Like many of his generation, Carr found World War I to be a shattering experience as it destroyed the world he knew before 1914. Carr was later to write that the pre-1914 world was : ”…solid and stable. Prices did not change. Incomes, if they changed, went up…It was a good place, and it was getting better. This country was leading it by the right direction. There were no doubt, abuses, but they were being, or would be, dealt with”. He joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1916, resigning in 1936. Carr was excused from military service for medical reasons. Carr was at first assigned o the Contraband Department of the Foreign Office, which sought to enforce the blockade on Germany, and then in 1917 was assigned to the Northern Department, which amongst other areas dealt with relations with Russia. At first, Carr knew nothing about the Bolsheviks. Carr later recalled "I had some vague impression of the revolutionary views of Lenin and Trotsky, but knew nothing of Marxism; I'd probably never heard of Marx By 1919, Carr had become convinced that the Bolsheviks were destined to win the Russian Civil War, and approved of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George's opposition to the anti-Bolshevik ideas of the War Secretary Winston Churchill.
In 1919, Carr was part of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and was involved in the drafting of parts of the Treaty of Versailles relating to the League of Nations. During the peace conference, Carr was much offended at the Allied, especially French treatment of the Germans, writing that the Germans were "cheated over the "Fourteen Points", and subjected to every petty humiliation After the peace conference, Carr was stationed at the British Embassy in Paris until 1921, and in 1920 was awarded a CBE. At first, Carr had great faith in the League, which he believed would prevent both another world war, and ensure a better post-war world. In the 1920s, Carr was assigned to the branch of the British Foreign Office that dealt with the League of Nations before being sent to the British Embassy in Riga, Latvia, where he served between 1925-29. In 1925, Carr married Anne Ward Howe, by whom he had one son. During his time in Riga, Carr became increasing fascinated with Russian literature and culture and wrote several works on various aspects of Russian life. Carr's interests in Russia and Russians were further increased by his boredom with life in Riga. Carr described Riga as "...an intellectual desert. Carr learnt Russian during his time in Riga in order to read Russian writers in the original. In 1927, Carr paid his first visit to Moscow. Carr was later to write that reading Alexander Herzen, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the work of other 19th century Russian intellectuals caused him to re-think his liberal views. Carr wrote under the impact of reading various Russian writers he found “that the liberal moralistic ideology in which I was brought up was not, as I had always assumed, an Absolute taken for granted by the modern world, but was sharply and convincingly attacked by very intelligent people living outside the charmed circle, who looked at the world through very different eyes…This left me in a very confused state of mind: I reacted more and more sharply against the Western ideology, but still from a point within it”.
In the early 1930s, Carr found the Great Depression to be almost profoundly shocking as the First World War. In 1930, Carr wrote “The prevailing state of mind in England to-day is one of defeatism or…skepticism, of disbelief in herself. England has ceased to have ideas, or if, she has them, to believe in the possibility of their fulfillment. Alone among the Great Powers she has ceased to have a mission…The government of the day has so little faith in its capacity to tackle the major problems of our generation that it invites the other parties to assist with their advice (imagine Mr Gladstone invoking the assistance of Lord Beaconsfield!), and the principle opposition party, knowing full well there is no solution, declines the invitation and keeps its hands free to wash them of the consequences…We have no convictions beyond a vague sort of fatalism”. It was at this time that Carr started to admire the Soviet Union. Carr wrote in February 1931: “They [the Soviets] have discovered a new religion of the Kilowatt and the Machine, which may well be the creed for which modern civilization is waiting…This new religion is growing up on the fringes of a Europe which has lost faith in herself. Contemporary Europe is aimlessly drifting, refusing to face unpalatable facts, and looking for external remedies for her difficulties. The important question for Europe at the present time is…whether the steel production of the Soviet Union will overtake that of Great Britain and France…whether Europe can discover in herself a driving force, an intensity of faith comparable to that now being generated in Russia”. Further increasing Carr's interest in a replacement ideology for liberalism was his reaction to hearing the debates in January 1931 at the General Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and especially the speeches on the merits of free trade between the Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vodislav Marinkovich and the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson. Carr wrote :"At Geneva I followed some of the debates about the economic crisis, which seemed to spell the bankruptcy of capitalism. In particular I was stuck by the fact that everyone professed to believe that tariff barriers were a major cause of aggravation of the crisis, but that practically every country was busy erecting them. I happened to hear a speech by some minor delegate (Yugoslav, I think) which for the first time in my experience put the issue clearly and urgently. Free trade was the doctrine of economically powerful states, which flourished without protection, but would be fatal to weak states. This came as a revelation to me (like the revelation at Cambridge of the relativism of historiography), and was doubly significant because of the part played by free trade in my intellectual upbringing. If free trade went, the whole liberal outlook went with it.
