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.

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[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.