Aunt Amelia had a lot to answer for

The Vices of Integrity
November 26, 1999

An enigmatic title introduces an enigmatic book. As a tribute from pupil to mentor it would be difficult to describe this book as an unequivocal labour of love, since the subject himself, Edward Hallett Carr, was seemingly hard if not quite impossible to love. Indeed, the title seems to hint that there was something suspect in an otherwise commendable sheen of integrity. It is the source, shaping and substance of a very singular integrity that Jonathan Haslam explores in this multi-layered biography, part personal account of Carr, part international politics, part history of the development of "Soviet studies".

Haslam sets out his own impression and remembrance of Carr in his preface,long "withdrawn and unforthcoming in almost every respect", lapping up gossip, intensely loyal to those whom he respected, "wary of intimacy, above all a loner". Difficult though it is to imagine such a formidable and ruthless scholar ever being young and vulnerable, Haslam's sympathetic portrait of Carr's early years illuminates the origins of many of those characteristics he observed at first hand. Carr himselsf evidently attributed much that was "emotionally askew" with him to his "singular upbringing", by his own confession alienated from his parents, the focus of the starved affections of dominant maiden Aunt Amelia, and consequently the victim of "a surfeit of the wrong kind of emotion".

Haslam traces this psychological imprint through the various phases of Carr's career. What emerges is that behind the glacial exterior and the forbidding intellectualism was a man caught up on an emotional roundabout, generated paradoxically by "the suppression of spontaneous emotion". That characteristic, combined with "the development of intellectual prowess in a moral vacuum", produced a ruthlessness which could and did support "extraordinary opinions". Here was the "integrity" which, as Haslam points out, could advocate a collectivist order proscribing the individualism that constituted the very essence of Carr's own life and activity.

From childhood on Carr set out to achieve the very best in his work, a disposition which caused him to make historical judgements in strictly functional terms. For him efficiency was more important than morality, a sentiment which imparted that bloodless or cold-blooded quality to his writing that many found unappealing, even repellent. What he admired about Machiavelli was his attempt to treat politics as an "ethically neutral science, not as a branch of ethics". "Technical efficiency in politics" was for him independent of moral considerations, just like "the qualities of high explosives".

This quest for "efficiency", or the absence of incompetence, led him to eschew Victorian liberalism in all its forms, yet as Haslam is quick to point out, Carr, "the new realist" of The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1938 , remained "curiously moralistic". "Suppressed emotion" also contributed to putting him in the firing line. Much to Edmund Wilson's indignation, "a Foreign Office Englishman" had without apparent cause interested himself in Russian utopian revolutionaries, Bakunin in particular. Haslam infers that Carr's motive was surreptitious identification with the spirit of rebellion and the affinity of one "outsider" for another.

As yet a "rebel without a cause", Haslam argues that Carr found one in supporting Germany's right to challenge the peace settlement and championing appeasement. It was, however, Carr's latent residual liberal rationalism which caused him to misread Hitler and grievously misinterpret Stalinist post-war foreign policy. Fanaticism was inefficient and self-defeating, hence logically could be discounted.

If Haslam is correct, Carr proved to be a perplexing mixture of utopian and realist. The utopian Carr cherished the notion that the Soviet experience had relevance for the West. In this he deceived himself. It was the realist Carr who turned to the multi-volume History of Soviet Russia . The "stark realism" that Haslam commends was too stark for many, for others like Bertram Wolfe simply not real, least of all Carr's Lenin. I well remember Carr's response to Wolfe at a 1967 Harvard University conference. Carr dismissed Wolfe's Lenin as almost anything save the product of "cool detachment". That applied not only to appraising Lenin but to the function Carr ascribed to his history: emotion deliberately suppressed, the riotousness, the chaos of Trotsky's "vagabond Russia" kept at a distance. It is a monumental compilation demonstrating a mastery of documentation befitting a former Foreign Office official and a massive sweep of kaleidoscopic circumstance marshalled by a historian in command of his craft.

Given Carr's background - the Foreign Office, The Times - Haslam argues that he inevitably viewed society, British and Soviet, "from the top down",deliberately narrowing the scope of his History but thereby uniquely documenting the Soviet regime in its own terms. The tide of post-Soviet research, however, has tended to leave the History high and dry, stranded like a beached whale. The chapter on What is History? returns to or reiterates the theme of Carr as a man of unresolved dilemmas. He affirmed the "relativism of history-writing" yet was himself embarked on a history anchored in a "thoroughly deterministic framework of the past". Haslam asks if Carr was serious. Carr himself liked the term frivolous to describe this kind of exposition and writing, something psychologically less encumbered, allowing "grand, irresponsible generalisations". For some of his fellow historians, however, this was the frivolity of a hand-grenade thrower. A little of that explosion reverberates still.

In the final analysis, Haslam never quite comes to grips with his title. What precisely was Carr's "integrity"? If it was the maintenance of "cool detachment" at all costs and against all the odds of his subterranean instincts, then it automatically generated self-protective mechanisms, the vices of icy disdain, Olympian superiority and ruthless egoism. Haslam treats the latter with measured sympathy without disguising or concealing the mayhem they induced. In so doing, he provides useful insights into much of Carr's motivation and how to make effective appraisal of his work, its design and intent. It does not make Carr any more likeable, which is irrelevant, but it does assist in decoding the various Carrs or discerning the particular guise in which he presented himself, the frivolous included.Remonstrance, admonition, indictment, lay at Aunt Amelia's door.

John Erickson is emeritus professor, defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr, 1892-1982

Author - Jonathan Haslam
ISBN - 1 85984 733 1
Publisher - Verso
Price - £25.00
Pages - 300

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