Grim Eminence

Norman Stone

  • The Twilight of the Comintern 1930-1935 by E.H. Carr
    Macmillan, 436 pp, £25.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 333 33062 5

The historian Edward Hallett Carr died on 3 November 1982, at the age of 90. He had an oddly laconic obituary in the Times, which missed out a great deal. If he had died ten years before, his death would probably have been noticed a great deal more, for Carr was an eminent left-wing historian, had a huge record of publication, and had embarked, 35 years before his death, on a History of Soviet Russia which has been described as ‘monumental’ and ‘a classic’. By the time he died, the 15th separate book of this History – The Twilight of the Comintern – was just about to appear, and in his papers there is the larger part of a manuscript for the 16th volume. It may perhaps be edited by Carr’s friend, Tamara Deutscher, with whom he frequently collaborated.

Carr began to write his History just after the Second World War, when the Soviet Union appeared in something of a heroic light. The origins of the Stalinist colossus were of very wide interest. The Bolsheviks could well be said to have brought off a miracle. In the First World War, Russia had been a weak ally, continually losing battles; and Tsarist Russia was generally regarded as inefficient, backward and tyrannical. In the Second World War, the Red Army had taken on the bulk of Hitler’s war-effort, and had done most to defeat his armies in the field. What lay between the two was, of course, Stalin’s hectic ‘modernisation’ of the country, to which Isaac Deutscher, in his famous biography of Stalin, had devoted more than a few ecstatic pages. Carr’s own work concerned the origins of the Stalinist apparatus that was able to carry out such a feat. He wrote three volumes on the Revolution, and several more on the Soviet Union’s development in the Twenties; being a tireless worker, he was prepared to read through quantities of indigestible Soviet material to the end of his life. Regularly, despite his age, the volumes succeeded each other.

Carr brought many gifts to the study of Russia. He could handle many languages, and his training as a Classical scholar gave him a capacity for careful drafting and textual criticism. He had also had a very wide experience of life, for he had been a diplomat and a journalist (assistant editor of the Times) as well as an academic. The Russian character fascinated him. His early books, in the Thirties, concerned Dostoevsky, Bakunin and Herzen, who interested him, he said, because they represented a world so far removed from that of his four-square Anglo-Saxon, practical and liberal upbringing. Like so many pro-Soviet people of his vintage, he had experienced Edwardian Progressivism. That world was rather bleak: it had moved on from the comforts of religion, and was stridently secular (Carr himself was violently anti-religious, and among the worst remarks he could make about anyone was that they would end up reading the lesson in Chapel). It believed in callisthenics and Town Planning, in Free Trade and women’s emancipation. Before 1914, there were already stories, such as E.M. Forster’s ‘The machine stops’, which, by way of warning, talked the language of Brave New World.

Carr was born on 28 June 1892 (and so celebrated his 22nd birthday on the day the Archduke was shot). He was born rather higher in the social scale than H.G. Wells, for his father was the manager of a small factory which had been built up, from artisan beginnings, by his own father. The family was quite prosperous, and Carr went to Merchant Taylor’s, where he shone. Even as a child, he was a somewhat unpopular figure, for he did not like fools, and his definition of ‘fool’ was generous. At his infants’ school they had to stop him from playing chess because he did not get on with anything else; later, it was a toss-up whether he turned to Classics or Mathematics. At school, the largely Tory boys – it was the Mafeking and Joseph Chamberlain’s stumping the country – did not like a professed Free Trader.

It would appear that his own parents did not much care for him either. It is said that they farmed him out to live with an aunt, one of these sad Edwardian spinster-dependents. She adored him; she even learned Latin so as to help him with his homework. Once he reached Trinity College, Cambridge he dismissed her, and she died in loneliness and penury some years later. It was not the last act of cruelty which Carr was to perform. There were three Mrs Carrs (not one, as the Times obituary claimed), and each marriage ended in hideous circumstances: one wife was left when she already had terminal cancer, another abandoned, when Carr was almost ninety, because she was ‘depressing’. He died in an old people’s home, the matron of which he would ask, piteously, to hold his hand. For Carr very greatly wanted to be loved, and he much preferred women’s company to men’s, although he treated his women so badly. Curiously enough, his money survived these disasters. He was cannily generous when it came to settlements, and he was – until his declining years – adept at the Stock Exchange. He was also, it is said, very mean. The charge most often levelled at his work on the Soviet Union was that it lacked a dimension of humanity. Towards the end of his life, Carr was interviewed by the New Left Review.[1] He was prepared, he said, to recognise the achievements of the Russian Revolution despite all the millions of casualties. It was characteristic of him not to see anything odd about adding: ‘An English historian can praise ... Henry VIII without being supposed to condone the beheading of wives.’

