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A liberal historian, EH Carr interrogated misrepresentation, misuse of facts in history

By Harsh Thakor* 

On November 3rd, we commemorated the 40th death anniversary of E.H.Carr who made an outstanding contribution as a liberal historian and gave a new dimension to method of historical research. Carr was an epitome of historical accuracy, being more illustrative than any historian on Soviet Russia. Even though a liberal democrat he applied the Marxist historical materialist method.
Carr was not a Stalinist, as many Western writers dubbed him. However he pointed out many of Stalin’s measures undertaken were imperative for Russia to save itself from the encirclement of Western Countries. Carr made it clear that whatever his crimes, Stalin was the anti-thesis of Hitler, saving a progressive state and much more in tune with the given situation than Leon Trotsky. Carr supported Lenin but categorised many of Stalin’s measures as cruel or coercive, condemning Stalin’s suppression of opposition in Russia. Still with great foresightedness, Carr summarised how infiltration of foreign spies was fermenting at a height. A most remarkable contribution of Carr was defending USSR at the start of the Cold War and days by gauging the conspiracy hatched by the imperialist countries and recognising USSR as the true liberators against the Nazis in World War 2.
Today we need historians to resurrect the work and approach of Carr with globalisation and capitalism engulfing every corner of the globe and anti-Marxist propaganda fermenting at a pitch. Nurturing his very kind would pave the path for the lies of pro-imperialist Western media to be exposed. It is fascinating to evaluate what shaped a person into a Carr.

Life history

Edward Hallett Carr, known to readers as E. H. Carr, was born in North London to a family of liberal-progressive views and educated at Merchant Taylor’s School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Carr graduated with a degree in classics in 1916.
Carr was not a historian by traditional standards. He did not study history at university, nor did he go on to take a PhD and follow a conventional academic career. After graduating from Cambridge in 1916 with a classics degree he joined the Foreign Office, which proved hugely influential in the way he later approached the study of history.
For two decades between 1916 and 1936, Carr served in the British Foreign Office. His work took him to the Paris peace conference in 1919 and the League of Nations during the 1920s. A posting to the Baltic city of Riga further sharpened his interest in Russian history and culture.
Carr wrote prolifically through the 1930s and during World War II was an assistant editor at The Times. He joined the academic staff at Oxford University after the war and remained there until his death.
He became a Fellow of Trinity in 1955 and remained so until his death. Here Carr worked on a massive 14-volume work on Soviet history entitled A History of Soviet Russia, a project on which he was still engaged at the time of his death in 1982. Carr had planned to take the series up to the Soviet victory of 1945, but died before he could complete the project.
In 1961 he delivered the G.M. Trevelyan lectures which became the basis for his book, 'What is History?'
Carr's last book, 1982's The Twilight of the Comintern, examined the response of the Comintern to fascism in 1930–1935. A book that Carr was unable to complete before his death, and was published posthumously in 1984, was The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War.
Gravitating towards the left throughout his career, Carr defined his role as the theorist who would shape a new international order.

History of Soviet Russia

Though he penned several earlier books on Russia, Carr’s best-known work in this field was A History of Soviet Russia, published in 14 volumes between 1950 and 1978. It was later condensed into a single work, The Russian Revolution: From Lenin to Stalin (1917-1929). The book was deeply revered by numerous prominent historians, including A. J. P. Taylor, Isaac Deutscher, Hugh Seton-Watson and Eric Hobsbawm. It brilliantly reflected the historical phenomena of the time and intermingling events.
Carr’s writings reflected that USSR did exactly what the doctor ordered and how Soviet Russia won a victory against bourgeoisie democracy, crystallising the most progressive social system ever in history. It illustrated how USSR through establishing planned economy surpassed every other nation in Industrial production, health, literacy and employment. Carr reflected the idealist essence of Trotskyism.
Carr was often accused by liberal-conservatives of being ‘soft’ on communism, an admirer of Vladmir Lenin and an apologist for Joseph Stalin. Historians on the right criticised Carr for accepting Soviet sources and information blindly, and for paying no heed to the use of violence and terror. I rate Carr’s evaluation of history, more balanced or illustrative than any historian on USSR.What is striking is that without wearing red glasses many a reader became an admirer of USSR, after reading it.Carr does not arrive at blind conclusions, but enables student think for himself, portraying events with pinpoint accuracy. Carr’s meticulous details of exposing the conspiracy of the Western countries to destabilise and topple Soviet Russia and how the Russian Revolution ushered a new era win a permanent place in the treasure house of any history reader. Inspite of not presenting his work as a polemic, it shook the bourgeois historians.
Quoting historian Isaac Deutscher “Mr Carr’s work will remain a great and enduring landmark in historical writing devoted to the Bolshevik revolution. Its merits are so obvious that they need no further underlining in a journal for specialists. Even the criticisms made here testify to its high standard, for they could not apply to a work less distinguished than this History is by its consistency of method and unity of approach. In the future various schools of historians will study the Russian Revolution with the same interest and passion with which the records of the French Revolution have been searched for the last 130 years. But every future historian will have to turn to Mr Carr as his first great guide as the French historian still turns to the work of Thiers, with which Mr Carr’s History has quite a few features in common. This comparison gives perhaps a measure of Mr Carr’s achievement.”

