E. H. Carr and Prophetic History
Moral Cretinism Part XI
|E. H. Carr|
The late writer and Historian Irving Howe wrote concerning the Historian and political ideologue Isaac Deutscher that:
The point is that there is conventional human history that is simply events that happen and then there is “History”! That grand paved avenue ascending to a desired and inevitable outcome. This is the type of history outlined in and described in Wilson’s To the Finland Station, it is that “History” that is a bitch and bastard that betrays those who think they have pierced it’s secret. For the bottom line is that there is no secret and “History” isn’t going anywhere because bluntly big “History” is a concoction. There are only histories, i.e., a sequence of events that have occurred, are occurring, and of course will occur. But in terms of going anywhere; it isn’t. It isn’t going anywhere anymore than the geological process of the earth or evolution is going anywhere. Such historical processes are in the end without aims of any kind. They are in effect purposeless processes.2
Thus we get an author like E. H. Carr (1892-1982) who wrote a huge history of the Soviet Union in which he believed that he had seen the future and it was the Soviet Union with its planned economy.
Thus Carr says:
What, then, do we mean when we praise a historian for being objective, or say that one historian is more objective than another? Not, it is clear, simply that he gets his facts right, but rather that he chooses the right facts, or, in other words, that he applies the right standard of significance. When we call a historian objective, we mean I think two things. First of all, we mean that he has a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history - a capacity which, as I suggested in an earlier lecture, is partly dependent on his capacity to recognise the extent of his involvement in that situation, to recognise, that is to say, the impossibility of total objectivity. Secondly, we mean that he has the capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation. No historian today will echo Acton's confidence in the prospect of 'ultimate history'. But some historians write history which is more durable, and has more of this ultimate and objective character, than others; and these are the historians who have what I may call a long-term vision over the past and over the future. The historian of the past can make an approach towards objectivity only as he approaches towards the understanding of the future.
When, therefore, I spoke of history in an earlier lecture as a dialogue between past and present, I should rather have called it a dialogue between the events of the past and progressively emerging future ends. The historian's interpretation of the past, his selection of the significant and the relevant, evolves with the progressive emergence of new goals. To take the simplest of all illustrations, so long as the main goal appeared to be the organisation of constitutional liberties and political rights, the historian interpreted the past in constitutional and political terms.3
Carr then goes on to say later:
I have still to deal with the familiar and popular objection to any theory which finds the ultimate criterion of historical judgement in the future. Such a theory, it is said, implies that success is the ultimate criterion of judgement, and that, if not whatever is, whateverwill be, is right.4
History properly sec-called can be written only by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself. The belief that we have come from somewhere is closely linked with the belief that we are going somewhere. A society which has lost belief in its capacity to progress in the future will quickly cease to concern itself with its progress in the past. As I said at the beginning of my first lecture, our view of history reflects our view of society. I now come back to my starting-point by declaring my faith in the future of society and in the future of history.5
Carr of course gives away the game at the end by talking about his “faith” in the future. In other words although he would and does deny it his position is a faith based position and even worse than that it is faith in a position that that can have and does have no evidence in support of it because it is based on an unknown future. In other words the so-called “objective” historian appeals to an unknowable entity, i.e., the “future” to justify and explain the past / present. That such a position is profoundly anti-empirical goes without saying.
What is of interest is that Carr was considered to be by many one of the foremost exponents of what is called the “Realist” school of international affairs. Basically the idea that one must be “realistic” about what is really going on in international affairs and avoid “idealistic” or ideological positions or moves in foreign affairs. What makes this rather amusing is that twice Carr’s “realism” led him to advance patently “unrealistic” and in fact utterly naïve positions regarding international affairs and politics. In both cases he advanced positions that required a studied avoidance of “realism”. Thus right until the outbreak of war in 1939 he continued to advance appeasement with Nazi Germany despite the fact that that that policy had revealed itself to be the exact opposite of a realistic foreign policy. Further his infatuation with the Soviet Union under Stalin was anything but “realistic”. It was clearly based on ideological, pie in the sky hopes.6
Saying that you believe in “progress” doesn’t make it a real force and neither does a hypothetical nonexistent future explain the past.
