Saturday, June 18, 2011

E.H.Carr's 'What Is History' and the mood of the times




British historian E.H.Carr has done quite a few things, like editing the Times Literary Supllement (TLS) and giving it a Leftish tilt and he did the multi-volume histories of the Soviet Union, which might look irrelevant but could make for a rewarding re-read. He sometimes displays the journalist's flippancy and also the journalist's flair for the nice turn of phrase, but he is quite serious, and cunningly Marxian in making his case. He makes the argument against individualism in the pure liberal sense not through leftist theses but through Italian Hegelan Benedotte Croce and his English follower, R.G.Collingwood. He says that facts are important but they are dead facts unless and until the historian puts them in a context and thus interprets them. He says that when we read the monumental histories of Grote and Mommsen, we understand better the times of the English liberal Grote and the disillusioned German liberal Mommsen rather than that of ancient Athens and ancient, republican Rome they wrote about. It is a persuasive argument.

In 1961 Carr delivered the George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures. It was a must and very nearly a fashionable read in the 1970s for history undergraduates. In 1981, he wanted to do a completely revised edition of 'What Is History' but could not, except for collecting a lot of material for the revision. He just managed to write the Preface to the Second Edition. The 1990/2008 Penguin edition edited by R.W.Davies is a nice book to possess. It has the original Penguin design. But it is the Preface to the Second Edition which is interesting. Here Carr contrasts the mood of the time in 1961 when he first delivered the lectures that became 'What Is History' and the mood in 1982 when he was planning the rewrite.

"When in 1960 I completed the first draft of my six lectures, What Is History?, the western world was still reeling from the blows of two world wars and two major revolutions, the Russian and the Chinese. The Victorian age of innocent self-confidence and automatic belief in progress lay far behind. The world was a disturbed, even menacing, place. Nevertheless signs had begun to accumulate that we were beginning to emerge from some of our troubles. The world economic crisis, widely predicted as a sequel to the war, had not occurred. We had quietly dissolved the British Empire, almost without noticing it. The crisis of Suez and Hungary had been surmounted, or lived down. De-Stalinization in the USSR, and de-McCarthyization in the USA were making laudable progress. Germany and Japan had rapidly recovered from the total ruin of 1945, and were making spectacular economic advances. In the United States the Eisenhower blight was ending; the Kennedy era of hope was about to dawn. Black spots -- South Africa, Ireland, Vietnam -- could still be kept at arm's length. Stock exchanges round the world were booming.

These conditions provided, at any rate, a superficial justification for the expression of optimism and belief in the future with which I ended my lectures in 1961. The succeeding twenty years frustrated these hopes and this complacency. The cold war has been resumed with redoubled intensity, bringing with it the threat of nuclear extinction. The delayed economic crisis has set in with a vengeance, ravaging the industrial countries and spreading the cancer of unemployment throughout western society. Scarcely a country is now free from the antagonism of violence and terrorism. The revolt of the oil-producing states of the Middle East has brought a significant shift in power to the disadvantage of the western industrial nations. The 'third world' has been transformed from a passive into a positive factor in world affairs. In these conditions any expression of optimism has come to seem absurd. The prophets of woe have everything on their side. The picture of impending doom, sedulously drawn by sensational writers and journalists and transmitted through the media, has penetrated the vocabulary of everyday speech. Not for centuries has the once popular prediction of the end of the world seemed so apposite."

Of course, Carr is referring more to the 1970s than to the 1960s. There was both economic crisis and political tension in the 1970s. The 1973 war between Egypt and Syria on the one hand and Israel on the other, and the first oil blockade of the Opec governments. And he ignores, perhaps rightly so, the shenanigans of the counter-culture of the 1960s. But his description of the second paragraph seems apposite once again. The terrorism of the 1970s was that of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baadermanhof in West Germany. But his description in the second paragraph sounds quite appropriate for today's situation as well, especially of the last 10 years.

Carr's description of the mood of the times in 1961 and in 1982 is quite interesting. Call it the mood swings of history, or is it that of the historian? Carr would admit that the mood expressed is as much of the times as it is of the historian.

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