- The Vices of Integrity: E.H.Carr 1892-1928 by Jonathan Haslam
Verso, 306 pp, £25.00, July 1999, ISBN 1 85984 733 1
Three years after E.H. Carr’s death in 1982, Mikhail Gorbachev began the process which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, a development which at first sight renders Carr’s life’s work not only irrelevant but absurd, based as it was on a profound admiration for Soviet achievements. The charge of having grossly misread the nature of the Soviet system is likely to dog him in death, just as in his lifetime he could never wholly shake off that of having advocated the appeasement of Nazi Germany. What’s more, as the Soviet archives are gradually opened, they are likely to make his history of Soviet Russia seem totally obsolete.
Yet some at least of Carr’s writings remain of great or even increasing value. What is History?, for example, is still a challenge to those who believe that we cannot renounce moral judgments when writing history. More important, Carr was one of the best and most subtle analysts of international relations from the ‘realist’ standpoint. In the face of the growing ‘swedenisation’ – sanctimoniousness tempered by cowardice – of Western policy, his astringent dissection of self-serving internationalist hypocrisy is more valuable than ever.
Jonathan Haslam’s perceptive and intelligent biography shows how much Carr’s thinking was shaped by the age into which he was born, even if he seemed on the surface to have broken utterly with his origins. ‘For all the dramatic changes that were to occur during the years that followed,’ Haslam writes, ‘in some fundamental sense throughout his life he remained “a good Victorian”.’ Carr was born in 1892, before the end of the age of British imperial splendour, optimism and pride – or arrogance – and critics often saw in his lack of humanity a particularly British attitude towards other, lesser nations. Edmund Wilson, in a review of Bakunin (1937), wrote of Carr’s ‘amused condescension’ to his 19th-century Russian liberal and revolutionary subjects, and of his ‘never intermitting British chill, which is always putting Bakunin in his place’.
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.
Born into the middle class, he acquired his patrician frame of mind from his time first at Cambridge and then at the Foreign Office, where he served in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the Times. Before the First World War, no one from his background could have hoped for a diplomatic career, but the deaths of the sons of the aristocracy in the trenches produced an acute shortage of junior diplomats. In 1916, Carr – certified unfit for military service because of a weak heart – was drafted into the Foreign Office as a ‘temporary clerk’. In this capacity he attended the Congress of Versailles.
Had he been born a couple of generations earlier, he would almost certainly have been a confident liberal imperialist; a couple of generations later, and he’d surely have been a free-marketeer, sneering from a seat in the House of Lords at those who point to the harmful effects of globalisation on weaker individuals and more fragile societies. He certainly had little sympathy for the oppressed, let alone the proletariat. He was also never a Marxist, and in that and other ways was a curious recruit to the camp of Soviet sympathisers and a curious friend and ally of convinced Marxists such as Isaac Deutscher. Carr repeatedly drew parallels between the crimes and achievements of the Soviet and the Western systems, pointing to the human costs of Western industrialisation, and the cruelty of Western colonialism. In the end, he was prepared to justify both sets of crimes by the ‘progress’ that they had brought about (a position close to that of Marx on imperialism). He described the Russian and Ukrainian peasantry, for example, as ‘a primitive, cunning, ignorant and brutish lot’, who required a ‘progressive’ but firmly authoritarian hand to raise them from the slime, and was as unlikely to see anything wrong in the Soviet suppression of minority cultures as to condemn British or French destruction of the ancient traditions of the Indians or Vietnamese. A – rather distant – sympathy for colonised peoples in their uprisings against European imperialism came much later, and was mainly an outgrowth of his increasing hatred of Western hypocrisy during the Cold War.
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Vol. 22 No. 17 · 7 September 2000
Anatol Lieven (LRB, 24 August) does not present a fair picture of E.H. Carr. Having failed to mention some of Carr’s most important and influential work – The Romantic Exiles, Bakunin, Conditions of Peace and The New Society – he goes on to engage in amateur psychological speculation about what he detects as a connection between the ‘slipperiness’ in Carr’s personal life and his views on Stalin’s annexationist policies towards the Baltic states. Carr did not need to be leading a slippery personal life (and wasn’t) in order to justify Stalin’s unjustifiable takeover of Eastern Europe. Nor is there any concrete evidence, as far as I know, that he was a wife-chasing Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth in the 1940s, as alleged by Lieven. For one thing, he was hardly ever there after 1939 – much to the chagrin of the university’s president, Lord David Davies. By then, his first marriage was breaking down and he became involved with a woman who had fallen out of love with her husband, who happened to be the Professor of Geography. This hardly makes Carr the Don Juan of West Wales.