‘What is History?’

In ‘What is History’ Carr endeavoured in a work that transcended zones unprecedented. He interrogates misrepresentation and misuse of facts in history by analysing how the fact is drafted by the historian and then presented by splitting facts of the past with that of the present. No work more dug into the limitations inherent in study of history. Carr formulated historiographical principles bidding farewell traditional historical methods and practices
Carr illustrates the distinction between Reconstructionism and constructionism by arguing that historians do not embark on their mission in two separate ways with research in the sources for the facts, and then giving an evaluation adopting concepts or models of explanation. He is laying down the criteria of the historical method – derived on the ground of empiricism as a process of questions suggested to the historian by the evidence, with answers from the evidence intertwined by the application to the evidence of viable theory as judged appropriate. Carr underlines the continuity and rupture of history and how a series of intermingling events and their inter relationship determine it and social circumstances govern the life of man
'What is History?' backs the imperative nature of subjectivity in the study of history, arguing that we are all moulded by the society and the time that we live in. Ultimately, by understanding this, we are able to think critically about the evidence laid before us, before we begin to knit together the fragmented questions of the past, in a symmetrical form.
In seeking objective knowing Carr argued “the historian must have an end in view and be willing to use theory. The historian must also recognise there are no absolutes in doing history apart from the certainty that all is relative. .”
‘A critical Appraisal' by William Cox is a must read as well as the review of Alan Munslow.
Quoting Alan Munslow in book review of Michael Cox “Carr argued that history is always constructed, is a discourse about the past and not a reflection of it. Carr recognised that history as a discipline does not follow the logic of discovery. What is History? is the result of the interaction between the historian and his facts, a perpetual dialogue between the present and the past.
“As one of our leading political constructionist historians it is often what he did not say and that he did not follow up his insights that often surprise me. His scepticism about the nature and status of historical knowledge, is summarised in his view that ideology 'is the point where history and politics meet’ This echoes his judgement that the distinction of the observer and the observed is facile and misleading.”
History, Carr states, is “social process” and no individual is free of social constraint, so we cannot impose our modern understanding of the world on our ancestors. Carr has demonstrated that the historian and his facts are inseparable- the facts create the historian and the historian creates the facts. Carr has manifested that history is ultimately subjective because the historian always operates within the boundary of his subjective worldview. Carr refuted the misconception, often held by Positivists that history is simply about the gathering of facts based on Empirical Theory of Knowledge, or studied as a hard science.
Carr recalled an influential professor who argued that Herodotus’s account of the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC was shaped by his attitude to the Peloponnesian War. For Carr, Herodotus demonstrated that the historian frequently does not draw from objective fact, but his experiences of them. “Our picture of Greece in the 5th century BC is defective not because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens.”
Historians need to adopt to such an approach to history with the entire world facing an unprecedented economic crisis or complete change in complexion and the noose tightening on the oppressed .We need another Carr to evaluate events like advent of globalisation, Fall of USSR, Iraq War, Gulf crisis, production forms changing in digital age, worldwide uprisings, and above all Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Russian Revolution and the West

EH Carr’s interview in The New Left Review ‘The Russian Revolution and the West' in a most, illustrative and methodical manner, dissects every event that shaped the post-1917 Revolution period. Carr projected that in essence USSR had built a new world, taking human progress to unscaled heights. Even if projecting the dichotomy of Stalin with Lenin, he summed up the circumstances that shaped USSR as major Socialist state power, withstanding the imperialist encirclement. Carr portrayed the bankrupt state of Euro Communism and asserted that Leninism was not dead and buried. Below is my summary of important extracts.
Carr was convinced that Lenin would never have resorted to coercion in the manner of Stalin. Lenin would still probably have promoted large scale-mechanised agriculture and effective control and direction of labour, rejecting Bukharin’s polices of slow paced industrialisation. Carr felt that Stalin built moral authority in the crudest manner and constantly falsified the historical record. In his view Lenin would have relentlessly adopted policy of persuasion, initiated self criticism and never covered up mistakes. Lenin would openly admit errors in part policy, unlike Stalin In Carr’s opinion. , Stalin understood nothing but coercion, and from the first employed this openly and brutally. Under Lenin the path might have been tortuous but not in the manner of Stalin..