Carr’s views and prose style owed much to his experience of the Foreign Office, which he did not leave until his mid-forties. At Cambridge, he excelled as a Classicist (he won the Porson Prize, and with it bought a set of Macaulay) and proceeded to the Foreign Office in the middle of the First World War, escaping conscription for reasons, apparently, of health. He attended the negotiations for the Peace Treaties, and was awarded a CBE for his efforts, even though he was not yet thirty. There is a glimpse of him in Harold Nicolson’s diaries, at the Ritz with Kenyes.

Somehow, his career at the Foreign Office rather petered out. Socially, he did not belong in the same drawer as the Etonians he had to deal with. They called him ‘Spots’, and he despised most of them. By the later 1920s, he had been sent to Riga as Secretary of the Legation, and he became very bored with it all. The only thing to do was to go to the opera with local big-wigs and Russian émigrés which gave him, he said, a lasting hatred of opera. He learnt Russian, and would wander round the second-hand bookshops in search of Russian literature. It was from this moment that he dated his interest in Russia. It was a strangely abstract interest, for he never learned to speak the language fluently, and spent only a few weeks there in all of his life – two visits, one in the later Twenties, and one in the mid-Fifties (to a historical conference). He continued at the Foreign Office, advising on League of Nations affairs, but his heart was in the Russian past, and in the years 1931-37 he wrote on literary and political figures of the 19th century.

His Dostoyevski (1931) is often claimed to be his best book, though I do not think that he himself liked it very much (he preferred his Bakunin). It was a wonderfully concise account of the life, and it combined psychological penetration with a capacity for irony: Ostrovsky, for instance, ‘was addicted to that particularly Russian form of sentiment which believes that the minor vices, such as drunkenness and dirt, ordinarily cohabit with the major virtues.’ The book is especially good in its treatment of the caesura in Dostoevsky’s life, the years 1863-5, which preceded marriage to Anna Grigorevna and the writing of Crime and Punishment. On the other hand, the book is weak on Dostoevsky the writer, and Carr had a great blind spot when it came to the religious side. The Pushkin memorial speech of 1880, a famous set-piece of conservatism and orthodoxy, is dismissed as ‘nebulous ... obsolete ... platitudinous’. Still, Carr’s Dostoevsky survives in a way that the effusions on the subject of Lawrence, Gide or even Berdyaev do not, and his evocation of the Dostoevskian ‘double’ (Zosima/Ferapont or Ivan/Smerdyakov) has never been bettered.

Carr’s other outstanding book of this period is The Romantic Exiles (1933). It is extraordinary that he managed to combine an active Foreign Office career with study of the quite voluminous sources that went into that book. It described the life and tribulations of various Russian exiles in Western Europe in the mid-19th century, and the book’s centre-piece is a description of the messy love-affair between Alexander Herzen’s wife and the German revolutionary poet, Herwegh. On a first reading, the book is a brilliant performance, for it treats the affair (and other later ones) with insight and irony. On a second reading, I am not so sure of its quality. It is a cruel and rather depressing work, and you end up feeling rather sorry for Natalie Herzen, the butt of Carr’s knowing asides. The poor woman was wrecked by the Herwegh affair, which, like all such involvements, can be made to look funny: but she made a pathetic effort to rid herself of the obsession, went back to her husband and children, and soon died.

There was a huge gulf between the Carr of these early books and the grim Soviet eminence of later years. What lay between them was a career partly in academic life, and partly on the Times. He became, in the mid-Thirties, Professor of International Polities at Aberystwyth, a post that did not require much teaching. He used it to write extensively on international affairs; during the war, he combined it with other occupations, first back at Whitehall, and then as assistant editor of the Times, of which he might have become editor if Barrington-Ward had had his way. He wrote a great deal at this time. International Relations between the World Wars, first published in 1937 (under a different title), is a very useful little work if you want to look up, say, the details of Reparations. In this period, he seems to have lost his immediate concern with Russia: instead, he became primarily interested in Germany, and in his book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939, once more published with a different title), he argued the case for an accommodation with Hitler.

