Slavoj Zizek in the London Review of Books:
Why is the flourishing genre of ‘what if?’ histories the preserve of conservative historians? The introduction to such volumes typically begins with an attack on Marxists, who allegedly believe in historical determinism. Take this latest instalment, edited by Andrew Roberts, who has himself contributed an essay on the bright prospects that would have faced Russia in the 20th century had Lenin been shot on arriving at the Finland Station. One of Roberts’s arguments in favour of this kind of history is that ‘anything that has been condemned by Carr, Thompson and Hobsbawm must have something to recommend it.’ He believes that the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘have time and again been shown to be completely mutually exclusive’. ‘If,’ he continues, ‘we accept that there is no such thing as historical inevitability and that nothing is preordained, political lethargy – one of the scourges of our day – should be banished, since it means that in human affairs anything is possible.’
This is empirically not the case. Roberts ignores the central ideological paradox of modern history, as formulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In contrast to Catholicism, which conceived of human redemption as being dependent on good deeds, Protestantism insisted on predestination: why then did Protestantism function as the ideology of early capitalism? Why did people’s belief that their redemption had been decided in advance not only not lead to lethargy, but sustain the most powerful mobilisation of human resources ever experienced?