The name E H Carr still provokes varied responses reflective of the many aspects of his career. For graduate students, his influential essay What is History? (1961) was requisite reading on British historical practice. For the specialist in Soviet affairs, Carr's voluminous history of Soviet Russia immediately comes to mind. And the more dramatically minded will be inclined to remember Carr's 1933 depiction of the exiled Russian socialist, Alexander Herzen, in The Romantic Exiles.
In this thorough, if sometimes apologetic, biography, Jonathan Haslam chronicles the psychological and intellectual development behind this body of work, as well as Carr's quixotic affinity for the Russian revolution and what some maintain to be a lifelong intellectual effort to distance himself and his work from the violent, despotic nature of the Soviet regime.
Born into comfortable middle class surroundings in Upper Holloway, north of London, Edward Hallett Carr was a child of great intellectual promise and social underachievement. His early studies as a Classics scholar at Cambridge were interrupted by a stint in the British Foreign Office during the First World War. There his interest in Russia was awakened by the Bolshevik takeover.
"It was the Russian revolution which decisively gave me a sense of history which I never lost and which turned me into a historian," he later commented (p 20). Over the next two decades, he would rise through the ranks of the foreign service before becoming a commentator, reviewer and finally a historian of Soviet affairs.
Carr's first widely noted historical text, The Twenty Years' Crisis, which appeared in 1939, presented a powerful argument for appeasement of Nazi Germany based on its victimization after the First World War. Released just before the invasion of Poland in September of that year, Carr's book revealed a total misreading of Hitler as someone who could actually be appeased. "It leaves you in a moral vacuum and at a political dead point," wrote historian Arnold Toynbee after its publication (p 81). Yet, such miscalculations of dictators and despots would plague Carr's political commentary and historical work for the remainder of his intellectual career.
Amazingly, Carr's next assignment came from The Times, where he spent most of the war as an editorial writer. His pro-Nazi stance soon transformed into a pro-Soviet position as the Russian army advanced westward. And, as Haslam notes, the streak of political realism that misled Carr in the 1930s had been replaced by a similar streak of idealism that would mislead him in the 1940s and beyond.
Having learned little from the lessons of totalitarian regimes and the process by which they maintain power, his pontifications on growing popular support for the Soviets in Eastern Europe and Greece toward the end of the Second World War were supported by false and sometimes deliberately misleading information, infuriating Churchill and The Times's establishment, which was regarded by most foreign diplomats as the official platform of the British government.
From Lenin through Stalin
Energized by the Russian contribution to the allied victory, the now very controversial Carr left the newspaper in 1946 to begin what would be his magnum opus: a history of the Soviet Union from Lenin's revolution through Stalin, a body of work he anticipated would be "not only exciting in itself, but full of lessons and warnings for the rest of the world" (p 135).
Originally envisioned as a three-year project, A History of the Soviet Union, as it finally came to be known, evolved into an intellectual farrago, eventually growing to 14 volumes that would draw Carr down "innumerable obscure, untrodden paths" for the next 30 years (p 135).
The centerpiece of Haslam's biography, covering roughly seven out of eleven chapters, is devoted to these "obscure, untrodden paths" traveled by a man even his admirers (the author included) found to be personally and intellectually isolated from the world.
The eternal outsider
It quickly becomes evident that other than a lifelong predilection for countering prevailing opinion, Carr lacked any real ideological or moral conviction. He was neither pro-German nor a Marxist but simply bitter toward the bourgeois class from which he sprang, an eternal outsider taking solace in the politics of any social change that might usurp these values.
As the pen never strays too far from the personality, readers will not be surprised to find Carr's A History of Soviet Russia rather odd, completely devoid of a human element, stuffy, uninteresting, abstract in the most literal sense and at times just plain pretentious.
Even more damaging, the barbarities of Lenin and Stalin are simply overlooked as decrees, ideological shifts or reforms, just as the various famines, political and ethnic purges are brushed aside as what Carr deems "unestimateable" occurrences. Such gaps limited the value of the multi-volume work and, as even Carr would concede, reduce his life devotion to a bloated piece of reference material.
To his credit, Haslam—one of Carr's former students and now himself a respected historian on Soviet foreign policy—makes the most of the limited sources his subject left behind. While relying mainly on a small body of personal papers, as well as family members and colleagues, he has produced an unbiased portrait of an enigmatic and somewhat unlikeable figure, who has been previously known in only the vaguest of outlines.
Carr would live out the remainder of his life as a Fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge, constantly quarreling and convinced of capitalism's imminent demise. He died of cancer on 5 November 1982. In a final piece of irony lost on his biographer, his death was largely overshadowed by the death of Leonid Brezhnev just days later. Had Carr lived long enough to see the passing of the old guard, one wonders what he would have turned to when the revolution he believed to be the true carrier of the world's future vanished without a trace just a few short years later.
Rob Stout, 27 November 2000
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