Between 1931 and 1937, Carr published many works on many historians and history, works that gave much fledgling discipline of international relations much vigor and discipline. Besides for studies on international relations, Carr's writings in the 1930s included biographies of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1931), Karl Marx (1934), and Mikhail Bakunin (1937). Initially, Carr political outlook was anti-Marxist and liberal. In his 1934 biography of Karl Marx, Carr presented his subject as highly intelligent man and a gifted writer, but one whose talents were devoted entirely for destruction. Carr argued that Marx's sole and only motivation was a mindless class hatred. Carr labeled dialectical materialism gibberish, and the labour theory of value doctrinal and derivative. Carr wrote "The pseudo-Marxist is a pathetic figure. He knows that Marxism is moonshine, but he still nourishes the hope of finding in it a gleam to follow. Speaking of the differences between the fascist regimes and the Soviet Union, Carr wrote "the only difference between the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the dictatorships which prefer to hoist other flags is that the one proclaims its Marxist paternity whereas the others deny it. Despite his hostile appraisal of Marx, Carr ended his book by writing that recent developments in the Soviet Union meant that Marx had "...a claim to be regarded as the most far-seeing genius of the nineteenth century and one of the most successful prophets in history. Carr went to write "there are now few thinking man who will dismiss with confidence the Marxian assumption that capitalism, developed to its highest point, inevitably encompasses its own destruction. In view of his later conversion to Marxism, Carr was to find the passages in Karl Marx: A Study in Fanaticism criticizing Marx to be highly embarrassing, and refused to allow the book to be republished. Carr was to later call his Marx biography his worse book, and complained that he only written it because his publisher had made a Marx biography the precondition of publishing the biography of Mikhail Bakunin that he was writing. In his books such as The Romantic Exiles and Dostoevsky, Carr was noted for his highly ironical treatment of his subjects, implying that their lives were of interest, but not of great importance. In the mid-1930s, Carr was especially preoccupied with the life and ideas of Bakunin. Carr wrote a novel about the visit of a Bakunin-type Russian radical to Victorian Britain who proceeded to expose all of Carr regarded as the pretensions and hypocrisies of British bourgeois society. The novel was never finished or published.
In 1936, Carr became the Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and is particularly known for his contribution on international relations theory. Carr's last words of advice as a diplomat was a memo urging that Britain accept the Balkans as a exclusive zone of influence for Germany. Additionally, Carr argued that the Soviet Union and France were not working for collective security, but rather "...a division of the Great Powers into two armored camps", called for non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and asserted that King Leopold III of Belgium had made a major step towards peace with his declaration of neutrality of October 14, 1936. Two major intellectual influences on Carr in the mid-1930s were Karl Mannheim's 1936 book Ideology and Utopia, and the work of Reinhold Niebuhr on the need to combine morality with realism. In 1937, Carr visited the Soviet Union for a second time, and was impressed by what he saw.In the 1930s, Carr was a leading supporter of appeasement. In the 1930s, Carr saw Germany as the victim of the Versailles treaty, and Hitler as a typical German leader, attempting like every other previous German leader since 1919 to overthrow that settlement. In his writings on international affairs in British newspapers, Carr criticized the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš for clinging to the alliance with France, rather then accepting that it was his country's destiny to be in the German sphere of influence. At the same time, Carr strongly praised the Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Józef Beck, who with his balancing act between France, Germany, and the Soviet Union as "a realist who grasped the fundamentals of the European situation" and argued that his polices were "from the Polish point of view...brilliantly successful. Starting in the late 1930s, Carr started to become even more sympathetic toward the Soviet Union, as Carr was much impressed by the apparent achievements of the Five Year Plans, which stood in marked contrast to the seeming failures of capitalism in the Great Depression.
