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Brian Manning

History and socialism

(Spring 2001)

From International Socialism 2:90, Spring 2001:
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jonathan Haslam
The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892–1982
Verso 2000, £15

E.H. Carr belonged to the British establishment. He was a classical scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, an official in the Foreign Office from 1916 to 1936, and a leader writer on The Times in the 1940s. After the Second World War he devoted 30 years of his life to a massive and scholarly History of Soviet Russia Since the Revolution in 14 volumes. He was a public figure during a large part of the 20th century and exercised considerable influence through his books, journalism and radio talks. His powerful and original analysis of international relations between the two world wars, The Twenty Years Crisis (1939), became a classic, and his published lectures on What is History? (1961) stimulated a large audience, selling nearly a quarter of a million copies. From within the establishment he was a persistent critic of the conventional thinking, assumptions and prejudices of the ruling class. He operated on the fringes of Marxism and socialism.

Haslam originally intended to write ‘a purely intellectual biography’ of Carr, but he was persuaded ‘to treat the whole man’, which means that we have long accounts of his marriages which add nothing to our understanding of his historical work or his politics. Haslam uses letters and minor pieces of journalism which helpfully enlarge our knowledge of the development of Carr’s thinking. Haslam does place him in the history of his times, but this history is often sketchy and superficial, and the analysis of Carr’s ideas lacks penetration

Carr came late to the academic world and to history, but he was denied the academic jobs for which he was pre-eminently well qualified – his scholarship was never doubted – by appointing committees which typically subordinated academic standards to their political prejudices. He embarked on his study of Soviet Russia at the age of 54 and without paid employment or grants to fund his research: ‘Increasingly Carr found himself in internal exile, cut off from a secure source of income, living actively by his pen.’ He himself said, ‘The fact that I was working against a Cold War background of Western political opinion ... inevitably meant that my work was regarded by my critics as an apologia for Soviet policies.’ [1] Faced with the remorseless hostility of his own class, he showed courage and integrity in relentlessly pursuing and publishing his work (Haslam’s biography would be better entitled The Virtues of Integrity).

Past, present and future

Carr asserted that the function of the historian was to understand the past as ‘the key to understanding the present’. This is especially relevant today when the central thrust of revisionism is that the past should be studied in its own light, without importing into it concepts and issues that did not arise until a later age which can cause misunderstanding and distortion of the past. This is a helpful warning, but it can be carried to such absurdities as denying that the English Civil War was a revolution because that term then meant only the rotation of a wheel. Carr, however, sensibly maintained that historians, by increasing their awareness of the society in which they live, gain a better grasp of how it differs from past society and become better able to guard against reading the present anachronistically into the past. [2] But revisionists go further and seek to break the link between past and present, and assert that the purpose of history is not to understand the present but only the past.

Carr, however, saw not only the link between past and present, but also the link between present and future: ‘The historian undertakes a twofold operation: to analyse the past in the light of the present and the future which is growing out of it, and to cast the beam of the past over the issues which dominate present and future.’ It is, he said, the function of the historian not only to analyse what he or she finds significant in the past, but also ‘to isolate and illuminate the fundamental changes at work in the society in which we live’, which will entail a view ‘of the processes by which the problems set to the present generation by these changes can be resolved’. People are a product of history, their judgements and actions conditioned by the past, and the historian should work to make them aware of this, but also to make them aware of the issues and problems of their own time; to break the chain that binds them to the past and present, and so enable them to influence the future. [3]

Current historiography seeks to break the links between past, present and future. It does so sometimes by denying that history has any objective reality or validity but arises in the present day world of the historian and is recreated in his or her subjective imagination as if it were the past – history is not actually the past but really the present in disguise. Or the past is represented as meaningless, being random events dictated by chance and accident, without pattern or direction. Carr sought to rebut both these mystifications, the objectives of which are to prevent people understanding the present or controlling the future. As Chris Harman observes, ‘If a ruling class can stop people understanding where society comes from, it can stop them understanding the development of society and so consolidate its power.’ [4] The breaking of the link between past, present and future prevents the projection into the future of the struggle against capitalism and for transition to socialism. [5]

Planned economy

Carr saw the trend towards monopoly under capitalism and increasing state intervention as having led to an uneasy interregnum in which capitalism was ‘likely to be succeeded by a new order containing both elements of planned economy and elements of socialism in the sense of a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods’:

It seems to me that the conditions for that breakdown or transformation of capitalism had matured, at any rate over most of Europe when the First World War broke out; after the war capitalism in the old sense never came back and there was an uneasy interregnum in which capitalism and socialism, national planning and socialist planning, jostled one another without really finding any working compromise. [6]

Carr did not regard a planned economy as being necessarily socialist, for it could take the form of ‘state monopoly capitalism’. He maintained that the problem after the Second World War was to make planning for socialism compatible with political liberty. He thought that reconciling planning for socialism with democracy would be a difficult task, ‘but it is the only course which may yet ... enable democracy to survive’. He saw nationalisation by the Labour government after the Second World War as being a step in the right direction, but it did not result in control over the economy, and it could not advance socialism until the worker became ‘a full and equal partner in the running of affairs, including the management of its industries and its economic policy’. [7] It is not true that his model of progress was one ‘which ends up a Soviet-style planned economy’. [8] He did see the dominant trend in his time as being towards a planned economy, not on a Russian or British model but on a socialist model.

As a leader writer on The Times during the Second World War, Carr advocated a planned economy for Britain: ‘Economically, planning must take the place of laissez-faire; the wellbeing of the community and not the price mechanism must be the governing factor in our economic policy; and planned consumption – an adequate standard of living for all – must be the basis of our system.’ [9] He was above all concerned that there should be no return to mass unemployment, which ‘has been the specific scourge of the contemporary Western world and takes a high place among the ultimate causes of the Second World War’ (he is thinking of unemployment and the rise of fascism). He saw full employment as ‘the master key to social justice in the modern industrial state, the dynamic force which alone can cure the major social evils of our time’. It was the means to mobilise resources for increased production, and to bring about freedom from want, greater equality and social justice. [10] But a socialist economy and socialist values were not established, and after Carr’s time this undermined resistance to the resurgence of mass unemployment and the arbiter of the price mechanism.

Hitler and Stalin

From the 1920s and 1930s onwards, Carr’s vision had been dominated by his analysis that traditional or laissez-faire capitalism, and its ideology of individualism and liberalism, was breaking down and being replaced at the national level by planned economies – the planning and control of production and distribution centrally by the state. He regarded this as the revolution of his time. He saw this developing in Russia and Germany, but it would become a worldwide trend, drawing in the Western democracies. This led him to equate Hitler’s Germany with Stalin’s Russia (with a preference for the former). ‘Fascism, whatever its catch words and slogans,’ he wrote in 1936, ‘is as revolutionary in essence as the Soviet system.’ In 1942 he judged that ‘Hitler has consummated the work, which Marx and Lenin began, of overthrowing the 19th century capitalist system’.

There is no reason to say that Russia is Left and Germany is Right. That is all complete nonsense, nor do I think it any use to talk of the wickedness of one side or the other, whether Hitler is wickeder than Stalin or the converse is true ... Both the German and Russian regimes today represent a reaction against the individualist ideology prevailing, at any rate in Western Europe, for the last 150 years ... The whole system of individualist laissez-faire economy has, as we know, broken down. [11]

Carr, however, failed to recognise the differences between the economies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Under Hitler, ‘private enterprise remained overwhelmingly preponderant not only in agriculture, retail and wholesale trade, but in industry and finance’, and ‘the market continued to mediate myriad relations which, in the USSR, were now mediated directly by and within the state’. [12]

