What is progress?

William Doyle

  • What is history? by E.H. Carr, edited by R.W. Davies
    Macmillan, 154 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 333 38956 5

I never knew E.H. Carr. I never heard him lecture, even on the radio. But I once saw him in Cambridge, and that was memorable enough. The History of Soviet Russia, begun when he was in his fifties and finished in his eighties, would have been enough to make him a legend, and no doubt he would regard it as his monument. But those 14 forbidding volumes, whatever the importance of their subject, seem destined always to be more talked about than read. Like some Titan rocket, they will probably be remembered in the history of historiography for boosting into orbit a disproportionately tiny payload. But it is the payload that matters, and I suspect that already Carr’s name is chiefly known among students of history for the shortest book he ever wrote. What is history? made its controversial appearance in 1961. I was an undergraduate, and I remember how we all bought and devoured it. The extraordinary thing is that students have continued to do so ever since. It is a remarkable achievement for a book written at an age when academics have normally retired. In the late Sixties elderly prophets sometimes did appeal to the young. One thinks of Marcuse, whom Carr befriended. But his vogue passed, while Carr’s has not. His reflections on the nature of history are as much in demand as ever, as this new edition testifies.

Why they remain popular with students is not entirely obvious. The writing is undoubtedly very good: terse, clear, good-humoured. Other pundits are wickedly savaged – always an engaging sport to watch. But good writing is all too notoriously no guarantee of student appreciation; and the great names demolished by Carr have now passed from the scene, or soon will, their prestige in any case often dimmed by subsequent stumbles. Above all, few of Carr’s avid young readers seem to be persuaded by what he has to say. Otherwise lecturers would find their classes full of left-wing firebrands determined to use their historical studies to promote change. Most lecturers these days, whatever their convictions, would welcome a student radical or two with open arms, so safe and unadventurous has the student body become. What then attracts such accountants-to-be to Carr? Recently it has been suggested that it is largely the book’s title. Titles that ask a question catch the attention: think of What is the Third Estate? or What is to be done? They imply that the text will provide an answer. And Carr does. But when told, in semi-mystical terms, that history is not only change, but progress; that good historians have the future in their bones; and that anyway historical facts are largely the invention of historians, students simply do not know what to make of it all. I suspect they ask for discussion of What is history? in the hope that we can explain to them what the answerer of this apparently simple question was trying to say.

It might have been clearer if he had called the book ‘Why do I write my sort of history?’. Fewer people might have read it, but some such title would have described the contents more accurately. Carr held the uncontentious enough belief that men, historians among them, are the products of their background and environment. And he saw himself as an exemplar of that principle. Time and time again, in this book and elsewhere, he relates nostalgically how he grew up and was educated in the Late Victorian world of optimism and faith in progress that had been shattered by the First World War. That trauma destroyed the old values: but not for Carr. As a young diplomat, he found himself posted to Russia, where the war had helped to trigger off a revolution. Carr evidently regarded it as the next step forward. Properly understood, the war, which might appear to be a disaster, was merely a discontinuity, a change of gear, that precipitated the resumption of progress in a different form. Progress is clearly what he thought he was mapping in the history of Soviet Russia. There, a new optimism had been born just as the old optimism was snuffed out further west. He had seen the future, and it was bound to work.

In this way he appears to have explained, to his own satisfaction, why he had written as he had. Psychologists might smile, but we are all entitled to believe what we like about our own motivations. Carr, however, made his into a universal principle. Before you study the history, he advised, study the historian; and before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. Again, very reasonable in general terms: but when Carr came to back up the argument with specific examples, they were astonishingly crude. The chance of individual lives, he admitted, determined what specific people did with their background and education, but he offered no examples of unpredictable results. All those he chose to cite – Mommsen, Namier, Trevelyan, Meinecke, Butterfield – were depicted as so many automata utterly preconditioned by their circumstances. Unfortunately Butterfield, who was alive and active in 1961, was a bad choice – even if an irresistible one in the atmosphere of Cambridge parochialism that pervades the book. Carr alleged that the different circumstances of the Thirties and the Forties caused Butterfield completely to change his mind about the Whig interpretation. But in 1962 Butterfield told Ved Mehta that the passage cited by Carr to make this point had first been written in 1938. When Butterfield revealed this to Carr, he simply refused to believe it. Here was the dogmatic mind behind the seductive logic that makes What is history? such a pleasure to read.