Later on, Carr was wide-open to the charge that he had advocated first Hitler and then Stalin. The ‘appeasement’ issue did embarrass him in later life, and, in a preface to a reissue of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, he dismisses the book as ‘a period-piece’.[2] It was popular at the time with people who found the patriotic euphoria of the early war years, and the illusions that accompanied it, difficult to take. Carr ranged over the whole field of international relations, supporting what he said with knowledge of past and present. He thought it was mad for this country to become involved in war with Germany over some Eastern European question, and he opposed the guarantee to Poland. The patriotic atmosphere of 1940 left him cold, and he would certainly have preferred to make peace with Hitler had it been possible. He advocated ‘a compromise between the utopian conception of a common feeling of right and the realistic conception of a mechanical adjustment to a changed equilibrium of forces’: in other words, if a state has power, recognise the fact. Moral outrage at Nazism left him cold, and he never cared at all for Eastern Europe. Many people of Carr’s own generation never forgave him for this and, as with so many other ‘appeasers’, including R.A. Butler, the charge of supporting Hitler’s causes stuck to him until the end.

When Stalin began to win battles, Carr changed his tune. His Times editorials argued strongly, and with influence, for recognition of the role that the Soviet Union would have after the war. Now that Stalin, not Germany, had the power, Carr was all for handing over Eastern Europe, for abandoning any obligation to Poland, a country of ‘losers’ which he despised. The fate of the ‘victims of Yalta’ left him quite cold. Mesmerisis with the power of Stalin was now such that he resolved to write a history of this colossus.

The curious thing about Carr, the historian of power, was that he never had much himself. He did not become editor of the Times. After the war, he lost his Chair at Aberystwyth: the Nonconformists among the governors objected to his affair with one (or perhaps more) of their professors’ wives; he received a letter indicating that it ‘had come to their attention’, and inviting him to resign. He did so, and hoped instead for a post at Oxford. Balliol did give him employment in the early 1950s, although he was a college lecturer, rather than a full Fellow, and was expected to do a huge amount of teaching. St Antony’s turned him down. Worse still, he was refused the Chair of International Politics which he could legitimately have expected. The Master of Balliol, the stern Calvinist Lindsay Keir, disliked everything about Carr – his affairs, his politics, his past, his present, even his dress (he used to pad about the college in sand-shoes). Carr was the obvious candidate for the Chair, when it fell vacant, but a palace coup did him out of it: Agnes Headlam-Morley was appointed, perhaps because her father had been official historian of Versailles, perhaps on the strength of her skill in assembling documents. In 1955, Carr was rescued by his old college, Trinity, at Cambridge. He had a senior research fellowship there until his death. It was again characteristic of Carr that he owed the appointment to the pressure of men like Kitson Clark and Michal Vyvyan, with whom he subsequently had frosty relations (or none at all).

It cannot have been easy to sit on the Appointments Committee which turned Carr down. On the one hand, he was clearly the most distinguished candidate. On the other hand, there was every reason for apprehension as to how he would use his influence. He was instrumental in having the Royal Institute of International Affairs refuse support to Leonard Schapiro, then a struggling and reluctant barrister, engaged on the book that was to become The Origins of the Bolshevik Autocracy (1952). As a publisher’s reader, he tried to prevent acceptance of John Erickson’s Soviet High Command. In the days of Times Literary Supplement anonymity Carr saw to it that he himself, Isaac Deutscher and, where needed, the wife of the Moscow journalist, Victor Louis, were employed as reviewers. He and Deutscher would fulsomely praise each other’s books. Dissenting reviewers and books never had a chance. When John Gross took over the TLS he did not ask Carr to review. Carr disliked this.

