century begs for readmission to the Union.
4. A South that is permitted to secede that then wages war on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico to try and secure more territory for slavery and eventually loses in a series of border conflicts, including the re-annexation of most of Texas.
5. A South which successfully sues for favorable peace after Gettysburg only to fall to a socialist revolution in the early 20th Century due to an alliance between slaves, freedmen, small landholders and industrial laborers against the old plantation class.
See, the thing you discover is that whether you’re doing fiction or you’re trying to make a careful counterfactual argument that is somewhat scholarly in nature, almost all “The South and the Civil War” counterfactuals are captive to the Lost Cause and are deeply solicitious of Southern white manhood–of the need to compliment the honor and dignity of Confederate soldiers, the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, to treat the Civil War as a noble conflict between brothers, and so on. But there are so many other stories that could be told–or conjectures that could be made. (And have been made, at least by some scholars of Reconstruction.)
So if Benioff and Weiss keep going with this, I really urge them to leave Shelby Foote behind. If they really must do this, try something else that’s really provocative for a change. I think a series where an independent South is a horrific failed state or a series where Reconstruction is genuinely harsh to good ends also would get people talking, and for once, the provocations would be aimed in a different direction than they habitually are.