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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is history? •

What is History?

A portrait of Ibn Khaldun

It should be known that history is a discipline that has a great number of approaches - Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)

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The Two Faces of E.H. Carr

by Professor Richard J. Evans, with extracts from his new introduction to What is History?, published by Palgrave

E. H. Carr's What is History? played a central role in the historiographical revolution in Britain in the 1960s. As an undergraduate I devoured its witty and cogent attacks on the kind of history I had been taught at school - dominated by high politics and diplomacy, bereft of theory, and entirely innocent of any consciousness that it might be serving some kind of ideological or political purpose. It rudely knocked the sacred texts of the historical profession, such as the New Cambridge Modern History, off their pedestals, to the general applause of all of us who were forced to plough our way through them. Not the least of its pleasures was the fact that it made fun of so many icons of the Cold War - purveyors of 'Western' values such as Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin, at a time when these values seemed to be leading to neocolonialist oppression of the kind carried out by the American armed forces in the Vietnam War.

When it came to actual works of history, the most exciting being produced at the time were exciting precisely because they admitted their own ideological thrust, but at the same time seemed to combine it with deep scholarship and learning that defied easy reputation. These were the books of the 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 the student generation of 1968 - my generation - than did the Godlike figure of Sir Lewis Namier, whose work we were supposed to admire as the ultimate in historical scholarship. Namier's scholarship did indeed grind exceedingly small, but it also seemed bereft of ideas, and to us that seemed the cardinal sin of the British historical tradition against which people like Hobsbawm and Thompson were rebelling.

Yet Carr's own historical work, which I began reading under the inspiration of 'What is History?' was a real disappointment. I completed 'The Bolshevik Revolution', hailed by some as the greatest work produced by a postwar British historian, with a sense of geniune puzzlement. What is History? was lively and controversial, full of wit and humour; the serried ranks of Carr's History of the Soviet Union, by contrast, stretching to fourteen fat volumes in the end, were by contrast dull, fact-laden and generally heavy-going. Only occasionally, as for example in the wonderful character-sketches of the Bolshevik leaders in the opening volume of 'Socialism in One Country', did it acquire a spark of life. Unlike Gibbon, whose six volumes on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could be read with pleasure from start to finish, Carr's magnum opus defied any sane person to plough through from beginning to end. I eventually gave up after volume 5 - less than half-way through.

It almost seemed as if the two books had been written by two different people. Only much later, on reading Jonathan Haslam's perceptive biography of Carr, did I realise that Carr really was, in a sense, two different people. There was Carr the journalist, sometime deputy editor of The Times, regular writer for the national press, broadcaster and reviewer; and there was Carr the bureaucrat, the man who had spent the first twenty years of his life as a civil servant in the British Foreign Office. 'What is History?' was obviously written by Carr the journalist; indeed I discovered from Haslam's book that it was actually drafted on a sea-journey from England to San Francisco, far from any libraries or archives. It was also directed at a wide audience - from the outset, for example, the lectures seem to have been conceived as broadcasts, and indeed they were broadcast in lightly abbreviated form week by week on BBC radio shortly after they were first delivered in Cambridge.

A History of Soviet Russia on the other hand was clearly written by Carr the bureaucrat, the man who, as Haslam notes, 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. A lot of the History is written like a civil service minute. And its extreme lack of interest in failed alternatives to the Bolshevik Revolution seems to derive from the civil servant's lack of interest in anything which does not impinge directly on the formulation of policy. This lack of interest, in turn, is one of the things that makes the History so tedious for so much of the time: it's a history without drama, without the sense of openness and contingency that are the essential elements in an exciting historical narrative.

Moreover, while one of the things that made What is History? so exciting was its plea for history to become more sociological, it was impossible for any reader of the 'History' to detect the faintest influence of sociology, or indeed the slightest interest in the social history of the kind that the English Marxist historians and - increasingly - non-Marxist social historians like Keith Thomas or Peter Laslett were practising. The History was resolutely political and showed no real consciousness of the social processes at work in the events it was describing.

And yet the two books were linked in more ways than one: for example, in What is History? Carr declared that historians should only be interested in causes of historical events insofar as their explanation served the making of policy in the future. This always seemed wrong to me: for causes, even those that are not 'accidental' (a category to which Carr paid far too little attention in his book, though in his later thinking he came to assign more weight to it), may be discerned that have not the remotest implications for policy decisions or political principles at the time at which the historian is writing. Or was Carr simply dismissing the whole of history before modern times as irrelevant and uninteresting? Certainly on occasion he seemed to come close to this, for all his fondness for Classical allusions in his work.

Carr's insistence that history should be politically relevant was an inspiration in the heady days of 1968. But it also brought problems, especially in its linkage with the idea that the vast majority of human beings in the past were of no interest to the historian because they had made no contribution to political change. It was precisely this idea that the social historians of the 1960s set out to challenge. Their manifestos appeared in three special issues of the 'Times Literary Supplement' published in 1966, like a clarion call to a younger generation that was dissatisfied with the concentration on political history of the historical establishment - an establishment which in this case at least seemed to include Carr himself, for all his dissident views in other respects. Who could resist, for example, the young Keith Thomas's call for the application of anthropological theory to the study of early modern witchcraft? Here indeed were people in the past who had suffered from what Edward Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity', people to whom theory was restoring a posthumous dignity and rationality.

In some respects, therefore, What is History? was outdated even when it first appeared. And yet in others it has never been superseded. Yet for all its flaws, its inner contradictions, and its outdated approach to many aspects of the study of history, What is History? remains a classic. It has, after all, sold over a quarter of a million copies since its first publication, and with good reason.

Like many books that were written quickly and originated as lectures, it has a fluent and pungent style that is often missing in more considered works. Unlike many books on the theory and practice of history, it contains numerous concrete examples of real historians and real history books to illustrate the more abstract argument it is propounding. In contrast to the majority of history primers and introductions to history of various kinds, it does not talk down to its readers but addresses them as equals. It is witty, amusing and entertaining even when it tackles the most recondite and intractable theoretical problems. It still retains after forty 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. Its range of reference, to historians, philosophers, writers and thinkers, is little short of astonishing. Carr knew a great deal and was a very clever man, and part of the seductive attraction of What is History? lies in the effortless display of learning and intelligence that it presents.

For the historian, What is History? is important for many reasons, not least for its insistence on the fact that, as Carr said, 'History is a process, and you cannot isolate a bit of process and study it on its own - everything is completely interconnected' , and it was 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, however, it makes clear again and again that, whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing, for historians are individuals, people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot eliminate from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them, subordinate them to the intractabilities of the material with which they are working, and enable readers to study their work critically by making these views and assumptions explicit. It is in this respect that Carr has been most influential, and his views most widely accepted by historians; and for this reason more than any other that his work will endure.

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