British Chill

Anatol Lieven

  • 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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