Chastened Choices: Contingency, Utopia and the Challenge of Applied History

Nick Danforth
6 min readJan 12, 2024

I’m not sure whether historians’ newfound enthusiasm for contingency was inevitable. But it certainly fits well with the political commitments of many in the profession. If you reject pragmatism to embrace the possibility of radical change in your politics, it makes sense that your approach to the past would be predicated on the assumption that at every point in history an almost unlimited range of outcomes were available.

History would certainly be boring without contingency, and politics would be futile if we assumed outcomes were all predetermined. But there is a risk to going too far in the other direction, and treating contingency as a license to engage in utopian thinking. Some contingencies are less likely than others. Some seem so unlikely as to be virtually impossible. Embracing an exaggerated form of contingency prevents us from wrestling with these questions.

Moreover, historical actors constantly struggled to determine which political programs were realistic and which weren’t. Taken to an extreme, a commitment to contingency can prevent us from understanding them on their own terms. And, of course, to the extent this is all about politics, if we base our own political programs on inaccurate assumptions about what is possible, we will fail to achieve our goals and quite likely create unnecessary suffering in the process. As someone who finds a case for pragmatism in their study of history, I’d argue that pessimism and impossibility deserve their place in historical debates as well.

In a 2007 piece for the American Historical Association magazine titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically,” Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke explain contingency by saying “Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.” For example, “Lee could have won at Gettysburg, Gore might have won in Florida, China might have inaugurated the world’s first industrial revolution.” In short, “To assert that the past is contingent is to impress upon students the notion that the future is up for grabs.”

But is this really the version of contingency that we want to elevate as central to historical thinking? The historical record turns out to be uniquely unhelpful for answering the question of whether history could have turned out differently. Lee probably could have won at Gettysburg, but would that have overcome all the factors working against him in the wider war? Gore, many of us still believe, did win Florida, but still lost the election because he faced structural obstacles in the form of a hostile Supreme Court majority. Let’s say China inaugurated the first industrial revolution. Would the environment be any better off for it?

Not surprisingly, historians are particularly excited to argue for the contingency of things they don’t like. The triumph of nationalism, for example, is something whose contingency we are regularly reminded of, whether in Austro-Hungarian Trieste or the Ottoman Middle East. Of course, it would be a mistake to treat the collapse of these multi-ethnic Empires as pre-ordained, and the manner in which they broke apart was most certainly contingent. But does this mean everything was really up for grabs? As Aviel Roshwald points out: “The very fact that so many varied historical paths across multiple continents over the course of the past several centuries have led to the planet-wide emergence, in successive waves, of self-declared nation-states suggests that this has been a heavily overdetermined outcome….”

Perhaps somehow the tragedy of modern nationalism could have been avoided. But simply assuming that was possible leaves us uniquely unprepared to evaluate the choices faced by those who had ample reason to lack such optimism. Consider the Greek-Turkish population exchange. Contemporary accounts have stressed the sheer scale of the suffering it wrought, as a million and a half people were uprooted from their homes. But they have also gone further in suggesting that the international community’s support for the exchange was a product of a blind ideological commitment to national homogeneity. Yet the international supporters of the exchange had just witnessed the Armenian Genocide, and were watching Christians in Turkey and Muslims in Greece get murdered on a daily basis. In this context, where violent nationalism already appeared to have carried the day, betting on inclusive binational states carried dangers as well. Some scholars, writing about the exchange, have explicitly rejected the logic of the lesser evil. Diplomats, for whom the lesser evil meant less people killed, did not always feel they had this luxury. In this case, historians should certainly question their conclusions. But we should not let our own optimistic faith in limitless contingency lead us to dismiss the way they understood the choices that they faced.

As it turns out, once you reject the premise that historical actors faced any limits to what they could achieve, it becomes easy to pass judgement from an exacting ideological perspective. Consider several books by Sam Moyn. If you argue that making war more humane is actually bad because it precludes efforts to end war entirely, you are making a remarkably bold claim about the achievability of that goal. Evidence from the last two thousand, two hundred or twenty years might suggest that the realistic alternative to humane war is less humane war rather than no war at all. In 2016, Trump won promising a less humane war against ISIS, and delivered on his promise. Similarly, if you suggest that the liberalism of fear precluded greater social progress, you are assuming the fear was unrealistic and greater progress was achievable. These, at least seem like plausible assumptions. Still the burden of proof is on the historian, it can’t be outsourced to some abstract belief in contingency. Otherwise, you end up in the awkward situation of reprimanding bunch of people who fled the Nazis for being too worked up about the prospect of authoritarianism.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why contingency is at the heart of the debate over public-facing and applied history. You can certainly do excellent popular and politically-engaged history premised on an unbounded optimism about what political change can accomplish. You can point out the deep imperfections of the present and explain the historical processes that brought us here. By raising people’s awareness you can then lay the groundwork for progress. But this is different from the kind of applied history that seeks to offer recommendations for people in positions of political power. If you view the trade-offs faced by policymakers as fundamentally illegitimate, you won’t be able to offer them advice no matter how progressive or well-meaning they might be.

A few years ago, I attended a talk by a historian whose work on the history of sectarianism in the Middle East I admire. He criticized U.S. policymakers, and Obama in particular, for their essentialist understanding of sectarian conflict. They failed to realize that these divisions were not eternal, but rather the result of political circumstances. Contingent even. Agreeing, I asked how a more nuanced understanding of sectarianism might inform better policy. He rejected the premise, arguing that the U.S. government was not capable of playing a positive role in Middle Eastern politics. I asked whether it could offer lessons for other actors, perhaps the United Nations or Lebanese politicians. He was skeptical, pointing out that the U.N. had repeatedly demonstrated its uselessness and Lebanese politicians were hopelessly corrupt.

To be clear, these seem like entirely fair judgements of the U.S., the U.N. and, from everything I have heard, the Lebanese political class. But the result is still a paradoxical one. If you believe that near infinite progress is possible, and assume that our failure to achieve it results largely from the persistent shortcomings of those in power, it becomes all too easy to slip into a new kind of fatalism. Writing off all political actors as irredeemable forecloses the possibility for more limited but still meaningful short-term change.

Pragmatism can all too easily slide into complicity, and I may well be naïve about the prospects for working within existing institutions. We can all come up with plenty of historical examples where individuals were vindicated in thinking the future was truly up for grabs. Then again, there are plenty of examples of individuals who paid dearly for their faith in this sort of contingency. If nothing else, we have a choice in which example we heed. History can help in form that choice.