Traditionally Carr is seen a political realist. Thus his work emphasises power, the role of the state, and the structure of the international system. However Carr also advocated radical social, economic and foreign policy reform that overlaps with Liberal and Marxist ideology. Indeed in Carr’s major international relations work, The Twenty Years Crises, he referred to it as ‘not exactly a Marxist work, but strongly impregnated with Marxist ways of thinking’1. Therefore although Carr may have certain realist foundations, there is undoubtedly more breadth to his thinking than a rigid classification of ‘realist’ would suggest. This essay will examine Carr the realist, compare this to his other reputations as a Marxist, a functionalist, and even a utopian, and assess whether Carr should have a more representative depiction.

It must be established that there is no ‘one’ realism that can be accurately used to describe the beliefs of all thinkers attributed the classification of a realist. Although we may group Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Waltz, Morganthau and Carr as realists, it is never assumed they subscribe to the same branch of realism: substantial differences are expected. However realism as a theory has become increasingly associated with the North American realism of Hans Morgenthau, established during the tense cold war period. Yet realism is more dynamic and varied than is often realised. Therefore, when assessing Carr’s credentials as a realist, it must be remembered that realism is open to interpretation. Thus we will take realism as an approach to political practice:2 distinct in its fundamental meaning yet flexible in its interpretation.

Part of the reason Carr is viewed as a realist is because of his scathing attack on the utopian community. Carr argued that such thinkers profoundly misread the facts of history and misinterpreted the nature of international relations. They fail to recognise the role of power and overstate the importance of public opinion, law and morality.

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Carr argued that the correct starting point is the opposite one: we should assume that there are profound conflicts of interests both between countries and between people. Some countries and some people are better off than others. They will attempt to defend and preserve their privileged position. The have-nots will try and change the situation. International relations as he sees it is about the struggle between these conflicting interests. Therefore power is more important than cooperation3. However he contradicts this very principle by arguing that Britain can preserve its power through cooperation. The utopian Carr and the realist Carr are therefore arguing from two different perspectives.

To assess Carr’s credentials as a realist we must establish the foundations of his realist beliefs. The view J. D. B. Miller had of Carr and the one that is portrayed in textbooks is of a traditional realist. However in his writings Carr draws from a variety of thinkers who would not usually be associated with a realist. Naturally Machiavelli is an influential figure, whom Carr regarded as ‘the first important political realist’, setting the ‘foundation-stones of the realist philosophy.4’ Carr’s realism is most evident in his attempts to maintain and rebuild Britain as a superpower. He believed that a United States – Soviet dominated world would relegate Britain as a world power, and therefore his more liberal ideas of international cooperation are for a realist power political end5.

Just as Machievelli was an influence, so too were Marx and Mannheim. Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge is shown in his condemnation of the utopian principles of free trade and international law and order as ‘the unconscious reflections of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest at a particular time’6, principles he no longer thought existed in the new order of the twentieth century. Marxist ideology is frequently evident in his work. Carr believed that the monopoly capitalism dominated by the city of London was over. For Carr the ‘great social revolution’ and the death of the old liberal order created the present ills of the twentieth century, like the Bolshevik revolution, the Nazi revolution, totalitarianism and the two World Wars.

The revolution was based on the reorganisation of social and economic management so that the small, ‘supervisory’, ‘non-interventionist’ state was giving way to the ‘creative’, ‘remedial’, ‘social service’ or ‘welfare’ state7. The materialist influence of Marx is evident in Carr’s criticisms of and solutions to the economic and social order he perceived to be at fault. That Carr has a Marxist element does not however affect his realist outlook; after all, the leaders of the Soviet Union combined broad Marxist beliefs with a distinctive realpolitik for decades. It is when looking at Carr’s prescriptions for the new era, that his realism is questionable.

In the twenty years crises Carr defined political science as ‘the science not only of what is, but of what ought to be’8. It is when looking at this ‘what ought to be’ that we see liberal, even utopian elements in Carrs own thinking. Carr believed it was possible to consciously create a new harmony of interests, to replace the natural harmony of interests of the now redundant nineteenth century system by ‘creating a new harmony by artificial means’9. Carr focuses on the need for an inclusive domestic political community so that ‘white men, landowners, propertied classes and so forth’ cannot monopolize principal opportunities and resources10.

He applied the same principle to international relations, citing an international order that revolved around a selection of great powers as unable to command popular support. He believed cooperation was necessary to solve the social and economic problems of unemployment, and a lack of material resources and opportunities that could not be dealt with at the national level alone. Consequently the boundaries of political communities would have to expand to become more inclusive so that British policy would have to grant the people of Dusseldorf, Lille and Lodz many of the same rights as the people of Jarrow or Oldham11. This of course jeopardizes that cornerstone of the realist philosophy, the nation state, and its position as one of the predominant actors in international relations.

