It is easy enough to ask the question, “How can we best explain the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of German fascism, or the Industrial Revolution in England?” And we often want to paraphrase questions like these along causal lines: “What were some of the causes of the fall of Rome, what were the causes of the rise of fascism, what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?”
But are these really good questions? Is this really the right way of thinking about historical explanation? What if we think that there is an overwhelming amount of contingency and path dependency in history? What if we think that the language of “cause” doesn’t work particularly well in the context of history? For that matter, what if we take most seriously the idea that history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, so it is a flow of action and knowledge rather than a sequence of causes and effects? Do these alternative thoughts about history force us to ask different questions about large historical changes?
We might consider this alternative way of thinking of history: think about “social conditions and processes” rather than discrete causes; couch historical explanations in terms of how individual actors (low and high) acted in the context of these conditions; and interpret the large outcomes as no more than the aggregation of these countless actors and their actions. Think about history as a stream or river, whose flow is influenced by the topography of the land through which it moves and the obstacles and barriers it encounters in its course.
This picture probably needs broadening in at least one important respect: our account of the “flow” of human action eventuating in historical change needs to take into account the institutional and structural environment in which these actions take place. Part of the “topography” of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and structures.
In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.
On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.
Consider how Karl Dietrich Bracher approaches the problem of explaining the rise of National Socialism in The German dictatorship: The origins, structure, and effects of national socialism (1970).
Inherent in all these [prior] studies is the question of how a dictatorial regime of such dimensions could come to power so quickly and with so little or no resistance in a country with Germany’s traditions and cultural heritage…. Yet the question does remain why Germany, which after a century-long battle for democratic government had constructed, in the Weimar Republic, a seemingly perfect constitutional structure, capitulated unresistingly and within so short a period before so primitive a dictatorship as Hitler’s. (3-4)
Bracher’s own account is fundamentally couched in terms of the currency and transmission of sets of ideas and philosophies: nationalism, etatism, anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism. He gives an account of how various elements of these ideas were favored through European and German history from the early 19th century, through the revolutions of 1848, through Germany’s defeat in World War I, into the strife of the Weimar period.
It was against this background [of ideological conflict in the Weimar period] that National Socialism took shape as a new type of integrating force. Being a specifically German manifestation of European antidemocratism, it was completely attuned to the German situation and even less of an export article than Italian Fascism. This is yet another example of the limits of the conception of a universal fascism. The nationalist foundation makes for profound differences from country to country. Nor is there any monocausal explanation, whether it be based on economic, political, or ideological premises. National Socialism, like Hitler, was the product of World War I, but it was given its shape and force by those basic problems of modern German history which marked the painful road of the democratic movement. Among these were the fragility of the democratic tradition and the powerful remnants of authoritarian governmental and social institutions before and after 1848. (46)
And here is a more psychological dimension of Bracher’s explanation:
Among the special factors of the early days of National Socialism was the tremendously important part played by the spectacular rise and near-religious veneration of a Fuhrer. The organizational structure and activities of this new type of movement were based completely on the leader principle. In terms of social psychology, he represented the disenfranchised little man eager to compensate for his feelings of inferiority through militancy and political radicalism. (47)
In the final analysis, Hitler came to power as a result of a series of avoidable errors. He was neither elected freely by a majority of the German people nor were there compelling reasons for the capitulation of the Republic. However, in the end, the democratic forces were in the minority vis-a-vis the totalitarian, ditatorial parties of the National Socialists and the Communists. And in this situation a large portion of Germany’s top echelons went over to Hitler after 1933. (49)
So far Bracher has focused on the problem of origins: how did National Socialism come to prevail in Germany? But he also spends time on showing how this dictatorship ruled, and this is a simpler story. Having gained the levers of power — police, military, bureaucracy — the Nazi state was able to implement the ideology and values that brought it to power.
So Bracher’s narrative is ultimately one that has mostly to do with beliefs, knowledge systems, ideologies, and actors pursuing their purposes. It isn’t a causal narrative, but rather an interpretive analysis of mass psychology within specific historical conditions. There are large elements of the history of ideas (the ways in which antidemocratic ideologies developed in Germany and other European countries after 1848, for example) as well as elements of meaningful and purposive human action (deciding to follow, deciding to lead, deciding to mobilize).
What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history“: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures.