It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all. –Edward Hallett Carr
Edward Hallett Carr (1892–1982), “the Red Professor of Clearinghouse Square,” was a British diplomat-turned-historian and the author of a popular introduction to historical methods, called What is History?, in which he argued for a social science approach to historical reasoning. Although published in the 1962, it represents views that Carr formed during the 1930s, and is representative of a widely held (though by no means universal; c.f. Karl Mannheim, Benedetto Croce, Charles Beard) set of opinions about science and society at that time. Like many of his contemporaries, he was radicalized by the Great Depression, and looked to Germany and Russia for his models of the scientifically managed society of the future. He spent much of his diplomatic career, and all of his academic career, engaged with the Soviet Union. He was convinced that it pointed toward an inevitable future, and saw his task as a social scientist as the description of the forces underlying the transition from an unplanned, irrational, market-driven society on the one hand, to a planned, rational, and state-managed society on the other. Empiricist historians like GR Elton (subject of a future article) balked. Orwell thought he was a power-worshiper. He said (loudly and often) that he was just being scientific.
What is History? explained the basic methodological problems of history, and their solution, in clear and compelling prose. His proposed solutions, however, are another matter. His argument may be given as follows:
Science is the characteristic product of Reason, and may be defined as that process of inquiry that discovers knowledge and thereby enables man to understand and master his environment. To the extent that man does understand, and does master that environment, he is free; to the extent that he does not, he is in bondage. Science is therefore the principle driver of human freedom. Just as physics and biology increase human understanding and mastery of man’s physical environment, so too does sociology of man’s social environment. And just as the aim of that understanding is control in the first, so too it is in the second.
The human past is characterized by the progress of reason toward said mastery. The people, facts, and events of the past become historically significant only in relation to that progress. It is therefore the task of the historian to explain the nature of that progress through the methods, which science itself provides, in furtherance of the goal of human freedom. So conceived, history is an auxiliary science of sociology. Man is an epiphenomenon of society, and historical events of social forces. Therefore, an explanation of past events becomes genuinely historical to the extent that it is expressed in terms of those social forces. The past is not to be studied as a form of literature, but of science—and not for its own sake, as Herbert Butterfield argued, but for the sake of what it can tell us about social forces as they are now operating.
The historian, no less than other men, is an epiphenomenon of the society in which he lives. Therefore, the explanations he provides are to be understood in terms of the social forces that act upon him. British historians of the Victorian era conceived of their task in sociological terms, and confidently expected their work to aid in the discovery and mastery of those forces, or, in other words, to produce what Lord Acton called “Ultimate History.” Historians of the post–World War I era conceived a new approach, represented by Butterfield, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, which assigned a central role to contingency in the study of the past. Since that past appeared to them as a meaningless and chaotic mass of essentially random events (the view advocated by Karl Popper, among others), they denied the power of reason to address social problems, and assigned to historians the trivial role of describing that randomness. They thus denied the power of reason to address social problems. The views of both Acton and Popper are to be understood in terms of the social forces acting at that time. The Victorian confidence in reason was both produced, and vindicated by, the success of the British Empire and of the market economy. Correspondingly, their failure during the Great Depression demonstrated that these institutions were no longer historically progressive. Faced with the choice between backward-looking tradition and forward-looking knowledge, the historians represented by Butterfield and Popper chose the former. They thereby removed themselves from the realm of rational discourse and disqualified themselves as serious historians.
History, however, did not stop when they stopped studying it. The Soviet Union, which confidently applies the methods of sociology, is rapidly overtaking the irrational and antiquated societies of the West. The charge that those methods are immoral is made from a socially conditioned and thus a malleable standpoint. People who have been conditioned by a certain social dynamic to regard one set of practices as moral always regard departures from them as immoral. It is therefore a trivial and expected criticism of those methods that they depart from old practices. Denunciations of Soviet practices as immoral are, in any case, irrelevant, because they have no bearing on the status of those methods as science.
Great Britain should reject its liberal traditions, adopt a centrally planned economy, and steer a middle course between the Soviet Union and the United States. British historians should recover their relevance by rejecting the dead hand of the past and returning to a rational study of their subject. If they do, they will realize that, in broad outlines, the future is both knowable and known. Indeed, it supplies the only objective criterion from which the events of the past or present can be evaluated, since historians become objective to the extent that they are shown, by the events themselves, to have been on the right side of history. He closed by identifying his lonely stand for science and reason, in the face of all the persecutors and obscurantists of the old order, with that of Galileo against the Roman inquisitors.
Carr’s work was written as a response to the theories of Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, and several other prominent social theorists in mid-century Britain, whom he felt were “talking a lot of nonsense” about history and sociology. Needless to say they, like Popper’s and Berlin’s, have everything to do with the collapse of liberalism in the 1930s, and later with the Cold War. By his own criteria of objectivity they have been refuted, and Carr must be ranked, in this respect, as one of the losers of history. However, I think we can learn just as much from the losers of history as from the winners, so I wanted to include him anyway. Despite a central argument that now seems spurious, What is History? remains one of the best and most engaging introductions to the basic problematic of historiography today.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.