Isaac Deutscher 1961

Between Past and Future

Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 17 November 1961. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961), pp 155, Macmillan, 21 shillings.

In his Trevelyan lectures reproduced in What Is History? Mr EH Carr presents a philosophical – historical credo. It is usually somewhat risky for a practising historian to come forward as philosopher of history: he may lack the necessary philosophical equipment; and/or he may reveal a divergence between his theory and practice. Mr Carr’s credo is, nevertheless, most impressive: in some respects it is the best statement of its kind ever produced by a British historian. He speaks with authority, brilliance and superb controversial verve. As he expounds his principles he launches a powerful attack on trends and fashions prevalent in contemporary history writing.

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The vantage-point from which he does this lies somewhere on the borderline between British academic tradition and Marxism. Throughout his argument the interplay of these two influences is greatly in evidence. Much though Mr Carr has absorbed from the Marxist conception of history, he does not identify himself with it and maintains a certain reserve towards it, and in spite of his explicit criticisms of the British tradition, especially of its empiricist strand, he is of it, even if not quite in it. Indeed, he picks up the threads of British philosophy of history where RG Collingwood left them, about a quarter of a century ago, in The Idea of History, a book which has had a strong and, one guesses, only recent impact on Mr Carr. If he does not bring to his job Collingwood’s philosophical sense and subtlety, he is greatly superior to his predecessor as both historian and political theorist.

He follows Collingwood in the reaction against the ‘factological’ and empiricist method and sees history as ‘re-enactment of the past in the historian’s mind’ and as ‘dialogue between the past and present’ (or rather between the past and the future). ‘The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor emancipate himself from the past but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.’ Yet the historian, as he views bygone times, is immersed in his own epoch, its interests, preoccupations and ideas; and so in fact the present provides him with his key to the past. On the face of it we are confronted here with an insoluble contradiction between the present as key to the past and the past as key to the present. To Mr Carr the contradiction is not insoluble: it represents rather a ‘unity of opposites’. With the Hegelian and the Marxist Mr Carr would probably say that in this lies the dialectics of the problem. Seen from another angle this is the wider and familiar unity of object and subject, the fabric of the past being the object and the historian’s present-bound mind the subject.

Thus the historian’s work is of necessity subjective, yet it can also be objective: re-enacting the past, he can give us its true image. But he has to ‘navigate’ between the Scylla of objectivism, which proclaims ‘the unqualified primacy of fact over interpretation’, and the Charybdis of subjectivism, where history is merely spun out of the historian’s mind. At a few stages of his argument Mr Carr, like Collingwood, comes perilously close to Charybdis. He asks, for instance, ‘What is an historical fact?’, and, demonstrating the fallacy of the view that ‘facts speak for themselves’, he asserts that they ‘speak only when the historian calls on them’. The ‘only reason’, for instance, why we are interested in the battle of Hastings is ‘that historians regard it as a major historical event'; and whether any social or political occurrence attains the rank of an historical fact depends on whether it is ‘accepted by... historians as valid and significant’.

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There is a flavour of the historian’s professional egocentricity about these assertions. Surely events like the battle of Hastings, the discovery of America, the battle of Waterloo, the World Wars, the Russian revolution, the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis, the first space flight, and so on are historic events regardless of the historians. From the circumstance that to posterity the historian is the only source of knowledge about them it does not follow that it is he who gives them their historic character. It is rather their historic character, that is, their real impact on human affairs, that cause the historian to ‘re-enact’ such events in his thought. Empiricism, for all its limitations, which Mr Carr exposes so convincingly, is superior to the subjectivist schools in its understanding of this aspect of the problem. In spite of his subjectivist slips Mr Carr is also conscious of it when he states with admirable lucidity: ‘It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.’ The shape and reality of the historic fact rise above all interpretation. ‘It does not follow that... because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another, and the facts of history are in principle not amenable to objective interpretation.’ Indeed, only the reality of the historic fact makes the search for historical truth meaningful, a search which like all cognition proceeds in asymptote-like manner.

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What then renders one interpretation more valid than the other? Every historian is conducting the dialogue between past and present; yet some of the dialogues are significant and others futile. How much of the ‘mountain’ the historian sees, and how clearly he sees it, depends largely on his angle of vision, that is on his Weltanschauung, as it has been formed by his social background. Therefore, Mr Carr says, ‘study the historian before you study his history’:

We sometimes speak of the course of history as a ‘moving procession'... The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession. New vistas, new angles of vision, constantly appear as the procession – and the historian with it – moves along... The point in the procession at which he finds himself determines his angle of vision on the past.

If he happens to find himself with ‘a group or nation which is riding in the trough, not on the crest, of historical events’, he is bound to get the wrong angle, the false vista, or no vista at all.

