International Relations

Was E. H Carr a realist?

Pauline Rouillon (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations.

During the Cold war, The Twenty Years’ Crisis was read as a foundational text to the Realist tradition (Babík; 2013). But this one-sided interpretation of a much more nuanced text neglected the critical dimension of Carr’s thought. Acknowledging the fact that Carr defies classical classification, this essay will argue that his inter-war analysis of the international system, while permeated with realist philosophy, went far beyond its latterly imposed realist parameters. Although Carr addressed questions, which remain of central concern to the realist school of thought, his counter-hegemonic, historicized and emancipatory approach also opened up new ways of thinking and new perspectives for progress towards a peaceful and just international order. Primarily, the core assumptions upon which Carr constructed his critique of liberal internationalism are undoubtedly realist and endure as foundational to contemporary realist thinking about the international system. Secondly, the reflexive critique Carr developed on his ideal types of utopianism and realism allowed him to come up with an alternative conceptual framework for political though, which is based on elements of both utopia and reality (Carr; 1939).

In the framework of his counter-hegemonic analysis of international politics, Carr relied on realism as an “epistemic weapon” (Dunne, 2000: 218) to undermine utopianism, which he felt had exerted an unfortunate influence on the international order after WW1. Realism represented a “necessary corrective to the exuberance of utopianism”(Davies, 1983: 486) rather than a definitive theory meant to supersede it. Indeed, Carr’s negation of utopianism was supported by a consistent philosophy “deferential to the basic insights of realism” (Howe, 1994: 278). Based on the realist assumption that theory should derive from an empirical approach to the world as it is, Carr criticised utopian aversion to facts and voluntarist way of making political theory a norm to which political practice ought to conform. It is critical to emphasize on the historical juncture to make sense of Carr’s argument: the inter-war period was marked by the 1929 world economic crisis, the collapse of free trade, the failure of the League of Nations and the unforeseen rise of fascist regimes. For Carr, “taking a realistic view ultimately meant being in line with prevailing material conditions” (Wilson, 1998:10). The fundamental crisis for Carr was the failure of Western Powers to recognize the “irrevocable breakdown of the conditions which made the nineteenth-century order possible” (Carr, 1939: 303) and to adapt their policy-making to the conditions of a new century. His argument was not that 19th century liberalism was unsound per se, but that it could only flourish under a certain set of material conditions such as “a plentiful supply of cheap labour” (Carr, 1939: 77), which did not correspond to the reality of the 20th century.

Furthermore, Carr made use of the realist weapon of the relativity of though to demolish the utopian concept of a “fixed and absolute ethical standard” (Carr, 1939; 41). Based on the realist assumption that morality is relative and purely instrumental, Carr advanced that the doctrine of the harmony of interests, according to which all nations have a common interest in peace, was historically conditioned and masked veiled manifestations of narrow national power interests. The utopian attempt to maintain peace by preaching a harmony of interests needed to be understood as an ideology constructed by dominant nations, referred to as the “haves”, to maintain the status quo, at the expense of dominated nations, referred to as the “have-nots”. The same logic was applied to the doctrine of laissez-faire, the mantra of the League of Nations, which Carr saw as the “paradise of the economically strong” (Carr 1939: 77).

But Carr’s inter-war analysis went far beyond its historical context and was a larger thesis about the causes of instability of the international system (Cox, 2001). Adopting a structural perspective, characteristic of the realist tradition, Carr argued that the underlying cause of conflict was rooted in the unequal distribution of power. Prefiguring Kenneth Waltz’s holistic approach of the international system, Carr did not discuss state behavior separately from the larger international system. Indeed, Carr identified three factors making any crisis dangerous for the stability of the international order: a profound disruption of the global economy, the rising of resentful powers outside of the international order or the unwillingness or inability by any single state or hegemon to underwrite the international order (Cox, 2001). Analyzing the breakdown of the post-war system as the result of the folly of Versailles, Carr urged for a policy of appeasement towards Hitler and described the Munich agreement of 1938 as “the nearest approach in recent years to the settlement of a major international issue by a procedure of peaceful change”. He insisted that: “there could be no peace in Europe unless Germany could find a secure place within it without having to resort to expansion” (1946; 46).

Carr saw power as a “decisive factor in every political situation” (Carr 1939; 102) and developed a sophisticated analysis of its different dimensions, according close attention to the military facet, by virtue of the fact that “the ultima ratio of power in international relations is war” (Carr 1939: 109). On the ground that Carr viewed states as the main international actors and power as a central element in their mutual relations, John Mearsheimer asserted that: “Carr was a realist” (2005:141). But if these two concepts recur throughout The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Carr was nonetheless careful to note that: “politics cannot be satisfactorily defined exclusively in terms of power” (1939: 102). Rejecting the Machiavellian doctrine “that anything is justified by reason of state” (Bull 1995: 181), Carr argued that morality could not escape the intrusion of power politics “for the simple reason that mankind would, in the long run, always revolt against naked power” (1939: 120). Adopting a utopian realist stand, he pointed out “the necessity, recognized by all politicians, both in domestic and in international affairs, for cloaking interests in a guise of moral principles” (1939: 117). Yet, Carr realistically held that there was no moral constraint on action and that ethics were a function of politics. In Carr’s view, “a country’s moral outlook is entirely a function of its position in the balance of power” (Wilson 1998: 10).