His famous work, The Twenty Years' Crisis was published in 1939, which dealt with the subject of international relations between 1919-1939. In that book, Carr defended appeasement under the grounds that it was the only realistic policy option. In The Twenty Year’s Crisis, Carr divided thinkers on international relations into two schools, which he labeled the realists and the utopians. Carr argued against the view that the problems of the world in 1939 were the work of a clique of evil men, and dismissed Arnold J. Toynbee's view that "we are living in an exceptionally wicked age. Carr asserted that the problems of the world in 1939 were due to structural political-economic problems that transcended the importance of individual national leaders, and argued that the focus on individuals as causal agents was equivalent to focusing on the trees rather the forest. Carr contended that the 19th century theory of a balance of interests amongst the powers was an erroneous belief, and instead contended that international relations was an incessant struggle between the economically advantaged “have” powers and the economically disadvantaged “have not” powers. Carr called The Twenty Year’s Crisis "not exactly a Marxist work, but strongly impregnated with Marxist ways of thinking, applied to international affairs The distinction between “have” and “have not” nations perhaps reflected the influence of the theory first propagated by Enrico Corradini and later adopted by Benito Mussolini of the natural conflict between “proletarian” and “plutocratic” nations. Carr argued that the entire peace settlement of 1919 was flawed by the decisions of David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and above all Woodrow Wilson to impose a "sterile" international order in the post-war world. In particular, Carr claimed that the combination of 19th century style laissez-faire capitalism and the nationalism inspired by the principle of national self-determination made for a highly defective peace settlement, and hence a very dangerous world. In Carr's opinion, the repeated demands made by Adolf Hitler for lebensraum (living space) was merely a reflection of the fact that Germany was a "have not" power. In Carr's view, the belligerence of the fascist powers was the "natural cynical reaction" to the empty moralizing of the "have" powers, who refused to make any concessions until the state of international relations had been allowed to seriously deteriorate. Carr argued that on moral and practical grounds the Treaty of Versailles had done a profound wrong to Germany, and that the present state of world tensions in 1939 was caused by the inability and/or unwillingness of the other powers to readdress that wrong in a timely fashion. Carr defended the Munich Agreement as the overdue recognition of changes in the balance of power. In The Twenty Years' Crisis, Carr was highly criticial of Winston Churchill, whom Carr described as a mere opportunist interested only in power for himself. Writing of Churchill's opposition to appeasement, Carr stated "The realist will have no difficulty in recognizing the pragmatic, through no doubt unconscious adjustment of Mr. Churchill's judgments to his policy of the moment. In the same book, Carr described the opposition of realism and utopianism in international relations as a dialectic progress. Carr rejected both utopianism and realism as the basis of a new international order, and instead called a synthesis of the two. Carr wrote that “Having demolished the current utopia with weapons of realism we still need to build a new utopia of our own, which will fall to the same weapons”. Through Carr was highly sympathetic towards the realist case in international relations, and rejected utopianism as the basis of the international order, at the same time, Carr described realism as lacking “a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgment, and a ground for action. After the outbreak of World War II, Carr stated that he was somewhat mistaken in his views on Nazi Germany.
Some of the major themes of Carr’s writings were changes over time, and the relationship between ideational and material forces in society. Carr saw a major theme of history was the growth of reason as a social force. Carr argued that all major social changes had been caused by revolutions or wars, both of which Carr regarded as necessary, but unpleasant means of accomplishing social change. Carr saw his major task in all of writings of finding a better way of working social transformation. Carr maintained that every revolution starting with the French Revolution had helped to move humanity in a progressive direction, but had failed to complete their purpose because of the lack of the essential instruments to finish the revolutionary project. Carr asserted that social changes had to be linked with a realistic understanding of the limitations of social changes in order to build lasting institutions capable of maintaining social change. Carr claimed that in modern industrial society that a dialogue between various social forces was the best way of achieving a social transformation “toward goals which can be defined only as we advance towards them, and the validity of which can only be verified in a process of attaining them”.
