History and the power of ideas
Why averting the first world war would not have meant a 20th century of smooth sailing
If Gavrilo Princip had failed in his attempt to assassinate the Archduke Ferdinand, how might the world have been different? Would some other quirk of history have led to the outbreak of war? If it had not, would the Bolsheviks have succeeded in Russia? Would the Austro-Hungarian empire have slowly transmogrified into a liberal, multi-ethnic federation: a sort of alt-EU centered on Vienna rather than Brussels?
Matt Yglesias has rather delightfully sketched out an alternate history exploring these questions, which takes as its starting point the position that the outbreak of the first world war was the great hinge point of the 20th century. If only 1914 had gone differently, he argues, the horrors of the Great War, Stalinism, the Holocaust, and the specter of nuclear annihilation might well have been avoided. And yet even in the absence of such things, he reckons that Europe would likely find its way, more or less, to its current state: a loose political and economic union, socially democratic and technologically sophisticated, over which there is a broadly German influence, but of the more fun-loving Austrian sort.
It is an enjoyable read, much of it plausible, and it provides a useful lens through which to consider how it is that history unfolds—and I can’t resist considering. In particular, I’d like to take issue with this conclusion:
A lot of people died and a lot of trouble was made just to ultimately prove that while nationalists had legitimate grievances, the basic project of national autonomy was unrealistic, and the political project of aligning everyone’s borders with their languages required horrifying levels of bloodshed. A huge swathe of 20th-century history was a huge, unnecessary detour.
I don’t want to say that any particular 20th century events were absolutely necessary, and of course there is no knowing anyway. But it does seem to me that the conclusion incorporates quite a lot of hindsight bias. If you were dropped in the middle of some unfamiliar woods and told to walk to the nearest town, you would almost certainly arrive after traveling something other than the most direct route. But that wouldn’t mean that the unintentional detours were unnecessary; not knowing where you were going, you groped your way forward.
In what way were societies wandering in the woods? To make sense of the idea, one has to place ideas and beliefs at the heart of the story of history. Once you do, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some significant hardship was inevitable in the 20th century, although the nature of the hardship and the identities of those who suffered most might easily have been different.
What does that mean, that ideas and beliefs matter? In thinking about how history has unfolded, one might venture that people are mostly self-interested, and that both politics within countries and historical developments across them reflect the jostling of competing interest groups as they each try to get the largest slice of the pie that they can. You might say that once industrial capitalism was on the scene, the pursuit of self-interest set in motion a predictable historical process: in which owners of capital relentlessly pursued the accumulation of more wealth, which drove down the return on capital, which encouraged imperialism as capitalists pursued new territories in which capital might earn a better return, which inevitably placed capitalist powers in a zero-sum competition that lead inexorably to war.
I don’t think that’s a very good theory of history, and I don’t think that capitalism leads inevitably to imperialism and that therefore the first world war was inevitable, and neither does Matt.
But to suggest that large, liberal, multiethnic societies like the United States or the EU are the natural destination toward which history flows, such that ethno-nationalism or other isms constitute unnecessary detours, is to make an argument which bears some resemblance to those of the form: capitalism begets imperialism, which begets war.
People disagree about how things ought to work. This is one of the leading causes of history. Since the fall of the western Roman empire, people have aspired to reunite Europe, and they failed because other people living in Europe preferred other outcomes. Quite reasonably in many cases. Napoleon’s continental system was not so bad if you were French; if you weren’t it was a different matter. To bring Europe together under a single political framework and common market was a very difficult thing, because people living in some parts of Europe did not trust that people in other parts of Europe would use what political power they wielded in ways that were broadly beneficial. They had different views of the relative costs and benefits of political union. They saw the world very differently from how I do or Matt does; the meaning that they attached to different elements of their world was in many respects utterly alien from the meaning through which we comprehend ours. They also did not know what the future would bring, any more than we do.
To change the minds of tens of millions of people is not an easy thing. To change people’s beliefs about what options are available to them and what meanings are attached to those options is not an easy thing. Without the horrors of the second world war and the Soviet threat to the east, do people take the first tentative steps toward European union? Without those things, are they able to look over a border and see others with whom they can imagine sharing a fate? Europeans are fully aware of that same history now, and yet many remain ambivalent about the project. We may scoff when they say they value national sovereignty, and think them idiots for voting to reduce their standard of living for the sake of it, but such beliefs and commitments are the things on which history turns.
And I think it is our mistake—not Matt’s, mine, ours—to have fallen for a view of history in which ideas are relatively unimportant, and what matters most is the capacity of an economic system to generate material benefits or sustain a level of military spending with which a rival economic system can’t compete. Because people seek meaning, and powerful ideas can, over time, inspire them, us, to engage in history-altering acts: pushing us down paths which may later seem like terrible detours, maybe, or to new and better destinations but at any rate away from this state of the world that we all struggle to see as anything other than permanent.
Look around. Things are better than they used to be. But it is very easy to imagine how they could be much better still. And the damnedest thing is that when you imagine how to make them better and I imagine how to make them better, we imagine different things. And because it can be hard to reconcile those different things it becomes tempting to change the rules of the game in such a way that those who imagine different things don’t get a say. What prevents such temptations from luring us toward our own destruction isn’t just an assessment of what’s in our own best interest. It is another set of ideas, about who is like us and what we owe them.
So I imagine that if the European Union endures, it won’t be because it provides decent material benefits while allowing people to have a little nationalism on the side. It will be because the people living in the EU come to hold, in some important sense, a shared understanding of the world and their place within it, such that being within that political entity feels so natural and right a thing that it is hard to imagine how it ever could have been otherwise.