E.H. Carr: the historian as partisan

March 29, 2000


E.H. Carr: the historian as partisan

The vices of integrity: EH Carr 1892-1982
By Jonathan Haslam
Verso, 1999
306pp., $75 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

There haven't been many historians who, having spent most of their career as Foreign Office diplomat, leader writer for The Times and Cambridge professor, were roundly reviled by establishment historians for being a dangerous radical, but Edward Hallett Carr was one.

The mighty eminences of conventional historiography sought to unmask the traitor in their midst, whose view that the political beliefs of historians coloured their interpretation of the past threatened their self-image of being devoted to the impartial search for truth, rather than being partisans seeking to denounce revolution.

Carr's massive opus on the Russian revolution, which was, in the eyes of conservative historians, insufficiently critical of Lenin and Stalin, confirmed their suspicions that Carr's philosophy of history must lead to apologism for red tyranny.

Jonathan Haslam's biography of EH Carr explores the controversies ignited by Carr. The early signs of a rebellious unorthodoxy weren't promising, as Carr, a model product of a middle class upbringing, "committed to God, King and Country", joined the Foreign Office during World War I. Hostile to the Bolsheviks, he wound up on the Russian desk enforcing the capitalist trade blockade against Lenin's revolutionary government.

PictureAfter being rewarded with a CBE for his services to the containment of the Bolshevik threat, however, Carr began to find the life of a diplomat unfulfilling.

His determination to write soon took over and he produced biographies of Dostoevsky, Bakunin and Marx. Although Carr's biography of Marx (Karl Marx — a Study in Fanaticism) was "highly opinionated and ill-informed", his attraction to the biographies of radicals revealed a closet rebel reacting against the conformity of his upbringing and the intellectual impostures of the political status quo.

Whilst he disagreed with Marx that class is the "fundamental division in society", Carr was taken with the insights of both Marx and Freud into the "hidden springs of thought and action", the material interests which influence the behaviour of individuals, classes and nations.

A mix of authoritarian and social democratic political attitudes marked Carr's middle years. A vocal advocate of appeasement, he believed that Nazi Germany should be allowed its lebensraum, and he looked favourably on the "efficiency" of totalitarian regimes from Hitler to Stalin. His prescription for Britain was a more liberal version of a strong state — Keynesian economic planning and social reform, with controls on profits and "trade union restrictions".

It was Carr's blunt realpolitik about the need to grant the Soviet Union control of eastern Europe in return for Western domination of the rest of the world which made him an object of fury in an anti-communist Whitehall which could not openly admit to such a deal.

Carr was lagging in the holy crusade against the Soviet devil, and he was to pay for his refusal to enlist in the Cold War by being black-banned from academic appointments at the London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge.

Rebuffed from the establishment, Carr turned his attention to his History of Soviet Russia, which, fourteen volumes and thirty years later, had documented in cool, detached detail the history of the revolution from 1917 to 1929.

Carr's history broke from orthodoxy in two main ways. First, Carr, inspired by Trotsky's history of the revolution, found the revolution to be not a conspiratorial Bolshevik coup but a spontaneous and popular uprising in which the politicised masses constantly drove their hesitant leaders, Bolsheviks included, to a fundamental break with the bourgeois government which had succeeded Tsarism.

Second, Carr antagonised conservative monarchists and moderate social democrats with his conclusion that Tsarism could not have reformed itself and that capitalist democracy had no solutions to satisfy the political and social appetites of the masses. Socialism was the only answer and the Bolsheviks were the legitimate and necessary victors.

Carr, increasingly moderating his earlier anti-Marx bias, was unforgiving of Cold War historians of the revolution who had willingly succumbed to the prevailing "anti-Marxist fanaticism". He accused Leonard Schapiro, for example, of "wilful distortion" of the actions of the Bolshevik government, based on "embittered prejudice".

As Carr's fellow outcast and friend the Marxist scholar Isaac Deutscher pointed out, however, Carr's history had its own deficiencies. Carr, the ex-practitioner of statecraft, was more at ease with Lenin the state-builder than Lenin the subversive who dreamt of the withering away of the state.

Carr was a fatalist about how political expediency in the interests of the state compromises revolutionary idealism. This led Carr to focus on the ruling group at the top of the State rather than the social forces below.

PictureAs his later collaborator Tamara Deutscher put it, Carr had "an excessive preoccupation with constitutions, resolutions, formal programs, and official pronouncements". Though increasingly critical of Stalin, Carr's admiration for strong statesmen was never far from the surface. "Monumental achievement, monstrous price" was his less than adequate assessment of Stalin's rapid industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture.

Finally accepted as a professor at Cambridge from 1955, Carr, under fire from anti-Bolshevik historians for his "partisan" view of the revolution, launched a polemical salvo in 1961 against his critics with a lecture series on the practice of history.

Published as What is History, and still a best-seller, it argued that all historians are consciously or unconsciously biased, their selection of facts, and interpretation of those facts, subjectively influenced by their political beliefs. For the conservative historian, any current social threat to the status quo requires a historical lesson showing that revolution creates despotism and that capitalist democracy is the best of all possible worlds.

Deutscher and other Marxists have been bothered by Carr's relativism, which seems to deny the existence of objective historical truth. Carr, however, was aware that he had bent the stick for the purpose of exposing the hidden bias of conservative historians and he bent it back against the postmodernists by maintaining that history was a science and that truth could be approached providing the historian was aware of their biases.

Carr's views on the role of accident in history were also controversial, seeming to further undermine the possibility of discovering scientific laws of history. For example, he argued, "it surely mattered that Lenin died aged 53 not 73, and that Stalin died aged 73 not 53".

If Lenin had been run over by a tram in Zurich in 1915 instead of taking the train to the Finland Station in 1917, there would have been no revolution, and if Stalin had not become dictator, the twentieth century would have hurtled off onto an entirely different path.

For Marxists, this gives too much importance to accident and the individual. In Trotsky's illuminating analogy of revolution as steam train, the masses provide the energy whilst the revolutionary party is the piston box. One provides the power, the other the guidance. A leader like Lenin (the driver, perhaps) may play a key role but the individual, or accident, are not decisive. Social forces are.

Whilst Carr never satisfactorily resolved the problems of accident in history, he nevertheless maintained that the social and the economic are the "backbone of history" and he was critical of liberal historians like AJP Taylor, who are "so eager not to be taken for a Hegelian or a Marxist that they disclaim any belief in determining causes or scientifically demonstrable trends".

Carr's last decades were spent coping with failed marriages and a proliferating mass of research. When he emerged from emotional turmoil and documentary minutiae, he was able to lucidly analyse the reasons for Stalin's victory.

All the Soviet leadership contenders, he argued, were victims of "the tragedy of the Russian revolution", an internationally isolated socialist (proletarian) experiment in a primitive (peasant) country. All party leaders "turned in the winds" of circumstance. Stalin was "the most adaptable because the least principled".

By the time of his death in 1982, Carr had left a rich deposit for historians of the Soviet Union and for philosophers of history to mine. Though never committed to Marxism, he recognised "Marx's greatness and importance". Though never a revolutionary, he sought to analyse the Russian revolution free from the "hysterical hostility to the non-capitalist world" which prejudiced conservative historians. Though by temperament he found it distasteful, he sought not only to understand but to defend the principle of revolution.

Carr's ideological adversary, Isaiah Berlin, sought to tarnish Carr by claiming that he "cast a protective mantle over extremists", especially revolutionaries like Marx and Lenin. This is really to Carr's credit and though Marxists can not be uncritical of Carr, neither should they ignore, nor will they fail to find value and stimulation in, his work.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.