The politics of What If?
Zizek on counterfactuals

Exhibit A: witless reactionaries desperately trying to justify the summary execution of an innocent man in London last month by armed plain clothes police officers. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually had been a suicide bomber?"

Exhibit B: witless warmongers desperately trying to justify the embarrassing lack of WMD that were the supposed motivation for the invasion of Iraq. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually was planning to nuke us in 45 minutes?"

What both these examples (and there are countless others) demonstrate is the preponderance of counterfactual scenarios in the arsenal of reactionary ideologues. This phenomenon is neatly dissected by Slavoj Zizek in his latest essay for the London Review of Books, ostensibly a review of a volume of "what if?" essays by "leading" historians.

The conservative sympathies of the 'what if?' volumes become clear as soon as you look at their contents pages. The topics tend to concern how much better history would have been if some revolutionary or 'radical' event had been avoided (if Charles I had won the Civil War; if the English had won the war against the American colonies; if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War; if Germany had won the Great War) or, less often, how much worse history would have been if it had taken a more progressive turn.

Zizek also notes how conservative historians justify their parlour games by negative reference to "historically determinist" caricature of Marxism, and asks "what should the Marxist's answer be?" His initial strategy is to debunk the notion that Marxists are "dumb determinists who can't entertain alternative scenarios".

Since the non-occurrence of the October Revolution is a favourite topic of 'what if?' historians, it's worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as he could be from any reliance on 'historical necessity'. On the contrary, it was his Menshevik opponents who emphasised the impossibility of omitting one of the stages prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution...

There is a much deeper commitment to alternative histories in the radical Marxist view. For a radical Marxist, the actual history that we live is itself the realisation of an alternative history: we have to live in it because, in the past, we failed to seize the moment...

In the revolutionary explosion, another utopian dimension shines through, that of universal emancipation, which is in fact the 'excess' betrayed by the market reality that takes over on the morning after. This excess is not simply abolished or dismissed as irrelevant, but is, as it were, transposed into the virtual state, as a dream waiting to be realised.

This all very well and good, but I feel it doesn't address the thorny issue of how to distinguish the "good" Leninist approach to counterfactuality from the "bad" reactionary one. I suspect the critical factor here involves the temporality of the "counterfactual" – Lenin's "what if we don't act now?" is an urgent demand addressed in and to the present, a call for a decision over emergent possibilities. The conservative version, in contrast, involves no such sense of urgency or presence – it is a retrospective justification of a series of events that have already taken place.

This suggests that the Leninist "counterfactual" is not a counterfactual in the strict sense of the term. The notion of a counterfactual only makes sense within the analytic conception of "possible worlds" (cf Kripke), where all the possible worlds are "realistic", but only one of them happens to be actual. The laws of the worlds are all the same, all that differs is the contingent quality of actuality (its "modality"). That is why something that happens in an alternative world is counterfactual, ie both factual and not factual.

The Leninist position owes nothing to this Kripkean picture – instead it involves a much deeper conception of intertwined potentiality and actualisation in this world, with time and subjective decision somehow wrapping the two together. I guess this is what Benjamin was getting at with his "theses on the philosophy of history" (which Zizek namechecks)... something I confess I've never entirely understood.

[crosspost from Lenin's Tomb]