In correspondence to this, Carr promoted international planning that would ensure ‘the equality of individual men and women as opposed to the equality of nations’12. He believed these organizations should ‘admit something of the same multiplicity of authorities and diversity of loyalties’ as the more successful domestic societies13. This would combat the problems of nationalism, sovereignty and the absolute power of the nation state. For a realist to promote the worth and need for international organizations and their capacity to create actual change is contradictory of ‘normal’ realist beliefs. Carr goes further in the Future of Nations, when he says that states do not have the right to take decisions without regard for the interests of outsiders. He suggests a moral limitation on the policy and actions of the state, and argues that its own self-interest should not be its primary concern – both ideas that simply do not constitute realist beliefs.

Carr intended this new international cooperation to come about through functionalist integration. Here the idealist Mitrany proved an influential figure. To combat the economic ills of the world and to provide for a lasting political settlement, Carr believed in ‘practical international cooperation’14 in multiple sectors of the economy. He argued that after the war Europe and the wider world should be structured ‘not theoretically according to some a priori conception of league, alliance or federation, but empirically as the outcome and expression of a practical working arrangement’. Such an arrangement would act as a ‘psychological substitute for war’15. This functional economic integration was to take the form of such institutions as a European Transport Corporation a Central Bank and a Reconstruction and Public Works Corporation16. Realists are classically opposed to functionalism because of its nature to erode the boundaries of the nation state. Realists’ conventionally side with intergovernmentalism with its focus on the impossibility of actual integration because of unwillingness of states to cede sovereignty – precisely what Carr is arguing should be done.

To conclude, Carr is more than just a realist. He does begin his thinking with certain realist principles regarding the intentions of states, and the importance of power. However there are several other distinct aspects to his work. He argues the nation-state can no longer be regarded as the most effective means of promoting welfare and security. Indeed he questions the very nature of the state, its boundaries, sovereignty and morality in international relations to a degree that is incompatible with realism.

Also contradictory to standard realist thought, he believes organisations can work, and bring about real change to the international order. What’s more he fails to give any attention to the concept of human nature or to the idea of international anarchy, both key concepts to most realists. Even if we stretch the boundaries of realism, Carr’s thought cannot be constrained to that one faction alone. Therefore Carr is a realist in his objective to preserve Britain as a great power, but utopian in that he appeals to a general interest in international co-operation and peace to achieve that. However in his belief in social justice and the interventionist state, we also see a Marxist Carr. Therefore a reputation as a realist is insufficient, as Carr belongs to all of these theories, though to none alone.


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

* Jones, J. (1998) E.H. Carr and International Relations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

* Cox, M. (2000) E.H. Carr a Critical Appraisal. Basingstoke, Palgrave Publishers

* Frankel, B. (1996) The Roots of Realism. London, Frank Cass and Company

* Jackson, R and Sorensen, G (1999) Introduction to International Relations. New York, Oxford University Press

* Morgenthau, H. (1948) The Political Science of E.H. Carr, World Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1 127-134

* Linklater, A (1997) The transformation of political community: E. H. Carr, critical theory and international relation. Review of International Studies 23, 321-338

* Wilson, P. (2000) E. H. Carr: the revolutionist’s realist.

* Wilson, P. (2001) Radicalism for a Conservative Purpose: The Peculiar Realism of E. H. Carr. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30, 1

1 R.W. Davies, ‘Edward Hallet Carr, 1892-1982’ cited in C. Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations pxi

2 C. Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations p10

3 Ibid p20

4 Wilson, P. (2000) E. H. Carr: the revolutionist’s realist. P5

5 C. Jones, E.H. Carr and International Relations p165

6 Wilson, P. (2000) E. H. Carr: the revolutionist’s realist. P7

7 Linklater, A (1997) The transformation of political community: E. H. Carr, critical theory and international relation. P331

8 Wilson, P. (2001) Radicalism for a Conservative Purpose: The Peculiar Realism of E. H. Carr p130

9 Wilson, P. (2000) E. H. Carr: the revolutionist’s realist. P11

10 Linklater, A (1997) The transformation of political community: E. H. Carr, critical theory and international relation. P330

11 Ibid p330

12 Ibid p330

13 Ibid p331

14 Wilson, P. (2000) E. H. Carr: the revolutionist’s realist. P7

15 Ibid p7

16 Ibid p7



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