By Paul McGarr
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Different Angle of Vision

This article is over 22 years, 6 months old
Review of 'What is History?', E H Carr, Palgrave £9.99
Issue 259

I first read this little book many years ago. Yet I had forgotten how engagingly well written it was, and how stimulating, until I reread the new edition. What is History? began life as a series of lectures delivered in 1961, before then being broadcast on BBC radio and then turned into this book.

Carr was a curious figure – a longtime career civil servant in the British Foreign Office who went on to become assistant editor of the Times during the Second World War. He never had a degree in history, and in his early adulthood said he had no interest in history. Yet when he died in 1982 he was among the most important British historians of the 20th century.

Carr was spurred to study history by the experience of social change and upheaval in the present – more precisely the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath. As he wrote, ‘There is nothing like a revolution to create an interest in history.’

Carr’s main historical work was his monumental 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, published from 1950 through to 1978. What is History? is an entirely different kind of work to that detailed study. It discusses general issues in the study of history and polemicises, in a sharp yet usually amusing way, against views Carr disagreed with.

Carr’s overall approach is Marxist. His main target is that deadly disease that has long had a peculiarly strong grip on British intellectuals – empiricism, the collection of ‘facts’ and disdain for theory. Carr instead defends the notion of theory and generalisation as being crucial to any real understanding. He is certainly no cavalier with facts, as his own work on Russia amply testifies. But, he argues, facts are useless unless they lead to generalisation and theory which increase our understanding. And that understanding, for the historian, is above all one of social change. ‘History’, argues Carr, ‘is preoccupied with fundamental processes of change. If you are allergic to these processes, abandon history!’

Carr also polemicises against views which were to grow stronger in the years after his death, and which have been labelled postmodernist – ‘the theory that history has no meaning’ or ‘the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right that any other, which comes to much the same thing’.

Carr insists, ‘It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes. It does not follow that because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another.’

Carr marshalls his arguments on history in a tour de force that touches on art, poetry, the writers of ancient Rome and Greece, and much more. He defends Marx from some of the distortions to which his writings have been subject, such as charges of determinism. He also polemicises against mid-20th century intellectuals who devoted themselves to attacking Marxism, such as Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper.

Some of Carr’s optimistic belief in progress in history I now find a little jarring in the light of the history of the two decades since his death, and the growing threat of environmental destruction and climate change. He also has a tendency, at times, to write a little too much of a history from above with insufficient attention to the role of collective movements or ordinary people, a fault evident in his wider historical writings. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone who wants to think about social change, past, present and future, could do themselves a favour by reading this brilliant book.

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