Counterfactual materialism is not seperate from, but an aspect of, historical materialism. It is historical materialism aware of its counterfactual foundations. These foundations are not limited to historical materialism alone. Rather, they are the basis of all historical interpretation. They are twofold:
All historical claims about causation are counterfactual.
Historians study decision making, an inherently counterfactual process.
These counterfactual foundations are significant, but often ignored or denied.1 When ignored, historical materialism can slip into the reification of power structures. It is easy to assume that because a project failed, it must have been insufficiently powerful. A counterfactual approach is unsatisfied with this. Instead, it views history from the perspective of the people making it. That means considering not only what was ultimately decided, but what was considered before being decided against. This is to study the role conscious decision making, or praxis. Without studying decision making, it is impossible to gauge whether a political project failed because of structural impossibility, or because of the particular use of agency. To ponder this is to imagine what would have happened if something had been decided differently.
Before elaborating on these points, it must be noted that counterfactual materialism is not a new historical sociology, or something proposed as an alternative to historical materialism. It is one aspect of historical materialism as it is already theorised and practiced. The most significant scholarly work of counterfactual materialism is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Federici questions whether capitalism needed to happen at all. The approach is also applied, albeit selectively, by all socialist tendencies. Each strategic tradition, whether democratic socialist, anarchist, Stalinist or Trotskyist, relies on counterfactuals to explain and defend its revolutionary credibility. The problem is that this is done implicitly, and the nuance of a tendency’s counterfactual analysis is rarely extended to its rivals.
In what follows I define counterfactual materialism by first defining ‘history’ and then ‘historical materialism’. I then argue for the importance of counterfactual materialism, a conceptualisation of historical materialism essential for socialist praxis.
What is history?
The emergence of consciousness brought a new causal power to Earth: decision making. This cannot be studied efficiently by looking at the movement of atoms in people’s heads. It is best studied by understanding people’s ideas. How do people understand the world? How do they expect the various options available to them to change the world? When combined with evidence about what the world was actually like — before, during and after a decision — historians can assess the causal significance of consciousness. This is history. It is distinguishable from, say, evolutionary biology, or even astronomy, not because it studies ‘the past’. Many disciplines study change and continuity through time. History does so with a special focus on decision making, or the causal power of consciousness.
Why historical materialism?
No decision is made in a vacuum. Decisions can’t be understood by focusing only on a decision maker’s ideas. For the ideas that inform decision making arise from attempts to understand the uncertainties of a given moment, from attempts to know what is possible and desirable. Humans think about, experience, and respond to a real, material world. So when humans make decisions, their options are limited by historical structures. This is best expressed by Karl:
‘[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’
To understand decision making, and its causal significance, is to understand the constant interrelation, through time, of ideas about a material world, and a material world that is shaped by these ideas.2
Of course, this is not all that historical materialism is. As will be outlined in later posts, historical materialists have created an immense body of knowledge of political economy and history, all rooted in class structure and class struggle. But the idea of consciousness being both shaped by material conditions and having causal power over future material conditions, is — in my view — its essential foundation.3 If it is neglected, historical materialism loses its purpose: to know the world in order to change it.
What is counterfactual materialism?
