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  • Realism and Morality: E.H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939
  • Jaehan Park (bio)
Review of Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, reprint of 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

One hundred years ago, the Great Powers gathered at Versailles to formally end the greatest war that mankind had ever known: what historians have termed the First World War. The hope was that with the signing of the peace treaty, the world would see the “end of all wars.” 1Twenty years later, however, when Adolf Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, that hope was shattered. The next several years were marked by even greater violence and tragedy, and this experience, later termed the Second World War, would shape the course of the twentieth century. It was in this context that E.H. Carr penned his seminal work, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939. 2

A diplomat-turned-journalist, Carr was perhaps most well-known in his time as a historian of Soviet Russia. In addition, he wrote major works on subjects beyond Russian history, including What Is History?and Nationalism and After. On the other hand, his purported advocacy of “appeasement” of Germany and sympathetic view toward the Soviet Union sparked intense controversies among his contemporaries. 3To students of international relations, however, Carr is remembered as the author of a modern classic, The Twenty Years’ Crisis. The late political scientist Stanley Hoffmann called it the “first ‘scientific’ treatment of modern world politics.” 4The book also spurred the “great debate” between the “idealist” and the “realist.” 5Carr now occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of realist thinkers alongside Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Hans Morgenthau, and stands as an important influence on numerous latter-day intellectual luminaries, including Robert Gilpin and John Mearsheimer. 6

Much has been written about Carr and his intellectual legacy. This author does not claim to possess any special knowledge or expertise on Carr’s lifelong works, much less on political philosophy. The present essay has a more modest objective: to explore, on its own merits, the relationship between realism and morality in the context of how Carr envisioned it in The Twenty Years’ Crisis. Before proceeding, it is imperative to understand that realism itself is not a single theory, but a set of theories. More precisely, realism is defined as a philosophical position [End Page 107]built upon three core assumptions. First, human beings cannot survive as atomized individuals, but only as social groups. Second, politics is ultimately a struggle among these self-interested groups. Last, realism presupposes that political groups vie first and foremost for power and security, not economic interests or values. 7

The Argument

The primary objective of The Twenty Years’ Crisisis to investigate the “underlying and significant,” not “immediate and personal,” cause of the Second World War. 8Carr’s basic proposition is that the Great Powers could not come to an agreement at Versailles that reflected both “utopia” and “reality”—a shared sense of justice as well as the erstwhile power relations among members—thereby failing to achieve a sustainable peace during the precarious years from 1919 to 1939. While in the main Carr faults the “idealists” for the failure, he disavows a pure realism as “unreal,” for man’s behavior is not driven by power considerations alone. 9

Before examining Carr’s view on morality and realism, however, some explanations of each of these concepts are in order. In Carr’s view, the ultimate problem was essentially the failure of “utopian political thought.” Originating in Ancient Greece and consummated during the Enlightenment, utopianism postulated that reason would guide men toward “universally valid moral laws.” The original idea was “aristocratic” in that it assumed “the necessary reasoning power [of individuals] to discover the good.” Later, it went through a Benthamite turn, which equated “greatest happiness of the greatest number” with the good in general, thereby broadening its basis. 10This also led utopian intellectuals, influenced by Social Darwinism, to deify the laissez fairephilosophy, believing that “the harmony of interests” would occur naturally. The logic was that free competition, in which the...


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