Mullahs and kulaks - he would bin them all

November 9, 2001

Forty years ago E. H. Carr published What is History . Richard J. Evans considers the influence this former journalist had on historical thought and how he might view history in the making today

This month is the 40th anniversary of the first publication of E. H. Carr's What is History? Based on his Trevelyan lectures in Cambridge, which were broadcast by the BBC, the book was addressed to a wide audience and has since sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Carr was a former journalist and it is a strikingly readable work that manages to deal with quite difficult theoretical problems in a witty and entertaining way. It has served hundreds of thousands of students in many countries as an introduction to fundamental problems of historical thought, from the role of the individual in history to the nature of objectivity and causation.

While there are many enduring qualities about Carr's book that make it worth reading today, it also has a number of peculiarities. Carr was not a professional historian; he did not have a degree in history; never took a PhD; and wrote What is History? when he was well past retiring age. His real field was international relations. He served as a civil servant in the British Foreign Office for 20 years and later became professor of international relations at Aberystwyth, a post he managed to occupy while simultaneously being deputy editor of The Times. His early intellectual formation as a Foreign Office mandarin was crucial to his views on history. He had the civil servant's disdain for anything that did not serve the purposes of policy formation. In What is History? for example, he argues that the historian's view of causation should be governed by the need to derive useful lessons from historical analysis. A historian should discount accidental causes because they were of no use in the formation of policy. General causes and principles were of use, by contrast, so it was the historian's duty to concentrate on them.

Carr's intellectual formation as a civil servant affected him in another way, too. He had a tendency, particularly in his major work, The History of Soviet Russia , to identify with government, to regard historical events as given and to ignore or dismiss possible alternatives to what happened. Defeated politicians, the marginal and the outcast, those who made no contribution to policy and government, held little or no interest for him. This view expressed itself in Carr's "realist" view of foreign policy and his dismissal of any element of moral judgement in history. Indeed, during the 1930s he was a leading advocate of appeasement. After the war he favoured an accommodation with the Soviet Union. He was critical of Stalin's brutalities and inhumanities, but he regarded Stalinist policies such as the collectivisation of agriculture as historically justified because, he thought, they had assisted the modernisation of the Soviet Union.

Had he lived to experience the post-Communist world, in which the United States remained the only superpower, Carr would doubtless have championed the recognition of American global hegemony in the same spirit of realism that he approached Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in earlier decades.

Carr thought that history could provide lessons for present action. He was also a rationalist who had no understanding of religion or any element of the irrational in history at all: hence his dismissal of Russian peasants' opposition to collectivisation as the product of ignorance and backwardness. One suspects, therefore, that he would have had no sympathy with Islamic extremists and that his first approach to the present global crisis would have been to advise everyone to back US action. He would have had no truck with those who think that Afghanistan presents ethnic and political problems and geographical terrain that are too difficult for any outside power to master. For Carr, one imagines, the advanced economy and technological supremacy of the US would have put it in the vanguard of progress. The religious fanaticism of the Taliban, their suppression of women's rights, their hostility to rational and scientific education and the economic backwardness and poverty of their country would have made them, in his eyes, mere obstacles to be swept away - much as the kulaks were swept away by Stalin. For the same reasons, Carr would doubtless have supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan some years ago.

At the same time, however, one imagines that he would have insisted on the importance of economic development in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, and would have had little time for the motley collection of tribal chiefs and regional warlords who make up the Northern Alliance. Their track record, he might have said, looking back to the decades of civil war that had slowly reduced the country's major cities like Kabul to a heap of rubble even before American and British bombs and missiles began to rain down upon them, does not inspire confidence in their ability to modernise the country, bring it peace and prosperity and enthrone secular rationalism in place of Islamic fundamentalism.

Carr's own track record of predicting the future was not very good, however. He was in the British Foreign Office at the time of the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, whose provisions for the future peace of Europe were probably the least adequate of any peace settlement in modern times. In later life he admitted that his view of Nazi Germany during the 1930s had been misguidedly optimistic. He died in 1982, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but here too his view that a planned economy was the way of the future has not been borne out by events. Indeed, Carr's whole career was a contradiction of his opinion that history could be a useful guide for future political conduct.

So he would probably have underestimated the problems that face the US and its allies in establishing order in Afghanistan and creating a peaceful, stable and progressive political system there. History, at least in the way Carr thought of it, is probably a poor guide to policy in this sense. Historians are better at pointing out problems than finding solutions. Our emphasis on history as an arena of constant change has a kind of self-limiting effect, as we look to recent rather than remote historical developments to explain conflicts such as those that have developed in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere. Carr's justification for the study of history is unusually instrumentalist, therefore. By putting it so elegantly and entertainingly, he provokes readers to think of their own reasons for studying it.

History seems to me such a varied and protean subject that the best overall justification for it lies in the way in which it enlarges our knowledge and understanding of the human condition by confronting us with peoples and cultures that are utterly remote from our own in many ways. That is one reason why, for example, historians have spent so much time rejecting Carr's emphasis on the rational and investigating instead the irrational, the emotional and the marginal. One lesson for the present crisis might be that it would help the confrontation with the Taliban, and the construction of a post-Taliban social and political order, if we could better understand the conditions that brought them to power, the factors that have kept them there and the reasons why they think and behave as they do.

Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University and author of In Defence of History , has written a new introduction to E. H. Carr's What is History? , which is reissued this month by Palgrave. He will be speaking at the What is History Now? conference at the Institute of Historical Research in London, November 14-15. For more information, visit: http://ihr.sas.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/programme.html

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