As a reviewer, Carr was sometimes just and never fair. He resembled a remote, irascible potentate who would not hesitate to put a whole town to the sword if one of its inhabitants ate his peas with his knife. He was quite good at seeing what authors were trying to achieve, and what the difficulties were, but he never sympathised, and he would deliver freezing judgments from on high. Many good books fell under his disapproval. Stephen Cohen’s Bukharin (reprinted in 1980) annoyed Carr because it suggested that Stalinism was not inevitable, and that Bukharin was a serious alternative to it. That was dismissed as ‘fantastic’. Teodor Shanin’s Awkward Class (1972) is something of a classic on Russian agrarian history. It squares various economic and political circles, and puts Stolypin’s reforms, the Civil War and collectivisation in a comprehensible pattern, after lengthy examination of some difficult statistics. Carr dismissed this, and said it left us ‘just about where we were’. An American writer on British intervention in the Civil War, Richard Ullman, managed to offend Carr. He unearthed some minutes, written by Carr as a junior official in the Foreign Office, which spoke quite warmly of the White cause. He used these in footnotes, and Carr’s review responded: it went on and on about how documents were not to be taken literally, and how junior officials were so junior that it was a mistake even to mention their opinions.

Carr was not a good teacher. In conversation, he never gave much away, and he disliked talking to anyone with whom basic principles had not been agreed. He was a very ungenerous reviewer of research-fellowship dissertations, and did not do much to advance his subject through research students (only two attended the funeral). He did not care for the Faculty at Cambridge – I heard him praise only one of its members, Geoffrey Elton, whom he rated as ‘honest’ (a cut below ‘serious’). In 1961 he delivered six lectures to the Faculty on the theme ‘What is History?’: it may count as his most successful book, for there is a keen appetite in schools for this boring subject, and the paperback volume is frequently reprinted. It is probably as much a mistake to ask a working historian to discuss this theme as to ask a painter to give his views on aesthetics. Carr had not much more to offer than a version of Fifties progressivism: history teaches respect for the present, or, better still, the Soviet present. In places, it read like a Marxist 1066 and All That. It does, however, begin well, perhaps even brilliantly.

Carr’s title to give these lectures lay in his History, which was being very well-received by reviewers. The whole work will occupy a shelf in any good library. It began with a three-volume study of The Bolshevik Revolution (1950-1953), continued with The Interregnum (1954), and proceeded to Socialism in One Country (three volumes), Foundations of a Planned Economy (three volumes), and, this year, The Twilight of the Comintern. Some of the volumes came in separate parts, and the whole work runs to 15 large books. Does it stand up?

The charge of gigantomania is obvious, and deserved. The work is padded out in ways that only confuse the reader – lengthy excursions on constitutions, for instance, which could be left to encyclopedias. The two parts of Volume III of Foundations (1976) are largely about various Communist Parties of the world, and the whole job could have been done far more simply if Carr had retained the conciseness he had displayed so well in the past. A great part of the work consists of government documents, and all honour to the author for ploughing through such dense material. So far as I can judge, he did the job of transcribing accurately enough, although it is said that Richard Pipes, following Carr’s steps through the Russian Revolution, is not impressed by Carr’s scholarship. The style of the book is frequently clogged and pompous; in places, there are elementary errors of presentation, as in Interregnum, p. 308 f., where a chapter opens with a paragraph that goes on for almost two pages. The Civil War is won in Volume I, but the Red Army is discussed – even then, mainly theoretically – only in the sixth volume. Then again, it is simply dishonest to end a history of the Soviet Union in 1929. True, after that time the record of political decisions at the centre becomes impossible to read (although of late rather more information has been coming through). But Carr must have developed a good ‘nose’ for the Thirties, and clearly he shrank from writing about that decade.

Carr does not leave himself open to the kind of demolition-job that Leopold Labedz did on Deutscher.[3] He never quite said what he meant. The work as a whole is very difficult to review, partly because of its bulk, but mainly because Carr covered his tracks, and never drew recognisable conclusions. He seems to have been something of a coward. The nearest he comes to a conclusion is tucked away, characteristically, towards the end (p. 419 ff.) of the penultimate volume of Foundations, where he discusses ‘the new Soviet society’. Here he has only a platitude to offer: ‘Seldom, perhaps, in history has so monstrous a price been paid for so monumental an achievement.’ By this time, Carr was clearly under some pressure from the Left to make statements as to the proletarian or socialist content of the Revolution. He talks of ‘the oddly distorted amalgam of bourgeois and socialist revolutions’, and remarks that ‘what inspired, and constantly tarnished, the [industrial] achievement was the illusory proletarian revolution.’ His book is really to be seen as a study of how Great Power is made out of revolutionary origins: it was this, more than anything else, that interested him. It explains why so much of the book concerns economics, a subject on which Carr was hardly expert. I sense some kind of obscure symbolism at work. The lack of a definite point in the book makes its short version obviously unsatisfactory: it is dull and unrevealing.[4] Like Carr himself, it peters out.

