History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is history? •

What is history?

Book cover: What is History?

Book Review


E.H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal

Michael Cox (ed.)
Palgrave, 2000 pp. xxii, 352

Alun Munslow

University of Staffordshire

In this book we have a collection in fifteen chapters addressing the life and work of the British born historian of international relations Edward Hallet Carr (1892-1982). There is also an introductory section by Carr (obviously written for another purpose) and two appendices on the chronology of his life and work and his papers. By and large the collection offers a profitable critical appraisal of one of the leading and most influential of British historians of the mid-Twentieth Century. Carr's life is well recorded. A bright schoolboy in London and then winning a double-first in classics from Cambridge, an early career in the Foreign Office including a CBE for his work at the Peace Conference (1920), a posting to Russia, a 1936 appointment as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth, assistant editor of The Times, and then Fellowships at Cambridge where he was at his death.

As the book jacket blurb says Carr had several careers pursued in parallel: journalist, Civil Servant Mandarin, biographer, historian, and historiographer/philosopher of history. To most historians Carr is best known for writing A History of Soviet Russia in fourteen volumes produced over a twenty-eight year period beginning in 1950 and for his enormously popular and cogent What is History? the book version of the G.M. Trevelyan Lectures he delivered at the University of Cambridge in early 1961. It was his own judgement that his intellectual and ideological journey took him a long way from the immature liberalism of his younger days to his later leftist political radicalism. This early position was soon tempered by his Russian experiences and the writing his first book a study of Dostoevsky (1931). Combining a writing career with progress in the FO Carr became a First Secretary in 1933 the year in which he also published a book on Alexander Herzen and his circle (The Romantic Exiles). Through his interest in Bakunin, Carr's intellectual journey brought him into contact with Marx. In 1934 he published Karl Marx: A Study in Fascism. In 1939 he produced a primer on IR The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. The coming of the Second World War as he said 'numbed the thinking process' (p. xix) but eventually produced what he described as the 'highly utopian' Conditions of Peace (1942) in which he critiqued laissez-faire liberal economics. The first glimmerings of socialism if not Marxism were apparent.

With the rise of the Churchill-inspired Cold War Carr produced a series of Oxford lectures later published as The Soviet Impact on the Western World (1946). Around that time he determined to write a history of the Russian Revolution and subsequent events. This resulted in starting his expansive and generous multi-volume study A History of Soviet Russia. Perhaps, given the context of his subject matter and the Cold War environment he was increasingly seen as an apologist for the USSR and its policies. But, far more importantly from today's perspective he was also (inevitably for a bright historian?) thinking carefully (throughout the 1950's) on the nature of history and the connection between the past and the present, a rumination that has been taken as a licence to be subjective (see Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History [2001]: 44-45).

Professor Cox's volume does very good justice to a man of enormous professional and intellectual range. The collection is divided into four sections dealing each in turn with Carr's life and times, the Russian question, international relations and What is History? The Introduction by the editor is particularly helpful, especially to those Carr novices who will turn to the book (in quite large numbers I hope and suspect) to find out about the Great Man. Professor Cox carefully links the man and the career. He connects the passion and the history written. He couples the historian to the foundation of international relations as an academic discipline. Carr's views on world politics are explained as are his controversial attitude at various times to Germany and the Soviet Union, the West, the USA and capitalism, and his generally dissenting political positions. Professor Cox asks how we should judge Carr? Was he, as his critics suggest, just a man of his times, now nothing more than a curio? A historian always associated with a failed economic and political system? Literally, perhaps, he was the Last Man, and was the last author of a certain kind of history? Or should he be seen as an historian whose influence over (the discipline of?) IR is greater now than it has ever been, and whose views on the nature of history are even more pertinent today especially in the face of the continued postmodern threat (as perpetually denounced by various know-nothing historians like Marwick)? This book will certainly help its readers to make up their own minds (unless they are already made up?). In these terms I would warmly recommend all historians who care about historical thinking and practice to read this collection.

