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.
Carr’s upbringing stamped him with a permanent contempt for smaller nations, or ‘lesser breeds’, and for losers. ‘The popular paraphrase “Might is Right”,’ he wrote in The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939), ‘is misleading only if we attach too restricted a meaning to the word “Might”. History creates rights, and therefore Right. The doctrine of the survival of the fittest proves that the survivor was, in fact, the fittest to survive.’ His sympathy with Nazism and then Communism was due in part to his living at a time when the Western progressive tradition had split. Its liberal and constitutional wing was weak and discredited; the Soviet branch of its socialist wing meanwhile had achieved a level of savagery never used by capitalist states against their own people (though frequently employed in the colonies). Endowed with the ruthlessness that so often goes with the idea of ‘progress’ as defined in economic terms, Carr was drawn to the most apparently successful and ruthless ‘progressive’ force of his time. He hated counterfactual history and assumed, in effect, that whatever had happened was both inevitable and right. This is why he refused to contemplate any possibilities for Russia other than Bolshevism – capitalist development under some form of authoritarian state, say, or a Bukharinite peasant democracy on the Mexican model.
Carr’s upbringing also explains his faith in the Commonwealth as a great power (a ‘great multi-national agglomeration’ to set alongside those of the US and the Soviet Union), which continued in place until after 1945. In Nationalism and After, published in that year, he wrote – in terms which now sound downright touching – that ‘the world will have to accommodate itself to the emergence of a few great multinational units in which power will be mainly concentrated. Culturally, these units may best be called civilisations: there are distinctively British, American, Russian and Chinese civilisations, none of which stops short at national boundaries in the old sense.’ He was born too soon to resign himself to Britain becoming a meekly obedient subordinate to an American security system. Like Philby and other pro-Soviets of imperial pedigree, he resented British subservience to the US, and had Gaullist dreams of a Britain which could once again play a great and independent role on the world stage. As he wrote to Betty Behrens in 1968, ‘I don’t like great powers (since we ceased to be one).’
Haslam gives much space to Carr’s family life and character, but avoids any prurience or strained psychologising. I never knew Carr, and so write under correction from those who did, but he doesn’t seem to have been the monster that some critics have made him out to be (not least Norman Stone, reviewing The Twilight of Comintern in these pages in 1982). He appears to have been a dutiful and helpful teacher, though he could also be an implacable enemy. If arrogance and bloody-mindedness were strong features of his personality, they were also the reverse side of his hatred of hypocrisy, and of the courage and determination with which he stuck to arguments which were widely unpopular and which harmed him professionally. (His affairs with colleagues’ wives may have shocked Aberystwyth University in the 1940s, but they aren’t so very shocking sixty years later.)
On the other hand, his personal life had a depressing side to it. His overstrained mother farmed him out to a maiden aunt, who drove him ahead intellectually, but whose intense possessiveness smothered him emotionally. When Carr started at Cambridge, he broke with her completely, leaving her to live out the rest of her life alone. In this he had the approval of his family, but the emotional effort, and the cruelty involved, clearly scarred him, and contributed to his deep fear of feeling and its expression.
Carr needed women to love him, but found it extremely difficult to return affection, at least in any overt or consistent way. At the end of his life he wrote to Tamara Deutscher: ‘My emotional life has always been a bit askew – due, if any purpose is served by recalling this now, to my singular upbringing.’ This deficiency brought about the collapse of his three marriages, from all of which he essentially ran away. Having captured each new wife, he soon began to withdraw from them back into his work. ‘Actions,’ he said, ‘don’t matter, only states of mind.’ This, as Haslam points out, ‘was a rather convenient philosophy, because it meant no obligations’. Especially in later life, he often seems to have regarded his wives as at best secretaries. (‘As regards travel, I want to bring my wife with me; she not only looks after my material wellbeing, but seeks out books in libraries and does copying and extracting for me, thus very much lightening the load.’) At worst, they were irritating distractions.
Carr would have regarded these failings as completely irrelevant to any analysis of his work. As he put it (when speaking of the results of the Russian Revolution), ‘an English historian can praise Henry VIII without being supposed to condone the beheading of wives.’ However, it is hard not to see a fairly direct line leading from Carr’s character to his historical method. Haslam notes his ‘congenital inability to put himself in the shoes of others’, and also his tendency to rely on official documents rather than personal interviews or, indeed, the evidence of his own eyes.
Similarly, a certain slipperiness in his personal life finds an echo in his work. Carried along by the fluency and brilliance of not only his thought but his language, you are suddenly brought up short by a breathtakingly dishonest jump or elision – for example, when he implies that the pre-emptive and almost bloodless British military occupations of French Syria and Madagascar during the Second World War were morally equivalent to Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic States, a process which involved the murder or deportation of tens of thousands of people.