During World War II, Carr's political views took a sharp turn towards the left. After 1941, Carr’ s already strong admiration for the Soviet Union went over to outright adoration . Carr served as the assistant editor of The Times from 1941 to 1946, during which time he was well known for his pro-Soviet attitudes which he expressed in his leaders (editorials) he wrote. In one of his first leaders Carr for the Times, he declared: “The PRIME MINISTER expressed the mood of the nation when he declared that our only present war aim is victory. Nevertheless the British will to victory is still bound up with the conviction that our war aims stand on a different plane from those of the enemy, and that victory for our aims will point the way to a new social and international order in Europe”. Carr's leaders were noted for their advocacy of a socialist European economy under the control of international planning board. In one of his leaders, Carr stated "The new order cannot be based on the preservation of privilege, whether the privilege be that of a country,of a class, or of an individual. Carr himself described his stint at the Times:
”In the Times I very quickly began to plug the Russian alliance; and when this was vindicated by Russian endurance and Russian victory, it revived my faith in the Russian revolution as a great achievement and a historical turning point. It was obvious that the Russia of the Second World War was a very different place from the Russia of the First-terms of people as well of material resources. Looking back on the thirties, I came to feel that my preoccupation with the purges and brutalities of Stalinism had distorted my perspective. The black spots were real enough, but looking exclusively at them destroyed one’s vision of what was really happening”.Unlike many of his contemporaries in war-time Britain, Carr was against a Carthaginian peace with Germany, and argued for a post-war reconstruction of Germany along socialist lines. In Carr’s opinion, National Socialism was not the natural result of Deutschtum (Germanism), but rather of capitalism. Carr claimed that once capitalism was removed, then the social forces which gave birth to fascism would wither away and die. On his leaders on foreign affairs, Carr was very consistent in arguing after 1942 that once the war ended, it was the fate of Eastern Europe to come into the Soviet sphere of influence, and claimed that any effort to the contrary was both vain and immoral. In December 1944, when fighting broke out in Athens, Greece between the Greek Communist ELAS and and the British Army, Carr in a Times leader sided with the Communists, leading to Winston Churchill to condemn him in a speech to the House of Commons. Churchill called Carr's leader defending E.L.A.S “a melancholy document” that reflected the decline of British journalism. As a result of Carr’s leaders, the Times became popularly known during World War II as the three pence Daily Worker (the price of the Daily Worker was one pence).
Between 1942-45, Carr was the Chairman of a study group at the Royal Institute of International Affairs concerned with Anglo-Soviet relations. Carr's study group concluded that Stalin had largely abandoned Communist ideology in favor of Russian nationalism, that the Soviet economy would provide a higher standard of living in the Soviet Union after the war, and it was both possible and desirable for Britain to reach a friendly understanding with the Soviets once the war had ended. In 1942, Carr published Conditions of Peace followed by Nationalism and After in 1945, in which he outlined his ideas about the post-war world should look like. In his books, and his Times leaders, Carr urged for the post-war world, the creation of a socialist European federation anchored by an Anglo-German partnership that would be aligned with, but not subordinated to the Soviet Union against the country that Carr saw as the principle post-war danger to world peace, namely the United States.
In Conditions of Peace, Carr argued that it was a flawed economic system which had caused World War II, and that the only way of preventing another world war was for the Western powers to fundamentally change the economic basis of their societies by adopting socialism. Carr argued that the post-war world required a “European Planning Authority” and a “Bank of Europe” that would control the currencies, trade, and investment of all the European economies. Carr was to elaborate on these ideas in Nationalism and After. In that book, Carr wrote “The driving force behind any future international order must be a belief…in the value of individual human beings irrespective of national affinities or allegiance” . Carr argued that just as the military was under civilian control, that likewise so should “the holders of economic power…be responsible to, and take their orders from, the community in exactly the same way” . Carr claimed it was necessary to create “maximum social and economic opportunity” for all, and argued that this would be achieved via an international planning authority that would control the world economy, and provide for “increased consumption for social stability and equitable distribution for maximum production” .
In 1945 during a lecture series entitled The Soviet Impact on the Western World, which were published as a book in 1946, Carr argued that "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable", that Marxism was the by far the most successful type of totalitarianism as proved by Soviet industrial growth and the Red Army's role in defeating Germany and that only the "blind and incurable" ignored these trends. During the same lectures, Carr called democracy in the Western world a sham, which permitted a capitalist ruling class to exploit the majority, and praised the Soviet Union as offering real democracy. Carr claimed that Soviet social polices were far more progressive then Western social policies, and argued democracy was more about social equality then political rights. In 1946, Carr started living with Joyche Marion Stock Forde, who was to remain his common law wife until 1964. In 1966, Carr married Betty Behrens. In the late 1940s, Carr started to become increasingly influenced by Marxism. In May-June 1951, Carr delivered a series of speeches on British radio entitled The New Society, attacked capitalism as a great social evil, and advocated a planned economy with the British state controlling every aspect of British economic life. Carr was a reclusive man who few knew well, but some of his circle of close friends included Isaac Deutscher, A. J. P. Taylor, Harold Laski, and Karl Mannheim.