A short summary of what the reader will find may be helpful. Briefly, in the first section Jonathan Haslam, Brian Porter, and Charles Jones tell us about Carr's life up to 1946. They point up his outcast nature and career. After reading this section, I started to feel one might reasonably question the worth of the definition offered in it of an academic outcast as not being a Professor of History at Oxford or Cambridge. At any rate, Carr's search for meaning led him to a somewhat fraught eleven years at Aberystwyth while also writing pro-Russian leaders for The Times (as he became known the Red Professor of Printing House Square).

R.W. Davies (friend and collaborator of Carr), Stephen White, the editor Michael Cox and Hillel Ticktin write the second section in four chapters. This part of the collection deals with Carr's evolving attitude toward the Soviet Union within the context of the Cold War, how the Soviet Union received and responded to his work (not always favourably), his close relationship with Isaac Deutscher and an analysis of Carr's Anglo-empiricist Marxism.

The third section written in five chapters by Peter Wilson, Paul Rich, Tim Dunne, Andrew Linklater and Fred Halliday, speaks to Carr's contribution to the founding of the discipline of international relations. In sum, the conclusion seems to be that Carr's gift to the embryonic discipline was intellectual. Specifically, in that he had a peculiar view of the sociology of knowledge, notably in terms of his realist sense of relativism, the role of circumstance in history and of power disguised as truth. But equally Carr understood that realism was (and is?) not the only route to truth.

The final section of the book is composed of three chapters written by Anders Stephanson, Keith Jenkins and Randall Germain and examines Carr' philosophy of history. For Stephanson and Germain Carr is a problematic thinker in that he really failed to answer the questions he sets himself about history but his What is History? is still worth reading for its insights into the essential constructedness of the past as history, though be it with the aim of the pursuit of its truth. For Jenkins, who injects a disturbing and dark sense of the ultimate futility of the empirical-analytical paradigm in which Carr worked, Carr is 'out of date' (p. 319). For Jenkins (and unlike most historians, presumably including the other contributors to this collection?) the pursuit of objectivity and truth are antiquated given the nature of our postmodern condition and the effective demise of epistemology.

By his own admission (An Autobiography written for Tamara Deutscher in 1980 and reprinted in the in the first section of the collection) Carr claims to his always feeling as something of a dissident. It seems to me this can only refer to his mature ideological position as a sort of humanist (anti-Positivist) Marxist. It cannot refer to his view of history, which it has always seemed to me (as it does to Keith Jenkins the author of Chapter Fourteen), to be that of a mainstream constructionist. A constructionist historian (as I have elsewhere defined that general approach to doing history) is the kind of historian who, like Carr, believes that history is the more or less complex product of empiricism wedded to analysis, and heavily salted with social theory (evidence plus inference and a model of social change = the truth conditional historical statement/generalisation/interpretation). As Jenkins points out in this collection and in his own On 'What is History?', and as I have commented in Reappraisals in History, the confusion often arises over Carr's reputation as a radical history thinker because of his comparison with that most robust of reconstructionists (those historians who believe evidence plus inference equals history) Geoffrey Elton.

Professor Cox's collection is timely. Carr is significant precisely because he rejected the crude and unreflexive reconstructionist position so recently and loudly defended by Arthur Marwick in his The New Nature of History (Palgrave 2001). Carr argued that history is always constructed, is a discourse about the past and not a reflection of it. Carr recognised that history as a discipline does not follow the logic of discovery. This has been a position much misunderstood by the profession. Thus, both the realist philosopher of history Michael Stanford and reconstructionist historian Arthur Marwick emphasised Carr's judgement that the answer to the question What is History? is that it is the result of the interaction between the historian and his facts, a perpetual dialogue between the present and the past. This is a point also noted by several of the contributors to this collection. Though hardly an original thought (check out much of the anti-epistemology thinking about history from Kant through Hegel to Vaihinger, Croce, Collingwood, Oakeshott, etc) it has seemed novel enough for most historians in the forty years or so since his re-thinking of what history might be about. The fact that such a small tweaking of the epistemological position produced such notoriety and confirmed in his own mind that he was a dissident really does surprise Jenkins. But what surprises me, and it is my only critical commentary on the collection, is that more of the contributors don't make similar arguments.