On periodisation Carr reflected that an event like the Revolution of 1917 was so sensational in its consequences that it imposes itself on every historian as a turning-point in history, the end or beginning of a period.
Carr stated that the historian has to define his periods and, in the process of deciphering his material, select his own standpoint on the sequence of events. Historians of the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1940 faced a dilemma. , with The revolutionary régime which emerged as a liberating force transformed into a most ruthless force.. Carr felt that historian s either too the road of treating it as a single period with a continuous process of development—and degeneration or divide it into separate periods of liberation and repression.
Carr endorsed the stand that Serious historians who take the first view (I exclude cold-war writers who merely want to blacken Lenin with the sins of Stalin) will point out that both Marx and Lenin (the latter with great emphasis) defined the essentially repressive character of the State; that from the moment when the Russian Soviet Republic established itself as a state it became by its nature an instrument of repression; and that this element was grossly intensified..The historian who opted the two-period line has to locate his watershed. Carr listed a series of events of the transition phase for historians to chose as a watershed point , like the mass repression at the time of the Kronstadt revolt of March 1921, peasant risings in central Russia in the previous winter, Stalin’s conquest of the Party and State machine in the middle twenties, with the campaigns against Trotsky and Zinoviev, and with the expulsion and exile of scores of leading oppositionists in 1928 and large-scale public trials, at which defendants pleaded guilty to bizarre charges of sabotage and treason, in 1930 and 1931? Concentration camps and forced labour existed well before 1930. Carr was not impressed with a solution which defers the watershed till the middle thirties. .


Carr was convinced the world was moving forward upholding1917 revolution as one of the turning-points of history, together of 1914–18, marked the beginning of the end of the capitalist system. Car asserted that the world does not move all the time or in all places at once and that the Bolsheviks won their victory in 1917, not in spite of the backwardness of the Russian economy and society, but because of it. Carr backed the hypothesis that the world revolution of which it was the first stage, and which will complete the downfall of capitalism, will prove to be the revolt of the colonial peoples against capitalism in the guise of imperialism rather than a revolt of the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries.
Carr elaborated how The Russian Revolution overthrew the old order, and planted the Marxist flag. However the Marxist framework was not present and realization of the Marxist perspectives could not therefore have been expected. Carr contrasted the tiny Russian proletariat, almost without education, with what was projected by Marx as the standard-bearer of revolution, and was unequal to the role imposed on it in the Marxist scheme of things. Carr reflected on how Lenin in one of his last essays was critical of the shortage of ‘genuine proletarians’, and remarked that Marx was writing ‘not about Russia, but about capitalism in general’. The dictatorship of the proletariat, was an illusion, in Carr’s view. He analysed that what Trotsky called ‘substitutism’, the substitution of the Party for the proletariat, was an inevitable result in rise of a privileged bureaucracy, and the divorce of the leadership from the masses. Carr still praised USSR for achieving something never done the West.. Capitalism was uprooted and replaced by planned production and distribution; and even if Socialism had not been completed, some of the perquisites for its realization have, however imperfectly, been created.
Carr narrated how, employers and workers still grapple with each other in the traditional way over the division of the profits of capitalist enterprise, though occasions have occurred recently where employers and workers came to an agreement, and the agreement was resisted by the government on the ground of public interest. Secondly, a silent, but very powerful, consensus has been established between employers and workers on the need to maintain profits. He felt it was open to ask which of these two factors will ultimately come out on top. In Carr’s notion , when exploitation of the consumer market strike their optimum height , and when the scope of the reinforcement of capitalism from without are exhausted in any given country, the clash between the interests of employer and worker will once more come to the fore,, and pave the path for the delayed proletarian revolution on a Marxist model. Carr was impressed by the fact that the only considerable revolutions achieved since 1917 have been in China and in Cuba, and that revolutionary movements crystallised only in countries where the proletariat was weak or non-existent.”


Carr exhibited an idealist approach towards Soviet collectivisation policy, assessing subjective conditions were not appropriate, being imposed from above. I regret that Carr did no embark on a venture of formulating an analysis on Revisionism in USSR after 1956. .Carr failed to understand that Stalin inspite of making gross errors, was major architect of Leninism, and Trotsky was a counter –revolutionary. Carr failed to comprehend the circumstances for Stalin to undertake his moves. He did not dig into the archives like Grover Furr, to dwell on the conspiracy of the left opposition. The very element of subjectivity which Carr propounded was lacking or Marxist-Leninist evaluation.
*Freelance journalist who has done extensive research on Communist history



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