What is History? EH Carr's famous question has been answered by post-modernists who argue that writing history is simply about power, and that all interpretations are equally valid. The post-modernists (and Carr) are wrongby Richard J Evans / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
What is history? How do we know about the past, given that it is no longer directly accessible to our senses? Can historical knowledge be objective, or does it simply reflect the perspective of the individual historian? These are questions that have implications far beyond the discipline of history itself; they touch upon the much bigger problem of how far society can ever attain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a basis for taking vital decisions for our future.
For over three decades now, the answers to these questions have been provided for most students of the past by two celebrated books: EH Carr’s What is History?, published in 1961, and GR Elton’s The Practice of History, written as a riposte to it in 1967. For many decades until his death in 1982, Carr was a distinguished historian of Soviet Russia; Elton, who died in 1996, was an equally eminent specialist on the history of Tudor England. Both taught at Cambridge. But there the similarities end.
Carr was a man of the left. As a leader-writer for The Times during the second world war, he conceived such an admiration for Soviet Russia that he became known as “the red professor of Printing House Square.” For the rest of his life, he believed that human history was moving inexorably towards a future run along the lines of a Soviet-style planned economy. In What is History? he defined an “objective” historian as one who had a vision of the future which could “give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation.” Similarly, Carr approached the problem of causation by dismissing accident and chance not because they were unimportant but because their study “cannot contribute anything to our ability to shape the future.” And although he posed as an advocate of social history, he dismissed as unimportant the history of the great mass of human beings through recorded time, urging instead a concentration on the last two centuries, because it was only in this period that “social, political and historical consciousness has begun to spread to anything like a majority of the population.”
In his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, he put these precepts into practice by concentrating only on “those events…