When the historian of Soviet Russia and international relations E. H. Carr (1892-1982) first published his Trevelyan lectures of 1961 as What is History? later the same year, the work gained immediate prominence in a field that was in effect free from any real competition.
Forty years and almost 250,000 copies later, a bid for continued hegemony has been made by its reappearance with a new introduction by Richard J. Evans.
The scale of critical (and commercial) success enjoyed by What is History? may be explained by several factors. First, Carr had a distinct advantage over "mainstream" history academics. The majority of such academics (then as now) wrote for each other and this removed the incentive for clarity of expression and argument.
Second, after gaining a first-class degree in classics from Cambridge University (1911-16), Carr spent some 20 years as a civil servant in the Foreign Office at a time when it was possible to fulfil the demands of one's professional duties while launching a parallel career as a broadsheet journalist and author of four books. His first (and only) academic appointment with faculty status, to the Woodrow Wilson chair in international politics at Aberystwyth University in 1936, which he held until 1947, did not see his commitment to journalism in any way diminish as he continued to write leaders for The Times and then, during the war, to act as its assistant editor. This experience imparted to his writing a cogency, clarity and cultural range of reference that was well attuned to the tastes of the educated general public of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. Their identity was securely anchored in and clearly circumscribed by the BBC Third Programme and Listener magazine, to both of which Carr contributed on a regular basis (with edited versions of the Trevelyan lectures appearing in the latter - surely one of the earliest examples of a successful academic media "tie-in").
Allied to his skill as a writer for the non-specialist were his gifts as a consummate self-publicist, who by artfully misrepresenting Isaiah Berlin's views on historical inevitability engineered a high-profile public debate in the media that drew considerable attention to What is History?
Drafted at high speed (just under a month) in 1959, the book is most famous for its insistence on the "situated" nature of the historian's practice - an elegant restatement of Benedetto Croce's "all history is contemporary history" - and for its assault on the notion that facts exist independent of their discoverers. But as both Evans, in his most informative introduction, and Anders Stephanson, in his excellent contribution to Michael Cox's well-conceived and edited collection of essays, remind us, What is History? itself needs to be situated in the intellectual politics of Britain in 1961. If we do so, it is easier to appreciate the complexity of Carr's position, which combined a degree of apparent epistemological relativism with promotion of the idea of progressive action.
According to the tantalisingly brief autobiography that prefaces Cox's volume, Carr attributed his awareness of historical relativism to "a rather undistinguished classics don, who specialised in the Persian wars, (and) taught me that Herodotus' account of them... was shaped and moulded by the Peloponnesian war, which was going on at the time he wrote". Meanwhile, his belief in the centrality of top-down policy-making had been sown in the FO and nurtured by his sympathetic, if not uncritical, account of the evolution of the command structure of government enshrined in his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, 1917-29 (1950-78). It is in this context that one must never forget that as a classicist by training, a mandarin by temperament and a progressive by experience, Carr essentially saw history, like Cicero, not as a dispassionate investigation of the past for its own sake, but as a "guide to right action, a light of truth". It is therefore doubly appropriate that, first, he never held a faculty position in a history department and, second, that "the most powerful intellectual machine I've ever seen in action... whose effortless handling of obscure classical texts I enormously admired and should have liked to emulate" was A. E. Houseman, whose academic life's work was his edition of the stoic author Manilius's didactic astrological poem, the Astronomica , which sought to link the human microcosm with the heavenly macrocosm; the individual to the great plan.
By situating Carr's book historically so well, Evans, Cox et al have provided the strongest argument yet for leaving What is History? on the shelf as a theory-of-history primer for undergraduates and for its alternative use as valuable primary evidence for the history of intellectual politics in mid-20th century Britain. I earnestly hope that Evans's new edition of G. R. Elton's Practice of History (1967; 2001) will have the same effect of transforming that book from undergraduate manual to historical evidence.
By contrast, the latest edition of Arthur Marwick's primer will have distinctly limited value either now or in future. The main reason for this is the author's adoption of a bluff, no-nonsense persona, in which opponents are dismissed crudely and not infrequently misrepresented in a decidedly self-satisfied manner. Marwick's reference to Carr as "that awful old Stalinist and Cambridge snob" is one example. It is hard to know what judgements couched in these terms contribute to a reasoned debate on the standing of Carr. Marwick subjects his current bête noire , postmodernist historiography, to a similarly crude and vulgar biffing and bashing. In this way, an opportunity to generate light rather than heat in an important debate has been lost. Perhaps a way forward here would be to call for a moratorium on the publication of any further theory-of-history primers and that in its place we writers of history try to minimise the need for such books by being more self-reflexive in our practice and more explicit in our methodological assumptions. This way, we might better persuade student readers that the theory of history is for life and not just for the research methods module.
Simon Ditchfield is senior lecturer in history, University of York.
E. H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal
Editor - Michael Cox
ISBN - 0 333 72066 0
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £50.00
Pages - 352