This comment is a reflection on the state of history thinking today. With our heightened consciousness about the deconstructed nature of the past as history (doubts about representation, the knowing subject, referentiality, inductive inference, the truth conditional statement, the pivotal epistemological position of agency) to talk about any major historical thinker (and perhaps Carr of all historians) without more broadly acknowledging their intellectual contribution to the early phases of this debate is an oversight.

Carr is, for me, perhaps one of the two or three leading historians of the last century. This is evidenced by the variety of ways in which he has been evaluated and consistently vilified by hard-core and unthinking empiricists. The simple point about Carr was that he signposted the failings of a Rankean approach to the past. As one of our leading political constructionist historians it is often what he did not say and that he did not follow up his insights that often surprises me. His scepticism about the nature and status of historical knowledge, his sociology of knowledge if you like, is summarised in his view that ideology 'is the point where history and politics meet' (from a 1975 review by Carr in the TLS quoted by Thomas Smith, History and International Relations, Routledge, 1999, p. 53). This echoes his epistemological position first revealed most cogently in his judgement that the distinction of the observer and the observed is facile and misleading.

In other words, Carr was moving toward the view that meaning is not given to us through an empirical knowledge of the past event. But he was not intellectually equipped to face what was about to happen to historical studies, viz., the postmodern challenge to the clear distinction between fact and fiction as we write our historical narratives, and the cognitive power of root metaphors (metaphors taken as the models of arguments and explanations). That Stephen C. Pepper had written extensively about this in the early 1940's (World Hypotheses, University of California Press, 1942) and it had not come to Carr's attention is not something for which he could be blamed. But I do believe what has happened subsequently (in our post-epistemology world) does add up to a more basic critique of historical knowledge than Carr imagined in What is History? The new legitimacy given to epistemic relativism these days can make Carr's contribution seem lightweight. As Jenkins argued in his 1995 book On 'What is History?' and again in his chapter in this collection, Carr accepts the epistemological model of historical explanation (Jenkins 1995: 1-6, 43-63). This substantially reduces the value of what he had to say for today's more world-weary reader (Munslow, 'E.H. Carr' in The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies, Routledge, 2000).

Having said that, the vitriol still poured on Carr's head by the likes of Arthur Marwick in the latest incarnation of his book on the nature of history, reveals that Carr the philosopher of history remains a dangerous thinker. Of course, it also demonstrates the antediluvian nature of much history thinking today among those who regard themselves as the only historians who know what is proper and what is not in doing history. Carr's critique of realism was and is clearly sophisticated enough to set on edge the teeth of reconstructionist historians everywhere.

Carr's legacy in terms of being a historian who seriously thought about what it is that historians do, can be judged from what he said in What is History? about the standards deployed by the historian to do history. In seeking objective knowing Carr argued the historian must have an end in view and be willing to use theory. The historian must also recognise there are no absolutes in doing history apart from the certainty that all is relative. This is not to suggest every interpretation is as good as any other, but that each can only be judged by the 'sense of direction' of the historian producing it (What is History?: 122). This sense of direction can be seen not just in getting the facts right, but in each historian having a judgement as to the ultimate nature of their 'long-term vision over the past and over the future' (ibid., 123). To my mind this is an early and telling engagement with the complexities of what historians do. It is this that makes Carr still worthy of collections such as Professor Cox's. I warmly recommend this collection to all historians interested in what is history?

October 2001

Back to reviews index

Back to top