Monday, 27 January 2020

Michael Cox on EH Carr and Isaac Deutscher (2001)

E. H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher: A Very Special Relationship
Written By: Michael Cox
Date: April 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 12: Summer 2001 

Earlier this year, the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar hosted a round table on “E. H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher and the politics of the Western left during the Cold War era”. This article is taken from Michael Cox’s introduction to the discussion.

E. H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher played a crucial intellectual role during their twenty year period of close association between 1947 - when they first met in London - and 1967 when Deutscher suddenly and tragically died in Italy.

For the left in particular the two men performed a major, almost indispensable function. Most obviously, they helped inform the left about the early years of the Russian revolution, an event that both defended on historical grounds (a not insignificant contribution in the chill days of the early Cold War). Through their massive research they also helped educate a generation about the crucial political battles of the 1920s in the USSR, in the process making it clear that the differences between Lenin and Stalin - and by implication Leninism and Stalinism - were fundamental.

And in their own, very different ways, they did a great deal too in rescuing the reputations of Trotsky and Lenin from their various critics and enemies. True, Carr was more drawn towards Lenin than Trotsky. But he remained an admirer of the great prophet who was first 'armed' and then 'outcast', and indeed observed in one of his reviews of Deutscher's famous trilogy that Deutscher's three volume biography was not only one of the outstanding literary masterpieces of the twentieth century, but more than did justice to the towering historical importance of its subject matter.

The close relationship between the two men was certainly noted (and criticised) at the time. Isaiah Berlin, no less, once remarked that the problem with Carr was not that he was a Marxist himself, but rather that he provided a mantle of respectability for those like Deutscher who were. The right-wing critic, Leopold Labedz, was less restrained. This 'unusal pairing', he noted, were a most formidable team who together probably did more than anybody else in the West to challenge conservative truths about the nature of the Russian revolution. Zbigniew Brzezinski was even less ambiguous. Deutscher, he felt, was beyond the pale, while Carr, in his view, was possibly one of the most dangerous men in Britain. Praise indeed from the doyen of the US Cold War establishment!

Basically, three things brought and kept the two men together: the Cold War itself and their marginal status during the dark days of the McCarthyism; a profound desire to write about the Soviet experince in a serious but sympathetic way; and a critical urge to understand the logic of Stalinism as a complex phenomenon that both challenged the ideals of the October revolution and yet preserved some of its social and economic gains. Neither was an apologist for the USSR. On the other hand, in a bipolar world where there appeared to be little possibility of socialist change in the West, one had only one of two choices they reasoned: either to join in the anti-Soviet chorus, and so fuel the Cold War, or defend the USSR against its liberal and right-wing critics. There was, they believed, no real alternative.

Of course, there were very real differences between Carr and Deutscher of which they were only too well aware. Thus Carr once accused his friend Deutscher of being too much of a 'utopian'. Deutscher in turn took Carr to task of being too drawn to Lenin the state builder and not to Lenin the revolutionary dreamer and thinker.

But this only reflected a more profound chasm. At heart Deutscher remained a Marxist in the classical mode; Carr on the other hand - as Carr himself readily accepted - could never quite escape his English empiricist roots. There were political differences too. Deutscher always saw himself as a revolutionary waiting for the tide to turn.

Carr remained, as Tamara Deutscher once observed, an honest radical who had less interest in revolutions and revolutionaries (though he wrote about both with tremendous verve) than in seeing the creation of a less wasteful, more rational, planned economy probably run by people like Carr himself. Indeed, Carr once opined that even if capitalism was in decline, there was little chance of proletarian revolution. And to that degree, he admitted in 1980, he was 'perhaps' not a Marxist.

But if Carr was no Marxist, he was nonetheless greatly attracted to Deutscher, or more precisely the Deutschers - Isaac and Tamara together. It was not however the most obvious or natural of relationships, bringing together as it did a Jewish revolutionary emigre with one foot in and one foot outside the Trotskyist camp, and someone like Carr, who as Bob Davies has so shrewdly noted, was never quite at home with either the rebels or the rulers of this world.

Yet he was at home with Deutscher it seems, whose books he frequently and positively reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, whose career he often tried to help along (as he did when he got him to do the Trevelyan lectures in Cambridge in 1967), and whose memory he held dear until his own death at the age of 90 in 1982.

Tamara Deutscher put it nicely in 1983 in a short, but moving description of the two men which appeared in the New Left Review (a journal that both men influenced greatly):

“At first sight their personal amity might seem puzzling: on one side a self-educated former member of the Polish Communist Party, and on the other an English historian who was an unmistakable product of Cambridge, a former member of the Foreign Office schooled in a diplomatic service famous as a bastion of the British establishment”.
Yet, the relationship she noted, managed to flourish for the better part of twenty years. Born in the dark days of the early Cold War and cemented by profound personal bonds, it was a most special relationship.

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