There is no doubt that he regarded the industrial achievements of the Five Year Plans as tremendous. Clearly, to him, the Bolsheviks had taken a howling desert of illiteracy, ‘the Russia of ikons and cockroaches’, as Trotsky called it, and turned it into a sort of Welwyn Garden City. But how much did Carr really know of pre-Revolutionary Russia? The evidence suggests a surprising unfamiliarity with this subject. In his interview with the New Left Review, he praises the Bolsheviks for their ‘achievement’ of industrial modernisation, and asks: ‘Who, before 1917, could have predicted this?’ The answer to that is everyone. The British Foreign Office and the French press fell over themselves with delight in 1914 at having acquired an ally with an obviously enormous future. The German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, said early in the July Crisis of 1914 that ‘the future belongs to Russia; she grows and grows, and weighs upon us like a nightmare.’ The historian R. Ropponen has managed to write a large book, Die Kraft Russlands (1968), describing how widespread was the conviction, throughout Europe, that Russia would be a super-power, and most historians nowadays would probably agree that Germany launched the July Crisis to prevent Russia from growing stronger. In the old days, Soviet historians tried to show that Stalin’s terroristic modernisation was somehow ‘necessary’, and so they played down the economic and military power of Tsarist Russia. Nowadays, Soviet historians themselves are no longer required to perform such exercises. Their tendency is to stress the economic advances before 1914, although they are in disarray when it comes to agriculture.

This lack of concern with the late-Tsarist world makes Carr’s Revolution extremely bewildering. It does not begin with a description of pre-Revolutionary Russia, the First World War, the February Revolution, or the various crises of 1917. Instead, it starts with a lengthy account of what one Bolshevik says to another in the decade before 1914, and never puts even that into any kind of context. The immediate crisis of 1916-17 is skipped over until Volume II, when it receives not much more than a page or two. An important issue such as Stolypin’s efforts to reform agriculture is dismissed in a few sentences: Stolypin ‘failed’. In one of his reviews, Carr states that the chief reform occurred in 1908: it came, in fact, in 1906. Obviously, he did not keep abreast of scholarship in the pre-Revolutionary field. He dismissed as ‘whimsy’ an assertion that the Russian Army did not disintegrate in 1917 (at least before the December armistice). The fact is that an impeccable Soviet source printed, in 1964, the results of an Army survey which showed that there were more men in the Army in 1917 than at any previous point in the war.[5] Most Russian soldiers proved to be as patriotic as soldiers of other countries at this time. It mattered so much to Carr to show that Tsarist Russia was so backward as to need Stalin that he would twist evidence to suit his book. He used my own book on The Eastern Front 1914-1917 (1975) to show that in the First World War Russian industry was so poor that the War Ministry could order matériel only from a few factories. The implication of this is, of course, that Russia ‘needed’ Stalin. But my book’s point, firmly ignored by Carr, was that there were scores of factories available to the War Ministry, which simply refused, for bizarre reasons, to use them.

The first volume of Carr’s Revolution is just about useless. The second is a little better, and the account of War Communism holds up. The third volume concerns foreign policy, and is very good: I have never seen a better account of Brest-Litovsk, although what it is doing in the third volume of a history of the Revolution is difficult to discern. In general, the volumes of Carr’s History on the Comintern and on foreign policy strike me as the best, though they are often long-winded. Even so, it is curious to see how reluctant he is to condemn, however crazy a particular policy might seem (for example, the goading of German Communists into active opposition to the Social Democrats – ‘Social Fascists’ – at a time when Hitler was at the gates).

His Revolution is very much the story of the Bolsheviks. Opposition is seldom considered. The Kronstadt mutiny of 1921, when the makers of the Revolution revolted against its inheritors, suffered thousands of casualties, and caused a dramatic reversal of Soviet policies (NEP, at the Tenth Congress in spring 1921), is dismissed in two half-sentences. Peasant rebellions in Tambov receive much the same cursory treatment. When the Socialist Revolutionaries are put on trial in 1921, the reader is told that they ought not to have grumbled: ‘the premise of dictatorship was common to both sides.’ Much the same view applies to Bolshevik terror-tactics and, according to a recent book on the Cheka by George Leggett, Carr understates by about 80 per cent the number of Cheka victims.