Carr more or less admits that his position is faith based and he believes it because he wants to believe it. That there is no empirical evidence for it seems to be beside the point with him. But of course what it does is remove from the argument any attempt by Carr to claim, and he does claim, that his position is even remotely “objective” it is in fact theological. And Carr’s definition of “objective” is in effect a redefinition that defines a teleological, theological position has “objective”.
Carr’s attempts to justify himself by arguing that past historians have implicitly or explicitly accepted a “meaning” to history serves to merely show that others shared this delusion; not that “History” having a meaning or purpose / goal is real. Finally his comment that History can only be written by those who find a goal or purpose in it may speak for himself but it does not speak for all historians by a long shot.
This being the case we come to Carr’s infatuation with the Soviet Union. During the Second World War Carr became a forthright enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union.7 Carr became convinced that this was indeed the future and a wonderful future it would be. The result was a plenitude of fellow travelling about Stalin’s Russia. That Russia embodied this wondrous future was of course “obvious”.
Thus it is said:
Carr acknowledged that the Victorian belief in progress had left him with a profound dislike of the pessimism, cynicism and ‘decadence’ of later generations. In a familiar way, he transferred this basic faith – and the capacity for intellectual and moral ruthlessness that went with it – from a foundering British Empire to an apparently supremely self-confident, victorious and ‘progressive’ Soviet Union. Any lingering scepticism as to whether Russia had anything to teach the West was eradicated, Haslam tells us, by the Soviet victory in World War Two. When Carr began writing his monumental History of Soviet Russia in the 1950s, the Soviet Union could be seen as a striking success story, with rising industrial output and improving living standards.8
Carr began to write books extorting and celebrating the Soviet Union and Stalin’s Russia.9 Carr seriously thought that the Soviet Union under Stalin had “Freedom” and “Democracy”. Thus Carr studiously avoided the vast literature that demonstrated without a shadow of doubt, the totalitarian, brutal and autocratic nature of the Soviet state under Stalin. Such intellectual discipline required a very high level of carefully screening his mind from the implications of the material he was reading.
Eventually Carr wrote over a period of 28 years a massive history of the Soviet Union in 14 volumes. It is frankly from the point of view of writing both pedantic and dull. It has all the feel of being in a mold and having wet concrete poured on you. I don’t recommend that anyone try to read the whole thing.10
In all 14 volumes of A History of Soviet Russia, there is with the exception of a few brief half-hearted lines very little criticism of Stalin. In fact Carr made it abundantly clear that his history was not of the Revolution but of the new political and social order that emerged from the revolution, which Carr thought in some fashion represented man’s desirable future.
The result was pages and pages about plans, relations with foreign Communist parties and inter-party struggles over this or that arcane issue relating to planning etc. The actual events of the Revolution are given short shrift and the Russian Civil war was ignored.
Into Carr’s memory hole, was dumped the Cheka and subsequent secret police forces like the NKVD. Also largely dumped except for a few brief lines were the 1921 famine, the Kronstadt revolt, and the Gulag, despite its economic importance is also almost entirely ignored. Further Carr never did get beyond 1929 and so of course did not get to deal with, or more likely ignore, the Purges and the Collectivization famine. Through it all Carr was exceptionally discrete in criticising Stalin in those volumes even in volumes published as late as 1978.
In fact the losers in the revolution were dumped into the memory hole. For what counted in Carr’s view was the establishment of a new political and social system. Which Carr did not recognize has the Totalitarian horror it was.
Carr did later in his life realize that Stalin was a brutal, vicious tyrant and that the Soviet Union under him was a tyranny. This was however much later and basically only shown by a few throw away lines. For it appears that right to the end Carr thought that in some fashion the Soviet Union represented Man’s future in a planned economy.11
All this is quite amusing. The University Don playing at being a revolutionary. But then his position in writing his series, A History of Soviet Russia, is basically writing history from the victors point of view.
