Exceptions exist. Brilliant works appeared by postwar British authors on aspects of state and society. Isaiah Berlin, Leonard Schapiro, Hugh Seton-Watson and E H Carr examined the connections among international relations, individual freedom, causality and historical development. The nature of the Soviet Union was one unifying theme.
E H Carr was the quintessential Englishman among this group. Born in north London in 1892, he won a scholarship to Merchant Taylor's School and shone as a student of Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. After a career in the Foreign Office, he became an academic at various universities and, during the Second World War, served as deputy editor of The Times.
Yet Carr was always a bit of an outsider to the British establishment (unlike Schapiro and Berlin, despite their having once been subjects of the Tsar). He was particularly unusual in two ways. First, he openly admired the anti-sentimentalism of Niccolo Machiavelli; second, he urged the West to accept the USSR as a permanent entity in world affairs, and even to adopt Soviet practices as a model.
In life he was a controversial figure who gave as good as he got in debates. Since his death in 1982, however, he has ceased to be the object of dispute. He is rejected by practically every commentator as an evil scholar who condoned Hitler and admired Stalin and his successors.
Carr offers an easy target. But Berlin, Schapiro and Seton-Watson accepted that, regardless of his flaws, Carr did much to build up knowledge about the consolidation of the Soviet regime. No one did more to analyse the construction of institutions by Lenin and their exploitation by Stalin. He pioneered enquiries into the connections between political exigency and economic prognosis. Above all, as his biographer and former pupil Jonathan Haslam stresses, he surveyed the interaction of foreign and domestic policy. To that extent, today's observers still peer at Russia on his shoulders.
Carr's efforts produced a History of Russia in 14 volumes. The first of these was the weakest, preoccupied by the constitutional formalities of a Soviet state that in practice scorned all constitutions. But the later volume on the rise of Stalin remains a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Carr barely commented on the civil war that followed the October 1917 revolution. He hardly considered the arguments and activities of the conservatives, liberals and rival socialists who took the fight to Lenin and the Communist party. And, while expressing disapproval of Stalin's bloody purges, Carr never abandoned his espousal of the Soviet regime. He reasoned that the other great social transformations in history had been accompanied by large-scale violence. He pointed, too, to the capitalists who killed, maimed and overworked coolies in the Far East while denouncing the industrial managers of the USSR.
Carr was a late Victorian - a liberal and a classicist - who acquired a contempt for the inefficiencies and prejudices of the British establishment. Having read Thucydides, he needed no lessons in historiographical hauteur. Having worked in the Foreign Office, he respected Lloyd George but gained no high opinion of conventional politicians and diplomats. Having caught an enthusiasm for rebels, he wrote biographies of 19th-century Russian exiles - and his soft spot for revolutionaries led him in the 1960s to defer to the intellect of the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher.
Haslam portrays his subject with more warts than smooth skin in his personal relations. Carr used his wives as secretaries but declined their demands on his emotions. He lived only for his work and disliked Christmas because the libraries were closed. His biographer - who clearly cherished him - has succeeded in blending the personal, the scholarly and the political Carr. He shows very vividly how this complex man strove to solve the general questions of contemporary life through an engagement with the history of the USSR.
Carr was a philosophical relativist and disliked firm moral judgements. Yet his writings were of a calibre that compelled reader to decide between right and wrong regardless of his intentions. He got a lot brilliantly right and a lot grievously wrong. His critics would do well to recognise that he was one of the few British intellectuals whom the rest of the world took seriously. RS
Robert Service, Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, is publishing a new life of Lenin in MarchReuse content