Moral judgement in history

Carr was constantly accused of being in the 1930s an apologist for Hitler, and in the 1940s and 1950s an apologist for Stalin. Orwell said cruelly, and falsely, that he had transferred his allegiance from Hitler to Stalin (it was characteristic of Carr that this did not alter his high regard for Orwell). But Carr’s defective evaluations of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia sprang from his historical method. In the first place, he viewed history from above rather than from below, through the eyes of governments and governing groups. Isaac Deutscher, in a review, criticised the first four volumes of History of Soviet Russia for being ‘primarily a history of the ruling group’ (this did not disturb Carr’s friendship with Deutscher). In the second place, Carr rejected the passing of moral judgements – the business of the historian ‘is to explain why people act and think in the way they do’, whether they ‘were right or wrong does not, from my point of view, matter’. [13] This is likely to be interpreted by the reader as an apologia for what they do. But Carr was uneasy and inconsistent about this. He did make an unsatisfactory distinction between judgement on individuals and judgement on the society which produced them. He shifted the terminology of the debate from moral judgement to value judgement. He recognised that historians inevitably brought their own values and those of their society to history. These values are not absolute but relative to the milieux in which they arise. [14] The important point, in his view, was that historians should be conscious of those values and make them explicit. However, this contradicts his statement that the historian was concerned only with what people thought and did in history, and that whether they were right or wrong did not matter. A socialist brings socialist values to history, which like other values are relative to their milieu. For socialists it does matter whether they judge Hitler and Stalin right or wrong, otherwise their history becomes, like Carr’s, an apologia, whether intended or unintended, for Hitler or Stalin.

Carr saw the question of moral judgement as being particularly a problem for the historian of the contemporary world. ‘And if anyone cavils at the statement that it is not our business to pass moral judgement on Hitler or Stalin – or, if you like, on Senator McCarthy’, it is because they are our contemporaries and our current opinions make it more difficult for us to be objective than in dealing with periods of history more remote from our own. Judgement has to be postponed to a future in which their actions can be viewed in a longer perspective: ‘This is one of the embarrassments – I should say, the principal embarrassment – of the contemporary historian.’ [15]

Carr debated with Isaiah Berlin questions of causation, inevitability and moral judgement in history. Carr held that historians should not assume that an event is inevitable until it has taken place. He observed that there were alternative courses available to the actors and other options than the one which prevailed: ‘Nothing in history is inevitable except in the formal sense that, for it to have happened otherwise, the antecedent causes would have had to be different.’ [16] In theory this is logical, but there is a problem in practice which has been raised by revisionist historians – that it may bias the historian to ignore or underestimate the alternative courses and options, and to assume that all things happening before the event were causes of that event. The task is to establish whether there is sufficient evidence that such and such factors were or were not probable causes of the event. Carr noted that interpretations depend on establishing priorities amongst the causes presented by the historian. [17] But he treated what happened as a fait accompli, and this laid him open to the criticism of Berlin that he refrained from moral judgement on what happened because it happened. It does not follow, however, that being able to cite causes for what happened excludes making a moral judgement on it. [18] Socialist history requires value judgements.

Carr was concerned to preserve the concept of progress in history. As a result he saw ‘the most significant of all the achievements of the Russian Revolution’ as the industrialisation of Russia under Stalin, but added that it ‘would be wrong to minimise or condone the sufferings and horrors inflicted on large sections of the Russian people in the process of transformation’. [19] He drew an analogy with the earlier industrialisation of Britain, when peasants were driven off the land, workers herded into unhealthy factories and unsanitary dwellings, and child labour exploited. But he argued in 1961 that historians accepted that measures of coercion and exploitation were an unavoidable part of the cost of industrialisation, and they do not say that it would have been better if it had not happened: ‘This example is of particular interest to me because I hope soon in my history of Soviet Russia to approach the problem of collectivisation of the peasant as a part of the cost of industrialisation; and I know well that if, following the example of historians of the British industrial revolution, I deplore the brutalities and abuses of collectivisation, but treat the process as an unavoidable part of the cost of a desirable and necessary policy of industrialisation, I shall incur charges of cynicism and of condoning evil things.’ [20] This serves as a justification for Stalin. But the concept of progress in history requires a broader political, social and ideological context. Carr had considered the Russian Revolution as a ‘thoroughgoing experiment in socialism and planned economy’. He did not appraise the achievement of industrialisation in terms of progress toward socialism.