Carr’s early experiences at Versailles, and of the making of British foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, were the source for his most valuable work on international affairs, The Twenty Years’ Crisis. It’s important here to remember what he was reacting against. At Versailles he had witnessed the Allies’ hopeless attempts to fuse together their own national interests, the demands of their East European allies and Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism in the creation of a new European order – the first such attempt of the century. The second, after 1945, never stood a chance in the face of the hostility between the Communist and capitalist camps. The third began in 1989 and is still going on – and badly needs more Carrs to dissect its hypocrisies, dangers and self-delusions (for instance, the frequent description of Nato, or even just the USA and Britain, as ‘the international community’).
The combination at Versailles of high-flown internationalist rhetoric with the coarsest nationalist or imperialist egotism was nauseating enough, but when the only power with the capacity to guarantee the resulting ‘order’, the US, refused to make the necessary commitment, the likely consequences were obvious. Sooner or later, a really determined Germany was going to kick the whole structure over – unless, that is, Soviet Russia could be brought back into the equation to balance Germany in the East, with all the dangers this implied for the fate of the East Europeans and the interests of Western states and élites.
The Twenty Years’ Crisis is essentially a disquisition on the Utopian assumptions underlying the League of Nations, its uneasy coexistence with Western national interests, and its inadequacy in a world of competing independent states. His words on the pursuit of permanent peace – and the delusions to which this gives rise – should be engraved on the doors of every department of international relations:
The teleological aspect of the science of international politics has been conspicuous from the outset ... The passionate desire to prevent war determined the whole initial course and direction of the study. Like other infant sciences, the science of international politics has been markedly and frankly Utopian.
Carr blasts the naive optimism of the internationalists, and uncovers the reality of the national interests which their rhetoric masked, in words which are entirely relevant today:
Both the view that the English-speaking peoples are monopolists of international morality and the view that they are consummate international hypocrites may be reduced to the plain fact that the current canons of international virtue have, by natural and inevitable process, been mainly created by them ... It is a familiar tactic of the privileged to throw moral discredit on the under-privileged by depicting them as disturbers of the peace; and this tactic is as readily applied internationally as within the national community.
At the same time, he was not a blind critic of ethical approaches to international politics: ‘Realism itself, if we attack it with its own weapons, often turns out in practice to be just as much conditional as any other mode of thought ... Consistent realism excludes four things which appear to be essential ingredients of all effective political thinking: a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgment and a ground for action.’
He retained a belief in an international order that had certain ethical underpinnings, but it had to reflect a genuine international consensus, even if Britain and the US might well be the countries best suited to shape and lead it. It could not simply be based on ‘Western hegemony’, least of all if the West lacked the power and will to maintain it:
A new international order and a new international harmony can be built up only on the basis of an ascendancy which is generally accepted as tolerant and unoppressive or at any rate preferable to any practicable alternative. The most effective moral argument which could be delivered in favour of a British and American, rather than a German and Japanese hegemony of the world was that ... belief in conciliation even in dealing with those against whom it would have been easier to use force has in the past played a larger part in British and American than in German and Japanese foreign policy.
On the other hand, he made little secret of his belief that in this scheme for international harmony, the interests of the great powers would count for a great deal more than those of smaller ones – to hope for anything else would be hopelessly naive.
To be fair to Carr, his notorious indifference to the interests of the East European states has to be set against the background of the chauvinist policies and general irresponsibility of many of those states in the 1920s and 1930s. Poland was the worst offender. Carr saw the Polish-Czechoslovak mini-war over the tiny Teschen region in 1920 at first hand. ‘In spite of occasional tragic incidents and a possible tragic conclusion,’ he commented, ‘the situation in Teschen is pure farce and a salutary warning to those who may still be tempted to take the new nations of Central and Eastern Europe too seriously.’
In 1938, the Teschen dispute reached its tragic conclusion, with Poland’s participation in the partition of Czechoslovakia. The Munich debacle was itself in part brought about by the Polish-Nazi non-aggression pact of 1934, which ruined the French-led security order in Eastern Europe. If, in the autumn of 1938, Britain and France had gone to war with Germany in defence of Czechoslovakia, Poland would have found itself, initially at least, in the role of a de facto guardian of north-eastern Germany against a possible Soviet intervention. Subsequent Polish heroism in the Second World War, and sufferings at the hands of both Nazis and Soviets, have led to the suppression of these inconvenient facts, but it is hardly surprising that, in the late 1930s, they greatly diminished any sympathy many British officials and politicians might have otherwise felt for Poland.
