Monday, 24 September 2012

Reflections on E. H. Carr’s What is History?

E. H. Carr’s What is History? was first published in 1961 and remains in print today regarded, whether you agree with him or not, as a ‘classic’  of its genre.  It has, after all, sold over a quarter of a million copies since its first publication, and with good reason. I read it first when studying O Levels and later an undergraduate and on several occasions since.   Its droll and incisive prose elegantly attacked the kind of history being taught at school and university that was dominated by high politics and diplomacy, bereft of theory and entirely  unaware that it might be serving some kind of ideological or political purpose.   This was not lost on the vibrant ‘school’ of English Marxist historians, who began to publish widely in the 1960s, after most of them had left the Communist Party in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and devoted themselves to building up the intellectual foundations of the ‘New Left’.  Historians such as Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé and Edward Thompson did far more to undermine historical orthodoxy in the eyes of those of us who entered the hallowed walls of academe in 1968 than did the godly figure of Sir Lewis Namier, whose work we were supposed to admire as the ultimate in historical scholarship.  Today we remember Thompson and his ilk, while Namier whose star flamed so brilliantly and as it turned out briefly is all but forgotten and few of his works remain in print. 

Having read What is History?, I looked forward to reading his study of A History of the Soviet Union. It proved a disappointing, turgid experience.  In the end he completed fourteen massive tomes that were full of information but simply dull.  There were occasional sparks of brilliance as, for instance, in the character sketches of Bolshevik leaders at the beginning of Socialism in One Country but none of the wit, humour and vivacity of What is History?  Jonathan Haslam’s perceptive biography of Carr makes it clear that he was two different people. [1]  On the one hand, Carr was a journalist, sometime deputy editor of The Times, regular writer for the national press, broadcaster and reviewer.  What is History? was obviously written by Carr the journalist and was drafted on a sea-journey from England to San Francisco, far from any libraries or archives. Then there was Carr the bureaucrat and A History of Soviet Russia on the other hand was clearly written by the man who had been a civil servant for so long that he instinctively identified with government (of whatever political hue) and was interested almost exclusively in what went into the making of policy.  The History, despite getting the story right, reads like an extensive civil service minute devoid of drama and agency.  Yet the two books were linked by Carr’s insistence that historians should only be interested in causes of historical events because their explanation served the making of policy in the future.

Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982)

Like many books that are written quickly and originated as lectures, What is History? is fluent in style, something often missing in more considered works and certainly in the History.  It contains numerous examples of real historians and from real history books to illustrate his argument it is proposing and in contrast to most introductions to history, it addresses its readers as equals. It is witty, amusing and entertaining even when it tackles the most intractable theoretical problems. It still retains after sixty years its power to provoke. It tackles fundamental questions not just of history but also of politics and ethics. It deals with big topics, and deals with them in a masterly fashion backed by substantial references to historians, philosophers, writers and thinkers.  Part of the seductive appeal of What is History? lies in its effortless display of learning. What is History? is important for many reasons, especially Carr’s insistence that ‘History is a process, and you cannot isolate a bit of process and study it on its own - everything is completely interconnected’ .  It is the job of historians to study whatever part of the past they chose to examine in the context both of what came before and after it, and in the context of the interconnections between their subject and its wider context. Above all, Carr reiterated that, whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing. Historians are people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot remove from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them. It is in this respect that Carr has been most influential and his views most widely accepted by historians.  For this reason, if no other, his work will endure.


[1] Haslam, Jonathan, The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr 1892-1982, (Verso), 1999, pp. 192-217, for his discussion of the writing and reception of What is History?, .

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