A socialist revolution?

In the end, however, in 1971, Carr did pass judgement on the Russian Revolution and the role of Stalin: ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat ... was a political myth.’ If it was not the dictatorship of the proletariat, was it nevertheless socialism that had been established?

The Soviet industrialisation firmly rejected the bourgeois pattern of industrial revolution, and was based on the conception of central planning in the collective interests of society. In this sense its socialist credentials were impeccable, and the scepticism of the opposition was unjustified. But, in the sense in which socialism was identified with the aims or achievements of the proletariat, and proclaimed social equality as the goal, it could not be called socialist ... What Marx and Lenin meant by a proletarian revolution, and what the Russian Revolution failed to achieve, was a process of human emancipation which would abolish exploitation, not a revolution which would expose the masses to new forms of inequality and new forms of bureaucratic organisation and oppression.

At the apex of the process, Carr continued, stood ‘a politically oriented and organised ruling group, whose core consisted of a small circle of party leaders by whom major decisions of policy were taken’. And above them towered Stalin. He broke the link with the revolution. He exploited the workers as mercilessly as he exploited the peasants: ‘He drove into opposition, crushed, and finally exterminated the old party leaders of the school of Lenin ... The purges had more of the aspect of a “White” than of a “Red” terror; their principal author stood out in the guise of a counter-revolutionary monster.’ [21] The industrialisation which Carr had deemed the ‘most significant’ achievement of the revolution took place in the context of the destruction of the socialist revolution.

Although subjected to its hostility, Carr passed his life within the establishment, and he had no political base. At the end he was overtaken by pessimism. In 1978 he wrote in the New Left Review, ‘I am not reassured when I look at the present disarray of the Left, divided into a galaxy of minute warring sects, united only by their failure to attract more than an insignificant fringe of the workers’ movement, and by the brave illusion that their prescriptions for revolution represent the interests and ambitions of the workers.’ He saw the choice as being for the left to become ‘an educational and propagandist group, divorced from political action’ because it had no ‘solid revolutionary base’, or to go ‘into current politics, become social democrats, frankly recognise and accept the capitalist system, pursue those limited ends which can be achieved within the system, and work for those compromises between employers and workers which serve to maintain it’. [22] Sadly, he was prepared to abandon his life-long struggle against capitalism without any realistic hope of achieving ‘those limited ends’. But he had fought a good fight.


1. J. Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892–1982 (London 2000), pp. 137, 155.

2. E.H. Carr, What is History? (London 1961), pp. 20, 31, 35, 38; E.H. Carr, The New Society (London 1951), pp. 101–103.

3. E.H. Carr, The New Society, op. cit., chapter 1.

4. C. Harman, History, Myth and Marxism, in J. Rees (ed.), Essays on Historical Materialism (London 1998), pp. 9–10.

5. A. Callinicos, Marxism and the Crisis in Social History, in J. Rees (ed.), op. cit., p. 40.

6. J. Haslam, op. cit., p. 134.

7. E.H. Carr, The New Society, op. cit., pp. 36, 39, 55.

8. The Future of History, Socialist History 14 (1999), p. 13.

9. J. Haslam, op. cit., p. 88.

10. E.H. Carr, Nationalism and After (London 1945), pp. 68–69.

11. J. Haslam, op. cit., pp. 74–75, 78, 98.

12. E. Acton, Nazism and Stalinism: A Suitable Case for Comparison?, New Appreciations 39 (1998), Historical Association Pamphlet, pp. 25–26.

13. J. Haslam, op. cit., p. 162.

14. E.H. Carr, The New Society, op. cit., pp. 101–103; E.H. Carr What is History?, op. cit., pp. 72–73, 76–78.

15. E.H. Carr, What is History?, op. cit., p. 72.

16. Ibid., p. 90.

17. Ibid., pp. 83–84.

18. J. Haslam, op. cit., pp. 201–202.

19. Ibid., p. 248.

20. E.H. Carr, What is History?, op. cit., pp. 74–75.

21. J. Haslam, op. cit., pp. 255–256.

22. Ibid., p. 287.

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