top of page

Alternate History as a Political Tract

By Gary Oswald

Politics is innately concerned with Alternate History.

When your party wins an election and then you have to go back four years later and convince the voters that that choice was right, you end up pointing at all the things that went right during that term, and the explicit counter factual you are presenting is that if they hadn’t voted for you, they wouldn’t have happened. But all the bad things, oh that was out of our hands, that was inevitable.

Likewise if you lost last time, you point at all the bad things that have happened during that term and say well if I’d been in charge, you’d have been spared all that grief. But the good things I’d have done too.

And it’s a great argument because AH is fundamentally a literary genre not a scientific one. Any counter factual hypothesis is unprovable and thus, critically, also impossible to disprove. Maybe the economic downtown would have still happened the same way if it had been a Tory government in charge in 2008 or the pandemic would have if a Labour one had been there in 2020 but you can’t say for sure, can you. Maybe the other side would have acted quicker and shown better judgement when the floor began to give way or maybe they would have handled it even worse.

There’s no data either way. So you can let your biases and preconceptions lead you to an answer instead.

Because of this, it’s not really surprising that when Politicians turn to writing fiction, a lot of them gravitate towards Alternate History. It’s an area of speculation and rhetoric they have always been engaging in. Newt Gingrich, George Galloway, Winston Churchill, Sean Gabb and Yanis Varoufakis have all, with various degrees of success, tried their hand at the genre.

Varoufakis’ ‘Another Now’, previously reviewed on this blog by Alexander Wallace, is perhaps the most obviously political of these. The core concept of AH fiction is that the world we live in is not inevitable and what we think of as ‘just how the world is’ should be viewed instead as the result of numerous trends, accidents and decisions and we could easily live in a world built on entirely different lines. Varoufakis, a man whose political career has been about preaching an alternative to the neoliberal consensus, creates an AH world where that consensus is destroyed in order to show the reader what his ideas would look like.

Using fiction as a way of displaying political ideas is not new. George Orwell did it, Ayn Rand did, it dates back to at least Plato if not earlier. It has certain advantages in that fiction is immersive, it allows you to truly picture the ramifications of an idea in a much less dry, easier to digest way then simply explaining it. Orwell’s 1984 can feel a more striking take on totalitarianism than real life reports, because it’s immersive without the real life distance of coming from another place.

But it also has the advantage that the writer has complete control of the world. In real life, every idea has up sides and down sides, but in fiction, the writer is god, so your idea can just work entirely and your opponent’s ideas can be complete disastrous. Your fingers can tilt the scales.

In the UK, Dominic Sandbrook, an Historian who has regularly written political columns for the Daily Mail, uses counter factuals to remind his readers of the wisdom of their political vote. Upon the death of Margaret Thatcher, he wrote a column which pictured a world without her time in power, in which the UK declined massively both economically and socially. In Sandbrook’s eyes, everything Thatcher achieved, Labour would have failed at. When it is Foot, rather than Thatcher, in charge during the Falklands War, the UK loses, humiliatingly and with great loss of life, though Sandbrook never feels the need to explain why exactly the war has gone so differently. To him, and his readers, it’s self-explanatory that a Labour government would be less adept at fighting a war.

And you can’t really call out Sandbrook or Varoufakis for corrupting the genre to turn it into propaganda because any look into the history of the genre reveals they’re probably closer to the original intent than the likes of Turtledove are.

Arguably the first ever recorded Counter factual question was could ‘Alexander the Great have beaten the Romans if he’d lived longer and invaded Italy’. This was, according to Plutarch, a common question asked by Roman historians, with the answer almost always being that Rome would win.

Livy asks this question in ‘History of Rome’ and, unsurprisingly, he also favours his home team. This can be seen as him indulging the human desire to ask ‘could my dad beat up your dad’ as a Roman patriot arguing against Romanophobic Greeks that his culture was superior by dunking on their hero. And well, chauvinism is itself an innately political position and in Orwell’s ‘On Nationalism’ he identifies an obsession with counter factuals as one of the signs of a nationalist mind-set.

But Livy does more than just that, he also makes the argument that Rome’s strength is in its republican structure with multiple leaders and so the lack of one great man such as Alexander on whom the Macedonian state depended. Which, given that the book was written during the time in which Augustus began to centre the Roman state around himself, is difficult to not read as a somewhat pointed statement.

The first recorded counter factual is a hypothetical scenario in which a proponent of decentralised rule, depicts the most famous of the absolute monarchs, undefeated in real life, as losing to a decentralised government. It’s political propaganda at its rawest.

And the history of AH continued as it started, most of the early examples of the form can be described the same way. Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château, a French republican disenchanted by the Bourbon Restoration, wrote ‘Napoléon Apocryphe’, in which Napoleon wins the Napoleonic wars and ushers an era of peace, prosperity and scientific advancement. Castello Holford, an American Progressive, wrote ‘Aristopia’ in which Virginia is founded on what we would recognise as Georgist principles with the state owning all land and private wealth being limited. The result is North America forms a united utopian state.