Far from remaining uncritical about the pure realist doctrine, Carr advanced that theoretical knowledge, including realism, was inherently goal-driven and infused with the aims of its proponents. Influenced by Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge and espousing an anti-positivist epistemology, Carr attempted to unveil the intrinsically limited and historically relative nature of human knowledge (Babík; 2013). He therefore admitted that “realism is conditioned like any other thought” (1939:155), concluding that “the realist ends by negating his own postulate and assuming an ultimate reality outside the historical process” (1939:177). Illustrating his argument, Carr mentioned Machiavelli’s exhortation to free Italy from the Barbarians and Marx’s absolute goal of a classless society. Carr insisted that purpose was not only a condition of thought, but also a condition of mature thought, which should be combined with observation. Indeed, he stated that “realism without purpose is nothing more than a though of old age” (1939: 155). In sum, Carr conceived political science as the “reckoning of what should be with what is, as a synthesis of the utopian and realist positions”(Frankel 1996: 234).

Embracing a “developmental and progressive understanding of history” (Germain 2000: 324), Carr moved away from the traditional realist skeptical assumption that history is rigid or cyclical because rooted in the unchanging human nature. He rejected the realist idea that the political process consists purely in a succession of phenomena governed by mechanical laws of causation (1939: 13). For Carr, the problem was that this determinist stance did not provide “any ground for purposive or meaningful action” (1939: 86). Criticizing both the complete realist, who “deprives himself of the possibility of changing reality by unconditionally accepting the causal sequence of events” and the complete utopian, who “deprives himself of the possibility of understanding the reality by rejecting the causal sequence”(1939: 11), Carr concluded that healthy human action must establish a balance between determinism and free will. Carr’s historical mode of thought allowed him to “stand back from the realist framework of action and treat it as historically conditioned and thus susceptible to change” (Cox 1986: 211). He believed that progress was part of the historical process and that change was possible, not to say necessary, if it was rooted in a realist understanding of the world.

Carr’s realist analysis bore the mark of his commitment to a progressive emancipatory agenda, impregnated by Western Marxism. His conceptualisation of the international structure as a system of domination by the “haves” hegemonic states over the “have-nots” revisionist states relies heavily on a the language of class conflict (Babík; 2013). In a will to “demolish the current utopia”, Carr made use of Marxist-inspired analogies, stating that, just as the liberal-capitalist state represented an instrument of bourgeoisie hegemony, so the League of Nations served as an instrument used by the dominant powers to maintain their hegemony in the international arena. His “concern for the underdog” (Wilson 2001: 133) led him to call for the building of “a new utopia” (Carr 1939: 118), laying in a socialist-inspired transformation of the international order. Unlike the pure realist approach, which held that law was merely “the weapon of the stronger” (1939:233), Carr believed in a mechanism whereby international law could be changed peacefully in line with what was “just and reasonable” in the community of nations.

Having criticized Utopians for viewing the world through theory, he made the same mistake himself by laying out a utopian vision of peaceful change, which was mainly developed in his later books, notably in Future of Nations (1941) and Nationalism and After (1945). Genuine security over the long-term would only be achieved through two major reforms. Primarily, Carr suggested that a successful peace implied to rethink the notions of sovereignty and nation-state. If Carr’s position toward the state was ambiguous in The Twenty Years’ Crisis, his later statements suggested that there could be no sense of order within the international state-system. In 1945, Carr argued that modern societies should advance towards new forms of political community on the grounds that the nation-state was “irrelevant to contemporary ideals of social justice” (1945: 34). Underlying this argument was Carr’s concern with social problems, which he believed had to be dealt with at the global level. In an attempt to release Carr from the grip of the Realists, Andrew Linklater portrayed him as an early pioneer of critical IR theory who “set out the case for post-exclusionary forms of political organization” and whose “writings contain a striking analysis of the changing nature of the modern state and the possibility of new forms of political association” (1997:321). Although he departed from the realist state-centric approach, Carr nevertheless remained within a realist group-centric approach. Secondly, acknowledging the fact that there could be no return to an economic order that had failed, Carr urged to reform the structure of the international economy. Denouncing the unregulated character of the liberal economy, Carr advocated for international planning, notably mentioning the “the subordination of economic advantage to social ends” (1945: 38).

If The Twenty Years’ Crisis is impregnated with realist insights, Carr nonetheless rejected realist pessimistic view of the human condition and sceptical attitude toward schemes for pacific international order. Having set his ideal-types of utopianism and realism, painting a rather Manichean picture of the two approaches, Carr then argued that “these twin poles are not opposite but merely two sides of the same intellectual coin” (1939:150). As his analysis unfolded, it became gradually clear that Carr neither approved realism in its pure form nor believed it was viable. As Milan Babik concludes, “For Carr, realism signified something quite different from what it signifies in current IR discourse heavily shaped by realists such as Waltz, Gilpin and Mearsheimer” (2013:13). Carr was a critical realist, whose realism expressed a critical consciousness, combining an anti-positivist epistemology, sensitivity to historical change with a belief in rational-emancipatory progress.


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Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, (London: Macmillan, 1939).

Carr, E. H., Conditions of Peace (London: Macmillan, 1942).

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Mearsheimer, J. J., ‘E. H. Carr vs Idealism: The Battle Rages On’, International Relations, 19 (2) 2005, pp. 139-152.

Molloy, S., ‘Dialectics and Transformation: Exploring the International Theory of E. H. Carr’, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 17 (2) 2003, pp. 279-306.

Morgenthau, H., ‘The Political Science of E. H. Carr’, World Politics, 1 (1) 1948, pp. 127-134

Wilson, P., ‘The Myth of the First Great Debate’, Review of International Studies, 24 (5) 1998, pp. 1-16.

Wilson, P., ‘Radicalism for a Conservative Purpose: The Peculiar Realism of E. H. Carr’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30 (1) 2001, pp. 123-136.

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