Tuesday, November 17, 2009

E.H. Carr

Dynasty Ends

Is a blogger who deals with the Russian Revolution obligated to read E.H. Carr’s massive treatment of the 1920s? As Carr doesn’t actually cover the Revolution or the Civil War, I have a plausible if not persuasive case for amnesty. However, Carr has dealt with this period of the consolidation of revolutionary energies in more detail than any other author, and by a wide margin. Carr has in fact written over 4000 pages on the subject, and this count doesn’t include any of his other smaller studies of men like Bakunin or Herzen. He’s covered NEP, Socialism in One Country, and many other key Russian events with patience and diligence. (For Carr, Stalin’s approach to the challenge of Trotsky and others was extremely practical: could Communists be expected to wait for the global revolution rather than advance Russia’s national interests in the meantime?)

I’m not about to take on this monumental task of reading a large portion of Carr anytime soon, so I’m thankful for Laqueur’s short overview of the work, written over two decades ago. Back then, the jury was still out on E.H. Carr. Carr has a lot to recommend him. He had a rich diplomatic past and excellent command of the primary sources available in the West. He is also relatively objective, if such a thing is possible, and knows how to write, as evidenced by his wonderfully comic treatment of Bakunin’s strange career for instance. He also appreciated the gravity of what was happened in the Soviet Union. This really was an experiment without parallel in modern history. However, E.H. Carr’s heroic attempt to turn his long series of books the post-revolutionary era doesn’t quite measure up to Macaulay’s treatment of Rome, which remains as a profound work of literature even if its historical explanation are often out of favor with professional historians.

If Laqueur was critical of Carr he was not yet prepared to past judgment on Carr’s project. It was, he thought, too early for that. By now, Carr’s mistakes loom larger and his enormous oeuvre is only sometimes seen as useful let alone authoritative by the present giants of Russian history. Laqueur naturally found fault in Carr’s decision to omit the Revolution and Civil War, since the policies and structures of the 1920s only make sense if one understands how and why they were first created. Laqueur also finds fault in Carr’s claim to impartiality, which admittedly waxes and wanes which each book, according to the shifts in modern European experience. For Laqueur, objectivity can be a mask for insensitivity to human suffering, or a mask for one’s hidden but also present viewpoint and prejudice.

The fascinating thing about Carr is that he wrote a history that left out most personalities and focused instead on legal, political, and economic structures. This approach helps Carr to overlook dramatic stories that didn’t really make a difference in the bigger life of the Soviet state. However, Laqueur says Carr often overlooks the reality behind formal structures. The Soviet Constitution, for instance, is really not very important. It reads surprisingly well, but since it was never implemented, the real story of Soviet jurisprudence is that it never evolved to protect the most fundamental rights of Soviet citizens.

Carr’s major response to his critics was that he was attempting to do a kind of history that made few moral judgments. As he said on some occasions, it would be inappropriate for historians to judge the morality of players in the English or French Revolutions, so why do so now with the Soviet one? Moreover, what’s true of France and England may not be true of the Soviet Union. If the Soviet government would look brutal if it appeared in the West, it’s not quite so unusual in terms of Russian experience. As the facts are now known, this seems to be a woefully insensitive to the millions of Russians whose lives were ruined or ended by Stalin’s police state.

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