Carr's writings include his History of Soviet Russia (14 vol., 1950–78). During World War II, Carr was favourably impressed with what he regarded as the extraordinary heroic performance of the Soviet people, and towards the end of 1944 Carr decided to write a complete history of the Soviet Russia from 1917 comprising all aspects of social, political and economic history in order to explain how the Soviet Union withstood the challenge of the German invasion. The resulting work was his 14 volume History of Soviet Russia, which took the story to 1929. In Carr's view, Soviet history went through three periods in the inter-war era and was personified by the change of leadership from Vladimir Lenin to Joseph Stalin. Carr argued that the emergence of Russia from what he regarded as a backward peasant economy to a leading industrial power was the most important event of the 20th century. The first part of a History of Soviet Russia comprised three volumes entitled The Bolshevik Revolution published in 1950, 1952, and 1953 which traced Soviet history from 1917 to 1922. The second part was intented to comprise three volumes called The Struggle for Power, which was intended to cover the years 1922-28, but Carr instead to decided to publish a single volume labeled The Interregnum which was covered the events of 1923-24, and another four volumes entitled Socialism In One Country, which took the story up to 1926. The final volumes in the series were entitled The Foundations of the Planned Economy, which covered the years until 1929. Originally Carr had planned to take the series up to Operation Barbarossa in 1941, but Carr’s death in 1982 put an end to the project.
Carr argued that Soviet history went through three periods in the 1917-45 era. In the first phrase was war communism era (1917-21) that saw much rationing, economic production focused into huge centers of manufacturing, critical services and supplies being sold at either for at set prices or for free, and to a large extent a return to a barter economy. Carr contended that the problems in the agrarian sector forced the abandonment of war communism in 1921, and its replacement by the New Economic Policy (NEP). During the same period saw what Carr called on of Lenin's "astonishing achievements", namely the gathering together of nearly all of the former territories of Imperial Russia (with the notable exceptions of Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) under the banner of the Soviet Union. In the NEP period (1921-28), Carr maintained that the Soviet economy became a mixed capitalist-socialist one with peasants after fulfilling quotas to the state being allowed to sell their surplus on the open market, and industrialists being permitted be allowed to produce and sell agricultural and light industrial goods. Carr contended that in the post-Lenin succession struggle after 1924 was more about personal disputes then ideological quarrels. In Carr’s opinion, “personalities rather than principles were at stake”. Carr argued that the victory of Stalin over Leon Trotsky in the succession struggle was inevitable because Stalin was better suited to the new order emerging in the Soviet Union in the 1920s then Trotsky. Carr stated “Trotsky was a hero of the revolution. He fell when the heroic age was over”. Carr argued that Stalin had stumbled into the doctrine of “Socialism in One Country” more by accident then by design in 1925, but argued that Stalin was swift to grasp how effective the doctrine of Socialism in One Country was as a weapon to beat Trotsky with. Carr wrote
“It was easy, on the basis of the new doctrine, to depict Stalin as the true expositor of Bolshevism and Leninism and his opponents as the heirs of those who had resisted Lenin and denied the Bolshevik creed in the past. Unwittingly Stalin had forged for himself an instrument of enormous power. Once forged, he was quick to discover its strength, and wielded it with masterful skill and ruthlessness”.Besides for reviewing the politics and economics of the 1920s, Carr also devoted considerable space to the Soviet constitution of 1922, the relationship between the Soviet Socialist Republics and Moscow, efforts to "revitalize" the Soviets (councils) , the development of the Red Army and the OGPU. Writing of the OGPU, Carr noted that since the Bolsheviks had eliminated all of their enemies outside of the Party by the mid-1920s that: "The repressive powers of the OGPU were henceforth directed primarily against opposition in the party, which was the only effective form of opposition in the state. Reflecting his background as a diplomat and scholar on international relations, Carr provided very detailed treatment of foreign affairs with a focus on both the Narkomindel and the Comintern. In particular, Carr examined the relationship between the Soviet Communist Party and the other Communist parties around the world, the Comintern's structure, the Soviet reaction to the Locarno Treaties, and the efforts to promote a revolution in China.
The third phrase was the period of the Five Year Plans beginning with the First Five-Year Plan in 1928 that saw the Soviet state promoting the growth of heavy industry, eliminating private enterprise, collectivizing agriculture, and of quotes for industrial production being set in Moscow. In Carr's opinion, the changes wrought by the First Five Year were a positive development. Carr argued that the economic system that existed during the N.E.P. period was highly inefficient, and that any economic system based on planning by the state was superior to what Carr saw as the disorganized chaos of capitalism. Carr accepted the Soviet claim that the so-called “kulaks” existed as a distinct class, that they were a negative social force, and as such, the “dekulakization” campaign was a necessary measure that improved the lives of the Soviet peasantry. Carr's associate and co-writer on the History of Soviet Russia expressed some doubts to Carr about whatever the "kulaks" actually existed, and thought the term was more an invention of Soviet propaganda then a reflection of the social conditions in the Soviet countryside.
