Unreal Realism

March 1, 2000 Topics: Society Tags: RealismAcademiaSeptember 11 AttacksSpies

Unreal Realism

Mini Teaser: A realist with a penchant for being spectacularly mistaken.

by Author(s): Terence Emmons

Jonathan Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982 (New York: Verso, 1999), 240 pp., $35.

Before you study the history, study the historian. . . . Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment." This advice has been taken up and applied with excellent results to its source, E.H. Carr (1892-1982), one of twentieth-century Britain's most prominent historians and public intellectuals, by Jonathan Haslam, who was a research associate of Carr's during the last decade of the indefatigable historian's long life. Excellent results, that is, for our understanding of this unusually complicated and highly individualistic historian, but also for our understanding of his times, for Carr truly was a product of his historical and social environment. His is a cautionary tale about ideology and power, and a significant chapter in the story of the Soviet impact on the Western world.

In his once widely cited 1962 lectures on What is History?, Carr gave a summary definition of history as a "dialogue between the events of the past and progressively emerging future ends." The historian who has a "long-term vision over the past and over the future", who "approaches towards the understanding of the future", can aspire to durability and approach "objectivity." A daunting task, no doubt, but an important one, for the function of history is not only to understand the past, but to "increase [man's] mastery over the society of the present." Add to this the eloquent subscription to "History as Progress" and we have a key to Carr's intellectual biography and to his achievement as a historian.

Edward Hallett Carr, author of The Twenty Years' Crisis, the immense History of Soviet Russia, What is History? and much else, was born into a modest, but well-educated, middle-class Victorian business family in the north of London. He was educated on a scholarship at Merchant Taylors' day school in central London, where he excelled, especially in Greek, and gained a reputation as a standoffish nerd. By this time, he had become a fervent supporter of the free-trade, social reform liberalism of Lloyd George.

Exempted from military call-up in World War I by a bout of rheumatic fever in his early college years, he was drafted into the Foreign Office upon graduating from Cambridge with distinction in June 1916. Carr was to remain in the foreign service for twenty years. Russia, the country to whose history his later work as historian would be principally devoted, first came to his attention in connection with his department's work in supplying Britain's wartime allies, and then, after the October Revolution, in the matter of keeping supplies out of the hands of the Bolsheviks. Carr, innocent of the Russian language, went with the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference as a "Russian expert" and remained there until 1921. From late 1921 through 1924 he was back in London, and in 1925 he was posted as second secretary to the British legation in Riga, Latvia, where he remained until he was returned to the Foreign Office in March 1929. Inundated with Russian émigrés, Riga after the war was the main Western listening post for Soviet developments. It was here that Carr took up the study of the Russian language and began the preoccupation with Russia that dominated much of the rest of his life.

The first fruits of Carr's independent Russian studies were books on several great nineteenth-century Russian figures--Dostoevsky, Herzen, and Bakunin--each famous in his own way for that questioning of conventional values and rejection of the juste milieu that was the hallmark of the Russian intelligentsia. Long since outdated, these books remain instructive about their author. Haslam argues persuasively that Carr's biographies of these radical individualists--ironical, detached and disinclined to take seriously the role of ideas in their lives--helped to liberate the historian from his own upbringing and received beliefs--helped, in other words, to turn him into the radical individualist that he would remain for the rest of his life. They also demonstrate Carr's dissatisfaction with his career in the Foreign Office, which he left in 1936.

By this time, his preoccupation with international affairs had taken over. Carr's observations of the great powers' behavior at the Paris Peace Conference and then at the League of Nations in Geneva undermined his early belief in a natural concert of nations and a liberal economic order guided by the unseen hand. He was disenchanted by the victorious Allies' inability to provide a just and prosperous peace, and at Geneva he came to the conclusion that free trade, the cornerstone of his liberalism, was simply "the doctrine of economically powerful states which flourished without protection." The Great Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic morass in Europe clinched the case. But Carr did not yield to cultural pessimism as did so many of his generation. Rather, he held tenaciously to the belief in progress that he had inherited from his nineteenth-century upbringing by gradually abandoning liberalism: he traded the "utopianism" of his earlier view of international relations for a hardheaded realism, and he replaced a liberal view of the future with a socialist one.

