Is History Predictable?

Clergyman and author,DR. REIN HOLD NIEBUHR has been Professor of Applied Christianity at the Union Theological Seminary since 1930. He was ordained in 1915 and took up his first and only pastorate in the Bethel Evangelical Church of Detroit, where over a period of thirteen years the membership mounted from forty to more than eight hundred. In his lectures, as in his books, Dr. Niebuhr has carried on an intellect tad crusade against the complacencies of an age of reason.



EVERYONE knows that history is drama; yet we persistently try to make it into something else. Drama, as art, must have at least two characteristics. The characters must act with a certain degree of consistency and not be arbitrarily manipulated to suit the necessities of a plot. But a drama must also present unpredictable events and reactions to situations. If actions were wholly predictable they would not impress the audience as “true”; for the audience knows instinctively that persons have a certain degree of freedom over all the pressures of events and causal chains in which they are involved. The unpredictability of human actions makes the drama interesting, including the drama of history itself.

If this be true, every historian must be sometiling of a dramatist as well as scientist. He must be a scientist in his search for the facts. But he must have artistic imagination to discern the dramatic pattern which is spelled out by the facts. If he imagines himself merely a scientist, he will suffer from the illusion that he could predict the future if he only knew all the facts. If he seeks to become a “philosopher of history,” he will be under the illusion that he has discerned some permanent metaphysical pattern under the vast variety of historical events. That, illusion will tempt him to even bolder and more hazardous predictions. For while there are undoubtedly historical patterns, every effort of philosophers to interpret events upon the basis of these alleged patterns has respited in error and confusion.

Our present total historical situation is a vivid reminder of the unpredictability of history. We are involved in a cold war and an armaments race. Borne wise men, relying upon historical analogy, tell us that a cold-war tension must inevitably make for a hot war. But when some of them insisted that the Korean war was the beginning of another world war, their predictions were refuted.

The miscalculations in regard to historical events in the immediate past are but instances of many miscalculations in recent history which prove the unpredictability of history. Since there are discernible patterns in history, we are right in speaking of “ probable” events. But we can never speak of future events as “inevitable.” If war should come, a thousand historians of subsequent ages would bend their energies to explaining just how it came about. And some would even prove that, given certain factors now known to us, the war was inevitable. That is wisdom after the fact. There is no way of turning it into wisdom before the fact. We have a right, and even a duty, to distinguish between a highly probable eventuality and an inevitable one. In our situation a war is highly probable; but no amount of accurate analysis of the present factors and forces which a future historian might regard as the basis of its inevitability could justify a present historian in predicting its inevitability. The difference between prospect and retrospect is caused by the fact that the actors in the historical drama are partly determined by the pressures upon their decisions but they also remain free to make their choices. These choices can be filled into a dramatic pattern after the event but not before.

Some of the false predictions of recent history are derived from failure to discern all the factors and forces in the situation, and some are caused by dogmatic efforts to press the drama of history into a false framework. Chamberlain predicted “peace in our time” because he failed to gauge the demonic force in Nazism correctly. He may have thus made the war he wanted to avoid more inevitable. But who will say that he may not also have made victory more possible in a war which his miscalculations made more inevitable? If we are to believe some very sober historians, the radar defense’s and the airplanes which saved Britain in 1939 were not ready in 1938. Such a consideration incidentally makes Stanley Baldwin, rather than Chamberlain, the culprit of the piece. It also introduces the intriguing notion that a man stupid enough to trust the Nazis was required to buy the time necessary to ensure Britain’s survival. Such factors add to the charm of history as a drama. Chamberlains error reminds us that predictions of future events may be wrong not only because unpredictable lactors enter into the web of history but because we may fail to estimate some constant factors correctly. In this case the underestimated constant was the consistent evil in Nazism.

Most frequently, faulty predictions are due not only to the effort to lit history into some preconception but to a fault in the preconception about the character of history itself. Thus Hegel anticipated the fulfillment of Western culture in Prussia. The error may seem to have been caused by national arrogance, but it was prompted by a more basic fault in Hegel’s dogma, which erroneously tried to lit. historical events into a particular “dialectical" logic. Marx reconstituted the Hegelian conception of historical logic and saw the future in terms of even more serious miscalculations. His basic error was to regard a particular institution, that of property, as the root of all evil. This error prompted 1 he erroneous prediction that civilizations which had eliminated properly would be free of all egotism, individual and collective. This the corruption of the Marxist dream in Stalinist tyranny could not be foreseen even though it was an “inevitable’ rather than a fortuitous corruption. Trotsky was so enamored of the Marxist dogma that he continued to predicl that the Stalinist corruption would be eliminated, even while he suffered as a victim of it. He believed that the change in “property relations" would ultimately bring forth fruits of justice.