Lieven gets one or two other things wrong as well. Carr did visit Germany during the Nazi period: in fact, he gave a revealing lecture on the subject to Chatham House in 1937. He was also a serving diplomat in Latvia in the 1920s – not, as Lieven says, in ‘the 1930s’ – where, by the way, he did not much like the ‘expats’ or the Russian exiles with whom Lieven says he associated. He spent most of his time in Riga learning Russian, studying the Russian classics and reading Dostoevsky – the subject of his first book, published in 1931. Then there is the vexed question of Carr’s much criticised views on the Soviet Union. These were far more complex than Lieven implies. He clearly believed that great economic strides had been made in the USSR; he also defended the country from its critics during the Cold War. But he was not an apologist for the Soviet system, and, as he grew older, became increasingly critical of the USSR – from a left-wing perspective. Furthermore, though he agreed with de Tocqueville that revolutions often changed less than they set out to, he did not think the Soviet Union was ‘merely the geopolitical extension of imperial Russia’, as Lieven argues. If he had, why would he have viewed the 1917 Revolution as the most important event of the 20th century and spent more than forty years of his life analysing the USSR? Why, moreover, would he have spent too much of that time analysing that most Soviet and not ‘Russian’ of institutions, the Communist International? Finally, his views on appeasement were undoubtedly questionable (though standard fare in the Foreign Office) but this hardly makes his observations on the interwar period worthless. The briefest flick through his extensive writings on these years reveals that he was a most punctilious and fair-minded observer.
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
Vol. 22 No. 18 · 21 September 2000
Anatol Lieven’s review of Jonathan Haslam’s biography of E.H. Carr (LRB, 24 August) contains the gratuitous neologism of ‘swedenisation’, defined as ‘sanctimoniousness tempered by cowardice’. I take this to be a slur on the people and policy of an entire country, rather than an attack on my family or myself.
Vol. 22 No. 19 · 5 October 2000
Far from suggesting that E.H. Carr’s observations on the interwar period were worthless, as Michael Cox suggests (Letters, 7 September), I spent much of my essay pointing out that aspects of them are of great and indeed increasing value.
On Carr’s character, I was careful to say that his love affairs ‘aren’t so very shocking sixty years later’, and that what stands out from his personal life is not sexual voracity, but its deeply depressing character. As to the connection between emotional coldness and evasiveness in Carr’s character and aspects of his work, I am no friend to pop psychologising, but any biographer worth their salt must make some attempt to draw a picture of their subject as a whole person, and to look for some of the roots of their work in their character and upbringing.
Carr’s personal distance from the subjects of his writing is not open to dispute. Yes, he made very brief visits to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but his experience of these countries was wholly inadequate to give him any real understanding; and even more culpably, he also failed to draw on the accounts of people who had experienced these systems at first hand.
Cox writes that, ‘Carr was not an apologist for the Soviet system.’ For many years that is exactly what he was. It’s true that his views evolved over time, and The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, published at the end of his life, is a great improvement on his earlier work when it comes to a recognition of Stalin’s crimes. But this change was made slowly, unwillingly and in response to both well grounded criticism and the increasingly obvious failures of the Soviet system. It may be true that he recognised these failures sooner than some left-wing analysts, but is that great cause for congratulation? Rather than a ‘most punctilious and fair-minded observer’, Carr was a polemicist through and through, and a brilliant one. It’s what made him such a natural leader writer, and it is what makes many of his writings such fun to read even when you profoundly disagree with them.
Vol. 22 No. 20 · 19 October 2000
In view of the recent interest in both A.J.P. Taylor and E.H. Carr in the LRB and elsewhere, it may be worth my putting on record what the second of those eminent historians once said to me about the first: ‘He started by believing that the Germans were responsible for everything; then he decided that the Germans were responsible for nothing; then he decided that nobody was responsible for anything.’
Trinity College, Cambridge