To ponder the counterfactual is to ask what would have happened. What would result if some historical fact was altered? For example: if Hitler had been a great artist, as opposed to a mediocre one, would WWII still have taken place? Many prominent historical materialists have rejected counterfactual analysis. Robert Cox once wrote that it is ‘the stuff of idealism rather than of historical materialism.4 This rejection is based on the assumption that because counterfactuals require imagination, because they didn’t actually happen, they have no place in the study of real history. However, as Mark Gould has explained, all historical arguments about causation are counterfactual.5 Take a common historical argument: the rise of fascism was caused by the conditions of the Great Depression. This is, despite initial appearances, a counterfactual. It implies that if there had been no Great Depression, there would have been no inter-war Fascism. Just like the most imaginative counterfactuals, this scenario can never be tested. The same is true of all historical arguments about causation. They all imply a counterfactual, and none of them can ever be tested.6
There is, however, a deeper aspect to counterfactual materialism. This stems not from the limits of historical knowledge, but its content. As defined above, historians study decision making. To understand a decision means to understand what was decided against, and why. Here lies history’s second counterfactual basis. It is inherent to that which historians seek to understand: the causal significance of consciousness.7 This was expressed brilliantly in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book, The Dawn of Everything. They argued that counterfactual thinking distinguishes human consciousness from other known non-human animals:
‘…while gorillas do not mock each other for beating their chests, humans do so regularly. Even more strikingly, while the bullying behaviour might well be instinctual, counter-bullying is not: it’s a well-thought-out strategy, and forager societies who engage in it display what Boehm calls ‘actuarial intelligence’. That’s to say, they understand what their society might look like if they did things differently: if, for instance, skilled hunters were not systematically belittled, or if elephant meat was not portioned out to the group by someone chosen at random (as opposed to the person who actually killed the beast). This, he concludes, is the essence of politics: the ability to reflect consciously on different directions one’s society could take, and to make explicit arguments why it should take one path rather than another.’ [Emphasis added]
Because counterfactual analysis is an essential part of decision making, it should be an essential part of history, the discipline that studies the causal significance of decision making. This is doubly true for historical materialism, because it seeks not just knowledge of the world, but knowledge useful for changing it.8 That is, historical knowledge for the purpose of making decisions. If historical materialism is to be fit for purpose, then, it must be counterfactual. It must, for the sake of scientific rigour, be aware of the counterfactual limitations of all historical arguments. Within these limitations, it must study the counterfactual analysis of all political projects that have sought to understand the world in order to change it. This counterfactual materialist analysis of political struggle is essential for contextualising the counterfactual decision making of workers and socialists today. It is the only way we can assess the merit of previous praxis.
The uses and abuses of counterfactual materialism
Counterfactual materialism is, of course, a partial synonym for historical materialism. So it should not surprise that it is already practiced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by all socialist tendencies. There is also a counterfactual materialist literature, although it doesn’t go by this name. Most significant, in my view, is Silvia Federici’s The Caliban and the Witch. Federici ponders decisions, and revolutionary tactics, that may have prevented capitalism from ever happening at all:
‘…capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave "all the world a big jolt." Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle — possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism "evolved" from feudalism and represents a higher form, of social life has not yet been dispelled.’
Federici’s counterfactual materialism forces an appreciation of the malleability of capitalist power. Peasants may have possessed the power to prevent capitalism from happening before anyone even knew what capitalism was. This is significant for anyone concerned about assessing the power of capital. Even if the counterfactual can never be proven, it refracts previous assumptions about capital’s inevitability into radical new light. This light shines revolutionary optimism not just into the past, but onto the present.
The most common counterfactual materialisms, however, are not found in academic Marxism, but in the various socialist tendencies. This should not surprise. Because socialism hasn’t been created, each socialist tendency must have some explanation for why their preferred strategy has not been successful. This can only be done with counterfactual materialism. Alternatively, the counterfactuals are used to emphasise how much worse things would have been without a particular praxis. Here are some random examples:
Tankies claiming that if it were not for Stalin’s industrialisation, Hitler would have won WWII.
Democratic socialists claiming that if it was not for their parties, workers would have had almost no material gains, like universal franchise, social safety nets, living wages and so on.
Anarchists pose an alternative counterfactual to the democratic socialists, arguing that without anarchist tactics of direct action by workers there would have been no social democratic victories, for without workers’ direct power, socialist parties have never achieved a god-damned thing.
Anarchists also wonder what would have happened if workers had been able to force the Bolsheviks to keep their original promise of giving all power to the soviets, of creating true workers’ control.
Leninists argue that if the German social democrats had not betrayed the working class by supporting the imperialist First World War, then a global revolution might have ensured the material conditions necessary for socialism.
Lastly, I can’t fail to mention Trotskyism, a tendency based almost entirely on counterfactuals. This is true in a double sense. Firstly, Trotsky, as one of the greatest historical materialists, relied on counterfactuals explicitly and often.9 Secondly, Trotskyists have an endless list of claims about how different things would have been if only the revolution had not been so permanently betrayed.