According to the Marxist dogma the “class struggle" would become more and more severe and would result in the increasing misery of the poor, until their resentments would set the world on fire with revolution. This prediction is in fact refuted bv the increasing well-being the working classes in advanced technical civilizations. This result is due to the creation of balances of power in technical societies which proved to be more, rather than loss, flexible and adequate than those of agrarian societies. The complex class structure of modern technical societies is a complete refutation of the Marxist notion of a progressive simplification of the class structure, so that only owners and the dispossessed would remain at the historical climax. Significantly, the Marxist dogma can produce some very false predictions even when it is not held in its most rigorous form.

Many social scientists and economists confidently predicted a major depression in America after the war. The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal went so far as to suggest a hazardous trade agreement between Sweden and Russia as a “hedge" against the prophesied American depression. Manv incalculable factors accounted for this miscalculation. The “cushions” against a depression built into our economy by ten years of legislation were not considered. But the error was probably due chiefly to a failure to note that the American businessman, despite his ideological inflexibility, possessed a practical flexibility which made him come to terms with historical contingencies in a way which was, for instance, beyond the wisdom of the French businessman.

One must incidentally attribute a great deal of the fury of 1 he Communists to their frustration and bafflement when history does not follow the logic which they projected for it. Thus they have to lie over more desperately to show that American workers are living in abject poverty. Had not. their logic assigned such a fate for the workers?


THE “dogma which underlies the liberal world view is almost as productive of miscalculations as the Marxist dogma. The dogma assumes that historical development will inevitably solve the main problems of human existence, including the problems of the human community. Since the primary fruit of historical development is man’s increasing freedom and power over nature, and since this power and this freedom create new problems in new dimensions for every former problem solved, the dogma naturally has resulted in many serious miscalculations, from the day that the aging French encyclopedists hailed Napoleon as the great servant of the “ liberal" movement. They made the mistake of associating the misuse of power only with the traditional monarchic political forms, just as Marxism subsequently associated the misuse of power only with “bourgeois” forms. Wilson’s hope that the First World War would make the world “safe for democracy” was part of this liberal dream of progress. Actually the wars aftermath resulted in new perils to democracy, and the rise of unanticipated tyrannies.

We have dwell too long on the miscalculations which are due to dogmatic frames of meaning which contain some basic miscalculation of the human and historical situation. The fact is that, even upon the basis of the most flexible pattern of meaning for history, we still would make mistakes about the future. How could anyone have anticipated, for instance, that the “bourgeois or capitalist movement would become merged with the aristocracy in Britain and borrow some virtues from the traditional society; that it would destroy the traditional society in France but take over some of its vices; and that in Germany the businessman would grow more efficient and powerful than in France while remaining politically incompetent and impotent? All these developments are not wholly incomprehensible in retrospect, but they are unpredictable in prospect.

Many of the historical miscalculations are due to mistaken analogies. History is fruitful of recurrences and therefore of analogies. If it were not so, no “lessons’ could be learned from history. But since history also elaborates endless dramatic variations, none of the analogies a re exact enough In become the basis lor prediction. It is now fairly clear thal both Roosevelt and Eisenhower looked hopefully to the future of Russian-American relations. Eisenhower told our Congress in 1945 that we understood each other because of our common “anti-imperialism.”The barb at Britain was obvious. But the analogy could not comprehend the virtue of democracy at the heart of British “imperialism,”nor the tyrannical corruption at the heart of the Communist “anti-imperialism.”