His attitude on the nationalities question can almost be described as one of hatred. Lithuania’s ‘claim to independence’ rested on ‘precarious grounds’. The Ukrainians are venomously written out of the script, and he quotes Rosa Luxemburg to the effect that their nationalism was ‘the ridiculous farce of a few university professors and students’. For the other peoples, ‘the choice was not between dependence and independence, but between dependence on Moscow and dependence on the bourgeois governments of the capitalist world.’ There is, in fact, something interesting here. Russia (or the Soviet Union) somehow managed, as great states often do, to contain the nationality question. When the Germans offered the Ukraine a sort of independence, it somehow failed to win hearts and minds. This raises a good question, which can only be answered on the ground. Carr is silent. Although he could read Ukrainian, he has nothing of interest to say about the Ukraine and shows a certain ignorance of it. Writing, later, on agrarian matters, he announced that, in the Ukraine, the Stolypin reforms had ‘worked’, there were independent farmers, the repartitional commune had become ‘obsolete’. In reality, the character of the Ukraine was divided by the River Dniepr. West of it, western (Polish) tradition held, and communes were indeed obsolescent. East of the river, it was a quite different story.

It did not occur to Carr until his fifth volume, the first of Socialism in One Country, that he should even bother to discuss the relationship of Russian past to Bolshevik present. Even then, he has not much more than platitudes to offer (‘Russia became the land of extremes’). It is only at this point that he concedes any serious discussion of personalities, and, inevitably, practically all of them come off badly – Zinoviev vain and bungling, Kamenev slow-witted, Bukharin unreliable, Trotsky utterly wanting in political sense. Stalin receives his due, and it mattered to Carr to present Stalin as an administrative solver of problems, the machine coming out of the God.

I find the account of political struggles opaque and disembodied. It is very difficult to know what is going on. Stalin came to power because he could manipulate people and votes, and his position in the Secretariat enabled him to do this. His rise to power is charted in the votes that congresses and committees gave to his men – Molotov, Voroshilov, Kalinin etc. His rivals were not nearly so good at this game, and by autumn 1923 they were afraid of the future (Zinoviev summoned a secret meeting in a cave near Kislovodsk, and resolved not to let Stalin’s men have their way on so many committees: Stalin responded by inviting Zinoviev to sit on a committee or two, and then arranged to have the committee discuss the most dreary agenda imaginable). By 1929, the Politburo had a Stalinist majority of two-thirds (against the ‘Right deviation’ men, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky).

How did Stalin achieve this? Carr makes a great thing of the various opposition movements: Trotsky in the autumn of 1923, Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1925, Bukharin in 1928-9. On each occasion, the opposition would try to collect votes, and in the case of Zinoviev and Kamenev they could muster the powerful parties of Leningrad and Moscow. Sometimes various parts of the opposition would attempt to construct a shaky alliance, whether over agricultural policy, or over nationality questions. But when it came to a vote on the Central Committee (numbers of which were expanded) or at party congresses, Stalin each time had a crushing victory. He defeated the ‘Right deviation’ in 1929 by well over three hundred votes to 13 in a joint meeting of the Central Committee and the Control Commission. When you read Carr, you hear in one chapter about the facts of the issue under debate, in another place altogether about the general atmosphere in the party, in another place again about the growth of the terror-machine, in another place again about the machinery of politics. Thus Trotsky is not even expelled from Russia until the second volume of Foundations. The discussion of politics in the first volume of Socialism in One Country, p. 320 ff., is extraordinarily weak. Where do all these votes come from?

