Alternate history: Kerensky edition

In the era Trump, it’s hard to avoid thinking about alternate histories. Most of my attempts focus on the Great War, and I’ve just had one published in the New York Times, leading off a series they plan on the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s). My question: What if Kerensky had responded positively to the resolution of the German Reichstag, calling for peace without annexations or indemnities?

46 thoughts on “Alternate history: Kerensky edition

  1. @Ikonoclast

    Quantum randomness appears to be the last refuge of the free will scoundrel. If “free will” is a meaningful term then it must mean X can create a thought that is free of causation and that leads to action (i.e. an unmoved mover).

    All randomness means is that if I throw an unloaded dice there is an equal chance of the result being any number from one to six. There is nothing even remotely chosen or free about the result, in fact it is almost the exact opposite! Accordingly it is in my view woolly minded wishful thinking to say quantum randomness justifies free will mysticism. If you fall for such mumbo jumbo, you have no business criticising the Intelligent Design mob for the similarly sloppy/devious and contrived way they misuse science to arrive at a happy ending.

  2. @HED PE
    I agree with you about the misuse of “quantum randomness”, but I think you are much too dismissive of arguments for “free will”, and too sure of your own understanding of what the term implies. I think it is clearly something on which reasonable people can and do disagree, which is why the “free will vs determinism” debate remains unresolved more than two and a half centuries after the pre-Socratics began the discussion.

  3. There are 2 main arguments against “the communist victory was good because it made the western capitalists fearful and more likely to gave concessions”.

    Firstly, lots of people in the Russia/Soviet Union suffered a lot because of the communist victory, and in other places because of later Communist victories and it could be that this out-ways the benefits to western workers.

    Secondly, having a major world power, with tyrannical tenancies, as a major ideological bastion of a major leftist ideology caused much of the left to be more heavily undermined as agents or potential of the Soviet Union for many decades.

  4. Dammit. I wrote a whole comment that doesn’t even mention alternative history. Now I’m contributing to the derailment of the thread. Apologies.

  5. A Kerensky negotiated peace is only one of the alternate histories that might lead to a lack of a Bolshevik victory.

    Russian reform earlier, either under Alexander II or after 1905 (or probably both), causing better government may have lead to a more sustainable non-Bolshevik government.

    The Tsarist regime making a few better decisions, like not banning Spirits (depriving the state, via its spirit monopoly, of 28% of government revenue just as expenditure went up) among others, being another example.

  6. Back to the hypothetical, I think we should not underestimate the impact of the small red element in the working class, which is now close to extinct. I was a white trash kid in the South Australian sheep belt with unskilled working class parents who voted National Party, read the Murdoch rags and never watched ABC TV. It was a dumb space intellectually (sorry parents) but luckily I had access to a couple of old working class codgers who were proud and belligerent Marxists and they set me on the right path. I did not agree with everything they said but they gave me a new way of seeing things that was amazingly different from what I heard at the kitchen table and I’m very grateful.

    I do not believe these people would have existed with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union offered at the very least a glimmer of hope that the workers could run a country and make it a fairer place even if it was a (very) long way short of ideal. But today those old guys are dead and no one has replaced them and unless something can capture the imagination and offer hope in the way the Soviet Union did, there is no hope. Thanks to multiculturalism and the new fashion for cultural relativism and identity politics, the working class will continue to fracture, the unions will die, the ALP will whither and be dominated by the right wing opportunists, right populists will prosper and society will become harsher and harsher for those at the bottom of the heap.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. How can the working class be galvanised and put fear back in the hearts of the capitalist ruling class? Will blood have to spill?

    @Tim Macknay

    I think it is clearly something on which reasonable people can and do disagree, which is why the “free will vs determinism” debate remains unresolved more than two and a half centuries after the pre-Socratics began the discussion.

    I disagree. Free will is a zombie idea just sky fairies are a zombie idea. They live on because they are crutches that comfort the weak not because they have any merit I don’t think we should given undue respect to those who contrive happy answers to melancholy questions, at least not in intellectual forums such as this. But in the activities if daily living we should be graceful and respect the dignity of individuals even if they have strayed into erroneous thought, which is why I have very cordial relations (and share the odd beer) with a minister of religion who lives in my street 😉

  7. On the other hand, the Russians might have collapsed sooner. One way this could have happened was if Admiral Essen had not been stopped from carrying out his plan to attempt to contain the Swedish fleet and likely bring Sweden into the War, fighting the Russians in Finland.