To quote Isaiah Berlin:
If Mr. Carr’s remaining volumes [Berlin is reviewing the first volume of A History of Soviet Russia] equal this impressive opening they will constitute the most monumental challenge of our time to that idea of impartiality and objective truth and even handed justice in the writing of History which is most deeply embedded in the European liberal tradition.12
The British Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said:
What is the most obvious characteristic of A History of Soviet Russia? It is the author’s unhesitating identification of history with the victorious cause, his ruthless dismissal of its opponents, of its victims, and all who did not stay on, or steer the bandwagon. The ‘might-have-beens’, the deviationists, the rivals, the critics of Lenin are reduced to insignificance, denied justice, or hearing, or space, because they backed the wrong horse. History proved them wrong, and the historian’s essential task is to take the side of History. Those whom History found wanting as politicians may not be heard even as witnesses of fact, even in order to be condemned. Whatever they believed, whatever they saw, whatever they said is ignored as irrelevant. Their very voices are silenced, and silenced with contempt.
No historian since the crudest ages of clerical bigotry has treated evidence with such dogmatic ruthlessness as this. No historian, even in those ages, has exalted such dogmatism into an historiographical theory.13
Mr, Trevor-Roper states later:
Mr Carr ends his lectures with a profession of faith. In spite of all that others have said, or implied, or seem to him to have said or implied, he believes that history is the record of progress and that the historian should constantly back the forces of progress: should see them moving forward, should feel himself moving with them, and should notice and judge the past according as it moves towards him and through him to the future.14
In other words Carr was a man of faith who dumped down the memory hole that which did not support his faith. For as another writer has said:
For Carr, history was not about the past in itself nor even about how the past came to be the present, but about how it contributed to the future the historian desired.15
Carr died in 1982 at the age of 90 years and thus did not get to see that the Soviet planned economy that he believed Mankind was headed for itself disappear into the trash heap of historical failures. Carr’s teleological attempt to define history in that fashion was bluntly a failure also.
Contrary to Carr’s belief we aren’t necessarily going anywhere and such progress that we have indisputably achieved is the result of deliberate and hard human effort it is not in any sense the inevitable product of “History”. If we want things to get better we have to work damn hard at it. No “Historical” process is going to help us, no force outside of human effort and certainly no quasi-mystical force like “History”.
Finally the fact is Carr illustrates the all too common tendency to accept the sacrifice of other human beings to the altar of “inevitability” and progress. This explains why in so many respects, but especially in its omissions, his A History of Soviet Russia is an apologia for Stalinism. The irony that Carr was backing the wrong horse is almost funny except for starved and murdered millions he consigned down the memory hole. But then it is always easy to claim, implicitly or explicitly that other people’s deaths or suffering are worthwhile, presuming of course one is far away from such death and suffering and not suffering or dying oneself.
Of course Carr hitched his wagon to the horse of the inevitability of the success of the Soviet Union’s Social, Political and Economic system and did not live to find out just what a total bastard and bitch "History" could be, when it proved his faith to have been utterly misguided and false.
1. Howe, Irving, Leon Trotsky, Penguin, London, 1979, p. 198.
2. See Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994, pp. 465-484, and Wilson, Edmund, To the Finland Station, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012.
3. Carr, E. H., What is History?, Chapter 5, History as Progress, 1961, pp. 123-124.
4. IBID, p. 125.
5. IBID, p. 132.
6. See Kagan, Donald, On The Origins of War, Anchor Books, New York, 1995, pp. 281-436, Carr, E. H., The Twenty Year Crisis, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2001, (Original edition 1939)
7. Carr, E. H., The New Society, Beacon Press, London, 1957, and The Soviet Impact on the Western World, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1946, for example.
8. Lieven, Anatol, British Chill, London Review of Books, v. 22, no. 16, August 24, 2000. (Using Electronic Edition)
9. See Footnote 7.
10. Carr’s A History of Soviet Russia is as follows; The Bolshevik Revolution (3 volumes), The Interregnum (1 volume), Socialism in One Country (5 volumes), and The Foundations of a Planned Economy (5 volumes). All of the Volumes have been published by Penguin Books.
11. Footnote 8, Labedz, Leopold, A History in the Making, Times Literary Supplement, Issue 4184, June 10, 1983, London, pp. 605-607, see also Stone, Norman, Grim Eminence, London Review of Books, v. 5, no. 1, January 10, 1983. (Using Electronic Edition).
12. Evans, Richard J., In Defence of History, Second Edition, Granta Books, 2000, quoting Isaiah Berlin, p. 227.
13. Trevor, Roper, E. H. Carr’s Success Story, Encounter, v. 104, May, 1962, pp. 69-77, at pp. 75-76.
14. IBID, p. 76.
15. Evans, p. 228.