Hence the fogs of pessimistic conservatism, scepticism, anti-'historicism’ and resignation that hang over so much of contemporary history writing. ‘History was full of meaning for British historians so long as it seemed to be going our way; now that it has taken a wrong turning, belief in the meaning of history has become a heresy.’ Mr Carr concentrates the attack on Sir Lewis Namier, Professor Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin. He remarks on the paradox that Toryism has found its intellectually most aggressive historical mouthpiece in Namier, the naturalised Tory, because, unlike the typical English conservative who ‘when scratched turns out to be 75 per cent a liberal’, Namier ‘had no roots’ in the Whig – Liberal tradition and in its optimistic belief in social progress. No one inhibited by that tradition could fully share Namier’s delight at the ‘tired lull’ (the lack of real argument) in British politics, could see in it ‘a greater national maturity’, and wish with Namier ‘that it may long continue undisturbed by the working of political philosophy’.

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In Professor Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin the conservative aversion from political philosophy takes the form of extreme subjectivism, of a moralism which expects the historian to act as ‘hanging judge’ (especially vis-à-vis the leaders of the Russian revolution), of a bitter hostility towards the scientific treatment of history and towards every form and variety of determinism. On a more popular level these attitudes produce the naive view that only ‘individuals’, as opposed to ‘social forces’, are the historian’s proper theme. Mr Carr aptly quotes Goethe’s remark that ‘when eras are on the decline all tendencies are subjective; but on the other hand, when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective’.

What Mr Carr says about the scientific approach to history, causality and the problem of individual and society belongs to the most cogent arguments that can be found in the literature of the subject. In the chapter ‘History, Science and Morality’ he demonstrates how closely the methods of science and history have in recent decades moved towards each other, as science, learning to deal with events rather than facts, and with processes rather than static states, has itself become permeated with the historical spirit. It should perhaps be added in parenthesis that Mr Carr’s opinion about the obsoleteness of all ‘laws’ and their dismissal by modern science is less well founded than he assumes, witness the hesitancy which Broglie, Einstein and others have experienced precisely on this point.

However, Mr Carr is on firm ground when he asserts that ‘the historian has some excuse for feeling himself more at home in the world of science today than he could have done a hundred years ago’. This is true even if philosophers of history, who are not quite at home either in science or in history, are unaware of it, and ‘are so busy telling us that history is not a science... that they have no time for its achievements and its potentialities’.

Here and there, however, Mr Carr’s argument is philosophically somewhat shaky, especially when he deals with the principle of causation and the role of accident in history. His references to ‘examples from ordinary life’ are rather trivial, and he does not quite come to grips with his problem. Those, he says, who dismiss or belittle causality and dwell on chance or accident do so precisely because they ride in the trough and not on the crest of events. ‘The view that examination results are all a lottery will always be popular among those who have been placed in the third class.’ Yet Mr Carr himself is by no means sure that examination results are not a lottery. The proverbial shape of Cleopatra’s nose, the monkey bite that killed a king, the death of Lenin, he maintains, ‘were accidents which modified the course of history’. He rejects in this point the contrary opinions of such determinists as Montesquieu, Marx and Tolstoy, and concludes that ‘it is futile to spirit the accidents away or to pretend that... they had no effect’.

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He dismisses apodictically Trotsky’s view that in history as in biology causality ‘refracts itself through the accidental’ and works through something like a ‘natural selection of accidents’. But he makes no attempt of his own to correlate philosophically his acceptance of causation and his recognition of the important and possibly decisive role of the accident. Yet if accident does ‘modify the course of history’ ought not the historian to make full allowance for it? No, Mr Carr answers; he is entitled to ignore accident because it does ‘not enter into any rational interpretation of history, or into the historian’s hierarchy of significant causes’. But this surely is begging the question. In what sense is an interpretation that ignores a real and possibly decisive factor of history ‘rational'? If accident does modify the course of events yet does not fit the historian’s ‘hierarchy of significant causes’, is there not something wrong with that hierarchy? And may not the historian’s causes be far less significant than he pretends? ‘Accidental causes cannot be generalised’, Mr Carr adds; and so they are of no theoretical interest. But are then the historian’s generalisations not arbitrary?

The strand of subjectivism which underlay an earlier part of Mr Carr’s argument comes here overwhelmingly to the fore. If it were indeed true that an event attains or fails to attain the rank of an historic fact according to ‘whether it is accepted by historians as valid and significant’, then the historian would be entitled to eliminate from his scheme of things any element he does not consider as significant, no matter what its real impact on events may have been. But his ‘hierarchy of causes’ would then be merely rationalistic, not rational – it would be spun out of his own mind; the ‘mountain’ of history would then have no objective shape, but such shape only as the historian had chosen to give it; and he himself would rule from its top as autocratic master over an amorphous mass of facts. He would not be entitled, however, to rule in the name of ‘objective causation’ and determinism. Mr Carr seems unaware of his philosophical inconsistency and of the extent to which he exposes his flank here to counter-attack from Professor Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin.