  8. @HED PE
    Personally I think the “free will vs determinism” debate is something of a zombie discussion, since the holders of different positions use different definitions of the core concepts. Which is why the debate hasn’t really gone anywhere in two and a half millennia (I said centuries before – blaargh!). I also have trouble getting why people become invested in a position in that debate, as to me it has no relevance to real life. But it seems from your comments that you connect a belief in free will with religious belief, given you’ve linked it with biblical myths and the idea of an unmoved mover which IIRC is one of the Aristotlean/Aquinian “proofs” of the existence of god. So if you regard those concepts as related and it is important to you to stand in opposition to religious belief, that would explain why you also want to oppose the notion of free will.

  9. @Tim Macknay

    I also have trouble getting why people become invested in a position in that debate, as to me it has no relevance to real life.

    The real life implications are huge in terms of self-acceptance, compassion, forgiveness etc as various determinists have argued. It also invalidates the reactionary libertarian/conservative views on crime and punishment, poverty and so on, i.e. the view that although little Wendy may have been repeatedly raped and kept in a dark rat infested cellar for the first seven years of her life, thanks to the magic of free will she must accept total responsibility for her current dysfunction ‘cos ya know, she could have just picked herself up by her own bootstraps, got the prosperity gospel, attended a Tony Robbins seminar and become Prez just like that nice young man Donald Trump if only she really wanted to.

  10. I think you are very much overestimating Kerensky’s and the entire Interim Government power at that time (not even discussing the seriousness of the German offer). The real power in Petersburg was with the Soviet at that time, and peace without annexations and indemnities was the program of Social revolutionaries and Communists. So if he answered that positively it would amount to handling the keys of the Winter Palace to those two. And Kerensky was nothing but a political adventurer with only power on his mind. I am not even mentioning his reliance on the Allies who obviously were not interested in a separate peace.

    So there was simply no chance for him to react to this positively.

  11. @HED PE
    The thing is, there are various positions in the debate that don’t make the assumptions you do, on both ‘pro’ and’anti’ ‘free will’ sides. It seems you’re now linking the idea of free will not only to religious belief, but also to conservative political ideology. If you believe it is linked to those things, that certainly explains why you dislike the idea, as I said before. But I still wonder how you came to adopt a framing that would lead you to make those assumptions, rather than some of the alternative framings of the issue that would lead to different assumptions but are no less plausible. But that is one of the enduring mysteries of philosophy, I suppose – why people intuitively arrive at particular interpretations, and why some people regard certain questions as important while others do not.

  12. I should get back on topic. I enjoyed the article. I found out some snippets of history I didn’t know. I am glad J.Q. is encouraging people to think on these matters.

    There is the question of how much small local actions (individual initiatives I guess) affect or can affect the course of large events. I think they can do so sometimes but not in all cases. The idea of Chaos Theory is applicable. Small changes in initial conditions can lead to very different outcomes and emergent behaviours in the whole system. In other cases however, I think system momentum can steamroller over individual initiatives and the system can continue on in much the same way. The great difficulty I think would be predicting which outcome would happen in any alternative history and which could happen in our own imminent collective future given decision A or decision B at some important but still personal initiative level.

  13. @Tim Macknay
    To me the implications I have spelled out seem reasonable and straightforward to the point of being obvious. But I suppose almost everyone thinks that about their own invariably idiosyncratic take on reality! I did some checking and I found a no free-will determinist philosophical group, calling themselves naturalists, who have arrived at the same conclusions:

    Naturalism, as a view that might take hold in an open society, has the potential to change deeply rooted attitudes that shape our conceptions of a just society. What do people deserve, and why? Given a science-based naturalism, there are no reasons to suppose certain classes of human beings deserve greater opportunity for self-expression, autonomy, or advancement. Naturalism thus supports a progressive and egalitarian vision of human flourishing in which collective action to distribute resources and opportunities to all finds strong justification.

    Worldview naturalism has progressive implications for politics and policy, some of which are explored in this section. It is no coincidence that scientists and others with a naturalistic worldview tend to be liberals. They see no good justification for supposing any class of individuals, such as females, gays, religious minorities, races or ethnicities, deserves unequal treatment. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to hold non-naturalist views about human nature that serve to reinforce inequalities based on such classifications.

    Naturalism encourages an empirically-based, comprehensive understanding of the causes of criminality. Knowing the full causal story behind the offender allows us to design effective interventions to prevent crime, abuse, and dysfunction. Seeing that criminals are not self-made undercuts retributive attitudes favoring the death penalty and punitive prison conditions. Realizing that but for the luck of circumstances, any of us could be standing in the criminal’s shoes generates compassion for offenders as well as for victims.