Accompanying these social-economic changes were the changes in the leadership. Car argued that Lenin saw himself as the leader of a elite band of revolutionaries who sought to give power to the people and wanted a world revolution. By contrast, Carr claimed that Stalin was a bureaucratic leader who concentrated power in his own hands, ruled in a ruthless fashion, carried a policy of “revolution from above”, and by promoting a merger of Russian nationalism and Communism cared more for the interests of the Soviet Union then for the world Communist movement. However, Carr argued that Stalin's achievements in the making the Soviet Union a great industrial power by and large outweighed any of the actions for which he is commonly criticized for. Carr claimed that Stalin played both the roles of dictator and emancipator simultaneously, and argued that this reflected less then the man then the times and place in which he lived. Writing of Stalin, Carr claimed "Few great men have been so conspicuously as Stalin the product of the time and place in which they live. The first volume of A History of Soviet Russia published in 1950 was criticized by some historians, most notably the British Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher (who was a close friend of Carr's) as being too concerned with institutional development of the Soviet state, and for being impersonal and dry, capturing little of the tremendous emotions of the times. Deutscher’s widow was later to write of the deep, if unlikely friendship that was stuck between “…a self-educated, former member of the Polish Communist Party-Marxist by conviction, Jewish by origin,-who was a refugee from Hitler and Stalin stranded in London; and, on the other side, an English historian who was an unmistakable product of Cambridge, a former member of the Foreign Office, schooled in a diplomatic service famous as a bastion of British traditionalism” .
Likewise, Carr was criticized from both left and right for his downplaying of the importance of ideology for the Bolsheviks, and his argument that the Bolsheviks thought in only in terms of Russia rather than the entire world. In a 1955 article, Deutscher argued that "Perhaps the main weakness of Mr Carr's conception is that he sees the Russian Revolution as virtually a national phenomenon only...he treats it as a historical process essentially national in character and self-sufficient within the national framework. He thinks in terms of statecraft and statecraft is national. His Lenin is a Russian super-Bismarck. Despite his criticism, Deutscher ended his review by writing "It is Mr Carr's enduring and distinguished merit that he is the first genuine historian of the Soviet regime. Echoing Deutscher's criticism, the American historian Bertram Wolfe contended in 1955 that "Mr Carr believes that the revolution was right for Russia. But he cannot quite make himself believe that in the matter of world revolution, this power-concentrated, dogmatic man [Lenin] was in deadly earnest.
The History of Soviet Russia volumes met with a mixed reception. John Keep called the series “A towering scholarly monument, in its shadow the rest of us are, but pygmies”. Deutscher called A History of Soviet Russia "...a truly outstanding achievement. The left-wing British historian A. J. P. Taylor called A History of Soviet Russia the most fair and best series of books ever written on Soviet history. Taylor was later to call Carr "an Olympian among historians, a Goethe in range and spirit. More unusually for a book by a Western historian, A History of Soviet Russia met with warily favorable reviews by Soviet historians. Normally, any works by Western historians, no matter how favorable to Communism, met with hostile reviews in the Soviet Union, and there was even a brand of polemical literature by Soviet historians attacking so-called “bourgeois historians” under the xenophobic grounds that only Soviet historians were capable of understanding the Soviet past.
