Duncan Hallas

Obituary: E.H. Carr

Tell it as it is

(December 1982)

From Socialist Review, December 1982-January 1983: 11, p.12
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

E.H. Carr, the leading bourgeois historian of post-revolutionary Russia, died in the same month as Brezhnev. Duncan Hallas assesses his work.

The death of an eighty year old academic and former Foreign Office official who never, at any stage in his long life, had any connections with the working class movement, would not normally be worthy of remark in this journal.

E.H. Carr, who died last month and who was precisely these things, is the exceptional case.

He wrote a fourteen volume history of the USSR from 1918 to 1929 (with a posthumous volume on the Communist International from 1926 to 1929 still to be published).

Trotsky vindicated

The merits of that history, by far the most serious and substantial work on the subject and indispensable reading for anyone seriously interested in the origins of Stalinism, are one thing.

Its impact and long term influence on the left, non-Stalinist, Stalinist and Stalinoid alike – not to mention bourgeois academic ‘experts’ – is another thing entirely.

In so far as any writings can be said to have influenced the subsequent course of events, and we should not exaggerate the extent; to which this possible, Carr’s successive volumes did so. They changed the whole intellectual climate on the left – at least on the intellectual left and to some degree more generally.

Carr vindicated Trotsky; more accurately he vindicated Trotsky’s analysis of the decline of Revolutionary Russia in the twenties, of the emergence of a conservative bureaucracy as the ruling group in the USSR and of the Communist International as a revolutionary force.

This was certainly not his intention. His treatment of Trotsky is unsympathetic. His own background as a sophisticated, cultured and slightly cynical representative of the British bourgeoisie (quite literally so as a member of the Foreign Office) inclined him to be sympathetic with the ‘practical’, limited and conservative forces gathered around Stalin.

It is not at all accidental that he set out to write ‘the history, not of the revolution, but of the society that emerged from the revolution.’ His account of the great crisis in Germany in 1923, and that of Bulgaria in the same year, which form the core of his forth volume (The Interegnum 1923-24), is cautiously sceptical about the prospects for revolution in either country.

Yet the German events do form the core of Carr’s account of 1923. Unlike most bourgeois commentators (not to mention the Stalinists), he understood that 1923 was a decisive turning point for Germany, for Europe, for the USSR, for the Communist International, and therefore at one remove, for the world.

Devastating attack

Little in Carr’s earlier works, notably The Romantic Exiles, (1933), a study of the populist exiles from the late 1840s to the late 1860s, suggested a profound analysis of the Russian Revolution and its outcome. Except one thing. His obsessive conscientiousness and scrupulous regard for demonstrable fact. Hardly enough by itself, to make a great historian but, as it happened, the most important possible qualifications apart from his linguistic skills, that a historian of Russia in the twenties could have. It was the sheer weight of his documentation in a field dominated by lies, half-truths and fantasy, that made his history so outstanding.

Carr himself, in his influential and important What is History (1961), made a devastating attack on the empirical method, choosing as his central target Von Ranke’s ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (tell it ‘as it really was’). Of course he was entirely right as against the Anglo-American academic establishment of the time. But it was his own ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ that ultimately destroyed Stalinist myths and the various western cold war counter parts.

When The Bolshevik Revolution; Volume 1 appeared in 1950, at the height of the cold war, there were two orthodoxies. One, represented by Fleet Street, the BBC, Tribune, practically everyone who could get a book published, and both the Labour and Conservative parties, held that the horrors of Stalinism, which were well publicised and even exaggerated, were the result of .the original sin of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and revolution in general.

The other, the Stalinist version, was that it was all a pack of lies, that in the land of ‘Socialism and Peace’ there were only happy workers and smiling peasants. Trotsky was a fascist agent and Stalin was the infallible leader and teacher of the world proletariat.

The combined weight of these two sets of falsifications was immense, crushing and was disputed only by a handful of ‘sectarians’.

Carr’s cool, eminently factual and reflective work was ill received by the spokesmen of both orthodoxies. Professor Shapiro of LSE denounced it in terms about as abusive as those of James Klugman of the British CP, and so did all the deluded followers, not to say sycophants, of their respective dogmas. To the handful of revolutionaries of that time it came as a breath of fresh air.


But it was the second volume (1952) that had the greatest impact. It deals with the Russian economy from 1917 to 1923 and it demonstrates, with an immense wealth of data from the contemporary Russian sources, how the working class disintegrated and finally disappeared as a political force. The facts so often cited by many of us are facts, scrupulously documented, extracted by Carr.

Stalin was still alive then and the British CP greeted Volume II with a large barrage of vulgar, ignorant abuse. The British establishment, with the significant exception of The Economist, ignored it. Over time, though, the massive, impeccable documentation had its effects.

Not quite the effect that we innocent – or fairly innocent – Trotskyists thought at the time that it would have. We believed, with some justification, that Stalinism was a system of lies, deception and murder, and that ‘the truth would set us free.’

We had not then, in the early fifties, fully understood Marx’s aphorism that being determines consciousness and we expected too much, at least I did, from a meticulously documented account which, unlike Trotsky’s earlier work, could not be dismissed as Simply anti-Stalinist argument.

The ‘New Left’ from 1957, the more able bourgeois academics, from a rather later time, and at last the Communist Party itself, proved able to come to terms with Carr, i.e. with the actual history of Russia to 1929, and to interpret it in a conservative sense. They did no violence to Carr’s own outlook in this respect. His one volume summary of his great work (1979) is imbued with the spirit of ‘what is, must be’.

Never mind. Carr’s work is a fundamental break-through in our knowledge of the history of our own century. I have stressed the impact of his earlier volumes, that was greatest at the time, but the whole work is a path-breaking enterprise. The significance of Carr is that he made it impossible for anyone who can read English, and who is not incorrigibly idle or idiotic, to believe in either the bourgeois or the Stalinist myths about the outcome of the Russian revolution. And that is a good deal.

Last updated on 11 May 2010