To read Carr, you might think that Stalin invented them. But they reflected a struggle that had been going on in local parties, in which ‘miniature Stalins’ (Medvedev’s phrase) were emerging. Stalin used them against the metropolitan parties, and he undermined these parties too – indeed Zinoviev’s delegates were disavowed, on Stalin’s pressure, by their own constituencies. Something strange was happening at ‘grass-roots’ level, and Carr has nothing of substance to say about this. The most he can offer is ‘it was the chief shortcoming of Lenin as a statesman that he never really faced the problem of large-scale administration in modern society.’ Stalin’s Secretariat became ‘all-important’, given ‘the weakness of the human material available’. I may have missed something in the sheer quantity of Carr’s words, but it does not appear to me that he understood quite how far party bosses came to influence the planning machinery. The disposition of new industry and building became a matter for private empire-building, over which Stalin presided, and it is far from clear that economic factors had the kind of priority Carr gave them. Carr might have found it helpful to talk to some of the many thousands of exiled Russians who could have told him what had gone on. To my knowledge, he failed to do so: for him, this was all an abstract problem. The editor of his Festschrift (1974) remarks in his preface that Carr ‘“questioned and cross-examined” all the leaders and chief participants of the Russian Revolution’. With respect to Professor Abramsky, the editor, this was about the last thing Carr did. He firmly ignored all oral evidence, and he never went to talk to anyone in Moscow who might have helped him to understand the Soviet Union. In any case, an encounter between Carr and, say, Molotov could hardly have been anything other than gruesomely funny.

In the middle of writing his work, Carr came under the influence of Isaac Deutscher. He seems to have started out with a plan to chart the history of the Soviet Union as the translation of an Idea into practice: that may account for the difficult lay-out of the book. Carr’s view seems to me to have been quite a simple one: that events were tending in a particular direction (dictatorship within the party, industrial planning, collectivisation of agriculture), and that Stalin profited because he was a better politician. But when he considered Trotsky, under Deutscher’s influence, he pulled his punches in a way he did not do with Zinoviev and Kamenev. Did Trotsky offer an alternative to Stalinism, or was it the same story told by a different man? Carr’s inability to decide this makes his Interregnum the most impenetrable of all of his volumes. I have never trusted the Deutscher biography of Trotsky, which has always struck me as a tendentious piece of disguised autobiography with, it is said, a good bit of faulty scholarship. I also do not quite trust Carr’s account of the Trotsky-Stalin rivalry, so far as readers can disinter it from the crennellated prose in which it is entombed. Still, buried under hundreds of thousands of words and several irrelevant chapters, no doubt there is something that had meaning for Carr.

Carr was a careful, canny man. He deliberately broke off his History in 1929 and had plausible reasons for doing so: by then, the Stalinist system was in place and that, after all, is the great event of this century. He was therefore not required to pronounce on collectivisation and planning after 1930. The curious thing is that, although Carr started off in this way, his decisive date, 1929, begins to look much less impressive with further inquiry. In Foundations, he was lucky to acquire the partnership of Professor R.W. Davies, of the Centre for Russian Studies at Birmingham, and who knows the Soviet economy very thoroughly.[6] It was this partnership which saved Carr’s book from going to bits: Foundations has great strength in its discussion of the planning machine, of the connections between industry, finance and agriculture, and of the origins of collectivisation.

Carr was not required to pronounce on collectivisation. The curious thing is that he went back again and again to agricultural topics, and was largely responsible for the peasant chapters of Foundations. I find his remarks exceedingly confused and even in places elementary (Revolution II, Socialism I p. 99 ff. and Foundations I, p. 106 ff.). They do not connect with the great sweep of agrarian history that has had so many distinguished practitioners in this country and in Russia. They show no awareness whatsoever of the land.

NEP was ‘socialism with a human face’. Why did it break down? By 1928, the Government faced terrible problems in getting food supplies for the towns, and was already driven to requisition (‘the Urals-Siberian method’ of applying, in generous interpretation, Article 108 of the Code). By 1929, the considerations of industrial planning supervened, and collectivisation was ordered – a sort of huge requisition, rather than a serious agrarian policy (and a measure strongly opposed by virtually everyone who understood agriculture). Why did the independent peasantry and the Soviet Government not co-exist? They have, though with difficulty, done so in other Communist countries; equally, in other Communist countries, collectivisation does not appear to have been the disaster it has clearly proved to be in the Soviet Union. Of course this question is not easy. In the first place, the Government often barely understood what it was doing, and made elementary errors in preventing trade and investment. Preobrazhensky seriously suggested that ‘bee-keeping and poultry-raising’ should be taxed. In 1924-25 a wonderful scheme for taxation was introduced, in which ‘one head of major horned cattle’ was equated with one horse, one camel, two donkeys, three goats and, in Turkestan, three-tenths of a hectare of irrigated land. In matters of trade, there was preposterous discrimination: people were allowed to transport only ‘11/2 poods’ (four stones) of food, and even then only if they could count as ‘workers’. Finance – with inflation always round the corner – was in hopeless disarray. It was unlikely, in these circumstances, that grain surpluses would appear. As early as 1924 the Soviet Union had already begun to import grain in normal times.