Clearly socialists have no problem applying counterfactual analysis to their own histories of their own political projects. Each tendency has intricate and nuanced counterfactuals to explain and justify its revolutionary KPIs. The problem is that this sophistication is discarded when considering rivals. Suddenly, the counterfactual analysis is forgotten. Suddenly, history is a great pseudoscientific beast that definitively condemns rival strategic traditions as ineffective or counterrevolutionary.
“Ummmm…. your strategies have literally never worked, so…. like… yeah…”
What can be known, and what is to be done?
Because all historical arguments about causation are counterfactual, none can be proven. This is because all of history, in all its complexity, happens only once. We can't repeat anything with slight variation, in order to test our causal claims. This can seem defeating. What's the point, then, of any history at all? Fortunately, this doesn’t mean historians can’t disprove causal claims. A historical argument can be disproved if it is based on theoretical flaws, like logical contradictions or false premises. Or, if it fails to account for historical evidence. So while historians can’t prove a single definitive history, they can hone down on selections of possible histories. The task of counterfactual materialism is to create these possible historical materialist arguments. Doing so is not easy. It requires understanding an argument as a unique historical sociology. That is, understanding the interrelation of an argument's theoretical framework and primary sources.
The ultimate goal is to have, at all times, the best historical materialism for each strategic decision that workers and socialists could make. Here lies the deep significance of counterfactual materialism. In seeking to present all possible historical materialisms, it leaves the decision making open. In the final analysis, the intricate theoretical claims of each plausible historical materialism can only be tested in practice. Counterfactual materialism offers various options for such practice, but can make no claims as to which is ‘correct’. In doing so, it embodies socialism’s democratic impulse.
I plan on further developing an explicitly counterfactual approach to historical materialism. This will first include a broad brush overview of capital. Then, I intend to zoom in on specific moments of decision making, or key turning points in the history of capital. If you are interested in any of this, please subscribe. It’s free!
And please do let me know what I have gotten horribly, stupidly, unforgivably wrong. Condemn my counterrevolutionary ways in the comments below.
A group of historical materialists outright rejected any role for counterfactuals. For example: As Ann Talbot notes in Chance and Necessity in History: ‘E.H. Carr declared to be a “parlour game” which was unworthy of a real historian.’; Robert Cox wrote that because counterfactuals ‘can never be refuted’ they are ‘the stuff of idealism rather than of historical materialism.’ From "'Real Socialism' in Historical Perspective," Socialist Register 27, no. 27 (1991): p. 175.
Beiler and Morton have termed this the ‘material structure of ideology’: Bieler and Morton, Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis, p. 72
The relation of consciousness to the totality of historical forces is at the heart of historical materialism, and its emergence from dialogue with Hegel. See Lukacs (1923):
‘Thus the purely abstract negativity in the life of the worker is objectively the most typical manifestation of reification, it is the constitutive type of capitalist socialisation. But for this very reason it is also subjectively the point at which this structure is raised to consciousness and where it can be breached in practice. As Marx says: “Labour ... is no longer grown together with the individual into one particular determination” once the false manifestations of this unmediated existence are abolished, the true existence of the proletariat as a class will begin.’ From The Standpoint of the Proletariat.
Robert W. Cox,"'Real Socialism' in Historical Perspective," Socialist Register 27, no. 27 (1991): p. 175.
In History is Sociology: All Arguments are Counterfactuals (2019), Gould writes that ‘all arguments are counterfactual’. Historians ‘cannot chose to do counterfactual history; we chose either to make coherent arguments, which are counterfactual, or to make assertions that are logically flawed, are no arguments at all’.
This means no such argument can be definitively proven. We can’t travel back in time, and split off into alternative dimensions of the multiverse, which is what a historical argument requires to be tested.
In this sense, history is the study of counterfactual analysis with counterfactual analysis.
‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ — Dr. Karl.
See Ann Talbot, 2009, Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared. Or, if you have the time, read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. I may do a review of the best counterfactual analyses from this book. It is full of it.