Now, in the days of our disillusionment, another analogy is popular but equally dubious as a source of wisdom. Are not the Nazis and Communists very much alike? it is asked. Are not both equally tyrannical and cruel? Indeed they are very much alike; but not so much so that we ought to predict, confidently that the Communists will inevitably go to war as the Nazis did. Communism is primarily a political conspiracy rather than a military movement. It relies on a dogma which promises its ultimate victory over us by a logic of history. Communists will therefore not have the same desperation as the Nazis had. Furthermore, Communism is a tyranny which rests upon utopian illusions rather than cynically nationalist aspirations, a difference which makes it more dangerous than the Nazis politically but not in a military sense. It is as “irrational” as Hitlerism, but its irrationality is of a different order. It relies, not upon mystic intuitions, but upon cool calculations rendered irrational by the restrictions upon the mind which its dogmas create. Finally, it has a wide expanse of territory, contrasted with the narrow geographic base of the Nazis. It is therefore not liable to be as desperate as Nazism.

These differences do not encourage complacency. The Communists remain dangerous foes who might become desperate and who might stumble into war in their dogmatic blindness. But the differences should refute the idea of an inevitable war and of the corollarv idea: a “preventive” war. For all we know, there may be an analogy between Communism and Mohammedanism. It may, like Islam, persist as an historic force after it has lost its dynamic. But let us not press this or any analogy too far. For Islam did not subside as a dynamic force until it was defeated by European civilization in military conflict. We can learn from historical analogies, but we must not rely upon them too much, simply because when “history repeats itself” it never does so exactly. There is an endless emergence of novel factors in each situation which makes every analogy and comparison inexact.

Reliance upon historical analogy is frequently unreflectivc. When it is based upon an explicit philosophy of history the philosophy is rooted in a similar error, as that which underlies the idea of progress. Both equate historical drama too simply with the processes of nature. The one thinks thal there is an essential similarity between natural and historical recurrences. The other rests its dogma on the similarity between natural and historical development. Both ideas arc refuted hy the radical nature of human freedom, which is able to elaborate endless dramatic variations upon the woof of recurrence and the warp of development furnished by nature.

Spengler and Toynbee have given us an interpretation of history based upon the classical idea that nature and history have similar cycles of recurrence, the only difference being that the cycles in which the rise and fall of historic cultures occur are larger than the cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death of natural organisms. Toynbee’s recent pflbrt to illumine our conflict with Communism in terms of an analogy between Eastern and Western Christendom leads to more confusion than illumination; for Communism is a novel factor for which there is no analogy in that ancient struggle, however intriguing may be the subordinate similarities which Toynbee finds in the attitudes of contemporary and medieval Russia. We are, after all, dealing with Russia now as the homeland of a world-wide secular and demonic religious movement. There is no analogy for this conflict in history.

Historians are notoriously hostile to, or critical of, the efforts of Toynbee and Spongier. Sometimes their hostility springs from their implicit acceptance of a more popular but equally implausible philosophy of history: the idea of progress. Sometimes their criticisms arc prompted by their knowledge that these patterns of history falsify the historical details in some field in which the particular historian knows most. But partly the hostility springs from the dramatic instincts of a true historian. He senses that the drama of history is falsified and obscured by any “ philosophy of history,” for if it is a rigorous philosophy it claims to discover metaphysical channels for the stuff of history. That means that historical events are regarded as necessary actualizations of possibilities. The historian knows that what happens to persons and what happens in history are not necessary actualizations. History is an endlessly varied dramatic encounter between people and groups in which every event is so closely related to a previous event that the historian can give an account of the causal chain. But nothing happens with such a compulsion of natural or rational necessity that the future may be predicted upon the basis of past events. Some historians still believe that they might be able to predict the future if they only knew a little more. If they give themselves to this illusion they are not as wise as the most reflective statesmen, Churchill for instance. Such practical men have learned that the secret of wisdom is not to rely too much on any large patterns of history or upon any seeming exact analogies. They feel, even more than the historian, that the present occasion and responsibility are unique and cannot fit nicely into any pattern or yield their secret in terms of any analogy.

We mortals are so proud of our knowledge of the past that we are inclined to impatience and embarrassment because we know so little about the future. We try to overcome this embarrassment by all kinds of scientific and philosophical devices designed to penetrate the veil which hides the future. These devices, when not too ambitious, can be the servants of wisdom; for we are not creatures of the day and must prepare for the morrow. But too ambitious and pretentious anticipations of an essentially unpredictable future not only destroy the drama of history: they also increase its perils. We know how much havoc has been wrought by believers in an inevitable revolution. It would be tragic if we added to the havoc by believing in an inevitable war. Significantly, the worst damage is done when a bogus omnipotence seeks to come to the aid of a bogus omniscience.