In valedictory speeches, and in one or two obituaries of E. H. Carr, the authors—independently of each other—described him as enigmatic. This struck me, and I asked myself why this very English historian seemed so enigmatic to some of his close professional colleagues. In Britain he became, towards the end of his life, something of a monument to scholarship, recognized, admired, if somewhat grudgingly, and a little neglected. But he knew long years of hostility and even ostracism not only by British Academia but also by the Establishment as a whole.
When I first met him some thirty-six years ago Carr was in the political and academic wilderness and was just embarking on his great History of the Soviet Union. It was at that time that the intellectual friendship between him and Isaac Deutscher was formed. At first sight their personal amity might seem puzzling: on one side, a self-educated former member of the Polish Communist Party—Marxist by conviction, Jewish by origin—who was a refugee from
When the two men first got to know each other, the cold war was just closing in. Carr had the reputation of having been an ‘appeaser’ before the War, and then a ‘fellow-traveller’ during or after it—a stigma that was, of course, a politically much more serious one at the time. It was true that, carried away by indignation against the injustices and stupidities of the Versailles settlement, he had seen Germany for long—for too long—as nothing but a defenceless victim of that settlement, and had tended to view Hitler as a run-of-the-mill statesman in revolt against it. His diplomatic training predisposed him to concentrate his attention on the state rather than to observe society, and he did not perceive the degree to which German society became degraded and corrupted by fascism. Not until 1938 did he become alerted to the dangers which Hitler’s ideology and militarism presented to Europe and the world. Too much of a realist not to be aware that British antagonism to both Germany and Russia was untenable, he then turned his eyes towards the Soviet Union—which had already aroused his interest in the early 1920s. The spectacle of the Stalinist purges of 1936–1938 may have been revolting to him, but it became somewhat blurred by the undoubted economic achievements of the ussr and by the Five Year Plans which seemed to deal so effectively with the anarchy of capitalism in crisis in the West. With Russian entry into the War, the might of the Red Army could not but impress and inspire the admiration of the ex-diplomat who still remembered the sorry sight of Russia on the morrow of the First World War. Now the Soviet Union was, and would remain, an ally whose blemishes could be disregarded or excused. It was respectable to discount these while the brunt of the fighting was borne by the Russian armies in the East. But when the cease-fire sounded and our gallant ally became the villain of the peace, those who opposed the reversal of alliances were derided as fellow-travellers; and as the cold war intensified, this label became more and more damaging. Hence the isolation in which Carr started on his immense work on the ussr in these years.
What eventually turned the young diplomat into the famous historian of the Soviet Union? The origins of his interest in the outcome of the October Revolution went back to his early days in the Foreign Office; for,
It was, however, nineteenth-century Russian literature which presented him with an ideological challenge at this time. Reading Dostoevsky, Herzen and others, he perceived for the first time ‘that the liberal moralistic ideology in which I had been brought up was not, as I had always assumed, an Absolute taken for granted by the modern world, but was sharply and convincingly attacked by very intelligent people living outside the charmed circle, who looked at the world through very different eyes. . . This left me in a very confused state of mind: I reacted more and more sharply against the Western ideology, but still from a point somehow within it. (Perhaps I have never quite escaped from this dilemma.)’
This consciousness of belonging to the ‘charmed circle’, yet seeing the world through different eyes, of being at once part of it and rebelling against it, increased the sense of isolation which had pursued Carr since his youth. He was, as he used to say, a ‘clever boy’ and never doubted his ability to come out top of the class. But ‘boys who always come top of the class aren’t very popular with their schoolmates. This may have been one of the causes of a certain sense of “isolation” . . . .’ ‘I think I never lost the sense of not fitting easily into my environment’, he confessed. This feeling of distance was masked later in life by a kind of Olympian detachment which many took for intellectual arrogance.
I met Carr in 1946 or 1947. After Isaac’s death in 1967 we maintained very friendly though more distant relations. It was during the last decade of his life that we became closely associated. For in 1972, after some preliminary meetings and correspondence, he wrote a letter to me which was in fact an appeal for help. He was then engaged on what should have been the last volume of his History, dealing with international relations in the period 1926–29. The book ‘seemed to grow’ in his hands. To give me some idea of his work, he enclosed a plan of the whole volume: it looked formidably daunting to me. Apart from dealing with ‘diplomatic coexistence’ between East and West, it also contained developments within Western Communist parties; another chapter, ‘World Revolution’, was devoted to the Comintern, Profintern, and the ‘machinery’ of these institutions (including something cryptically called ‘statistics’); then followed a long list of more exotic topics about which I knew nothing: Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Outer Mongolia, China, Indonesia, the Negro Question. . .