Carr was not really open to reason. Much discussion has focused on whether he was a Marxist. Certainly many of his arguments are quite compatible with a Marxist interpretation of history. Above all, as his response to Butterfield showed, he had the cast of mind that Marxism often appeals to: flexible and resourceful only within the confines of reassuringly unchallengeable dogma. Anyone who continues to doubt Carr’s fundamental rigidity should consult the preface to this new edition of What is history?, and the editor’s introduction.

Carr himself, it seems, was planning a second edition, and even wrote a preface to it, printed here. He was assembling materials with a view to revising and perhaps rewriting some of the original, and the collaborator on two of the volumes of the History of Soviet Russia, R.W. Davies, has examined these and offered, in a 28-page introduction, notes towards a second edition. But would a second edition have introduced any substantial differences? On the evidence presented here one feels bound to doubt it.

It is significant that the unrepentant preface was written before any revision was done. It is Carr at his most acrobatic. Having begun by declaring that his optimism of 1961 was justified by apparent general improvements in the state of the world in the late Fifties, he goes on to observe that things did not continue to improve. Does he, then, following his own principles and taking the colour of the times, turn to pessimism? Certainly not. Instead he argues that in the world at large improvement has in fact continued. It is only in Western Europe and North America, now dislodged from agelong domination of the rest of the world, that things have stopped improving. And even there the perception of deterioration is largely confined to intellectuals, ‘the purveyors of the ideas of the ruling social group which they serve’. Why then does he himself not subscribe to this consensus? After all, he was every inch an intellectual, and snugly ensconced for almost thirty years in one of the most unregenerate bastions of the threatened ruling class, Trinity College, Cambridge. His answer is that circumstances have made him a freak (his own word): he is old enough, he says, reverting to one of his most well-worn themes, to have grown up ‘in the afterglow of the great Victorian age of faith and optimism’. Also present in this introduction is the same moral ambivalence that so shocked his critics throughout his career. In this case it lies in such bland equations as McCarthyism and Stalinism, or Ireland and Vietnam. One hopes such equations were made merely for the pleasure of shocking. One fears that Carr genuinely did think them fair.

The preface says in effect: I have changed my mind on nothing. Not surprisingly, so do the editor’s notes. Apparently Carr would have left his first two chapters, arguably the most stimulating ones, untouched. Chapter Three, in which he advances history’s claim to be a science, he would have perhaps expanded with further examples of how modern scientific method is closer to that of historians than is often allowed. One of his jottings on this theme, however, shows that his optimism extended to the cosmos itself: ‘The theory that the universe began in some random way with a big bang and is destined to dissolve into black holes is a reflection of the cultural pessimism of the age. Randomness is an enthronement of ignorance.’ So, one might counter, is superstition in the face of evidence.

The remark about the origins of the Universe is an exception. In general, Carr takes issue with nobody in these notes towards a second edition, as summarised by Davies. Mostly he just goes on piling up examples and instances to reinforce his original arguments. Nobody blames octogenarians for refusing to change their minds. What is striking about Carr is that he seems not to have changed his mind since his forties. His plea for progress is in substance a protest against the fact that the world has moved on since the Thirties, that capitalism has not collapsed and socialism triumphed as so many utopian intellectuals in that decade expected them to do. No doubt mortality itself prevented Carr from taking the history of Soviet Russia beyond the last decade in which it was still a serious inspiration to Western romantics. But it is hard to believe that he would have wanted to take it further, for that would have led him into a time when the Soviet example ceased to inspire anybody. Carr, in fact, did not believe in progress – only in socialist progress. He did not even believe in change, unless it could be interpreted as the decline of the capitalist order. Novelty, someone once said, is only what we have forgotten. And the fact that Carr, a relic of more naive days before the war, could seem like a new voice in the Sixties was really a measure of how far the world had progressed in directions he was incapable of recognising.