Monday, 31 August 2009

1917: Before and After by Edward Hallett Carr, Macmillan,1969

Trotsky was a hero of the revolution; He fell when the heroic age was over.” E H Carr.

This collection of articles, reviews, and lectures deal predominantly with Carr’s assessment of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and its revolutionaries. To say that Carr had a different attitude to the Revolution and for that matter, Marxism, in general, would be an understatement.

The items that make up this slim volume were written before 1950 and give me a welcome opportunity for a limited survey of his work and the place it occupies in the field of Soviet studies.

The themes of the lectures are broad in scope. Ranging from figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and literary figures such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Like all Carr’s work, his style of writing is clear and straightforward and explains complex historical and political events in a language untainted by jargon. 

However, one major criticism of Carr’s work and perhaps the biggest charge against him is that he was only interested in writing about the victors in history. This is simply not true while he did not deal with the defeat suffered by Leon Trotsky and others on the scale of say Isaac Deutscher he did none the less deal with the defeated in a precise and not unsympathetic manner.

The first chapter The Russian Revolution; its place in History is a well-written attempt to position the revolution in its historical context. This is a solid piece of writing which is free of the usual cynicism that permeates Soviet historiography today. Carr correctly observes that the Russian revolutionaries learned the lessons from previous revolutions including the French and English bourgeois revolution.

The second chapter is a preface to a translation of the novel What Is to Be Done? By Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The book was highly thought of by Vladimir Lenin.  One of Lenin great works What is to be Done, written in 1902 took the name of this book. He called the author a “great Russian socialist.” This a very sympathetic portrait of Chernyshevsky. The novel is highly thought of in academic circles. Joseph Frank wrote "No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? In its effect on human lives and its power to make history. For Chernyshevsky novel, Far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution."[1]

Carr’s third chapter is called Red Rosa. As Carr admits, it is tough to do justice to Luxemburg in the space of eleven pages of text. A full-length biography and then some are needed. It is clear that Luxemburg was held in high esteem amongst the Bolsheviks leaders. Lenin especially commented that “Although the Eagles do swoop down and beneath the chickens fly, chickens with outspread wings never will soar amid clouds in the sky.”[2]

Carr properly designates Luxemburg as an equal of any leading Marxists of the time. She played a crucial role in the attack on Eduard Bernstein’s revision of Marxism. Her Accumulation of Capital wrote in 1915 was among other things an attack on Bernstein’s revisionism.  Luxemburg, it is true did not hold back any criticism especially of the Bolsheviks if she felt it was warranted.

The paragraph below quoted in Carr’s book has been interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on the Bolsheviks, but I am not sure Carr’s reads it that way.

“The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the vast labouring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction. The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mould the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfil a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.[3]“

Carr’s fourth chapter is called The Bolshevik Utopia. This is a very misleading piece of writing, in that it gives the impression that Marxism has a utopian content. Given that Carr is usually very precise in his writing this is not a mistake or slip of the pen. Carr really did identify with this characterization of the Bolsheviks. It is a little strange given that Carr would have been familiar with the decades-long struggle the Marxist movement carried out in opposing the utopian socialists.

The Tragedy of Trotsky is by far the most interesting piece of this collection. The chapter is a multi-layer review of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of the Russian revolutionary. Carr it must be said was one of the first historians to carry out a major attempt at restoring Trotsky to his rightful place in Soviet and international history. Using sources from the Russian archives, he was one of the first historians to write a detailed account of the political struggles inside the leadership of the Communist Party of the USSR 1923-24.

Carr apparently thought that there was an alternative to Stalinism in the form of Leon Trotsky and his Left Opposition. According to the Marxist writer David North, “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky. But he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy, and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a challenging and critical period of Soviet history. Carr’s account made clear that Trotsky became the target of an unprincipled attack that was, in its initial stages, motivated by his rivals’ subjective considerations of personal power. While Carr found much to criticize in Trotsky’s response to the provocations of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, the historian left no doubt that he viewed Trotsky as, alongside Lenin, the towering figure of the Bolshevik Revolution”. [4]

Carr’s Place in Soviet Historiography

Carr was part of that generation of historians although not Marxist who sought to make an objective evaluation of the October revolution and its aftermath. As one writer commented, "not exactly a Marxist, but strongly impregnated with Marxist ways of thinking, applied to international affairs."

Carr, who worked under difficult circumstances throughout his career had to come to terms with the debilitating effect of Stalinism had on his field of historical study. According to Deutscher “The Stalinist state intimidated the historian and dictated to him first the pattern into which he was expected to force events and then the ever new versions of the events themselves. At the outset, the historian was subjected to this pressure mainly when he dealt with the Soviet revolution, the party strife which had preceded and which had followed it, and especially the struggles inside the Bolshevik Party. All these had to be treated in a manner justifying Stalin as the Leader of monolithic Bolshevism”.  [5]

Since Carr’s time, there has been a distinct and traceable decline in the historical study of the Russian revolution. The failure of today’s historians to produce an objective and intelligent account of the revolution has more to do with current politics than it does with just bad academic standards and this is despite having access to archives that Carr could have only dreamed of. In fact, outside the confines of the International Committee of the Fourth International, there has been no historian that has bettered Carr’s work.

It is not within the realm of this review to examine the current state of Russian historiography suffice to say it is at a very low ebb. Far from being objective historical studies, many of the books appearing lately have been hagiographies and very right-wing ones at that. Many of them do not even retain minimal academic standards.

One such book is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky according to David North “Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favourite devices is to refer to “rumours” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumour’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.[6]

In conclusion, I am not saying Carr is without flaws and limitations. His work, however, will “remain a significant and enduring landmark in historical writing devoted to the Bolshevik revolution. “It will take a very great historian to better his work. In today’s climate, I for one am not holding my breath.

1.       Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays, Isaac Deutscher, Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955).
2.       EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1921 (three volumes, London, 1950, 1952, 1953); The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (London, 1954).

[1] Joseph Frank, The Southern Review
[2] Leon Trotsky- Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg! (June 1932)
[3] Rosa Luxemburg-What Does the Spartacus League Want? (December 1918)
[4] North, David, In Defense of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books, Detroit,2015
[5] Isaac Deutscher’s, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

[6] In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky-David North 2009