This unsubtle preaching of ‘what if the people in charge had followed my political principles? Well everyone would happy’ is common in alternate history fiction. Early USA is often the subject, with the new country being seen as unmoulded clay which could have been formed to reflect the writer’s biases. In ‘The Probability Broach’, it becomes a libertarian paradise wherein the Whiskey rebellion overthrew Washington and the power of the government is scaled back. In Charles Felton Pidgin’s ‘The Climax’, it’s Aaron Burr’s vision of the country that gets put into practice with Federalism discredited and a much more aggressive military focus leading to an early conquest of Canada.

This post on reddit by a deleted user, rather sums up bad utopian AH.

And, switching from Utopic to Dystopic, there is the Hebrew best seller ‘If Israel had lost the War’ written jointly by Robert Littell, Richard Z. Chesnoff and Edward Klein. The writers got the idea while interviewing Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister. They had asked her about the occupation of areas the Israelis had conquered during the Six Days War to which she replied ‘you need to think about what would have happened if we’d lost’ and the book answers that thought. Not surprisingly, it has been adopted by right wing Israelis and the Israeli government as a tool in their arsenal of rhetoric, with recent demands for it to be reprinted to try and push world-wide sympathy back towards Israel.

In the book, instead of a surprise Israeli attack on the Arab countries, there’s a surprise Arab attack on Israel and, instead of a resounding Israeli victory, a resounding Arab victory. As a result Israel is partitioned, and firmly held under their thumb. Their communities are destroyed, their leaders executed and brutal secret police, trained by ex-Nazis, are set up to police them. Perhaps most notably, the Palestinians are also betrayed, the Arab leaders refuse to give them their own state or even allow them to leave the refugee camps to return 'home'. Nobody benefits from this, everyone loses.

Now, a total Arab victory over the Israelis would have been devastating for the Jewish people of the Levant, it would have certainly resulted in large scale war crimes and ethnic cleansing. But, by positioning even the Palestinian people as worse off in this scenario, there is an agenda being pushed here to minimize their suffering in our time line. In the same way Sandbrook sought to minimize the unemployment and economic devastation that happened due to Thatcherism by painting a picture of much worse economic devastation wreaked by Labour, the writers of this book seek to tell the Palestinians that ‘well it could have been worse’.

It is not that it is implausible that Labour could have mishandled the economy or that Arab autocrats wouldn’t have betrayed the people they supposedly fought for. It’s that these scenarios are fiction used as a counter to facts. At its worst Dystopic Alternate History can become an exercise in contrasting imaginary crimes with real ones to make the latter seem better in comparison. The British Empire did a lot of bad things but they didn’t boil people alive and eat them like happens in my fictional French India, so in real life people should be grateful the UK won Plassey.

But well, one of the most popular scenarios in AH fiction is ‘what if the Nazis won’. And doesn’t that do the same? It demonises a defeated people by adding fictional crimes on top of their real ones and compares the real 1950s with a fictionalised one to make us more grateful that we won. Shouldn't I denounce that the same way?

Am I saying that fiction shouldn’t have political principles? That AH shouldn’t tell you that the world was better cos the Allies won WWII rather than the Axis did?

Well, no. Obviously not. A writer will always be informed by their own life and political viewpoint and fiction should have a moral core and try and say something about the world and history. There is nothing wrong with a book arguing that things would have worse if this had happened or better if this had happened.

The problem is when you make such things absolutes, perfect worlds or perfect dystopias. I understand the temptation, especially when talking about great crimes such as colonialism, but while a Congo spared of Leopold will be better off, it’ll still have its own problems, such as the existing feudal slaver kings, it won’t be a utopia. And this is an especially hard needle to thread when focused on recent politics where you can expect readers to have free existing strong opinions.

When this publishing company produced an anthology of short stories called ‘Remains means Remain’ about the UK’s relationship with the EU, we advertised it on Facebook. There wasn’t, as far as I know, a massive increase in sales as a result of this but there was a lot of mocking comments on the ad, assuming this was going to be the equivalent of a Sandbrook piece. Bitter, one sided and blatantly political. It wasn’t, I happen to know that the authors included are split pretty evenly between those who voted leave and those who voted remain and the main story is clear in arguing that a remain victory would still leave a country with a lot of problems. But that was the assumption for a reason, it's the legacy of the routine use of counter factuals within political campaigning.

It is often difficult to imagine that there any downsides for Politician A beating Politician B when you voted for A and so obviously thought their policies were better. But, there must be reasons people voted for B. A Writer needs to ask themselves 'Who would lose in this scenario? Who would miss out? What would they think about this?'

Because it is very rarely everyone who benefits from any policy. When you ignore that, that’s when you stop writing a story and start writing a tract.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


bottom of page