Nonetheless, there can be no excuse for arguments like the following, made in a Times leader in November 1944:
What role does Russia assign to herself in Europe? ... Russia, like Great Britain, has no aggressive or expansive designs in Europe. What she wants on her Western frontier is security ... It is certainly not true that Russia is using her influence in other countries to promote ‘Communism’ or anything like it, nor is there any reason to suppose that her attitude in this respect will change.
This amazing passage sums up some of the key flaws in Carr’s thinking about the impact of the Russian Revolution, and the nature of totalitarianism and the international system between the wars. Note especially his use of ‘Russia’ when he meant the Soviet Union, a usage he persisted in throughout his life. This misidentification (or at least gross oversimplification) is still characteristic of contemporary Russophobes, who use it to suggest Russia’s responsibility for all Communism’s crimes and megalomania, and to draw from this permanent, quasi-racist conclusions concerning Russian culture and policies.
With Carr it was different. In the 1940s and after, he seemed to regard Soviet Communism, or at least its international behaviour, as simply a more efficient version of the politics of 19th-century Russia (in other words, as a normal element in the European state system), just as, in the 1930s, he had seen Hitler as essentially a more determined version of the Weimar Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann. He failed to notice the demonic energy and ambition of both the Nazi and Stalinist systems. ‘Writing as the ex-bureaucrat,’ Haslam says, ‘Carr could not but sense that in “certain technical aspects” all governments were alike.’
There were a number of reasons why he was, in this matter at least, profoundly mistaken. As Haslam writes, ‘he was always too much the rationalist to take fanaticism too seriously’, and as I’ve already suggested, this was coupled with a certain admiration for ruthlessness and, more respectably, with a clear-sighted awareness of the crimes committed by Western capitalism in the pursuit of empire and progress. Other reasons reflect longstanding flaws in the study of international relations. One is a tendency on the part of ‘realists’ like Carr (and Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski) to treat states as unchanging monoliths, as fixed pieces on the ‘grand chessboard’. Carr’s habit of playing down the importance of ideology in Soviet foreign policy was matched by his underestimation of the impact of domestic liberal and democratic sentiment in modifying US and British policy.
The assumption that states are monoliths is convenient for the many international relations experts who have no desire to spend time in the countries they write about. Carr never visited Germany during the Nazi period – when it was perfectly easy for a British subject to do so – and he visited the Soviet Union rarely and very briefly. During his time as a diplomat in Latvia in the 1930s, he associated mainly with expats. To this was added an indifference to, bordering on contempt for, the experience and testimony of those who had lived under totalitarian regimes. As Bertram Wolfe wrote of Carr’s Bolshevik Revolution, ‘There is doctrine, but no clash of ideologies; famine, but no hunger; revolution, but no bloodshed. Titanic social transformations are ascertained in documents bereft of conflicts, tears or exultations.’
Carr’s view of the Soviet Union as merely the geopolitical extension of imperial Russia led him into a crucial error about the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on the European state system. For it was, in the end, Soviet Communism which made an alliance of the European powers against Hitler impossible in the 1930s (as well as contributing critically to the flight of parts of the Italian and German bourgeoisie into Fascism). Had another kind of Russia emerged on the winning side in the First World War – tsarist, nationalist-authoritarian, bourgeois, or social democratic – it would surely have combined with Britain and France against the common threat. Such an alliance was not possible because, from the very beginning, Soviet Communism had publicly declared war on Western capitalism and democracy. In addition to which, Western leaders understandably distrusted a power which had spent the previous generation murdering and torturing huge numbers of its own people, prominent among them members of parties (conservative, liberal or social democratic) similar to those in government in the West.
From the narrow perspective of August 1939, it is possible to argue as Carr did that Stalin had no real choice but to sign the Soviet-German Pact and let Hitler turn on Poland and the West: had he not done so, the British and French Armies would have sat on their hands and their leaders chuckled with delight while Hitler smashed the Soviet Union. Since the British and French did nothing to help their Polish allies in September 1939, it is naive or propagandist to believe that they would have done more for the Soviet Union. In essence, Stalin did to the governments in London and Paris what they would otherwise have done to him.
The fact that Russia found itself in this isolated position was the result of Soviet Communism’s threat not just to Western state interests but to the entire Western social, economic and moral order. This threat had destroyed any hope of reconstructing the old Concert of Europe on a more humane, democratic and peaceful basis. That Carr could not see this, and could not understand the real power of ideological fanaticism, made him a very unreliable commentator on the international politics of the 1920s and 1930s. He is a much better guide to our own day, when every kind of ideological fanaticism except, of course, free-market capitalism is viewed with more scepticism in the developed world. The characteristics of international politics today are ones he understood very well: the pursuit of national interests; liberal internationalist rhetoric serving the interests of the hegemonic powers but also to some extent shaping their policies; and the attempt to agree on regulation of the international economy so as to guarantee existing hegemonies while – in theory – also serving the interests of all its major participants.
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