    With a naturalistic view of ourselves, we don’t have the sort of ultimate responsibility that has traditionally justified retributive punishment. Naturalism therefore implies a radical revision of our criminal justice system, moving away from unnecessarily harsh, retributively motivated sanctions (e.g., the death penalty, abuse of prisoners), toward crime prevention, rehabilitation, restitution, and minimally punitive deterrence and incapacitation.

    http://www.naturalism.org/

  14. @Tim Macknay

    To me the implications I have spelled out are sensible and straightforward to the point of being obvious. But I suppose almost everyone thinks that about their own invariably idiosyncratic take on reality! In any event, I did an internet search and found that a group for “no free-will determinists”, who call themselves naturalists, reach a conclusion identical to mine. They write:

    Naturalism, as a view that might take hold in an open society, has the potential to change deeply rooted attitudes that shape our conceptions of a just society. What do people deserve, and why? Given a science-based naturalism, there are no reasons to suppose certain classes of human beings deserve greater opportunity for self-expression, autonomy, or advancement. Naturalism thus supports a progressive and egalitarian vision of human flourishing in which collective action to distribute resources and opportunities to all finds strong justification.

    Worldview naturalism has progressive implications for politics and policy, some of which are explored in this section. It is no coincidence that scientists and others with a naturalistic worldview tend to be liberals. They see no good justification for supposing any class of individuals, such as females, gays, religious minorities, races or ethnicities, deserves unequal treatment. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to hold non-naturalist views about human nature that serve to reinforce inequalities based on such classifications.

    Naturalism encourages an empirically-based, comprehensive understanding of the causes of criminality. Knowing the full causal story behind the offender allows us to design effective interventions to prevent crime, abuse, and dysfunction. Seeing that criminals are not self-made undercuts retributive attitudes favoring the death penalty and punitive prison conditions. Realizing that but for the luck of circumstances, any of us could be standing in the criminal’s shoes generates compassion for offenders as well as for victims.

    With a naturalistic view of ourselves, we don’t have the sort of ultimate responsibility that has traditionally justified retributive punishment. Naturalism therefore implies a radical revision of our criminal justice system, moving away from unnecessarily harsh, retributively motivated sanctions (e.g., the death penalty, abuse of prisoners), toward crime prevention, rehabilitation, restitution, and minimally punitive deterrence and incapacitation.

    www naturalism org/

  15. Alternate history. If Kerensky had done what J.Q. advocated would we still have John Lee Hooker’s music? 😉

  16. The thread needs derailing. What if … JQ didn’t get sidetracked onto useless hypotheticals and instead finished his book in two lessons.

    Or what if Donald Trump had fallen over and hit his head – would he make as good a President as he now is? Or better? Or did he fall? Or would JQ write anything about it, in decades time, when postulating what might be different under Clinton? Who knows? Who cares?

    NB:
    I don’t know who Kerensky is, and don’t care.
    I think I agree with the Physics analyses above.
    Good one JQ! – shows who can be lead off on irrelevant tangents at the slightest provocation. I don’t think it was worth the effort, but if you have time on your hands and nothing better to do …

  17. @QuentinR

    That is a tad gauche, Quentin. John Quiggin’s achievements in economics, including his publishing record, as well as his contribution to political and policy debates place him in the top tier of Australian intellectuals. Blogging is a recreational activity, so what makes it your business? How about you account for all your activities and list your achievements over the last 10 years so we can compare and contrast? Don’t be shy, we are all waiting to be impressed.

  18. HED PE – Sorry if it came out that way. I know I can be abrasive, but given your number of comments above, you’re easily confronted. I doubt my comments would have troubled JQ in the sleightest …

    It’s my business because I have access to this site and haven’t been barred from contributing.

    I haven’t read the NYTimes article. And I still see no reason to contemplate the impact of some change in an historical event – things might be different to some measurable level, or not. So what?

    In flicking through the comments, I saw that someone (Tim Mackney, now that I look) mentioned derailing the thread. I thought that was worth pursuing – derailing was an appropriate direction to take, IMO.

    Of course JQ can write articles on any topic that makes money, or enhances his authority/standing; and post items here on whatever takes his fancy – it’s his blog. Very rarely(like this one) they seem to be a waste of time/energy.

  19. “I haven’t read the NYTimes article.”

    QuentinR, you also like to post without reading *any* of the actual content? Me too. Let’s be friends.

    Thanks John. That was very informative.

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