Monday, 27 January 2020

Keith Flett - Once Again on EH Carr (2000)

Once Again on E.H. Carr
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: October 2000
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 10: Autumn 2000 

Most readers of this newsletter will know of E.H. Carr through reading some of his Penguin volumes on post-1917 Russia, or his well argued explanation of how history and historians work, What is History.

Some may know of a vitrolic attack that the right-wing historian Norman Stone made on E.H. Carr some years ago in the London Review of Books. Now the LRB, generally an excellent left of centre read, is at it again. The occasion is a review of a recently published biography of Carr [Verso, 1999] by Jonathan Haslam. In the review, by Anatol Lieven in the August 24th 2000 edition of the LRB, the earlier attack of Stone is renewed and expanded.

It must be said that, despite being published by a leading left-wing publishing house, Haslam’s biography of Carr is not the kind of history that most supporters of this newsletter would write. It does not primarily seek to explain Carr’s historical writings in terms of the social and political context of the times he wrote in. Neither does it ponder too much on the striking contradiction between the eminent academic and veteran reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and the sympathiser with Soviet Russia. Rather Haslam dwells on Carr’s personal life and his various marriages and affairs and, at the least, implies that this impacted considerably on the kind of history that Carr wrote.

It makes, of course, for an interesting book and one which, were our broadsheet papers like the Guardian and Independent not so parochial, could well have been serialised with interest and profit for all concerned. It does not however make it a satisfactory book.

Inevitably it is the personal side of Carr’s activities that Lieven picks up on. He indulged in various affairs while a Professor at Aberystwyth in the 1940s and, more seriously, appears to have treated his partners not so much as equals or even wives but as research assistants. Lieven goes much further than Haslam and suggests that no historian that went on like this could possibly have written decent history. Although Carr’s forays into diplomatic and international history are excused.

Do we and should we care about any of this? The answer is yes. We may deplore Carr’s attitude to women, but, it is hardly a surprise that someone of his class background and position went on as he did. The reality is that the attack on Carr is because, while never a marxist, he wrote a sustained body of extremely well researched left-wing history. Carr was sympathetic to, but critical of, Stalinist Russia, and very much associated with New Left Review in the later years of his life. Despite what Lieven suggests in the LRB, nothing that has come out of the Soviet archives since the collapse of Stalinism has suggested any need for a major revision of Carr’s work on the Bolsheviks. It may be that there are some historians, socialist or otherwise, who have model personal lives and this shines through into their history. How one would tell I’m not sure.

Those who recall an earlier LRB attack on the research methods of Christopher Hill will be relieved to know however that Carr’s research methods are acquitted by Lieven, perhaps a little less so by Haslam himself. It seems that Carr would write a short rough draft of a chapter often before the research for it was complete, work out what detail needed to be added, and then write this on cards or scraps of paper which were added into the text. Only one person could properly read his writing- the female Scottish typist who turned at least his later Mss into something publishable. About her, of course, Haslam and Lieven, are silent.

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