The pro-Soviet slant in Carr's History of Soviet History attracted some controversy. In 1951, the Austrian journalist Franz Borkenau wrote in the Der Monat newspaper: "Human suffering he seems to say, is not a historical factor; Carr belongs to those very cold people who always believe they think and act with the iciest calculation and therefore fail to understand why they are mistaken in their calculations time and time again. The American historian Richard Pipes wrote that the essential questions of Soviet history were: "Who were the Bolsheviks, what did they want, why did some follow them and others resist? What was the intellectual and moral atmosphere in which all these events ouccurred?", and went to allege that Carr failed to pose these questions, let alone answer them. The Polish journalist Leopold Labedz criticized Carr for taking the claims of the Soviet government too seriously. Labedz wrote that "He [Carr] tended to confine himself to the penumbra of official formulations and of ideological formulas which always concealed, rather than revealed, real Soviet life. Norman Stone argued that Carr was guilty of writing in a bland style meant to hide his pro-Soviet sympathies. Writing of a History of Soviet Russia, Stone commented that:
"Much of the book concerns economics, a subject on which Carr was hardly an expert. The lack of definitive point in the book...makes it dull and unrevealing. Like Carr himself it peters out...Carr's History is not a history of the Soviet Union, but effectively of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Even then, much of it is the kind of unreconstructed Stalinist version that could not now see the light of day in Russia itself...I am nearly tempted to exclaim that no more useless set of volumes has ever masqueraded as a classic. Carr's real talent lay in mathematics...From the mathematical spirit he took a quality not so much of abstraction as of autism which was carried over into his historical work. The result is a trail of devastation.Walter Laqueur argued that the History of Soviet Russia volumes were a dubious historical source that for the most part excluded mention of the more unpleasant aspects of Soviet life, reflecting Carr's pro-Soviet tendencies. Laquuer commented that Carr called Stalin a ruthelss tyrant in his 1979 book The Russian Revolution, but commented that he refrained from expressing any criticism of Stalin in all 14 volumes of the History of Soviet Russia series. Likewise, Laqueur contended that Carr excelled at irony, and that writing panegyrics to the Soviet Union was not his forte. In Laqueur's opinion, if Carr is to be remembered by future generations, it will be for books like Dostoyevsky,The Romantic Exiles and Bakunin, and his History of Soviet Russia will besmirch the fine reputation created by those books. A major source of criticism of a History of Soviet Russia was Carr's decision to ignore the Russian Civil War under the grounds it was unimportant, and likewise to his devoting only a few lines to the Kronstadt mutiny of 1921 since Carr argued it only a minor event. Laqueur commented in his opinion that Carr's ignoring the Russian Civil War while paying an inordinate amount of attention to such subjects as the relations between the Swedish Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party and diplomatic relations between Outer Mongolia and the Soviets in the 1920s left the History of Soviet Russia very unbalanced.
Likewise, Carr argued that no individual is truly free of the social environment in which they live, but contended that within those limitations, there was room, albeit very narrow room for people to make decisions that have a impact on history. Carr made a division between those like Vladimir Lenin and Oliver Cromwell, whom helped to shape the social forces which carried them to historical greatness vs like Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon whom were just carried along by social forces over which they had little or no control to positions of historical importance. In general, Carr held to a deterministic outlook in history. In Carr's opinion, all that happens in the world had a cause, and events could not happened differently unless there was a different cause. In Carr's example, if one's friend acts something out of character, then it must be understood that there is a reason for the strange behavior. Carr criticized counter-factual history as a "parlour game" played by the "losers" in history. Carr contended that those who engaged in counter-factual speculations about Russian history such whatever if Count Pyotr Stolypin's land reforms were given enough time, would the Russian Revolution have been prevented were those who were uncomfortable about the fact that the Bolsheviks were the “winners” of Russian history and their opponents were not. Likewise, Carr asserted those who place a premium on "accidents" as a central causal agent in history were the "losers" of history, who wished to play explain away their defeats as the workings of chance and fate. In the same way, Carr argued that historians must concern themselves with the "winners" of history. In Carr's example, it is the winners of cricket matches who are recorded, not the losers, and in the same way, Carr maintained that a preoccuption with the "losers" would be the equivalent of someone only listing the losers of cricket games. Carr dimissed the free will arguments made by Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin as Cold War propaganda meant to discredit communism. In a similar way, Carr took a hostile view of those historians who stress the workings of chance and contingency in the workings of history. In Carr's view, such historians did not understand their craft very well, or were in some way identified with the "losers" of history. Carr claimed that when examining causation in history, historians should seek to find "rational" causes of historical occurrences , that is causes that can be generalized across time to explain other occurrences in other times and places. For Carr, historical "accidents" can be not be generalized, and thus not worth the historian's time. As an example of his attack on the role of accidents in history, Carr mocked the hypothesis of “Cleopatra’s nose”, namely that, but for the magnetism exerted by the nose of Cleopatra on Mark Anthony that would be no affair between the two, and hence the Second Triumvirate would not have broken up, and therefore the Roman Republic would have continued. Carr sarcastically commented that the male attraction for female beauty can hardly be considered an accident at all, and is rather what one of the most common cases of cause and effect in the world. Rather then accidents, Carr asserted history was a series of causal chains interacting with each other.