After his resignation from the Foreign Office, Carr competed for, and won, an appointment to the prestigious but geographically remote Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics at Aberystwyth, Wales, and began a long association with the BBC as a "talking head" on international affairs. He also became active in the affairs of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

From these pulpits, Carr, arguing from his new "realist" perspective, proceeded to condemn the Versailles settlement of 1919 and, with the 1936 German reoccupation of the Rhineland, became an outspoken advocate of appeasement toward Hitler, up to and including approval of the Munich agreement in 1938. He dismissed the sanctity of imposed treaties that did not reflect the realities of power. The rise of nationalism that brought Hitler to power was a natural, indeed healthy, response to the humiliation of Versailles, a sign of national vitality, and German expansionism under Hitler was compatible with the realities of Germany's dominant position in Central Europe. The culmination of this line of reasoning was Carr's book, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939, which he finished on the very eve of the war. It was, as Haslam notes, "a devastating polemic directed against the ideals that overlay the Versailles peace settlement and were epitomized in the League of Nations; a polemic all the more acute for the fact that these ideals were once his own." He intended this book "to do for the understanding of international politics what Machiavelli had done for domestic politics; quite consciously so." The "crisis" of the title was that produced by the confrontation between the utopianism of the interwar collective security arrangements and the reality of German power. His case for appeasement was based on what he believed to be "the fact that some nations desire to maintain the status quo without having to fight for it, and others to change the status quo without having to fight in order to do so." It was Carr's most famous work, and it became a classic of international relations theory in the postwar years when realism came to dominate this new discipline, despite its by then embarrassing endorsement of the Munich agreement as a model for negotiating peaceful change (the passage was omitted from later editions). As a firm believer in progress, Carr did not deny a role to "utopianism" in international relations: it was always present in the defining of foreign policy goals. His bugbear was the neglect of power in their pursuit.

In working up his highly personal vision of the collectivist future, Carr never became a real Marxist, although he was led to read Marx and even to write a rather superficial biography of him. He never accepted the idea that the class struggle, or more broadly the antagonism between haves and have-nots, was the main force in history. Unlike many British intellectuals of the next generation, he was too much the nineteenth-century empiricist and individualist to have become a party line-hewing communist in the 1930s. Carr was inclined to see the Soviet and fascist states as mere variations on the same model, characterized by the "supersession of laissez faire by State capitalism." He saw this as "a world-wide phenomenon of which the totalitarian states are the most complete and uncompromising expression." The social planning going on in the Western democracies belonged to the same order of phenomena. His interest in and enthusiasm for the Soviet system, especially once it had graduated from plans for world revolution to building "socialism in one country" grew apace.

But as between the fascist and communist variants, the Carr of the late 1930s clearly preferred Germany. He had tasted a bit of Soviet reality in a short trip to Leningrad and Moscow in the terrible year of 1937, which along with the reports of the Terror in the press made Germany look good by comparison. In retrospect, Carr's indifference to the brutalities of the totalitarian states, and more generally to the implications for human rights in the runaway expansion of state control in these countries, seems amazing. He appears to have been blinded by his quasi-Hegelian confidence that he understood the nature and direction of the historical process, and, as his biographer suggests, perhaps to some extent by an assumption that a future collectivist order in a country like Britain would be rendered more humane by its indigenous liberal tradition.

Such was the climate of opinion in the British establishment that Carr's stand on appeasement right up to the outbreak of the war did no damage to his reputation as an international affairs pundit during the war. After a brief stint in charge of foreign propaganda at the Ministry of Information, he obtained an appointment as an assistant editor and leading writer on international developments at the ultra-establishmentarian Times. And he continued his association with the BBC. The war basically reinforced Carr's views on collectivism, and at the Times he proceeded to outline a postwar world in which war and unemployment would be avoided through European integration, which in practice would mean rejection of the principle of self-determination for small countries.

True to his ruthless "realism" vis-ˆ-vis the small states of Europe, Carr had essentially written off the Baltics to Russia at the time of their occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, and was busy assigning Eastern Europe to a postwar Soviet sphere of influence. The emerging Soviet victory in the war only made this the more "realistic." It seems more than likely, as Haslam remarks, that Carr had no conception of the true implications of the policies he recommended for the inhabitants of these countries. On the other hand, the stakes were, in his mind, probably high enough to justify almost any cost: a British condominium with Russia "assuming British predominance over western Europe as a quid pro quo for Soviet dominance over the east." Only in this way could Germany be restrained (and Britain's status as a great power maintained). There was no need to worry about Russian expansionism or the promotion of communism: Russia's interests (it was always "Russia" for Carr, not "the Soviet Union") were essentially defensive and security-minded, as the Soviet regime had abandoned its world revolutionary project in favor of concentration on domestic modernization.

The corollary of this view was that the United States was primarily responsible for the Cold War. Haslam writes that Carr's anti-Americanism (which did not prevent him from accepting several Rockefeller Foundation grants) seems to have been rooted, like that of many postwar French intellectuals, more in fear of succumbing to U.S. predominance than in ideology. Carr made several research trips to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, but they apparently did nothing to cause him to re-examine his views. In his writing, he tended to equate McCarthyism with Stalinism.

By 1944 the Soviet Union had passed the ultimate realist test of war and was emerging as the greatest power on the continent. Its performance in the war revived Carr's confidence in the positive, progressive nature of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment as a whole. "I came to feel", he recalled much later in Hegelian mode, "that my preoccupation with the purges and brutalities of Stalinism had distorted my perspective. The black spots were real enough, but looking exclusively at them destroyed one's vision of what was really happening. . . . I became increasingly interested in what the Russians had done, and how far this had any lessons for western society."

He took up the question of lessons in the 1946 Oxford University Carpenter Lectures, which were published as a book, The Soviet Impact on the Western World, the same year.

The rest of Carr's career is in a sense anti-climactic. He became increasingly engrossed in the details of early Soviet history, which eventually yielded not one, but fourteen volumes, and even then covering developments only up to 1929. It was a unique, very mixed achievement. By far the most detailed history of the first dozen years of the Soviet Union in any language, it was mostly restricted to the history of policy debates within the Bolshevik elite and to the institutional aspects of their rule--to "documenting the regime's activities in its own terms", as Haslam succinctly puts it. Beginning with broader chronological scope in mind, Carr eventually decided that the documentation needed for his kind of work ceased to exist with the firm establishment of Stalin's dictatorship, that is, by 1930. By this time, moreover, the main features of the Soviet order as they would exist until the time of Gorbachev were already in place.

The main story line is how the Bolshevik revolution came to be transformed from a launching pad for world revolution into an industrialization project for a single country. As he dug deeper into the documents, Carr's views of this process changed considerably. He began by assuming the primacy of politics--another Russian "revolution from above" in a tradition going back to Peter the Great--but eventually came to the conclusion that the Soviet story was really about improvisation, centering around the functioning of the economy. The role of ideology was largely discounted. Correspondingly, Carr gradually abandoned the notion that Soviet Russia held lessons for the West, but he replaced it with the view that its experience was a model and inspiration for the East; that is, for the modernization of traditional societies. So in the end, the progressive role of the Bolshevik revolution in history was preserved, as part and parcel of his fundamental belief in the overall progressive direction of history.

Carr's History received mixed reviews from the beginning. It was pegged, depending on the politics of the critic, as either whig history applied to the Bolsheviks or outright pro-Soviet apologetics. Where was the story of the civil war, and why was the great famine of 1921-22, with its millions of deaths resulting from Bolshevik policy, barely mentioned? Yet it was on the whole recognized by most scholars as a serious contribution to historical knowledge. Although it was in a broad historical sense "pro-Soviet", the work was anathema in the Soviet Union: it did not hew to the official party line and, most importantly, it mentioned various "unpersons" of the 1920s, most notably Trotsky.

The impact of Carr's Soviet work on American scholarship on Russia is not easy to assess. Its discontinuities, both chronological and thematic, and the slow cadence of the appearance of its volumes, prompted students cramming for exams and instructors cribbing lecture notes to look elsewhere for more comprehensive and coherent (even if in some respects no less tendentious) treatments of Soviet history. With the appearance of these works, Carr's work on early Soviet history faded from the mental horizon of American Russian scholarship. With the vogue of "social history" or "history from the bottom up" that came to the fore as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, scholarly attention was largely diverted from high politics and foreign policy, the main focus of Carr's narrative. His work continued to be cited in bibliographies and to be mined by specialists, but his name is barely mentioned in the debates of the 1970s and 1980s over whether October 1917 was a revolution of the masses or a coup d'Žtat; whether Stalin was Lenin's rightful heir or a "betrayer of the revolution"; whether his "great turn" at the end of the 1920s was "revolution from above" or "revolution from below." In Martin Malia's recent interpretation of Soviet history, The Soviet Tragedy, Carr's Soviet work is mentioned only a couple of times in passing.

Carr's historical views were complicated and paradoxical, the product, ultimately, as his biographer points out, of the tension between "utopia and reality" in his intellectual make-up. He was at once a hard-headed rationalist and a moralist. His friend Lewis Namier called him a romantic. Of course, broad historical interpretations as a rule draw on moralizing impulses. Carr's historical erudition and insight were in many respects remarkable, but from today's perspective many of his historical judgments--about Stalin and Hitler, about the Soviet experience as a whole--look quixotic if not downright wrongheaded.

Such is the lot, generally, of those who have the intellectual hubris to think they know where History is going, and there was plenty of that in E.H. Carr. Two other things, in particular, helped to skew his vision of contemporary history: his tendency to ignore the very significant role of ideology in twentieth-century history; and, specifically in regard to Soviet history, an apparently superficial knowledge of pre-revolutionary Russia, which caused him to overestimate the modernizing achievements of the Bolsheviks and to underestimate the toll those achievements took in human lives.

Carr's biographer describes his protagonist as an outsider, yet the positions he occupied in the British Establishment--ranking position in the Foreign Office, holder of a coveted chair, editor at the Times, perennial BBC commentator, senior fellow of Trinity College, and so on--belie such a notion. Moreover, he enjoyed at least respectful relations with many prominent members of the intellectual elite, including Lewis Namier, A.J.P. Taylor and Isaiah Berlin. Until several decades after World War II, Carr's views on such things as appeasement (toward the Soviet Union if not, in retrospect, toward Nazi Germany), the anticipated collapse of capitalism and the Soviet experiment were hardly those of a maverick. When Ved Mehta made the rounds of British intellectuals in 1961-62 for his delightful New Yorker articles, Carr was there, giving and receiving the acid, yet civilized, barbs with the rest of them, one set of highly individualistic opinions among many. It was only fairly late--after the reforming impulses of the Khrushchev years had run out of gas and, one suspects, after the events of 1968 in Prague brought home as nothing before the nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the East European countries--that Carr's sometime contribution to these arrangements and his persistent refusal to revise significantly his views on Soviet domination of the region led to isolation and the expression of outright hostility toward his historical and political views. One has only to compare the rather light-minded discourse of the early 1960s, as reported by Mehta, to the posthumous all-out attacks on Carr's intellect and character, disguised as reviews of his last book, by Leopold Labedz and Norman Stone, to appreciate how times had changed.

Haslam tells, in as much detail as his elusive subject permits, the story of Carr's personal life. He was a person of very strong emotions who was fated, perhaps by the peculiarities of his childhood upbringing, to be unable to share them with others. The result was three rather long and tortuous marriages into each of which Carr entered out of a strong need for feminine love and comfort, but which he was unable to sustain on his side. His response to the emotional conflicts that gradually but inevitably developed in each relationship was to isolate himself, thus sending the relationship into a downward spiral. It is a pathetic, but very human story, humanely told, and the more obvious connections between the intellectual and affective sides of Carr's life are spelled out without resort to psychohistorical speculation.

Essay Types: Book Review