Counterfactuals of Revolutionary History, Ranked

Counterfactuals of Revolutionary History, Ranked
"Napoleon in Hell." Image via Bodleian Library.

by Jack Marley-Payne

Counterfactual history is the process of imagining how things would have unfolded if a pivotal historical event had gone differently. Despite the scoffings of academic historians, it’s fun and, at times, even illuminating. Unfortunately, counterfactual history fans tend to discuss in obsessive detail what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War II or the Confederacy had won the US civil war. Instead, in order of plausibility, let’s look at some ways things might have gone differently for the left.

1. If the Paris Commune had marched on Versailles in March 1871…

  • A leftist classic: after surviving a brutal Prussian siege, revolutionaries seized control of Paris and created a borderline-Utopia. They hoped they’d be left to their own devices but instead the French government (led by history’s Other Adolph) brutally put them down.
  • The communards had a window of opportunity right after they seized control of Paris where the Republican government was in disarray, and they could have taken over the entire country. They could have instated a socialist France with Louis Blanqui as its liberator, and from there it’s not a great leap to imagine World War 1 averted and permanent revolution for Europe.

2. If the Bolsheviks had surrendered to Germany immediately after taking power in 1917 rather than testing out Trotsky’s “no war, no peace” strategy for a few months…

  • The Bolsheviks never wanted Russia involved in World War I, on the grounds that Russia couldn’t win and its people stood to gain little even if it did.
  • Fearing public backlash, however, they decided that they couldn’t surrender right away. Russia spent months ceding territory to Germany by not fighting and not officially surrendering, antagonizing them further, only to do so eventually and on much more punitive terms than those originally offered.
  • If they had taken the original offer, the USSR would have got started on much firmer grounds. The Allies wouldn’t have been in a position to bankroll the brutal civil war, and maybe Lenin would have been secure enough not to blacklist rival factions (probably not, though) so he wouldn’t have had the assassination attempt that permanently debilitated him so as to open the door to Stalin’s ascent…
  • (Note: this is far superior to the hackneyed what if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin question)

3. If Robespierre hadn’t had a nervous breakdown sometime in 1793…

  • Robespierre, granted, was leader of the French revolution at the height of the terror and a guillotine metonym, but his early work was inspired: He wanted votes for all, not just the propertied, opposed the death penalty, opposed preemptively starting a war with the European powers, and pushed to abolish slavery in the French Empire.
  • Unfortunately, the pressure of ruling during revolutionary chaos effected some kind of psychological breakdown in Robespierre, leading to him executing the revolution’s own disciples, pursuing purity through Terror, and so on. If he’d held it together, maybe a humane Jacobin France could have endured, meaning no reversion to absolutism, no Napoleonic wars, and no century of reaction in Europe.

4a. If Napoleon hadn’t gone through with the Louisiana purchase in 1803…

  • Napoleon sold off France’s (and Spain’s) North American holdings to fund another round of wars with the European powers—possibly the deadliest the world had ever seen.
  • But—and this relies on the Emperor’s noted fickleness—what if he’d let perceived slights in Europe slide and instead focused on being a liberator of America? Rather than giving the US the entire South, he could have pushed for justice on the continent.

4b. If Napoleon in his St. Helena era (1815-1821) had been successfully recruited to command the Latin American revolution(s)…

  • The revolutionary navy commander, a British swashbuckler named the Seawolf, tried to sign Napoleon up to oversee revolutionary operations against the Spanish forces across the whole of South America. The ex-emperor was too bitter and chronically poisoned to take the job. This would almost certainly have been a complete disaster, but the potential character arcs are irresistible.

5. If the Polish revolution of 1794 had succeeded…

  • Kościuszko was first a hero in the American revolution, and then went home to lead an uprising in his native Poland. He briefly took control of a great deal of territory and attempted to abolish serfdom before the revolution was brutally put down by the Russian Empire. Indeed, Catherine the Great butchered more people in a weekend in Warsaw than were killed in the entire Terror.
  • Kościuszko could have led a revolutionary Poland alongside the (agreed upon now sane) Robespierre-led France, creating a stable revolutionary alliance spanning Europe. Instead, all he has to show for his multi-continental revolutionary efforts are countless New Yorkers butchering his name daily.

6a. If Oliver Cromwell had joined forces with the Levelers when forming a republican government after winning the English Civil War in 1649…

  • Democracy in 17th century England.

6b. If Oliver Cromwell had joined forces with the Diggers when forming a republican government after winning the English Civil War in 1649…

  • Communism in 17th century England.

7. If Pancho Villa’s 1915 invasion of the US had succeeded…

  • Technically, the Mexican revolutionary took about 14 guys across the border into American territory to fire a handful of shots in order to provoke a US response that caused trouble for his presidential rival back home. However, the dream of the entire US annexed into a socialist Mexico is too good not to go out on a limb for.

8. If Haiti…I can’t put it any better than this person's tweet:

White supremacy makes Haiti's counterfactual the least plausible on this list and the most glorious. Netflix get it together.

Further Information

Mike Duncan, the Revolutions podcast; covers the revolutions discussed here with astounding thoroughness.

Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy; a history of the left in 19th century Europe.

John Merriman, Massacre: the life and death of the Paris commune of 1871.

China Mieville, October; a blow by blow of the Russian revolution.

Isser Woloch, The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s.

Marie Arana, Bolívar; a history of the Latin American revolutions by way of their biggest contemporary celebrity.

Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution.

Martín Luis Guzmán, The Eagle and the Serpent; first-person history of the Mexican revolution.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins; history of the Haitian revolution.

Jack Marley-Payne is an education and equity researcher based in New York.

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