There are, very broadly, three ways of loading at this. You can argue that the peasantry were hopelessly backward, locked into communes which could not respond to economic pressure in a ‘rational’ way because the land was tied up in family arrangements that were designed mainly for subsistence farming. You can argue that the peasantry was ‘differentiating’: i.e. that a class of capitalist farmers was emerging with demands for profit and labour that could not be squared with the Soviet order. Or you can argue that mistakes on that industrial or urban side – failure, for instance, to encourage consumer goods – meant that agriculture was given little chance.

I do not know that Carr ever quite made up his mind what he was arguing. To start off with, he was something of an old-fashioned Wellsian Progressive, writing off peasants as ‘ruraux brutaux’ (in the Third Republic’s expression). Later, he came under pressure from the Left, and made out that ‘differentiation’ was happening (p. 229 of Foundations I: ‘the classic “capitalist” pattern of divorce between the ownership of the means of production and the ownership of labour power’). He used the word kulak to mean ‘big farmer’, although the word originally meant ‘usurer’ – a different idea altogether. He strained very hard to show that these kulaks were hiring labour, though even he had to admit that there were only 2,250,000 hired hands in Russian agriculture in 1927, and was honest enough to add that the census was taken at the height of the harvest, that a quarter of the hands were children, and that many of the people involved were village shepherds. It is much easier to argue that the heart of the peasant problem was the kind of family and communal arrangement described in Shanin’s Awkward Class. If this is true, it means that most Bolsheviks misunderstood agriculture a terrible way.

Carr was certainly aware of the complications of the problem, but he ran away from them. In pursuit of his thesis of ‘capitalist differentiation’, he would often cite the case of the lands north of the Caucasus, Stavropol. It was quite untypical – an area of comparatively recent settlement, where Stolypin’s reforms had worked. That Stavropol was a rare case, a glance at Dubrovsky’s old book, Stolypinskaya Zemelnaya Reforma, could have told him. I pass over the statistical contradictions of Socialism in One Country, Volume I, pp. 190-214, on this subject. It is clear that Carr was out of his depth. In Foundations, Volume I, p. 128, he gives up: ‘Not only could no agreement be reached on the nomenclature of the different groups, and on the vital question of which groups were increasing or diminishing, but the criteria of classification themselves were the subject of a long-standing dispute.’ In other words, a man who had made a great reputation as a scholar of the Soviet world has nothing to say on the central issue.

Carr’s History is not a history of the Soviet Union, but effectively of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Even then, much of it is the kind of unreconstructed Stalinist version that would not now see the light of day in Russia itself. His world is very much a Northern view: cold, Baltic, abstract. The Russia of the Volga is practically a foreign country, and it is characteristic of this arid and forbidding construction that there is no sense of place, and that there are precious few place-names. The reader is constantly made aware only of some kind of gigantic decision-making machine in Moscow, with no understanding as to its springs; and because of the vastness of the structure, and the confusions of the lay-out, you do not even know what is being decided, when, or why.

I am nearly tempted to exclaim that no more useless set of volumes has ever masquerade as a classic. Carr’s real talent lay in mathematics. Perhaps, if he had been treated properly at the outset, this would have been his course. As it was, from the mathematical spirit he took a quality not so much of abstraction as of autism, which was carried over in his historical work. The result is a trail of devastation.

[1] The interview is reprinted in his volume of essays, From Napoleon to Stalin (Macmillan, 1980).

[2] Macmillan (1980).

[3] Leopold Labedz’s ‘Deutscher as Historian and Prophet’ appeared in Survey, April 1962, No 41, pp. 121-144. It put Deutscher into a litigious frame of mind, and the successor article did not appear until after Deutscher’s death (Survey, Summer 1977-8, No 104, pp. 146-164).

[4] The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1917-1929 (Macmillan, 1979).

[5] Gavrilov and Kutuzov: ‘Perepis Russkoy Armii’ in Istoriya SSSR, 1964, ii, pp. 87-91.

[6] R.W. Davies’s The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia was published in two volumes (The Socialist Offensive and The Soviet Collective Farm 1929-1930) in 1980.