Readers of Mr Carr’s History of Soviet Russia must be somewhat puzzled by this element of subjectivism, for the History is conceived in a predominantly empiricist style, bordering at times on factology – but this is evidently just another case in which the historian’s practice diverges from his theory.

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It is also odd to argue, as Mr Carr does, for both the determinist and the teleological approach to history. ('Historical thinking’, he quotes Huizinga approvingly, ‘is always teleological.’) The confusion may be due to careless handling of philosophical terms (of which the use of the term ‘absolute’ in Chapter V is another example). However, behind this particular confusion there is a real problem which Mr Carr discusses with much originality. It is this: men act because they are impelled by certain causes; yet in acting they strive for definite aims and purposes. The causes are reflected in the aims; and the aims react upon the causes. The historian is no exception: he views the patterns of historic cause and effect through the prism of his aims and purposes – with his social ideal and his image of the future in his mind. In Namier’s wise phrase, historians ‘imagine the past and remember the future'; they summon history to serve their ideals.

The cognitive value of an historian’s work depends therefore on the nature of his ideal. His understanding of the past gains force and depth from a social purpose which is in harmony with the realities of his own epoch and with the forward movement of his own generation. A reactionary purpose tends to close the historian’s mind to the past as well as to the present. Hankering after bygone times, he cannot understand even those times. He cannot conduct fruitfully the dialogue between the past and the future, because with the future he has no contact.

To this reviewer at least the general truth of this reasoning appears undeniable. Yet a caveat may not be out of place here. The historian’s conviction that he ‘rides on the crest of the tide’ may easily lead him to a sort of ‘progressive’ subjectivism and encourage him to treat history as a mere ‘projection of the present on to the past’, as it was once treated by the Liberal Croce and the Bolshevik Pokrovsky. Although as a rule the ‘progressive’ outlook is historically more fertile than the reactionary one, writers nostalgic for the past have sometimes been quicker in detecting the flaws of a newly-established and forward-looking regime than have been its adherents – hence the effectiveness of ‘feudal socialists’, from Sismondi to Tolstoy in their critique of the bourgeois way of life. On the other hand, the sense of riding ‘on the crest of the wave’ has turned Stalinist (and Khrushchevite) historians into utterly unscrupulous falsifiers and manipulators. The progressive Weltanschauung may indeed give the historian the key to the past; but how often does subjectivism or political arrogance strike it out of his hand!

With these reservations one willingly endorses Mr Carr’s statement that ‘history properly so-called can be written only by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself’. His declaration of ‘faith in the future of society and in the future of history’ breaks like a strong and refreshing breeze into the stuffy air of intellectual despondency that has for so long prevailed in our philosophy of history.

Historiography is a progressive science in the sense that it seeks to provide constantly expanding and deepening insights into a course of events which is itself progressive. This is what I should mean by saying that we need ‘a constructive outlook over the past’. Modern historiography has grown up during the past two centuries in this dual belief in progress, and cannot survive without it, since it is this belief which provides it with its standard of significance...

For myself I remain an optimist; and when Sir Lewis Namier warns me to eschew programmes and ideals, and Professor Oakeshott tells me that we are going nowhere in particular and that all that matters is to see that nobody rocks the boat, and Professor Popper wants to keep that dear old T-model on the road by dint of a little piecemeal engineering, and Professor Trevor-Roper knocks screaming radicals on the nose, and Professor Morison pleads for history written in a sane conservative spirit, I shall look out on a world in tumult and a world in travail, and shall answer in the well-worn words of a great scientist: ‘And yet – it moves.’

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The author is perhaps less explicit than he might have been about his ‘sense of history’s direction’. He leaves the reader with the impression that his image of the future, which must imprint itself so strongly on his image of the past, is a somewhat precarious common denominator of such disparate phenomena as the Soviet planned economy, the anti-imperialist revolutions of Afro-Asia, the welfare state, Keynesianism and the heritage of British radicalism. And Mr Carr may himself not have noticed that in closing his argument on a triumphantly optimistic note he echoes in fact the optimism of that nineteenth-century liberal view of history with which he has dealt so severely at the beginning of the argument. This is by no means accidental, for, to paraphrase Mr Carr, he too ‘when scratched turns out to be seventy-five per cent a liberal’, the most unorthodox, radical and open-minded British liberal of his generation.