Historiography must be a really odd thing. Historians, it seems, can be more driven by ideology than by, well, given what I have said before, I hesitate to use to word ‘facts’, but if all the usual caveats applying, historical facts. Interpretation against a matrix of ideological concepts seems to be the way some history is done.
I, as no doubt many of you, will know the sort of thing. The most obvious example in my experience is the English Civil War, where you have Marxist concepts, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie, encountering revisionist concepts, such as that King Charles I was fairly useless as a monarch.
The thing that has always rather intrigued me is that few of these committed historians seem to allow that both sides could, in a sense, be correct. There is no particular reason, it seems to me as a naïve and un-ideologically committed non-historian, why the rise of the bourgeoisie could not run along in parallel with Charles I being a bit incompetent. Maybe that is why I stay a humble physicist. All this political commitments is a bit beyond me: your experiment works or it does not. An ideological commitment to it working cuts no ice in nature.
In the August 2016 edition of History Today, Professor Jeremy Black has a short piece about counterfactuals in history. Professor Black has a bit of a track record in advocating counterfactuals as part of the historical process. The idea, he suggests, is that the historian could be able to see the possible decisions that historical actors could have made, and, from the options available, obtain some idea as to what might have happened (or at least, what might have been perceived by the actor to be the likely outcome) and thus some idea of why the choice was made as it was.
My usual example of this is Prince Rupert at York. There he is, with a letter from his uncle which says, basically ‘save York, save my crown; lose York, lose my crown’. He has just out-maneuvered the Parliamentary and Scottish armies that were besieging the place, and has to decide what to do next. He decided to fight, and lost Marston Moor. Rupert has often been condemned for this decision. But the question that a counterfactual analysis can ask is ‘what other options did he have?’
He could, of course, have stayed in York until his opponents marched away, but York had been besieged and there may not have been enough food and fodder for his men. The besiegers, after all, had eaten a fair bit during the siege, and the Royalist supply lines would have been rather tenuous with three enemy armies in the offing.
Rupert could have reinforced York with his foot and struck south with the cavalry. This would have almost certainly have led Manchester’s army to follow him to protect their bases in the Eastern Association. But that would still have left York besieged, by two armies. Rupert would almost certainly have had to return to relieve it again.
Another option was to do what he did, and fight. He could have delayed deploying and fought after the garrison had recovered a bit, but that ran the risk of his opponents recovering from their surprise at his being in York at all, and of Rupert’s army, which had been dashing around the country relieving places for a couple of months, getting stuck in York itself, which was not a great prospect, as already noted. Further to this, his army was largely borrowed, and the longer they were away from their bases, the more likely those bases would be captured by the enemy.
Even a quick look at his options (and Rupert at this stage does not seem to be someone who indulged in lengthy introspection and pondering of his options) seems to indicate that fighting, and fighting fast, was the most likely option to obtain his objectives, that of making York safe for the Royalists. Of course, it was a gamble, but the relief of York itself was a gamble, and it had, at least, paid off. A similar situation earlier in the year, at Newark, has similarly paid dividends. It is probably that Rupert knew, as well, that the King needed a quick victory before the resources of Parliament overwhelmed the Royalist cause.
A counterfactual analysis can therefore help in working out why an individual acted in the way they did. However, to return to ideology, there is in some ‘left’ history a view that history is deterministic. Rupert would lose anyway, because Cromwell’s army was made up of ideologically motivated proto-Marxists, and they were of the rising merchant class and would inevitably conquer the world. Something like that, I may be exaggerating a little. Counterfactuals turn that around and focus on the events and decisions which people made. History is contingent; it is not just the activity of forces over the ages which we are helpless to control.
In historiography, then, counterfactuals tend to be the weapon of the ‘right’ against the determinism of the ‘left’. Individuals can make a difference, they do have options. There is a constant input of decision made into historical process. And this is where wargaming might come in.
A historical wargame, of course, is a sort of a model of some sort of historical situation. The set up, and the existence of the battle at all, is not part of the decision matrix the gamers have control over, but the process of the battle is. We can and do play the ‘what-if’ game. What if Rupert had deployed a few hundred meters further back? What if the initial break in the Scot’s ranks had spread panic through the right wing? And so on. A wargame is an overall processor of these sorts of contingencies and decisions.
This is set against the ideas of Marxist determinists. The outcome of the battle, according to this view, is hardly relevant. What matters are the other factors, particularly the economic factors, affecting both sides. On that basis, with control of the navy and of London, Parliament wins. The rest is detail.
Without wishing to commit to the ideology of either side, it does seem to me that history is a lot more complex than the Marxists think.