In Carr's opinion, historical works that serve to broaden society's understanding of the past via generalizations are more "right" and "socially acceptable" then works that do not. Citing Pieter Geyl, Carr argued that as the values of society changes, so does the values of historical works. Carr argued that as society continues to progress in the 20th century, historians must change their values that they apply in writing their works to reflect the work of progress. In particular, Carr argued that growth of Communism all over the world was a progressive development. Likewise, Carr charged that historians are always influenced by the present when writing about the past. As an example, he used the changing viewpoints about the German past expressed by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke during the Imperial, Weimar, Nazi and post-war periods to support his contention. At the end of his lectures, Carr criticized a number of conservative/liberal historians and philosophers such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sir Karl Popper, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier and Michael Oakeshott, and argued that progress in the world was against them. Carr expanded on this thesis of "progress" being an unstoppable force in September 1978 when he stated: "I think we have to consider seriously the hypothesis that the world revolution of which [the Bolshevik revolution] was the first stage, and which will complete the downfall of capitalism, will prove to be the revolt of the colonial peoples against capitalism in the guise of imperialism.
Carr emphatically contended that history was a social science, not an art. Carr argued that history should be considered a social science because historians like scientists seek generalizations that helped to broaden the understanding of one's subject. Carr used the example of the word revolution, arguing that if the word did not have a specific meaning that it would make no sense for historians to write of revolutions, even through every revolution that occurred in history was in its own way unique. Moreover, Carr claimed that historical generalizations were often related to lessons to be learned from other historical occurrences. Since in Carr's view, lessons can be sought and learned in history, then history was more like a science then any art. Through Carr conceded that historians can not predict exact events in the future, he argued that historical generalizations can supply information useful to understanding both the present and the future. Carr argued that since scientists are not purely neutral observers, but have a reciprocal relationship with the objects under their study just like historians, that this supported identifying history with the sciences rather than the arts. Likewise, Carr contended that history like science has no moral judgments, which in his opinion, supports the identification of history as a science.
Carr was well known for his assertions in What Is History? in denying moral judgements in history. Carr argued that it was ahistorical for the historian to judge people in different times according to the moral values of his or her time. Carr argued that individuals should be judged only in terms of the values of their time, not by the values of the historian's time. In Carr's opinion, historians should not act as judges. Carr quoted Thomas Carlyle's remark on the British reaction to the French Revolution: "Exaggeration abounds, execration, wailing and on the whole darkness"...", and complained that exactly the same could be said about too much of Western commentary and writing on the Russian Revolution. Likewise, Carr quoted Carlyle on the Reign of Terror as a way of confronting Western complaints about Soviet terror: "Horrible in lands that had known equal justice-not so unnatural in lands that had never known it. Thus, Carr argued that within the context of the Soviet Union, Stalin was a force for the good. In a 1979 essay, Carr argued about Stalin that
"He revived and outdid the worst brutalities of the earlier Tsars; and his record excited revulsion in later generations of historians. Yet his achievement in borrowing from the West, in forcing on primitive Russia the material foundations of modern civilisation, and in giving Russia a place among the European powers, obliged them to concede, however reluctantly his title to greatness. Stalin was the most ruthless despot Russia had known since Peter, and also a great westerniser.Through Carr made it clear that he preferred that historians refrain from expressing moral opinions, he did argue that if the historian should find it necessary then such views should be best be restricted to institutions rather than individuals. Carr argued that such an approach was better because the focus on individuals served to be provide a collective alibi for societies. Carr used as examples those in United Kingdom who blamed appeasement solely upon Neville Chamberlain or those in the United States who blamed McCarthyism exclusively upon Senator Joseph McCarthy.In Carr's opinion, historians should reject concepts like good and evil when making judgements about events and people. Instead, Carr preferred the terms progressive or reactionary as the terms for value judgements. In Carr’s opinion, if the historical event such as the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s lead to the growth of the Soviet heavy industry and the achievement of the goals of the First Five Year Plan, then the collectivization must be considered a progressive development in history, and hence the all of the sufferings and millions of deaths caused by collectivization, the “dekulakization” campaign and the Holodomor were justified by the progress of Soviet industry. Likewise, Carr argued that the suffering of Chinese workers in the treaty ports in the late 19th-early 20th centuries was terrible, but must be considered a progressive development as it helped to push China towards the Communist revolution. Finally, Carr argued that historians can be "objective" if they are capable of moving beyond their narrow view of the situation both in the past and in the present, and can write historical works which helped to contribute to progress of society. The claims that Carr made about the nature of historical work in What Is History? proved be very controversial, and inspired Sir Geoffrey Elton to write his 1967 book The Practice of History in response, defending traditional historical methods.
Finally, the same distinction appears between ethics and politics. The utopian believes in the predominance of ethics as a guide to policy. The realist believes that ethics is derived from the relations of power as they stand. Thus, politics pre-dominates. For Carr, the ability to see from both angles is the right way to go about.
The Papers of E. H. Carr are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections